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January 19, 2008 (Review of ""Violins & Enigmas)

Silverstein Conducts and Plays Solo Violin
Symphony makes old favorites fresh again

Georgia Rowe, Mercury News
Novelty can be nice, but it isn't an essential ingredient for a classical concert. Thursday evening at the California Theatre, Symphony Silicon Valley underscored that point splendidly with a well-chosen, highly enjoyable concert of repertory standards.

A program comprised of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major ("Turkish") may not be anyone's idea of cutting edge. But the program, which repeats through Sunday afternoon, made the familiar sound new again.

Much of the evening's success was due to violinist Joseph Silverstein. Appearing as guest conductor and soloist, Silverstein, a former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and current principal guest conductor of Seattle's Northwest Chamber Orchestra, set a high standard, delivering his parts with flair and inspiring stylish, uplifting playing from the orchestra.

In the "Enigma" Variations, the results were arresting. Silverstein isn't the kind of conductor who calls attention to himself; his podium style is elegant, even conservative. But he galvanized the large ensemble, lending the composer's miniature musical portraits of friends and loved ones a sense of cohesion and drama. Silverstein emphasized the work's contrasts, and Elgar's orchestral palette came to the fore in full color, with each section making invaluable contributions: The violins glowed with Romantic warmth, while the woodwinds chirped agreeably. The brass played with refinement, and the low strings sounded undeniably potent. The famous "Nimrod" variation was only one of many noble moments in a memorable reading.

Silverstein was the soloist for the "Turkish" concerto, one of the young Mozart's first experimental works. The composer has the violin enter with a languid melody accompanied by a running line in the orchestra; this lasts for six full measures before the violin bursts forth with a new melody, effectively leaving the orchestra in the dust.

Silverstein made his first entrance with a sweet, singing tone, immediately establishing a fine interplay with the orchestra and allowing Mozart's score to emerge unimpeded. The slow movement was well-paced, with the elegant orchestral melodies gently melding with the long phrases for the violin; the finale was pure exuberance: all wit, dancing rhythms (from which the "Turkish" tag derives) and virtuosic solo turns, with a headlong rush to the finish.

The program began with a fleet, flowing performance of "The Lark Ascending." Vaughan Williams' concerto, so redolent of the English countryside, is largely based on folk melodies, and Silverstein played with just the right mix of delicacy and bucolic charm. The orchestra rose to the occasion, with lovely solo work from principals Maria Tamburrino (flute), Michael Corner (clarinet), Pamela Hakl (oboe), Deborah Kramer (bassoon) and Meredith Brown (horn).

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Supported, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José