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March 17, 2008 (Review of "Simple Gifts")

Symphony Silicon Valley, Clements mine tuba's range

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Imagine how the London Symphony Orchestra's directors felt when they asked Ralph Vaughan Williams, dean of English composers, to contribute a new piece for the orchestra's golden jubilee in 1954 - and were offered a concerto for tuba.

A real crowd-pleaser, right? Actually, in the right hands, it can be. And over the weekend, the Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra in F minor was in the right hands: those of Tony Clements. For 27 years, he has held the position of principal tuba with the South Bay's major orchestras, first with the old San Jose Symphony and now with Symphony Silicon Valley - and here he was, for the first time ever, appearing as soloist with the local band.

Performing the tuba concerto with Symphony Silicon Valley and guest conductor Sara Jobin at the California Theatre, Clements showed the piece to be what it is: a charmer. At Sunday's matinee, he plunged, soared, trembled and became elegant, even tender. Imagine: a tender tuba.

It's a contraption, too, this instrument, and Clements - adjusting valves and emptying spit from the horn - wrestled with a few notes. For a couple, he restored order by pulling the instrument tight to his chest, as if cradling a big baby that needs reassurance. It was an act of intimacy between man and machine as Clements navigated the work, which includes precipitous drops and high-wire ascents across a range of more than three octaves.

Clements sweetly lingered over the opening notes of the cadenza in the first movement, before plunging to a subterranean rumble; he grew innocently rapturous in the slow second movement, which is tuneful as an English air; he toyed with a trill in the final movement's cadenza (he arranged both cadenzas), and then moved a lot of air through the climactic notes.

Further toying with expectations, Clements, as an encore, played a transcription of Debussy's "Syrinx" for solo flute: warm diaphanous textures, like low-lying clouds, from the South Bay's tuba ace, who switched from an F tuba to a lower-pitched CC tuba for this one.

Jobin, in her first appearance with the orchestra, led a performance that was clear and gracefully supportive of the soloist. She also took the orchestra through an additional 75 minutes of music: ambitious works by Aaron Copland and Richard Strauss.

Copland's "Appalachian Spring," which began the program, was tranquil, filled with pointillist detail, then sturdy as the Shaker hymn at its center. There were excellent cameos from the players, too, especially guest principal clarinet Ginger Kroft-Barnetson and acting principal trumpet Ron Blais.

But overall, the performance was a little too tidy and literal, as if all the instructions in the score were being addressed by Jobin without benefit of a larger vision that lingers and explores in a personal way.

An up-and-comer who made headlines in 2004 as the first woman to conduct in the main-stage subscription series at San Francisco Opera, Jobin drew technically strong performances throughout the program. Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" featured exceptional section work: winds, percussion, violas and, especially, the horns, which, led by principal Meredith Brown, really whooped it up in this boisterous then wistful piece.

Even so, the performance wasn't quite getting there: Jobin seemed afraid or unable to let go, her gestures constrained and without much variety. That impression began to abate in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" ("The Knight of the Rose") Suite: It was shimmery, big and rich with strings, and at times sensuous, like the revolving-beds subject matter of the opera from which the suite is derived.

Waltzing toward its conclusion (concertmaster Robin Mayforth was terrific in her solo spots), the performance came alive, out-sized and fun. Maybe this is where Jobin and the orchestra are headed if they get to perform together again.

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