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September 28, 2008 (Review of "Dances at an Opening")

Infectious kickoff to Symphony's Silicon Valley's new season

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Stomping his feet, thrusting his shoulders and nearly breaking full-out into the malambo, the Argentine folk dance, conductor Leslie B. Dunner turned Saturday night's season-opening concert by Symphony Silicon Valley into the most infectious event in the young orchestra's history.

He had his players whooping like gauchos and created enough havoc at the California Theatre to raise gleeful shouts from the audience.

It was a night of pure communication: What better way to start off the seventh season? The orchestra sounded jubilant, its members seeming to enjoy themselves as much as their guest conductor.

Classical music needs more of this uninhibited spirit.

And it needs imaginative programs like this one, which brought together infrequently performed gems by Alberto Ginastera (composer of "Malambo") and Duke Ellington with the widely loved "Romeo and Juliet" by Sergei Prokofiev. All three works are from the world of ballet, where Dunner, music director of the Joffrey Ballet, has spent much of his career.

There's rhythmic acuity in Dunner's conducting, as well as a general clarity to his gestures. His baton seems to wipe away musical fog, like a wiper clearing mist off a windshield.

There were times Saturday when the orchestra didn't give him all the detail and dynamic nuance he wanted. That was especially true at the outset for Ginastera's "Estancia: Four Dances," which sets the story of a tempestuous love triangle on a cattle ranch on the pampas.

("Malambo," the last movement, was best. It got even tighter when Dunner later brought it back as his encore.)

But the orchestral blend and balance improved. Ellington's "The River," composed in 1970 for Alvin Ailey's dance troupe and performed that year at the Kennedy Center's opening in Washington, D.C., was the night's high point.

A tone poem about the life of a river and, by extension, the life of a man or woman, it was fragrant with Sir Duke's blues majesty: an awakening at sunrise and a jazz waltz and lots of call-and-response between strings and brass, with tuba and trombones showing off jazz chops. Then, leading into a long blues, Dunner shouted, "One! Two! Ready! And!" and the orchestra came out swinging, led by trap drummer Kent Reed.

Among the many excellent soloists was the super-excellent Maria Tamburrino, principal flutist, who deserved a concerto soloist's fees for her hard work through the evening: Her lustrous sound hovered over numerous selections from "Romeo and Juliet." The orchestra's performance of Prokofiev's suite was alternately lacy, gladiatorial, fatigued and, at the end, gutsy, with Dunner leading a final charge to the emotional brink.

Symphony Silicon Valley returns Oct. 16, 18 and 19, with yet another guest conductor who has a successful history with this orchestra: George Cleve. Details at www.symphonysiliconvalley.org, or call (408) 286-2600, extension 23.

Review by David Bratman
Reviewer with San Francisco Classical Voice
(excerpt)

Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is a work I've heard more than often enough
recently. But this performance of ten pieces from the suites won me over.
Though not quite technically flawless, SSV brought commitment and life to
the music that even the San Francisco Symphony could learn from. The bounce
and crispness of the rhythm were excellent, making pieces like the Aubade a
particular delight. But what was really outstanding was the sound of the
playing: dry and clean, precise and separated, perfect for Prokofiev. All
the sections of the orchestra deserve credit, but it was best in the
strings, particularly the violas, which I'm beginning to think are SSV's
secret weapon. This was the first time the "Romeo at the Grave of Juliet"
movement really felt that it belonged in the same work as the Knights' Dance
(the outer, heavier parts of "Montagues and Capulets") or "The Death of
Tybalt". No drip or soppiness, it had the cold, powerful anguish of one of
the great Shostakovich adagios.



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