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December 06, 2008 (Review of "Mozart & Tchaikovsky")

A cushion of beauty on a hectic night
Symphony Silicon Valley closes concert with dazzling performance of Tchaikovsky

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Between the Sharks game at HP Pavilion and "Christmas in the Park" on South Market Street, downtown San Jose was in gridlock Saturday night. Lines outside clubs. Parking lots full. This is a recession?

Getting to the California Theatre in time for Symphony Silicon Valley's concert was a challenge. I ran most of the way from my faraway parking spot, somewhere on the outskirts of the nation's 10th largest city, arriving in a heart-pounding sweat about seven seconds before the drop of the baton and wondering if the concert's benefits would outweigh its health risks.

And then the orchestra began: light and frothy sounds, a soufflé, riding a cushion of air out into the concert hall. It was the "Pique Dame" Overture by Franz von Suppé, a nearly forgotten Viennese composer of operettas. The orchestra sounded great, relaxed and far, far away from the surrounding gridlock.

But let's get to the best: Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, which closed the concert in a furious bedazzlement, with guest conductor Paul Polivnick holding its mighty centripetal energy in check. He conducted without a score, which you might dismiss as mere showmanship if he hadn't so deftly commanded the shifting tempos, colors and harmonic contours.

Tchaikovsky, the Melody Man, wrote the piece in his usual state of emotional tumult, and much of that excitement seemed to spill through the performance. The second movement, the grieving Andantino, was sumptuous, lifting off from principal oboist Pamela Hakl's exceptionally gorgeous and eerie solo.

The famous Scherzo, with its perpetual pizzicato from all the strings, swept through the hall like a chorus of mandolins on a magic carpet. And then the finale: sparkling and celebratory, with the famous "fate" fanfare returning in the brass. All the sections performed with panache throughout the piece.

The winds deserve special kudos: Their playing was delicate and fleetly unified, despite the absence of two principal players.

One was clarinetist Michael Corner, who sat out the Tchaikovsky piece after his fine performance, before intermission, as soloist in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A minor.

The last time Corner stood in front of the orchestra, in 2003 as soloist in Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto, a piece written for Benny Goodman, he lived and breathed the music, with its stratospheric challenges. His Mozart performance, good as it was, wasn't quite in the same league.

Corner mastered the piece's daunting leaps across registers and fast-rising arpeggios. It was a strong showing, but somehow the beating heart and many emotional shadings of this consummate work — the last major piece completed by Mozart — weren't always evident.

It came together in the slow second movement, where Corner played with mysterious restraint, the orchestra behind him in a shadowed haze. The clarinetist's final lonely note, softly sustained and outlasting the orchestra, captured the work's ineffable beauty.

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