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May 08, 2009 (Review of "Spring Symphonies")

From conductor Gregory Vajda and pianist Jon Kimura Parker spectacular fireworks at Symphony Silicon Valley

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Symphony Silicon Valley lacks a leader. Each season, half a dozen or so guest conductors march to the podium, with results varying from fair to fabulous. Thursday, Hungarian-born conductor Gregory Vajda took up the baton, and the results were fabulous.

Vajda, whose mother is an opera singer, had the orchestra singing in this first of three performances at the California Theatre. I've rarely heard it play with this much strength and finesse, rhythmic precision and concerted vitality. The strings were plush and thrumming. The winds were beyond exceptional what a great bunch of players.

And the program, which repeats tonight and Sunday, is a winner. It starts with a double dose of Shostakovich, including his first piano concerto, with bravura soloist Jon Kimura Parker. It ends with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4, a sensational piece, which, were it not sandwiched between the titantic Third and Fifth symphonies in the canon, would be an orchestral staple.

The audience isn't allowed a warm-up with this program; no breezy overture to acclimate the ears.

No, things got serious in an instant with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, often described as one of the Russian's "lighter" pieces.

Ha.

Completed in 1945 Stalin had expected a triumphal work for orchestra and chorus to celebrate the Soviet victory over the Nazis it bounces to a start with sneering mock Haydn-isms (the pizzicato strings were light as cats' feet Thursday) and jab-you-in-the-eye circus themes. The irony isn't even disguised; Shostakovich is flat-out thumbing his nose at his great leader.

And ringmaster Vajda, pumping tempos, drew on a rich vein of comic sardonicism. Which gave way in the second movement to a weeping chorale of winds and coaxed strings, singing a lament, part of a slow, excruciating buildup of dread.

Principal bassoon Deborah Kramer's solo in the fourth movement was a consummate statement of existential anguish; you will not hear it better played in any orchestra. The finale, with its Chaplin-esque guffaws and 78 rpm tempos, tautly controlled, grew to a gleaming, menacing monolith.

The Concerto No. 1 in C minor for piano, trumpet and string orchestra (the work's formal title) was almost as good, beginning with its ominous piano rhapsody.

Parker was the brawny technician, handling giant two-handed block chords and jack-hammered bass notes alongside deranged polkas and barrelhouse flights. It's a tightrope, this part. And Parker was excellent, but I bet his performance will grow more rhythmically incisive and fluent less willed this weekend as he and the orchestra hone their collaboration.

Thursday's other soloist was masterful: Principal trumpet James Dooley's declarations were darkly matador-like, singsong and childlike, before leading a final, manic military charge.

As an encore, and a bridge to the concert's second half, Parker performed the finale to Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata faster than I've ever heard it. Dizzying whorls of notes. Unchecked kineticism.

Leading the orchestra through Symphony No. 4 after intermission, Vajda held Beethoven's kineticism his inner wildness exquisitely in check. An effective interpretive decision was to drop the startling upward swooshes, from which Beethoven derives a main theme of the opening movement, down to micro-volume, and then take them up, up, up.

It was a smart, passionate performance all the way through. Buoyant, even dazzling: the orchestra was enlivened.

One carp: It's time for the horn section to get its act together. Too many bloopers on too many programs.

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