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May 12, 2013 (Review of "An American in Paris")

Symphony Silicon Valley plays Gershwin, Bernstein, Adams, Korngold

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News

Symphony Silicon Valley's weekend program at the California Theatre was an all-American mini-festival. You had your mandatory Gershwin (warm and splashy), your cinematic Bernstein (depicting tragedy on the Jersey docks), your pace-setting Adams (rolling out a wacky fox-trot for Chairman Mao; more on that later). And you had your Erich Korngold.

Erich Korngold?

Born in what is now the Czech Republic, he was a child prodigy -- declared a "genius" by Gustav Mahler -- who bloomed into a significant composer, conductor and teacher on the Austrian scene. He also spent time in Hollywood. And it was Hollywood's call in 1938 that wound up saving the life of Korngold, who was Jewish. He set up shop in Los Angeles to score The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn -- and thus escaped Hitler's takeover.

He also became an American citizen, and in 1945 completed his Violin Concerto in D Major, which was premiered by Jascha Heifetz in 1947. Big, rosy and Romantic, with a lyric piquancy that recalls Prokofiev and a Technicolor touch that recalls Warner Bros., the concerto was a centerpiece of Saturday's Symphony Silicon Valley program. (Conducted by Paul Polivnick, it repeated Sunday afternoon.)

For this listener, it's the piece that lingered once this American mini-fest had ended.

The soloist was Cuban-born Andres Cardenas, former concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He has a ripe, golden sound, a good match for Korngold's piece, with its Old and New World airs and arching melodies. ... His baseline sound was so expansive as he soared high, high up onto the E string, that he carried the day, surrounded by the orchestra's shimmer and sparkle. The percussion section was a key element here, as it was through the evening.

The concerto's first two movements have ravishing passages, while drawing on themes composed by Korngold for the films Another Dawn and Juarez. ... The finale pulls from his score to The Prince and the Pauper and finds him turning to another page of his notebook -- the Aaron Copland page, with its Wild West and folk-hoedown allusions. Cardenas's zesty fiddling here brought the performance to the finish line.

The program began with Adams' The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra, an outtake of sorts from the opera Nixon in China. Composed in 1985, and playing the role of an overture at the California, it imagines Madame Mao crashing a banquet honoring President Richard Nixon and wife Pat Nixon in Beijing in 1972. Chairman Mao emerges from his portrait on the wall -- a  hallucinatory moment -- and dances a foxtrot with his beloved.

This was the orchestra's first dance, so to speak, with Adams -- its first time performing one of his works.

Polivnick drew his players into Adams' pulsing rhythms, then ever further into his strange and lively landscape, one where doors seem to keep opening and closing. We hear one dance, then suddenly a different one. There's a Romantic theme. There's a splashy, Gershwin-like climax. Gradually, the rhythms and textures stack up -- it takes crystal precision to bring off this piece, to maintain its multiple engines. ... It was a solid venture into new territory.

Bernstein's On the Waterfront suite -- composed in 1955 and adapted from his only film score -- was given a more expressive performance. Maybe you remember the story line to director Elia Kazan's classic: Terry Malloy (Marlon "I coulda been a contender" Brando) is an alienated Hoboken dockworker who falls for Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), whose brother has been murdered by a mobster named Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Malloy aims to bring Friendly down.

From its opening horn theme, Bernstein's suite -- really a tone poem -- extends the mood of tragedy and romance. It feels menacing and moonlit, and sometimes grows violent. There's a lot of mid-century jazz in the score, and Saturday's performance was boosted by some excellent soloists: principal horn Meredith Brown, trumpeter Bill Harvey, alto saxophonist David Henderson and principal flute Maria Tamburrino.

The program closed with Gershwin's An American in Paris: the crosstown traffic and tooting car horns, the tender melodies and utter charm. Who can resist?

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