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September 28, 2013 (Review of "Symphonie Fantastique")

Christoph Campestrini's Symphony Silicon Valley debut

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Symphony Silicon Valley, which features a continuing slate of guest conductors, instead of a single music director, opened its 2013-14 season Saturday night at the California Theatre with debuting Austrian conductor Christoph Campestrini leading three concert staples by Glinka, Prokofiev and Berlioz.

The season's second program, coming Oct. 26-27, will feature William Kraft's timpani concerto (2005) and Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony -- works heard far less often in the South Bay.


The orchestra's performance of Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz ... was a polished, savvy reading, detailed and exuberant. This is story-telling, pictorial music that demands clear narrative insight. Campestrini knew what he wanted, and he got it.

The opening measures of each of the five movements invite the casting of spells, and this conductor and his musicians did just that. The long, slow movement, "Scene in the Country," glowed with bucolic atmosphere, in which solo cameos and the ensemble choirs were fully caught up. In the final "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," ringing church bells and blaring outbursts on the brass, while the tubas intoned the Dies Irae, created a vivid counterpoint of symbols and demonstrated the composer's thrilling musical imagination. Performing it well requires a conductor of vision and considerable focus on the details.

One of those details that can easily go unnoticed comes at the end of the "March to the Scaffold," when the "hero" of the story loses his head to the guillotine. Following the stroke of the blade, the double-basses play two pizzicatos as the severed head bounces in the basket.


At the beginning of the concert, after a rousing Star-Spangled Banner, led with exaggerated body language by Campestrini, the concert opened with the high-energy overture from Glinka's fairy-tale opera "Ruslan and Ludmila," a popular chestnut that, like most 19th-century opera overtures, introduces themes that later connect to their respective characters when staged.

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