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October 26, 2014 (Review of "Beethoven & Brahms")

Symphony Silicon Valley delivers gorgeous Romantic program

Georgia Rowe, Mercury News
One of the great pleasures of Saturday night's Symphony Silicon Valley concert was the rich, Romantic sound of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 expanding to fill every corner of the California Theatre. Conductor John Nelson and pianist Jeffrey Kahane lavished considerable care on the composer's evergreen score, and the results were irresistible.

If Saturday's concert, the second in the orchestra's 2014-15 season, demonstrated anything, it was that even the most familiar Romantic war horses still have the power to surprise and delight an audience. In addition to Beethoven's concerto, the orchestra delivered thrilling performances of Brahms' beloved Symphony No. 1 and the Overture to Carl Maria von Weber's "Oberon."

Credit for this exemplary excursion into the Romantic era was largely due to Nelson, an award-winning American conductor with a long list of international credits, including previous terms as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and the Caramoor Music Festival in New York. Making his first Symphony Silicon Valley appearance on this program, he shaped each work with an ear to expressing its distinctive color, texture and ravishing orchestral sonorities. It was an impressive debut.

Beethoven's concerto, performed in the first half, benefited greatly from his approach. The first movement yielded beautiful, glowing sound, with Beethoven's hushed opening phrases arriving in gentle, dreamlike statements. Nelson and his soloist, the Bay Area-based Kahane, meshed perfectly; the conductor brought the score's drama slowly to the surface, as Kahane traversed the piano part with a light, crystalline touch. As the music turned stormier, the strings took on an edgier sound, and Kahane bore down -- although his ornamentation remained wonderfully fleet and transparent throughout the turbulence.

In the central Largo movement, Kahane produced smooth, reflective sound. Nelson clearly rejects Romantic excess; he maintained a firm pulse, and the music was all the more affecting for it. The high-spirited finale was especially fine, with the orchestra sounding characterful and Kahane playing with tremendous verve.

Kahane's performance drew an appreciative response from the audience, and the pianist returned for a single encore, a mesmerizing "Song without words" by Mendelssohn.

Nelson opened the program with the Overture to "Oberon." Weber's opera isn't often performed today -- his earlier opera, "Der Freischütz," remains his best-known stage work -- but the 1826 score is filled with attractive music. The orchestra's briskly paced performance turned it into a captivating mini-drama, with Nelson judiciously applying dabs of color -- bright woodwinds here, woodsy horns there -- with a master's touch. Principal hornist Meredith Brown supplied a plummy, rich-toned solo.

After intermission, Nelson exceeded expectations with a magisterial performance of Brahms' First Symphony. The conductor strove for, and achieved, a big, luxuriant, essentially Romantic sound. The first movement's layered sonorities were enveloping, yet the conductor maintained the music's rhythmic flow with admirable strength and sinew.

As he drew out Brahms' long-breathed phrases, the individual sections responded vigorously: heart-on-the-sleeve playing from the violins, piquant woodwinds, well-defined brass contributions. The orchestra continued to shine in the lyrical second movement. The woodwinds were invaluable here; principal oboist Pamela Hakl delivered her solo part with flair, with concertmaster Robin Mayforth echoing the insinuating tune in mordant phrases.

The intermezzo's pizzicato strings were crisp and articulate. Under Nelson's leadership, the finale's familiar themes seemed a natural outgrowth of all that had come before. In Brahms' score, and throughout the evening, the conductor was a precise and energetic podium presence. Here's hoping the Symphony brings him back in future seasons.

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325 South First Street, San Jose, CA 95113
Phone or Fax: (408) 286-2600

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