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September 28, 2014 (Review of "An Italian Tour")

Symphony Silicon Valley's sparkling season opener

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Opening its 13th season, Symphony Silicon Valley took a trip with Hector Berlioz, that composer of delicious brews -- of fantastical reveries and rustic dances, of strange dramatic narratives. His big pieces are said to depict the heroes of various journeys, but each time, really, the hero is Berlioz, a dreamer and a visionary.

His "Harold in Italy" isn't quite a symphony and isn't quite a concerto, though it has a considerable solo part -- rhapsodic, wandering, observing -- for viola. Saturday at the California Theatre, Patricia Whaley -- the orchestra's principal violist -- was the effecting soloist for a performance of "Harold" that struck just about all the right chords: tender, enigmatic, charmed, neurotic and, well, trippy.

Guest conductor Karen Kamensek was the impelling guide for "Harold," which was commissioned from Berlioz in 1834 by Niccolò Paganini. As it turned out, he never performed the piece; its solo part was too reflective and restful for Paganini, who sought fireworks, not subtlety.

As much as it is said to follow the journey of a Romantic hero -- the Harold of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," a poem by Lord Byron -- "Harold in Italy" also was inspired by the composer's own wanderings by foot through the central Italian region of Abruzzi. Over the course of the work, we "see" Harold/Hector in the mountains, or observing a pilgrims' march and, later, a lover's serenade. Stumbling upon a group of brigands, the hero witnesses an intoxicated orgy.

This narrative threaded through Saturday's performance, as in the opening movement ("Harold aux montagnes") when Whaley first stated the work's "Harold theme," the motto or idée fixe that returns again and again. Accompanied by clarinet and harp, Whaley's rendering of the theme was lovely; it emerged as a tender dream of a melody, a true reverie. One could imagine the wanderer, quietly giddy amid the mountain mists.

As the performance continued, Whaley's tone was sometimes sinewy, sometimes golden and round. There were some moments -- as in the "Serenade" (the third movement) -- when one wished for her to play out more forcefully. But she seemed to have decided that her Harold was fundamentally a dreamer.

Meanwhile, there was Kamensek, who made her debut commandingly with this orchestra last May in a program that featured pianist Jon Nakamatsu. Earlier this month, she completed a run at San Francisco Opera, where she conducted Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah." And over the weekend, here she was again at the California Theatre.

While leading a stately tempo for the "Marche des pélerins" ("March of the Pilgrims"), she incited the strings to a strikingly rich and earthy performance. The remote French countryside where Berlioz spent his childhood -- within sight of the Alps -- somehow always lives on inside his music; Kamensek made this clear in the hearty dance that opens the "Serenade." The "Orgie de brigands" kept acquiring momentum, climaxing with a clattering yet controlled tumult.

Billed as "An Italian Tour," the program (which repeat Sunday) opened with Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances," Suite No. 2, from 1923, in which the composer re-imagines courtly dances of earlier centuries. Saturday, its second movement ("Danza rustica") was especially charming. Its tick-tock rhythms took on a lively swing, fed by the double basses and harpsichord.

Respighi gave way to Verdi, whose "La Peregrina" (from 1867) was composed as a ballet sequence for "Don Carlos," though it was eliminated from the opera during the composer's revisions. Infrequently performed, it proved to be a showcase for Symphony Silicon Valley.

Concertmaster Robin Mayforth took full advantage of her solo turn, which was sturdy and sweetly lyric, too. There was a sort of "en pointe" dance for clarinet and flute that sparkled. So did a number of the orchestral tuttis, especially those featuring a full array of brass -- classy playing by the section, straight down to the tuba. And this crisp, spirited performance popped like a champagne bottle at its conclusion; like a good short story writer, Kamensek understands the value of a strong ending.

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