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March 08, 2006

The sweet sounds of success
Symphony Silicon Valley rises toward fifth season

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Take note, all you doubters.

Symphony Silicon Valley soon will be heading into its fifth season -- with more concerts in its core series, higher profile soloists and an increasingly interesting mix of repertory. As the orchestra announces details of its 2006-07 lineup, it seems to be in a growth pattern. Calling it the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the old, bankrupt San Jose Symphony is getting old.

Still, even Andrew Bales, the orchestra's president, is a little wondrous: ``Fifth season? Who wudda thought?'' he says.

The 2006-07 season, opening Sept. 30 at the California Theatre, will include soloists Gary Hoffman (among the planet's top-tier cellists), Mark O'Connor (violinist, composer and classical ``Americana'' specialist) and Jon Nakamatsu (winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition's gold award and local favorite).

Programs will run from Joseph Haydn to Jennifer Higdon, making stops for Beethoven, Verdi (his great ``Requiem''), Brahms, Stravinsky (Symphony in Three Movements), Copland and Shostakovich, whose birth centennial will be marked by Hoffman's performance of the Russian's bracing Cello Concerto No. 1.

Also, the orchestra will freshen the pot with a new cast of guest conductors, including Joseph Silverstein, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's former concertmaster and assistant conductor, and Martin West, the young British conductor who is the new music director of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.

But it's the expansion of the season that is most striking. The orchestra will begin adding Thursday night performances to its schedule, so that four of its seven programs will be presented three times, on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Its three other programs will be presented twice, on Saturdays and Sundays (like all of this season's seven programs). In total, the orchestra will perform 18 subscription concerts, up from 14 this season.

That might appear to be a modest change, but it is significant, because it is happening at a time when many orchestras are pruning their schedules. This orchestra has been catching on.

Last season, its first at the California, it sold 85 percent of the seats at the 1,100-capacity theater. So far this season, sales stand at 90 percent. And with two upcoming programs nearly sold out (Mozart's ``Requiem'' with conductor George Cleve on March 18-19, and an April 1-2 program with Nakamatsu), Bales thinks sales may hit 95 percent for the entire season, which ends in May.

In January, when Cleve conducted the second of three Mozart programs, the orchestra registered its highest sales ever. But even that success underscored a problem: ``We want to be attracting new audiences,'' Bales says. ``And we're not going to attract new audiences if there are no seats available.''

Still, expanding the season entails risk. In its most recent fiscal year, ending June 30, the non-profit orchestra, operating on a $1.8 million budget, squeaked through with a $7,478 surplus. Bales says the orchestra, again with a tight budget of $1.8 million, is on target for a similar finish to the current fiscal year.

He also admits feeling anxious over the recent bankruptcy filing by Calpine, the orchestra's leading corporate contributor. It gave $50,000 to Symphony Silicon Valley in 2005 but will give nothing in 2006. ``We need to maintain the momentum'' for overall corporate donations, despite Calpine's pullback, Bales says.

This isn't the first time Bales has attempted to expand the orchestra's season. During its second season, in 2003-04, when Symphony Silicon Valley still was performing at San Jose's Center for the Performing Arts, he added a series of concerts at Redwood City's Fox Theatre. The series was canceled after a single poorly attended concert in November 2003 and, largely as a result, the orchestra suffered a $91,000 budgetary shortfall.

A lot has happened since that time. The orchestra now enjoys the buffer of a $1 million endowment. It continues to supplement income from its core subscription series by accompanying Ballet San Jose.

To further boost income, Bales isn't above hiring out the orchestra for blatantly commercial events, including ``Video Games Live'' on March 24, which will feature symphonic performances of video games music at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. He is ``eager'' to do so, he says.

Yet, impressively, Symphony Silicon Valley's recent success rests mostly on its core series, its smart mix of repertory, spirited performances, and its classy new home, for two seasons now, at the lavishly overhauled California Theatre.

West, the British conductor, has attended concerts there twice and has come away impressed: ``They're a good orchestra with high standards in a lovely hall,'' he says. He particularly liked a performance in December of Mozart's ``Prague'' Symphony, led by Cleve, which he described as ``really classy playing.''

Bales seems confident that the expanded season will work. The orchestra's base of subscribers increased from about 1,400 in the 2004-05 season to about 1,750 this season, and he hopes to have more than 2,000 in '06-'07. Symphony Silicon Valley can make budget, he says, if it sells, on average, about 400 seats for each of the four Thursday night concerts, though he hopes to sell many more than that.

Particularly on Sept. 30, opening night. What's on tap? Two pieces that shine a light on the orchestra itself, sans soloists: Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, a virtuosic tour of the orchestra by one of the most celebrated composers in classical music today, and Tchaikovsky's tuneful and folk-infused Symphony No. 2.

Emil de Cou, well-known for his performances with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra and many other ensembles, will conduct this program, which highlights the old and the new, the familiar and the exotic. It's a mix that has been working.

``The trend in the symphonic world is to look for lost audiences,'' Bales says. ``We're finding that we have room to grow.''

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