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May 23, 2006

San Jose's Rising Star

By David Bratman, By David Bratman
San Jose is the neglected stepchild of the Bay Area arts scene. Despite the massive renovation and yuppification of downtown in recent years, cities to the north get the attention and the stars. But there is good music to be heard in San Jose, and good venues in which to hear it. The offerings in the Bay Area's largest city, while not as cosmopolitan as San Francisco's, are plentiful, and the downtown boasts two important concert venues that are central to the city's professional classical music scene.

The premier concert hall in San Jose today is the 1,100-seat California Theatre, home of Opera San José and Symphony Silicon Valley. It's prominently placed close to good restaurants in mid-downtown (on South First Street between San Carlos and San Salvador), and it's not impossible to find street or lot parking nearby.

Like Oakland's Paramount Theatre, the California Theatre is a converted movie house recovered from hard times. It has a grand lobby, a deep balcony with high sight lines, and almost startlingly bright acoustics, at least upstairs — the orchestra section is spottier acoustically, but this is being worked on. Dating from 1927, the California was a landmark film-and-stage theater, became a dive by the 1960s, and then was closed for three decades. After years of negotiations, it was renovated for Opera San José and reopened in 2004.

Symphony Silicon Valley soon signed on as an additional tenant, moving from its previous home, the much larger Center for the Performing Arts.

In SSV's move to the California Theatre lies a tale, the story of the resurrection of a proud orchestra that had suffered as many vicissitudes as had its new home…The original local orchestra, the San Jose Symphony, traced its history back to 1879,…,but by late 2002, the San Jose Symphony was officially no more.

A surprise second chance

But just then, the cavalry danced onto the stage. Officials of Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, which often employed many of the Symphony musicians, decided to step in and form a new orchestra on the foundations of the old. What was initially called Symphony San Jose Silicon Valley made its debut in the CPA on November 23, 2002, with David Loebel conducting John Corigliano's Promenade Overture.

The new organization had several advantages going for it. The board and management were entirely new, free from the taint of the old regime. Equally favorable was that the performers were mostly familiar. The stars of the old symphony — including concertmaster Robin Mayforth, principal clarinetist Michael Corner, cellist and indefatigable preconcert lecturer Roger Emanuels — and many of their colleagues were back. There was nothing wrong with the musicians, who had been working hard and maintaining professional standards under both Cleve and Grin. The group was, and remains, a solid regional orchestra.

But a decent regional orchestra is not unusual. What is unusual is seeing a difficult situation approached by a cautious and skillful management. The bane of any organization that meets with initial success is the temptation to expand too fast, diluting quality and control. SSV's management has shown talent at understanding its market and fund-raising needs while carefully keeping growth small and steady. The orchestra's first season consisted of but four concerts. By the third year, it had its new venue and announced a full season in advance. The fourth season, which just ended May 14, saw 14 performances of seven subscription concerts, plus three nonsubscription events. By the end of the season, performances were selling out. Expanding cautiously, next season will introduce four Thursday evenings joining seven Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees for 18 performances of seven subscription concerts.

The size of the orchestra has also been kept down. San Jose Symphony had 89 musicians at the end; SSV currently has 73. The orchestra's small size has met with some artistic criticism. Still, while it's always nice to see good musicians employed, this listener does not find the group's sound underpowered, especially in the bright acoustics of the California Theatre.

Operating without a music director

One policy, however, has been both cautious and audacious: the decision not to hire a music director. It would have been premature to seek one for the fragmentary first season (and difficult to find a suitable taker). Instead, management chose guest conductors and planned workable concerts, and it has just gone on doing so. Symphony President Andrew Bales chairs and coordinates the process, with input from an artistic committee of musicians, an advisory board, and extensive audience surveys. This obviously can't continue indefinitely, but it's worked surprisingly well so far.

The disadvantage is the lack of a steady coordinating hand to keep the orchestra on an even keel artistically. Some critics have found SSV deficient in that regard, although surely the orchestra's part-time status is as much to blame for any technical problems. I do not find the orchestra's style weaker or less consistent without a music director than it would be with the wrong music director. Besides being expensive, a music director is a single pair of hands into which the artistic fate of the institution is placed. SSV has decided, at least for now, that this is an unnecessary risk. Performances tend to amble along in amiable competence. But though SSV can sometimes be rough or lackluster, it's equally capable of astonishing vividness and commitment.

SSV tries to balance its choice of conductors between the familiar and the novel. The 2005-2006 season was particularly high in familiar names who provided fine listening experiences. Patrick Flynn, music director of the Riverside County Philharmonic, and Paul Polivnick, who had been a top finalist for the San Jose music director job back in 1992, were already audience favorites from previous seasons. Flynn specializes in deeply individualistic interpretations of classics: In October he gave his version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony along with a lively, Coplandesque reading of Leonard Bernstein's On the Waterfront Suite (see review). Polivnick brought violinist Ju-Young Baek in May for Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. This concert was even more memorable for a fluid reading of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, one of the best performances the orchestra has ever given. Polivnick also led an unusual program of jazz-classical fusion in October: George Gershwin's An American in Paris was paired with David Amram's Triple Concerto and Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige.

A concert led by William Boughton in April featured a delightfully easy and straightforward rendition of Grieg's Piano Concerto by local-boy-made-good Jon Nakamatsu, who taught German at a nearby high school until he won the Cliburn Competition nine years ago. But Sibelius's Fifth Symphony at the same concert was stiff and rather stodgy.

The biggest coup of this season was the return, for the first time since the symphony's rebirth, of the area's legendary music director. From the moment that the portly, Brahmsian figure of George Cleve walked out on stage, audience members could feel transported back to the 1980s. Cleve led three consecutive all or mostly Mozart programs. The highlight of these was a December performance of the "Prague" Symphony. It moved with a grace and energy that made it a pleasure to hear. Cleve's March performance of the Requiem, with the Symphony Chorale led by Elena Sharkova, lacked bite, but brilliantly rescued the work from its trailing-off Süssmayr ending by tacking on the Ave verum Corpus Mozart had written a few months earlier.

SSV's upcoming season

Having relied mostly on familiar names for the 2005-2006 season, SSV plans to restore the balance with mostly new conductors in the upcoming year. Only two of the six conductors have been here before. On March 17-18, Leslie Dunner will lead the orchestra in Ravel's Bolero, Kodály's Hary Janos Suite, and Copland's Third Symphony. William Boughton gets the big choral concert, Verdi's Requiem on March 29-April 1.

The best known of the new conductors is Joseph Silverstein, formerly concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and music director of the Utah Symphony. He will lead the orchestra in two concerts. The January 18-21 program features violinist Mark O'Connor in his own folk-jazz-classical fusion work, the Auld Brass Concerto, along with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 and Dvorák's Symphony No. 7. On May 10-13, Silverstein returns to lead Haydn's Symphony No. 102, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, and the Brahms Double Concerto with young soloists Axel Strauss on violin and Mark Kosower on cello.

Emil de Cou, formerly conductor of the San Francisco Ballet, opens the season September 30-October 1 with Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, and the Concerto for Orchestra by Jennifer Higdon. Martin West, the current San Francisco Ballet conductor, follows on October 26-29 with Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Bizet's Symphony in C, and Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 with the noted cellist Gary Hoffman. The remaining concert, December 9-10, features several SSV musicians — violinists Robin Mayforth and Christina Mok, bassoonist Deborah Kramer, and trumpeter James Dooley — in an assortment of Vivaldi concertos, along with Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and the return of Jon Nakamatsu to play Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. The young Hungarian Gregory Vajda will conduct.

Recital and chamber groups at Le Petit Trianon

Downtown San Jose's other outstanding venue is a tiny theater known as Le Petit Trianon, located in a slightly dodgy neighborhood just north of the new City Hall (on North Fifth Street between St. James and Santa Clara). The performing space is startlingly small: It seats 380, tightly wedged into a main floor and a tiny balcony, facing a stage hardly big enough for a large chamber group. But somehow they manage. The acoustics, although poor for unamplified pre- and postconcert speakers, are outstanding for music, which floats out vividly but not overpoweringly.

Le Petit Trianon, about the same age as the California Theatre, has been a concert venue for almost 20 years. Numerous visiting groups, ensembles, and organizations use it as a regular venue. It hosts the annual International Russian Music Piano Competition, which this year is June 1-10. And it runs series by a number of local chamber music groups.

The San Jose Chamber Music Society is Le Petit Trianon's flagship series. It brings in a number of outstanding ensembles and individual performers, and usually has a composer theme…The Cypress Quartet is SJCMS's most regular ensemble and has been playing its cycle of quartets by Benjamin Lees, often with the composer present…Not to be outdone, the Steinway Society of the Bay Area has been convincing admirable pianists to come to Le Petit Trianon…The San Jose Chamber Orchestra, directed by Barbara Day Turner, is known for slightly unusual programming focusing on appealing modern works...Mission Chamber Orchestra will give only three concerts at Le Petit Trianon, under conductor Emily Ray, but the group has nabbed…Jon Nakamatsu to play Beethoven's First Piano Concerto on April 28.

Whether at the architectural gem of Le Petit Trianon or the revitalized splendor of the California Theatre, downtown San Jose boasts fine venues with busy schedules, long and interesting histories, and steadily improving fortunes. While the city may not yet draw many Bay Area residents from San Francisco and farther afield (that is, those who don't already work there), anyone on the lookout for rewarding performances will find that there’s no need to go begging when they find their way to San Jose.

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