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February 21, 2007

Symphony rising

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
One year ago, Symphony Silicon Valley expanded its season, from 14 concerts to 18. Now, when the trend among regional orchestras is to down-size or hold steady, its performance schedule is growing again.

Bouncing off a $118,000 operating surplus last year, the orchestra has announced that its 2007-08 season will be larger than any of its first five, with eight programs stretching over 20 concerts at the California Theatre. It will introduce three new guest conductors. It will perform Beethoven's Ninth, as well as Gershwin's ``They Can't Take That Away from Me'' and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto in F minor.

Call it a repertory bouillabaisse. And call the orchestra's growth conservative: ``We're still in a modest and careful expansion mode,'' said Andrew Bales, Symphony Silicon Valley's president and founder.

The sixth season opens Sept. 29-30 with Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 (the ``Pastorale''), Janacek's ``Sinfonietta,'' and the world premiere of David Amram's ``Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie,'' commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation at the suggestion of the legendary folksinger's daughter, Nora.

Amram is not only a composer but also a well-known jazz musician and all-around New York hipster who was pals with Guthrie, Jack Kerouac and Ramblin' Jack Elliott in the '50s. His jazz-influenced Triple Concerto was given a dynamic performance by Symphony Silicon Valley in 2005.

The guest conductor of that program, Paul Polivnick, will return to debut the Guthrie-inspired piece, which takes ``This Land is Your Land'' through a set of six variations, approaching it through jazz, bluegrass, Latin American, American Indian, Asian-American, and European neoclassical lenses.

Over the course of the season, the orchestra is bringing in some top-tier soloists, too. They include:

Pianist Seymour Lipkin, performing Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, with conductor George Cleve, who led the old San Jose Symphony for two decades (Oct. 25, 27, 28).

Gary Hoffman, among the world's most remarkable cellists, returning for the second consecutive season, this time to perform Saint-Sans' Cello Concerto No. 1, with Guillermo Figueroa debuting as guest conductor (Dec. 8-9).

Violinist Joseph Silverstein, former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who will perform Vaughan Williams' ``A Lark Ascending'' and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major (``Turkish'') and conduct the orchestra in Elgar's ``Enigma Variations'' (Jan. 17, 19, 20, 2008).

Pianist Gwendolyn Mok, performing an all-Gershwin program, including the Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue and a raft of great songs. The program, developed by Mok in London years ago, will have an old-time radio show format with Hoyt Smith of KDFC as host and a still to-be-announced singer. Mok and a big band, augmented by half a dozen or so strings, will perform the original Paul Whiteman arrangements of the Gershwin oeuvre, with Polivnick again conducting (May 8, 10, 11, 2008).

Other soloists will include associate concertmaster Christina Mok in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor with Martin West conducting (June 7 and 8, 2008); and principal tuba Tony Clements in Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto, which is actually among the composer's most popular works (March 15, 16, 2008).

``There's a story to that one,'' says Bales. ``Tony was in the old orchestra'' -- the San Jose Symphony, which dissolved in 2002 after filing for bankruptcy -- ``for like 30 years and had never been given a concerto opportunity until the last season, and then they closed and it didn't happen. I kept telling him, `We'll find a way,' and this is it. He's tickled pink.''

That program will also include Copland's ``Appalachian Spring'' and Richard Strauss' ``Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche'' and ``Der Rosenkavalier'' Suite. The guest conductor will be Sara Jobin, a hot commodity who in 2004 became the first woman to conduct main-stage subscription series performances at San Francisco Opera (she led performances of Puccini's ``Tosca'' and Wagner's ``The Flying Dutchman'').

Well-known in the Bay Area, where she has conducted numerous orchestras, including Opera San Jose's for four years in the 1990s, she recently attended a Symphony Silicon Valley concert and felt, she says, at home: ``I walked into the concert hall and looked onstage and realized I know half the musicians.''

In addition to Jobin and Figueroa (another hot commodity, who leads the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and for years was concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), first-time guest conductors include Fabio Mechetti.

He is the Brazilian-born music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and formerly was associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony Silicon Valley is continuing its policy of hiring a guest conductor for each of its programs, a course that has its critics. Some feel the symphony would benefit from having a permanent music director to provide steady guidance, helping it establish a unique sound and play up to its potential. But the ``guests only'' policy saves money and has proven popular with many of the orchestra's musicians, who say the steady rotation keeps them on their toes.

In 2007-08, the orchestra will also continue its venture into offering Thursday night concerts; there will be four of them next season.

It will also step out to perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (March 27, 29, 30, 2008) and Brahms' Symphony No. 3 (Oct. 25, 27, 28). With the Brahms, it will have completed a cycle of all the Brahms symphonies, a mark of maturity for an orchestra which, when it was founded in 2002, wasn't drawing a lot of bets in favor of its long-term survival.

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