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March 20, 2009

Symphony Silicon Valley announces ambitious 2009-10 season

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
When Symphony Silicon Valley was founded in 2002, plenty of aficionados said, "No way. It won't fly." Yet here we are, in the midst of a deepening recession, and Symphony Silicon Valley not only is announcing the details of its eighth season, but also is beginning to look forward to its landmark tenth.

"I've got some ideas," says Andrew Bales, the symphony's founder, president and spokesman, scratching his chin and acting really mysterious.

He's not putting them on the record. Yet.

But against all odds, the 2009-10 season Season No. 8 is getting ready to fly this fall at the California Theatre. It offers a mix of top-of-the-line, Bay Area-based performers (conductor George Cleve, pianist Gwendolyn Mok); celebrated, globe-trotting soloists (pianist Ingrid Fliter, cellist Gary Hoffman); warhorse repertory ("Scheherazade," the Brahms Symphony No. 4); as well as brand-new music (a triple concerto for traditional Chinese instruments and orchestra).

That East-West concerto, titled "Young Impressions of the Old City," is being composed by Gordon Lee, an artist of standing in China who grew up in Beijing. He now lives in Cupertino and is locally known as founder and artistic director of the popular Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra, which routinely mixes Chinese and Western instruments.

Bales believes that Lee's work, commissioned by Symphony Silicon Valley, will be the first triple concerto ever composed for Chinese instruments (in this case the sheng, the pipa and the erhu) and Western orchestra.

The new season reflects Bales' beliefs about what the symphony must do to stay viable in these tough times: namely, be local (Cleve and Mok have strong South Bay followings; Lee's piece could appeal to a new, local audience demographic for Symphony Silicon Valley) and global (tap into every audience's appetite for performers like Hoffman and Fliter, who typically show up with the world's top orchestras).

Some other highlights of 2009-10 include a concert version of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" and Symphony Silicon Valley's first foray into the world of Mahler, his Symphony No. 4. It brings back popular guest conductors (Cleve, Leslie Dunner, Paul Polivnick, Gregory Vajda) and introduces two new ones (Stephen Prutsman, who has previously performed with the orchestra as a piano soloist, and Alasdair Neale).

Next season will see Symphony Silicon Valley roll back to seven subscription programs from the current season's eight and from 20 overall performances to 17. The 2008-09 season (which continues March 26, 28 and 29 with Cleve conducting Brahms) has been "erratic" from a sales perspective, Bales concedes.

Attendance has fallen from about 85 percent of capacity for the typical concert in 2007-08 to about 75 percent this season. (Thursday nights are a special challenge.)

Subscription and single-ticket sales were lower than projected this season, and the symphony's endowment, which stood at $1.7 million before the market tanked last fall, has dropped to about $1.2 million making it impractical to draw on endowment earnings this year.

As a result, the symphony would have been headed toward a $200,000 shortfall on its $2.5 million operating budget were it not for a pair of generous private donations. Because of those two windfalls, Bales still cautiously projects a break-even fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Pulling back to seven programs next season allows the symphony to expand its subscription options in order to sustain and increase its audience. For instance, it will offer a three-concert minimum subscription (this season it's four concerts) for only $99.

"We are in a deliberative mood," says Bales, who calls the 2009-10 season a "slight retrenchment" with a $300,000 rollback in expenditures on the core season.

"But the overriding message of the season is that we've built a trust with our customers that we want to hold through these tough times. The idea is to keep putting on great programs to keep the people coming in."

Briefly, here are next season's seven programs at the California Theatre. (Subscriptions are on sale at (408) 286-2600, extension 23; single tickets go on sale after Labor Day.):

# Oct. 3-4. Cleve longtime leader of the old San Jose Symphony and "still our most popular conductor," Bales says opens the season with Ravel (the "Mother Goose Suite" and Piano Concerto in G major) and Brahms (Symphony No. 4). Gwendolyn Mok, soloist for the concerto, is a Ravel specialist who memorably performed the piece with Cleve and the symphony at a concert honoring San Jose State University's 150th anniversary in 2007.

# Oct. 22, 24 and 25. Fliter, who leapt to prominence by winning the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award in 2006, performs Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. (It's a warm-up of sorts for her fall debut, playing the same piece, with Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.) Alasdair Neale (former associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony) leads this program, which includes Copland's "Billy the Kid" Suite and "Old American Songs," Parts 1 and 2, which brings the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale onstage alongside the orchestra.

# Dec. 5-6. Prutsman, who spent several seasons as an artistic partner of the distinguished Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducts Albinoni (principal oboe Pamela Hakl is soloist for the Oboe Concerto No. 5 in D minor), Respighi (his "Trittico Botticelliano) and Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," featuring associate concertmaster Christina Mok.

# Jan. 9-10, 2010. The world premiere of Lee's "Young Impressions of the Old City," a depiction of episodes from the composer's childhood in Beijing. Also on the program: Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," featuring concertmaster Robin Mayforth. Paul Polivnick conducts.

# March 18, 20 and 21, 2010. "Porgy and Bess." Need we say more? Leslie Dunner, an exciting and exacting conductor, leads the 82-piece orchestra and a cast of singers still to be announced.

# May 13, 15 and 16, 2010. Gary Hoffman returns for his third program with the orchestra. This time he performs the very interior "Kol Nidre" by Bruch as well as the lightheartedly virtuosic "Variations on a Rococo Theme" by Tchaikovsky, the piece he played at the Rostropovich International Competition in 1986 which he won, establishing himself as a leading cellist. Gregory Vajda conducts.

# June 5-6, 2010. Dunner returns to conduct Mahler's beloved Symphony No. 4 and (once again with the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, directed by Elena Sharkova) Mozart's joyous Vesperae solennes de confessore.

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