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November 30, 1999

Symphony Silicon Valley closes season with inventive mix of Haydn, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Symphony Silicon Valley has a way of taking audiences for a ride, throwing some unexpected curveballs at listeners, making its programs crackle.

Earlier this month, it played a terrific program, drenched with nerve-racking Shostakovich (it even started with one of the neurotic Russian's symphonies), but finishing with a wallop of Beethoven to send the audience happily on its way.

The trick is in balancing what's familiar and what's not. That's the strategy underlying its season-ending program, Saturday and next Sunday at the California Theatre, where it performs music by Haydn — but not just any Haydn.

Led by the esteemed British conductor Jane Glover, the orchestra is staging the "Lord Nelson Mass," a gigantic affair, with the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale and its 80-plus voices. They include soprano Christine Brandes, who frequently performs with the best orchestras in the country: Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"Lord Nelson" is one of half a dozen Masses composed by Haydn toward the end of his life. Dating to the summer of 1798, it was originally titled the "Missa in Angustiis" — "Mass for Troubled Times" or "Mass in Fear" — as Napoleon was ravaging Europe, a huge worry to Austria, Haydn's homeland.

And you can hear trembling anguish and confusion in this work — along with joy, victory and uplift. These are all components of a big, liturgical work like this one.

And yet there is a back story: In August 1798, Admiral Horatio Nelson and his British fleet decimated Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile. That turnaround event — there's some question as to whether Haydn even knew about it while composing — later attached itself to the Mass; Nelson and Lady Hamilton, his mistress, may even have heard the Mass performed at the Esterházy court.

In any event, the "Lord Nelson Mass," with its intriguing history and emotional punch, is coming to the California. Rounding out the program will be Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 — known as the "Classical Symphony," as it is a neoclassical work, very much inspired by Haydn — and Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," often described as a tribute to Mozart.

Once again, Symphony Silicon Valley is putting together a program of unlikely companion pieces that, under close examination, come together to form a neat whole.

Many regional orchestras play it entirely safe. Afraid of alienating audiences and not making budget, they perform not much more than meat and potatoes: Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and so on.

Not that there's anything wrong with meat and potatoes; Symphony Silicon Valley plays its share, as it should. But if you look at its programs from the 2008-09 season, you'll see unexpected side trips: a Duke Ellington ballet suite; a David Amram concerto (the world premiere); the sumptuous "Requiem" by Fauré; a Romantic organ concerto by Guilmant, showing off the theater's great Wurlitzer.

The orchestra isn't afraid to be different or ambitious. Its mission should get a boost Saturday and Sunday from Glover, a marvelous conductor of Mozart, Haydn, Handel and others, with decades of experience leading orchestras and opera companies around the world...



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