SAN JOSE, CA—The San Jose Chamber Orchestra has evolved over the years and appears to benefit from the transition. Formerly an almost-all-women ensemble playing only recent music, it now has a 50-50 gender balance and longer season while playing a predominantly 20th century repertory of better-known works written by concert pianists. It drew a good-sized audience at the Trianon Theatre Jan. 8. While the grand piano still overwhelms the otherwise bright and laudable hall acoustics, the theater (formerly Le Petit Trianon) is excellent in several regards downtown, among them free parking. And Music Director Barbara Day Turner brings a disciplined, stiff-upper-lip attitude to the podium.
The novelties in the concert were first, dividing up the members of the (East-Bay-based) Delphi Trio so that each played a separate solo in a separate work, and second, having the whole program selected by the Delphi players and not by the music director. They reassembled in the piece written specifically for them, the William Bolcom Piano Trio (2014), a quarter-hour work in sonorous reflections and forceful outbursts. Since Bolcom is a pianist, the piano is predominant and virtuosic, totally overshadowing the string players, who are muted much of the way. In this robust neoromantic score pianist Jeffrey LaDeur was in his element, most notably in the fast-flying finale with its “wrong” notes winging along animatedly.
The finest performance of the night however was by the highly promising trumpeter Mark Grisez in the Shostakovich curiosity Concerto No. 1 for Trumpet, Piano and Strings—one of the most unusual combination of instruments ever. LaDeur and Grisez played out a pantomime to dramatize the finale, upgraded here to a burlesque of a competition opus, with piano and trumpet crossing swords, eventually with LaDeur slamming down a chord petulantly and angrily and all but slamming down the piano lid. That brought down the house.
Grisez and his trumpet had a bright sharp-clipped tone of impeccable luster, stealing the show despite a subordinate role and too many rests (is it any wonder? Shostakovich used to play his piano part himself!).
I’m astonished that the young Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 “Serenade for Violin (and orchestra)” was not set to modern ballet by Balanchine or his dance contemporaries; the first such mention I’ve found is the version done by the Boston Ballet nearly half a century later. Was it because it’s too close to Stravinsky’s tonal style of that time? On the surface, it’s a meaty five-part work running 33 minutes, a volatile and unbridled piece wandering through many emotions. But Bernstein’s program delineates another dimension: Platonic dialogues by contrasting ancient-Greek figures, reaching back to his college major—–no, not music. It was Classics of ancient age, particularly literature and philosophy.
In each of the five sections the serenade builds on the previous material, much like the intellectual dialogues of old, only in music, not text. There’s a wild bacchanal, challenging the four percussionists, along with the outbursts of “a band of drunken revelers,” and a good bit of solo violin that sounded taut and acerbic. When the orchestra is agitated, unexpectedly the lyrical violin emerges, like the sunshine after a thunderstorm. I found violinist Liana Bérubé’s tone a mite severe, but she managed the double stops of the cadenza convincingly.
Robert Schumann’s surprisingly brief 19th-century Cello Concerto with its many leaps up and down the sound spectrum kept soloist Michelle Kwon on her toes. Although some of the notes were tossed off too casually, Kwon’s pitch was letter-perfect, and quite satisfying in the whizzing pace of the finale.
The 20-to-24-member orchestra of mostly strings, with more new faces this season than I could count, responded well to Turner touch from the podium, though the sound lingered on the ascetic side. Debra Fong is concertmaster of the SJCO, which Turner had founded in 1991. As for Grisez, he is a 2015 graduate of the SF Conservatory and already an intermittent member of the SF Symphony.
While the music and program this night were effective, the printed program was skimpy, lacking any explanatory notes about the music.
San Jose Chamber Orchestra, Barbara Day Turner founding music director at Trianon Theatre, San Jose. For info: (408) 295-4416 or go online.