NEW WORK, OLD DANCES, ELVIRA'S CONCERTO 
                                              By Paul Hertelendy 
        artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
                                                                 Week of Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2009
                                                                  Vol. 12, No. 5 
            SAN JOSE---The clever idea of a commissioning consortium enables several groups around the country (and not just one) to present a new work om concert. The San José Chamber Orchestra opened its season with the West Coast premiere of New Yorker Charles Griffin’s “Weaving Olden Dances,” part of a merry-go-round taking the dances to four different venues spanning both coasts. It’s a big 31-minute, four-movement work of modern sounds laid over traditional forms---a well-made piece avoiding the expected clichees.             Griffin, 41, enters skillfully into disparate realms. An agitated timpani opening suggests an action movie, giving way to a perpetual-motion ostinato that the composers says was inspired by the gamelan. The Pavane section  that follows is lovely, escapist romanticism soaring skyward. The third movement is the most overtly dance-like, with the orchestra parroting the broad strums of the flamenco guitar running through modes as well as the beat of the zapateado dance---a latino tap dance without the tap shoes.  The finale, after Irish models, is a joyous noise rushing to a climax. The format idea is derived from the dance suites so prevalent 300 years ago.                    There were various solos within this concerto for orchestra, none more notable nor more praiseworthy than on viola (Eleanor Angel) and cello (Lucinda Breed Lenicheck).
            Altogether, “Weaving Olden Dances” is an effective work with definite audience appeal. And Music Director Barbara Day Turner led it with high energy, nuance and consistency.

            Playing at the intimate Le Trianon concert hall, the SJCO plain ran out of space, along with acoustical breathing room. The stage was overflowing as woodwinds and brass were added to the string orchestra, with 32 players; lower string were lopped off, with cellos down to three and basses down to one, leaving the string sections underpowered.. And for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”), an immense nine-foot grand piano was wheeled out, further crowding the stage.

            The grand piano is a lovable, versatile, pulse-quickening beast---perfect for a 3,000-seat hall. But for a 300-seat hall, it represents overkill, sonically squashing the orchestra and overwhelming the acoustics. These hall acoustics are akin to loudspeaker acoustics---there is an effective intermediate level. Exceed it, and the sounds bounce around disagreeably.

            One solution for Mozart would be to use a more delicate period-piece fortepiano such as found on the nearby SJSU campus. Another would be for the pianist to tone down his presentation to fit the hall.

            The soloist was the hugely popular thirtysomething pianist Jon Nakamatsu, the most successful South Bay pianist around today. He played in a large-hall fashion, with a certain misplaced flamboyance. Only the slow movement emerged with reason and decorum; there Nakamatsu used minimum adornment of the solo part.

            A number of the runs were smudged; probably the heat and humidity in the hall did not help. For the cadenzas (solo display sections), which Mozart never composed, the pianist used those by Feruccio Busoni, a heavy romantic intrusion on what is essentially a concerto made to float and hover.

            If the Mozart was a less-than-perfect fit for the artist, he recouped with a dazzling encore: The mile-a-minute finale to the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata that brought down the house. Here Nakamatsu was right in his element, convincing, energizing, dramatizing in memorable fashion.

            The concerts---an unusual SJCO double to accommodate all the Nakamatsu fans, played Aug. 29 and 30---marked the opening of the orchestra’s 19th season.
           
San José Chamber Orchestra at Le Petit Trianon, 72 N. 5th St., San Jose. Next: Oct. 18, with Mendelssohn, Bartók, Wyman. For info: (408) 295-4416, or go online.

        ©Paul Hertelendy 2009

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           Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years.
    These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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