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French Benched

Saint-Saëns symphony saves an all-French program in San Jose

By Philip Collins

THE SAN JOSE Symphony's all-French program last weekend--featuring the music of Roussel, Bizet and Saint-Saëns--echoed little of these composers' shared citizenship. Guest conductor Mario Bernardi, principal conductor of the CBC Vancouver Symphony, selected works that although agreeable were not particularly French in spirit or style.

Bizet's Symphony no. 1 in C major and Saint-Saëns' Symphony no. 3 (Organ) pledge much allegiance to Germanic models (Mendelssohn and Beethoven notably), while Roussel's Le Festin de l'araignée, although deeply indebted to the atmospheres of Debussy, lacks the subtleties in orchestration that distinguish the impressionism of the true Parisians from the wannabes.

The Saint-Saëns made the evening count. His Symphony no. 3 features a mighty score, spirited by the composer's soaring melodic inspirations and articulate in its formal design. Moreover, it received the best performance of the three works. Bernardi led the Saint-Saëns purposefully and with a zeal that was regrettably absent during the program's first half.

Roussel's Le Festin de l'araignée and Bizet's Symphony no. 1 in C made cozy pillows to nap upon. Bernardi's unfocused direction elicited formulaic playing from the orchestra of the like one rarely encounters at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts--thank goodness.

The few exceptions were Maria Tamburrino's fine voicing of the main theme in the Roussel and principal oboist Pamela Hakl's handiwork in the Bizet.

The whittled-down string sections in both pieces didn't help; the fortes registered feebly and the inner voice-leading was blurred. Conducting from memory, but with scarce definition, Bernardi waved through what seemed a routine agenda of gestures that often bore little resemblance to the business at hand.

THE SAINT-SAENS was blemished but alive. Rhythmic alignment among the sections was rough during the opening movement, but it tightened up as the work continued. With the organ's entrance, which is quite a ways into the piece, things began to click. Sweet singing from the strings and handsome deliveries from clarinetist Michael Corner and bassoonist Deborah Kramer were among the chief pleasures.

The second movement pulled together with an even better sense of unity. The score's rich accumulation of resonances built to an exhilarating climax, and rhythmic coherence improved markedly. The quick, repeated-note figures of the second movement's allegro moderato section maintained a riveting equality that wasn't shared by the bassoon and the violins in the first movement.

Saint-Saëns' inclusion of piano--sometimes four-handed--in the score added a sparkling touch to the palette, and William Tracy's fine performance warranted better exposure. Unfortunately, the placement of the piano on the stage floor, rather than on a riser, dampened its carrying power considerably.

Organist Kevin Buttle contributed expertly throughout. When it comes down to it, though, there is not that much organ in the Organ Symphony, and its tasks, though onerous, are relatively inauspicious.

Buttle mustered the instrument's majestic, chantlike solo work with elegance. The organ's rhythms gelled fluidly with those of the orchestra, and Buttle's timbral control was artful as well as strategic in accentuating the organ's counterpoints. The instrument's upper tessitura carried especially well, but passagework in the bass range left much to be desired.

An immense scaffolding set up behind the orchestra, shelving some 20 speakers and innumerable tweeters and horns, barely accommodated the organ's more subterranean tones. Despite the elaborate efforts at amplification, the hall's unwieldy acoustic conditions prevented the organ's bass frequencies from speaking adequately.

As a result, Saint-Saëns' fascinating use of the instrument's lowest registers--particularly at its entry points, during which the solo part gradually swells up into the orchestra's center from underneath--was difficult to savor fully.

The unique combinations of color and harmony that Saint-Saëns created through equal-handed blends of orchestra and soloist came off radiantly for the most part. Bernardi legislated the score's balances knowingly, maintaining a prudent sense of rapport and averting bombast during the second movement's cathartic episodes. Even the work's tender asides, chamberlike in delicacy, were careful in manner, adding delicious contrast to the overall commotion while highlighting some of the best playing of the evening.

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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