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[whitespace] Gifts of the Season

The San Jose Chamber Orchestra used works by Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Reese to serenade the cold season

By Scott MacClelland

YOU NEVER KNOW quite what to expect when Barbara Day Turner conducts a San Jose Chamber Orchestra concert. That's a plus for her programming of new and unfamiliar pieces that consistently win fresh converts. (In terms of retail, it's a marketer's dream come true.) Then again, when Turner takes to reading poetry from the stage, one might be forgiven for desiring better poetry--and perhaps a more polished reciter.

Fortunately, the orchestra of 15 strings set high standards in the affectionate acoustics of Le Petit Trianon, and therefore, no real harm was done by the descriptive sonnet Vivaldi used as the basis for his programmatic Winter concerto from The Four Seasons and even clumsier translations that attended Tchaikovsky's The Months (called The Seasons in this program).

The Tchaikovsky suite, based on six of 12 piano originals, and Mona Lyn Reese's Winter Melodies, adapted from a string quartet version, placed the bulk of the program in the realm of alternative arrangements from originals, a venture that almost always puts the composer's conception at risk.

In the case of Reese, the composer (who was exuberantly in attendance) made the adaptation herself. As for the Tchaikovsky, the string version by Wolfgang Hofmann has become more widely known than the original--its haunting barcarole surprising many who knew the tune but not the context. Indeed, Turner's band wore both with ease and grace.

Reese's pieces started life as a commission by the Groveland String Quartet of Minneapolis and were reinvented in this format for Turner's orchestra. This is adventuresome and confident music. Quartal harmonies (based on the interval of the fourth), sliding trills and bracing rhythms excite the opening movement, Gusts of Snow.

The second movement, Wind and Ice, is even more visual in its effects, with high harmonics driving cold to the bone and pentatonics transporting the imagination to somewhere in Asia.

Lost love more than icy conditions infuses Frost on Roses, a deeply sorrowful passage that closes on a lengthy cello cadenza that climbs up into its highest register. Cellist Lucinda Breed Lenicheck's arrival in that stratosphere revealed pitch insecurities that are difficult to conquer unless one is a full time solo player.

The work ends with Hot Chocolate!, a reward for all that freezing and grieving--and a fine, good time in the world of 1940s swing.

THOUGH DAVID AVSHALOMOV dedicated his Elegy to the memory of Leonard Bernstein, he actually composed it in 1989, the year before Bernstein's death. But a bluesy, pulsing middle section surrounded by weeping melodies might give the opposite impression. Actually, the jazz colors sound more like Gershwin. In any case, the work maintains a sturdy originality and, in this reading, a fine expression.

Avshalomov, at 54 the younger in a dynasty of composer-musicians, stood after the 10-minute opus to accept applause from audience and musicians alike.

Concertmaster Cynthia Baehr opened the evening in bold style with Vivaldi's Winter concerto, with Turner giving cues from the harpsichord. The plucking keyboard in combination with the bowed and pizzicato strings during the slow movement was quite magical. Baehr enhanced the moment with spirited and tasty ornamentation.

This amazingly durable music seems to have unlimited capacity for interpretative latitude. Baehr and Turner's strings were right up there, effectively contending with anyone else who thinks they have the goods on Vivaldi. (And don't forget, one of the Italian's biggest fans was J.S. Bach.)

Unfortunately, a coughing attack during the Avshalomov took Baehr out of commission for the entire second half, adding the reminder that not all "Winter Gifts" (as Turner titled the program) are good to receive.

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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