A tremendously successful concert of two popular staples by Symphony Silicon Valley, John Nelson conducting, concluded with the lustrous violin sound of concertmaster Robin Mayforth, receding into the mythical space of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 four-movement symphonic suite Scheherazade, Op 35. The December 3 concert at the California Theatre, San Jose, had begun with another “program” piece, Beethoven’s 1808 Pastoral Symphony in F Major, Op. 68, the composer’s pantheistic hymn to Nature, which found its “romantic” complement in Rimsky-Korsakov, who led us into the exotic world of the Arabian Nights.
Nelson, who led the entire evening’s ministrations sans baton, provides a highly kinetic conducting style, athletic and lithe, much in the lean, literalist tradition of Fritz Reiner. But whatever “metronomic” authenticity his Beethoven may have emanated at first, the first movement repeat – adding a classical girth – inflamed a work rustic and “transcendental” at once. The application of orchestral colors became a fixed mantra for the concert as a whole: in Beethoven, the sounds of folk life, the drone bass and hurdy-gurdy effects, the appeals to bird calls, watery motion, and the violent thunderstorm that leads to a rapturous “natural piety” we read in Wordsworth. Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite provides a virtual textbook in orchestral color: a distant relative of Vivaldi and a close cousin of Berlioz, the Russian’s music bathes in swirling, Oriental images and exotic doxology, muezzin chants, battle cries, and the figurative equivalent of spiraling minarets. Having joined Sinbad on his fabulous voyage, we too wonder if we shall find – along with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Maureen O’Hara – Daryabar and Alexander’s lost treasure, or does all such wealth lie only in the imagination of childhood?
The highlights of this well-attended concert lay in the musical execution by Symphony Silicon Valley and its spirited, kinesthetic conductor. The Beethoven could boast of the colossal, gifted woodwind players, Maria Tamburrino, flute; Pamela Hakl, oboe; Michael Corner, clarinet; and Deborah Kramer, bassoon. Their talents would shine just as brightly in Rimsky-Korsakov, aided by harp solos from Dan Levitan and a combined brass and battery section that proved rousing. The Silicon Valley strings, too, proved persuasive in the Beethoven “Scene by the Brook” and in the hymn of praise whose variants provide the symphony’s finale. Certainly, having Robin Mayforth intone the plaints of Scheherazade – in order to postpone the death decree of Sultan Shahriar – weaving her tales, exotic and erotic, with suspended endings and supernatural interventions, reminded us how “feminine” this athletic score can be.
Conductor Nelson, however, molded and paced his cues with an aggressive efficiency that dispelled any notions of a subdued or “passive” rendition. One need merely attend his “Festival at Baghdad” to reap the kaleidoscope of rhythmic and instrumental effects that point almost directly to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. So, too, had Beethoven’s country-bumpkin dance third movement suddenly found itself invaded by a fierce summer storm, a descent into a brief but potent maelstrom. Intimations of Smetana’s The Moldau would break forth for that composer of Nature’s paradoxical beauty to borrow and emulate from Beethoven’s figures. If the audience reacted with their enthusiastic applause too quickly at the end of the Beethoven symphony, an awed hush temporarily paralyzed the space around the decaying tones from Rimsky-Korsakov, a sense of reverence and collective admiration for music and its realization that had magically been permitted exit from Ali Baba’s secret treasure-trove.