Restrained Fires: Symphony Silicon Valley Opening Night

Paul Polivnick

Symphony Silicon Valley began its 16th season Saturday, September 30 and October 1 at the California Theatre, with Paul Polivnick’s leading music by Wagner, Britten, and Beethoven. While each of the selections contained energy and fine colors, the one ingredient conspicuous in its absence remained inflamed passion and emotional abandon. Rather, each of the pieces maintained a careful, controlled pathos, true to the letter of the selected scores but rarely exceeding their prescriptions to burst into poetic ecstasy.

Polivnick opened with Wagner’s fiery Overture to The Flying Dutchman, whose D Minor invocation of a stormy sea had the string and brass sections in fine fettle, intoning themes from the opera in the manner Gluck, Weber, and Beethoven had employed as models of preliminary, orchestral procedure. English horn Patricia Mitchell contributed her especial color to the idea of Senta’s redemption via the sacrifice of the eponymous Dutchman. Clarity and vigorous figures notwithstanding, the performance never transcended a sense of objective detachment, as if we witnessed a brilliant but academic rehearsal, a tendency that held forth throughout the evening, excepting occasional moments of fury, as in the Presto of the Beethoven Seventh.

Polivnick proceeded to the Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes, Op. 33a-b. As if in imitation of Wagner’s tormented Dutchman, Peter Grimes appears as a deeply troubled fisherman, an archetypal outsider guilty of some “original sin.” The Dawn sequence had an eerie, angst-ridden affect, colored by violin and flutes set in their upper registers. Debts to Debussy’s Nuages seem well paid in this episode. Some uneasy figures come from the viola, intoned ardently by Patricia Whaley, who had made her presence well felt in opening Passcaglia. The succeeding Sunday Morning from Act II featured joyful bell tones and carillon effects countered by some affecting melodic tropes in the viola and cello sections. The Moonlight sequence projected a static character that had permeated the Passacaglia, albeit with interjection from color instruments like harp, xylophone, flute, and trumpets. The Passacaglia and the concluding Storm sections each contribute to our concept of the character of Peter Grimes himself: complex, deeply troubled, and like Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “at war within himself.”

The touted selection of the evening, Beethoven’s 1812 Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, ranks among his most Dionysiac compositions. The rendition this night, however, bore more of the chaste, classical restraints of Apollo, measured, clear, and resonant, but once more lacking in the divine madness that can transform this “dance symphony” into a virtual fertility festival. Polivnick proceeded at all times as though care and balanced adjustments of dynamics would convey the music’s classical attention to form, which such ministrations do. But once the energies in this work assume their sanguine character, we want convulsions and headlong frenzies, not architecture. The opening measures, its slow progression to a pedal on E and the sudden onrush of kinetic momentum should sweep us away, not beguile us with admiration of its artistic control. The Allegretto in A Minor – with its spiritual kinship with the second movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet – had beauty and elegance, given that this music may well mark Beethoven’s most tragic orchestral utterance. For many, the “real” Beethoven emerged in the Scherzo, unpredictable, unbuttoned, and obsessive, as required. Here, the relatively straitened Trio section benefitted by Polivnick’s rubato and suasion in contrast to the frenetic, jocularly impish thrusts of the main theme’s asymmetries. But the last movement – Allegro con brio – so much anticipated for its mad, rhythmic insistence and overpowering sense of crescendo, never quite achieved the mania we had longed for. Great ensemble, ripe colors, musicality – yes, they were there. But the “apotheosis” that makes this music a wonder of wonders was a culmination sorely missed.


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