Thoroughly engaging the Symphony Silicon Valley in their program of Barber, Prokofiev, and Sibelius, guest-conductor JoAnn Falletta led a spectacularly successful demonstration of orchestral discipline Saturday, October 6 at San Jose’s California Theatre to inaugurate the 2018-19 season. By the time we reached the commanding series of chords that conclude the Sibelius E-flat Symphony, Op. 82, the irrevocable impression we had gleaned convinced us that master musicians had assembled to deliver nothing less than a virtuoso display of musical temperament buttressed by seamless technical control.
Falletta opened her eminently colorful program with Samuel Barber’s 1931 Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5, based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 sarcastic comedy of manners, whose razor-sharp repartee often foreshadows the colossal satire we find in Oscar Wilde. The scintillating wit of the literary piece inspires Barber’s youthful (he was twenty-one) first orchestral work, an invention attempting to create “a musical reflection of the play’s spirit.” The outset — a wonderful dissonance emerging from trumpets’ E-flat minor chords against piquant D Major in the strings, with added triangle — immediately enthralled us with the merriment and occasional viciousness of gossip, marked by the grace note in the texture that heralds the “bite” of societal badinage.
Woodwind players Pamela Hakl (oboe) and Patricia Emerson Mitchell (English horn) projected their respective lyrical moments with fluent authority, especially as Barber incorporates a “British” sensibility in his melodic line. But no less compelling, the rhythmic verve and full-bodied string and brass tuttis announced that the evening would only intensify the precisions that the Barber piece heralded.
Prokofiev’s imaginative 1936 ballet score for Shakespeare’s epic tragedy Romeo and Juliet (represented by nine sections taken from the suite) received a powerful performance by Falletta and the orchestra. Once more, the instrumental virtuosity of individual players — for instance. Sarah Benton, flute — emerged immediately, but truth be told, all of Symphony Silicon Valley’s gifted principals rose to the challenge to realize Prokofiev’s tricky rhythms and often agonized melodies. It was an exemplar of textural homogeneity of sound. The “miracle” of the score lies in its uncanny ability to coordinate modern orchestration — say, the use of the piano and saxophone — and angular harmony with its authentic, “Renaissance” affect. If the grimly martial “Montagues and the Capulets” portrayed a city divided by tragic enmity, the evocation of “The Youthful Juliet” captured both her frivolity and her innate capacity for passion. Concertmaster violinist Robin Mayforth and violist Patricia Whaley each had moments of emotional color, whether in the course of a courtly dance, Romeo’s love-scene, Friar Laurence’s moody advice, or the puckish dance of Romeo and Mercutio, the latter whose “a plague on both your houses” comes true when the “secret” of the supposedly “deadly” potion Juliet drinks fails to reach Romeo because of a quarantine on Verona. “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” proffered the most transparent tapestry, a starry night for lovers, while the death agonies of Tybalt ripped the atmosphere with brass and percussive syncopations. By the time of the poignant “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave” we had experienced the bitter truth of a love that could only find consummation in death.
The Sibelius Fifth Symphony (1915) has an apocryphal source of inspiration. Sibelius claimed to have seen a flight of sixteen swans, a sign of “the mosaic” of Heaven’s floor. Sibelius would call one of his motifs the “swan theme” that would provide the dramatic symbolic conclusion at the end of the symphony. The opening four notes at could suggest a “fate” motif, a la Beethoven, but they begin softly in horns and winds, and evolve organically to dominate what proves to be a three-movement structure conceived simultaneously as four-movements, or possibly one movement in the shape of a gigantic arch. The most dominant effect is that of stretti, layers of sound and orchestral texture superimposed upon one another.
Architecture aside, the music makes considerable demands on rhythmic and textural coordination, as well as imperious demands on Falletta’s capacity for transitions. She met these demands heroically. Individual solos stood out early: bassoon Deborah Kramer; horn Meredith Brown; trumpet James F. Dooley; and timpanist Robert J. Eriebach, Jr., just to mention a few of the contributors to a color panoply, which was modal and mesmerizing in its chromatic transformations. The string pizzicatos for the Andante movement, a labyrinthine theme-and-variations in G Major, had bite and clarity, while the string bass section intoned a motif marked by a wide intervals. What passes for a scherzo, Allegro molto, comes as a buzz of glistening strings, the whirr of angels’ wings, while that leaden bass theme gains ascendancy, what commentators call “Thor’s hammer.” By the latter part of the last movement, Falletta elicited a golden — maybe “Wagnerian” would be a more appropriate epithet — glow upon the chorale element of this towering music, which bespoke a true marriage of two minds, that of the composer and his gifted interpreter, who set an example that succeeding guest-conductors will have to work hard to surpass.