“Favorite son” pianist Jon Nakamatsu joined conductor Tatsuya Shimono for a seamless performance of the ever-popular Rachmaninov Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, as part of the Symphony Silicon Valley series May 4-5 at the California Theatre, San Jose. The evening, however, began with an unusual appearance of a second conductor, Henry Mollicone, leading a performance of his own Kathy’s White Knight – A Tone Poem for Orchestra, a ten-minute excerpt from his The Adventures of Alice ballet. It seems Symphony Silicon Valley President Andrew Bales wished to recognize the Saratoga, CA composer, who has been too long neglected in the repertory, so he asked Mollicone to direct the piece, which pays homage at once to Lewis Carroll and to Mollicone’s wife, Kathy, since the lyrical motif in the score derives from an Alleluia for their wedding day. Brash and energetic, the music flared out in galloping measures as the White Knight fell from his steed – some may recall that Gary Cooper enacted the mock heroics in 1933 — big in the brass and percussion sections. The glamour of the sonority easily reminded us of the Hollywood scores of John Williams with perhaps less bluster. No less effective, the flute solo (Sarah Benton) and tender string melody that ensued might pay homage to another Hollywood composer, John Barry.
The concert “proper” extended the ballet motif, with Igor Stravinsky’s first symphonic work after his arrival in the United States, his 1942 Circus Polka, written for George Balanchine’s own commission from the Barnum & Bailey Circus for a “dance for elephants.” At first, Stravinsky scored the piece for woodwinds, setting the rhythm in 2/4, but the harsh sonorities and shifting metrics could be unsettling for the pachyderms. The score, besides, becomes brash and urgent with the use of cymbals, drums, and brass, mocking the Schubert Marche Militaire No. 1in the course of its colorful irreverence. The audience, properly, alert, applauded and prepared for the full-scalePetrushka (1911) by the composer, just on the verge of his iconoclastic masterpiece, Le Sacre du Printemps of 1913.
Set in four tableaux, Petrushka has the puppet appear as the Russian counterpart to Pierrot of the Commedia dell’Arte, a sad clown caught in a romantic love-triangle with Colombineand Harlequin. The huge orchestration includes the piano as a concertante instrument, reminding us of the solo keyboard origins of Stravinsky’s ideas, from which he concocted a suite at the request of Artur Rubinstein in 1946. Conductor Shimono deftly led – often by his own dance upon the podium, that included his arms, baton, hips, and accessories – the monstrous color panoply before him, eliciting clear and resonant evocations of folk songs, Russian chants and ditties, and bitonal resonances, as from the dueling clarinets in the third tableau, in which a Moor (trumpet) threatens our eponymous hero. This marvelous pastiche of styles embraces a Joseph Lanner waltz that confronts the Moor’s clumsy cadences from trumpet and ever-active snare drum. The fourth tableau, set in the Shrove-tide Fair, like the opening, releases all the orchestral ensemble’s forces, including harp glissandi and cascades from winds and brass. The soaring melody of the last movement lit up the auditorium, and conductor and audience well acknowledged the brilliant contribution from the brass, winds, and battery sections, in the service of a pantomime allegory of love and loss, in which the puppets evince a reality the human figures lack.
The well-wrought Second Piano Concerto (1901) of Serge Rachmaninoff hardly needs its painful etiology recounted yet again. Having suffered a real identity crisis, Rachmaninoff found relief through the ministrations of Dr. Dahl, a psychiatrist who used hypnosis to refresh the composer’s confidence. The resulting Concerto in C Minor endures as a testament to faith and artistic prowess. Nakamatsu intoned its opening Russian bells, and he and the orchestra proceeded to realize a resonant and thoroughly stylistic performance of the one of the great expressions of the Romantic ethos. Whether we awaited the grand return of the big melody in the first movement, Moderato, or the silken quietude of the outer sections of the E Major Adagio sostenuto second movement, Nakamatsu and Shimono fulfilled our expectations, rounding off the compositional vitality with a whiplash Allegro scherzando final movement whose “million-dollar melody” brought the house down and the attendees up on their dancing feet. President Bales had mentioned that Nakamatsu had expressed his surprise that no one, to date, had requested his approach to the Rachmaninov Second Concerto. And so. . .all enjoyed the glorious moment that brought one more colorful reward, the lustrous encore, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor.