Instrumentalist - Cello
Conductor Gregory Vajda and cellist Gary Hoffman make Tchaikovski sound brand-new at Symphony Silicon Valley
Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme and the composer's Suite for Orchestra, No. 3, are so frequently performed that one could scarcely refer to them as cutting-edge. But on the Symphony Silicon Valley program Thursday evening at the California Theatre, these well-traveled Romantic works sounded remarkably fresh and innovative.

Credit the orchestra's guest conductor, Gregory Vajda, with making them sound new again. The young Budapest-born maestro apparently believes that Tchaikovsky's music is still ripe for exploration, and the orchestra followed his lead as avid participants in the adventure.

The program, which repeats Saturday and Sunday as the final one in the orchestra's eighth season, also included performances of two lesser-known 19th-century works, Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei" and Felix Mendelssohn's Overture to "The Fair Melusine."

The Orchestral Suite, presented after intermission, yielded the evening's most impressive performance. Vajda, the resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and the recently appointed music director of California's Music in the Mountains festival, lavished considerable care on the four-movement suite; this is one conductor who seems less preoccupied with his own podium style than with matters of orchestral color, texture, balance and nuance.

His thoughtful, unmannered approach illuminated the dark-hued "Elegie" movement, as he seemed to apply sound from each section like paint to a canvas: lush harmonies from the violins, muscular statements by the low strings, crisp playing from the woodwinds and incisive parts from the brass. A couple of intrusions of raw string tone aside, the haunting "Valse Melancolique" registered with its intended grandeur. The Scherzo, with its vibrant call-and-response between sections, was uncommonly well-balanced; Vajda encouraged the horns to assert themselves without becoming overbearing. The finale's theme and variations dazzled in their myriad charms. The entire orchestra played handsomely, but solos from guest concertmaster Byung-Woo Kim and English hornist Patricia Emerson Mitchell were especially fine.

With Gary Hoffman as cello soloist, the first half's performance of the Rococo variations was also a success. Vajda shaped the beloved score with assurance, and the cellist's impeccable technique and burnished Old World tone suggested the essence of Romanticism.

Tchaikovsky's virtuosic score - essentially a cello concerto cast in the form of a main theme and seven variations, with two solo cadenzas - affords the soloist multiple opportunities for heightened expression. Hoffman's dynamic performance delved deeply into each section while maintaining the elegant musical thread that connects them all. There were moments of genuine brilliance in his playing: In the Third Variation, the cellist evoked a profoundly meditative sense; he seemed most relaxed in the difficult passagework of the second cadenza, which seemed to hang in the air for a small eternity, and he blazed through the finale's impossible runs. Mimi Carlson, playing the solo flute parts with precision, was an outstanding partner.

Hoffman was also the soloist for "Kol Nidrei." Inspired by Hebrew melodies, Bruch's 1881 score opens with a breathtaking stretch of writing; as the orchestra establishes a quietly pensive backdrop, the cello enters, giving voice to an anguished melody. Vajda balanced his forces with admirable restraint, and Hoffman employed gorgeous, singing tone. The woodwinds, producing silvery streams of sound, were especially potent here, and principal harpist Dan Levitan made luxuriant contributions.

The program opened with the "Melusine" Overture. Today, the title character - a two-tailed mermaid born in the lost kingdom of Avalon - is perhaps best-known for her appearance on the Starbucks logo. In the 19th century, though, her legend inspired numerous stage works. Mendelssohn's music, composed for a play based on Goethe's version, yielded this alternately bright and turbulent curtain-raiser; Vajda used it effectively to warm up the orchestra and pave the way for Tchaikovsky.

Georgia Rowe, San Jose Mercury News
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