Instrumentalist - Cello
Cellist Hoffman raises bar for S.J. guest soloists

Symphony Silicon Valley has performed with some outstanding soloists over the past few seasons but, frankly, none holds a candle to cellist Gary Hoffman, whose performance with the orchestra Thursday night at the California Theatre set a new benchmark.

His playing of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 carried the music deep into the composer's shadow world, a place of harrowing but also tender beauty. The whole orchestra seemed elevated -- lit up -- by Hoffman's focus and expressive honesty. So here's my advice: Go see one of his remaining performances at the California, tonight or Sunday afternoon.

There was another key to Thursday's red-hot Shostakovich: young British guest conductor Martin West, whose baton seems to signal and bend with each detail of the score.

With this leader, and with this soloist, the orchestra's journey through the concerto's fitful, shifting landscape was keenly rendered: All those acidic dabs of color, those frantic flares of clarinet, subterranean blasts of contrabassoon and the ghostly call of the horn -- it was all in place. (Big kudos to Meredith Brown, the orchestra's recently hired principal horn.)

Written in 1959, the Concerto was fed by Shostakovich's grim memories of life under Stalin. It is at once tortured and ravishing, sardonic and jocular, obsessive and glowingly spiritual. This is music on the cusp, complicated yet directly communicative.

It opens with a famous four-note motto for the soloist. Hoffman, whose Amati cello was built in 1662, played it with dark tone and a lean, clean, sturdy attack. Immediately after came lots of straining, razor-edged notes, raw, rumbling chords and, toward the end of the first movement, a rhumba-ish refrain.

The orchestra's support through all this was steady enough, but it also felt a little tentative; the partners were still checking one another out.

That changed in the second movement, which begins with strings evoking a night mood. Thursday, there was a whiff of danger about it, of nervous home-alone fear. Then Hoffman entered with the most tender folk melody: quiet, faraway, goose-bump-inducing. As the movement evolved, with soloist and orchestra in a slow, steady dance, the theater became very, very quiet.

The cellist's playing grew quieter still: Now he played the melody with glassy harmonics, fiendishly difficult to execute and perfectly controlled. This is his trick: Impeccable technique isn't a matter of mechanics; its purpose is to open a window so the emotional message hidden inside the notes can flow through.

By the time Hoffman was into the third movement, an extended cadenza (nothing, in other words, but the man and his cello), the California was silent as a monastery. West stood at attention as Hoffman moved through traces of folk song, weird plucked chords, a Bach-like interlude, cantorial singing and more, building toward the knot-in-the-stomach climax of the finale.

That began with hammer strikes from the strings and became a mad Russian dance, the winds sounding like scurrying mice, the timpani like the mice chaser, the throaty doom-ridden cello growing rhapsodic, then manic, and the whole business ending with an abrupt bang. Encore!

Thankfully, there was one: Hoffman came back out to play the Saraband from the first of Bach's Six Suites for Solo Cello. The performance was filled with soul and nobility.

The program had begun with a sweetly atmospheric performance of Faure's ``Pelléas et Mélisande'' Suite. West, who is the new music director of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, brought a lushly detailed, almost visual -- let's call it balletic -- character to this alluring and tuneful music.

There were some great cameos, too, by principal flute Maria Tamburrino, principal harp Dan Levitan and principal clarinet Michael Corner.

After the Shostakovich and an intermission, the program ended with Bizet's Symphony No. 1 in C Major, written by the future composer of ``Carmen'' when he was only 17. It is genial and charming, and the orchestra played it with spirit. Principal oboe Pamela Hakl was a standout.

But coming after the Shostakovich, it wasn't so much a tonic as a letdown, a quick dip in shallow waters after full ocean immersion.

Hoffman's performance with the orchestra was a signal of just how much potential is waiting to be tapped by Symphony Silicon Valley. The old San Jose Symphony for decades hired world-class soloists, from Isaac Stern to jazz great Bill Evans. Maybe Hoffman's appearance -- a clear turn-on for the orchestra -- will mark a return to that level of guest performance.

And another thing: With West regularly conducting just up the road, why not bring him back
Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News
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