Conductor
Acclaim
Conductor Gregory Vajda and soloists excel in Bartók and Brahms at Symphony Silicon Valley

Symphony Silicon Valley's Saturday program (repeating Sunday) at the California Theatre displayed two strong assets that came up aces.

The first was conductor Gregory Vajda, making his sixth appearance with the orchestra that rose from the ashes of the San Jose Symphony in 2002, and is widely regarded as better pound-for-pound than its predecessor. Vajda's Hungarian roots made his interpretation of Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra notable, and it was clear these musicians experience a high comfort level under his leadership.

The second was the orchestra's stellar cast of virtuosos. They took full advantage of the array of solos in the Bartók masterpiece and added memorable touches to Johannes Brahms' amiable Symphony No. 2, ones we might not have noticed in dozens of previous hearings.

The woodwind principals, such as oboist Pamela Hakl, clarinetist James Corner and flutist Maria Tamburrino, were outstanding as usual on Saturday. They have been an all-star team for some time now, and their work keeps getting richer and deeper. Vajda made a point of saluting horn player Meredith Brown, whose second-movement solo in the Brahms imparted maximum sensuality just where it was needed. This orchestra eschews high-priced guest soloists from afar in favor of its in-house stars, and this closing subscription concert of the season showed off their talents to the utmost.

It is difficult to decide which of these masterworks fared better in Vajda's steady hands. Brahms' Second may be the slightest of his four symphonies, but it's still plenty hefty. The conductor is not yet 40, but he showed a mature understanding of this composer and a true affection for his genius.

Ultimately the Bartók, which opened the program at a monumental level, was the pièce de résistance, however, and probably the favorite of more listeners. Vajda made it sound less austere and more warm and accessible than many versions. Setting an easy pace in the multi-themed first movement and even the phantasmagoric second, he left himself room to make the biggest impression with the third and fourth movements of this five-movement work.

The third movement was entrancing, with its ethereal opening followed by audible angst in the strings as an elegy became the central theme. The unison was flawless, the resolution of tension breathtaking. The fourth movement, an "interrupted intermezzo," offers a little moment to listen for when the interruption takes place: a brilliant derisive-sounding tune taken at a fox-trot tempo. There is debate, especially in Hungary, whether that theme is meant to reflect hostility. But Vajda unmistakably treated it as a parody, guiding the tempo to a mincing prance before restoring grandeur in the final movement.

The Concerto for Orchestra is a hard act to follow, but the celebratory nature of this 10th anniversary-season program justified its use as the curtain-raiser. Vajda followed the Brahms with an encore -- Dvorák's Slavonic Dance No. 1 (Opus 46), giving an upbeat ending to a thoroughly upbeat occasion.

Colin Seymour, San Jose Mercury News
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