B. has been on a spirituality retreat for a few days, and besides taking care of the cats I've been spending much of my time at the Silicon Valley Music Festival, which is conveniently five miles down the road.
I first came across this annual event three years ago on assignment from SFCV. It was hiding out in a small church in Alum Rock, and has since moved around to a variety of ad hoc venues. This year it's fetched up in a side gallery of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, acoustically live but small and dry enough (seating about 80) to avoid the overly wet sonics of some of their previous sites.
But though SVMF is scrappy in its locales, its performances are mostly quite unlike that, but glossy and smooth-toned. Flutist Ray Furuta, the artistic director, has a lot of musical friends, and he often gets them to come back. Many of the instrumentalists are skilled and experienced orchestral performers, so they're used to a big, solid sound.
This year I had no assignment to review them, so I was free to attend as many concerts as I could get to for an independent review of my own (which this is). I got to three of the four on successive nights, missing the first one, an American song recital with the stunning soprano Malinda Haslett, but getting a full dose of instrumental chamber music, including some surprising arrangements.
One of the performers whose work I knew was Gwendolyn Mok, who runs San Jose State's piano programs. She and the festival's other hard-working pianist, Katherine Dowling, played a four-hand arrangement of Gershwin's An American in Paris. I'm used to hearing Rhapsody in Blue this way, as it's a piano concerto anyway, but American in Paris isn't, and it sounded totally different this way: less gawky and actually more modernist.
A number of other pieces on the program were also arrangements. One of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin for wind quintet copied a lot from Ravel's own full orchestration emphasizes the winds in the same way. This performance gave much blending of the disparate instruments, and some amazing individual clarity in the fast choppy final "Rigaudon." A large mixed chamber ensemble version of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun also had some deeply impressive wind mixes. Largest of all was an 11-player version of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. I don't know who wrote the arrangement, but it was tangy, with a few odd harmonies in the accompaniment. The effect, quite unlike anything else on the program, was as if the symphony were being played by the rustic village band from its own scherzo movement.
At the other end of high elegance came such works as Misericordia, a suite for flute (played by Furuta) and string quartet by the contemporary, and intensely Japanese, composer Yuko Uebayashi, whose work I was introduced to at an earlier SVMF concert. Her style runs from impressionistic shimmering and staccato to a finale in the form of a hoe-down.
Another piece of sublimity came in Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, featuring an irrepressible clarinetist who's played here before, Ayako Oshima. In this work of pure beauty, Oshima put her power to work on restraint and clarity. Three of her accompanying strings were SJSU students or recent graduates signed up for the festival's ongoing young artist roster. The quintet was paired with Mozart's K. 376 violin sonata (Emily Daggett Smith with a firm light tone, with Mok at piano) and a few selections from early post-romantic works by a later Viennese prodigy, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Two other big pieces came on the program with the Pastoral Symphony. A mixed septet (Op. 74) by J.M. Hummel should be enough to prove his genius, and it was followed by an epic rendition of Brahms' Op. 87 Piano Trio that emitted as much power with three players as the Hummel had with seven: they were Mok, violinist Emma Votapek, and stalwart cellist (he was in most of the pieces) Daniel Lelchuk.
Something new this year was pre-concert talks by Kai Christensen, a musicologist known to those of us who arrive early for Kohl Mansion concerts. He is not only both knowledgeable and articulate, but he has the vocal power to be heard in the terrible Triton lobby acoustics.
This is the first time I've gotten to as many as three concerts of this festival. The quality of the performers is always high. This is a hidden gem: I'll be back.