Philharmonic presents pleasing performance

Eric Kujawsky

Fans of the Redwood Symphony should consider attending the Palo Alto Philharmonic as well. Last Saturday’s Philharmonic concert at Cubberley Theatre was especially appropriate for a tryout, as Redwood’s music director, Eric Kujawsky, was guest conductor.

The Philharmonic does well enough on its own, under its regular director Thomas Shoebotham, but Kujawsky brought his own brand of verve, and his distinctive skill at conducting non-professional orchestras, to a program of energetic and mostly cheerful music.

The program was framed with two densely-packed powerhouse works, Emmanuel Chabrier’s tone poem “España” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Chabrier, one of many French composers inspired by the music found south of his country’s border, captured the rhythm and flair of Spanish folk dances. Beethoven’s Eighth is the briefest of his mature symphonies and the most compressed, a fierce little monster full of jokes and rude surprises.

They’re both very loud. In the Cubberley Theatre that attracts more attention than it would elsewhere. This auditorium has a large stage but an unusually small audience seating area. There’s room enough for a full orchestra but nowhere for the sound to go except bounce around the audience, flooding ears with its immensity.

Such overwhelming music needs good performances, and mostly it had that. Intonation was largely close to the target, and ensemble often very good. Some of the more complex sections could become rhythmically sluggish but, in the fast straightaways, the rhythmic pulse always had the indefinable bounce that kept the music humming with energy. The orchestra was impressively responsive to Kujawsky’s tempo changes in the Chabrier. Tempos in the Beethoven were fast but not breakneck. Only in the finale did the orchestra have difficulty by trying to play faster than they could keep up.

Both these were fun to hear. The real star of the program, though, was Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This immensely attractive work, often Romantic in character, is less often heard than the spikier, more jazzy No. 1. Audiences may, however, be familiar with the first movement, which appears verbatim as the music for the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” sequence of the Disney movie “Fantasia 2000.”

Louise Costigan-Kerns was the soloist. She played the busy figurations calmly and evenly, with a distinctly soft tone, even in the most emphatic passages. In the outer movements, this contrasted startlingly with the wind choir, which was crisp and percussive. These players brought out the jaunty military quality which had led Disney to select this music as appropriate for a soldier’s story.

The combination of piano and orchestra worked best in the Andante, which is accompanied by strings only. The style here, often compared to Rachmaninoff but softer and gentler than his work, fit Costigan-Kerns’ pianism and brought out the best playing from the strings, particularly the violins. Timing coordination between piano and orchestra was also at its best here.

The program’s remaining work was by Alfred Schnittke, an eccentric 20th-century Russian of German ancestry. His piece’s title, “(K)ein Sommernachtstraum,” might render in English as “(Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Having nothing to do with Shakespeare, this music begins as an elegant 18th-century pastiche that then goes bananas. This leaves the listener to a non-professional performance in doubt as to whether the orchestra is playing badly or the music is supposed to sound that way. Judging by the rest of the concert, I suspect mostly the latter.

In the Philharmonic’s next program, on Feb. 18, music director Thomas Shoebotham will not only conduct, he will play the solo part in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1. The previous week, on Feb. 11, turnabout will be fair play as Shoebotham conducts Kujawsky’s orchestra, the Redwood Symphony, in Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.

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