From the San Jose Mercury News Copyright 2009

Pianist Nakamatsu and Symphony Silicon Valley debut spellbinding Amram concerto

By Richard Scheinin

Mercury News

So here we are plunging into the worst economic times in 80 years. Banks are tumbling, arts groups are folding -- and Symphony Silicon Valley is forging ahead with the most ambitious project in its seven-season history.

Thursday night at the California Theatre, the orchestra gave the world premiere of David Amram's "Three Songs: A Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" with soloist Jon Nakamatsu. It's very American music, breathing Amram's love of Gershwin, jazz, black spirituals and Copland's hymn-lined melancholia. You owe it to yourself to see one of this weekend's two remaining performances.

Commissioned by Marie and William Bianco, patrons of the old San Jose Symphony as well as this newer orchestra, the 30-minute concerto — skillfully conducted by Paul Polivnick -- wears its influences close to the surface. But innovation isn't everything in music; Amram's concerto casts spells. Portions of the score are marked "dolce e religioso," and indeed, the work is dosed with beguiling sweetness and slow-burning, sacred power.

It is the first concerto ever written for San Jose-based Nakamatsu, who performed Thursday with typical excellence: beautiful touch, never overstated, always feeling the music. A local hero with an international career, this wonderful player deserves the honor of having his own concerto.

According to Andrew Bales, the symphony's president, Nakamatsu asked to be taken in new musical directions by the piece.

Two years ago, he made a terrific Gershwin recording with the Rochester Philharmonic; Amram, 78, has built from this base, while turning the music into a reflection of his own, long musical career.

A jazz player, student of world music and composer of 100-plus orchestral and chamber works, Amram has collaborated with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Leonard Bernstein, who appointed him the New York Philharmonic's first composer-in-residence in 1966. The new concerto emphasizes "the lyric nature of the piano," he has written. Each of its three movements "explores a different way for the pianist to sing through his instrument."

In the first movement, "Nigun (Song Without Words)," the pianist must come to terms with Amram's wide jazz chords and nonstop chordal motion, which lies somewhere between Chopin and Tatum — or maybe closer to a jazz pianist like Ray Bryant, master of easy flow and bluesy snap-offs.

Nakamatsu, reading the new piece from sheet music, eased into this vocabulary, which pours through the etched and tender lines of the cadenza. Around him, Polivnick drew the orchestra through Amram's weave of materials: a melancholy motif out of a spiritual, a Copland fanfare, a soft pizzicato pop to conclude the movement.

"Ballade," the second movement, begins with a lengthy piano rumination, leading to quiet conversation with English horn, flute, a soulful violin. The late-night mood is bewitching and would be even more so if Amram were to clip a few minutes from his lovely but long ballad.

The third movement, "Jhaptal," rides on tricky rhythms picked up by Amram while traveling through India and Pakistan and introduces new dashing themes. There's also some thick writing for the orchestra, which blotted out Nakamatsu's final flourishes; Polivnick should tone it down. Still, the music was exhilarating and will only get better with more performances.

Will Nakamatsu take his new piece on the road? Hats off to everyone involved; how many orchestras are expanding repertory in these scary economic times? And how many are taking the time to build relationships with living composers? This is the third major piece by Amram that Symphony Silicon Valley has performed.

The program also included Haydn's Symphony No. 95 in C minor, which had some very fine ensemble playing by the orchestra, along with a few rough patches.

The night ended with Respighi's fabulously audacious "Feste Romane (Roman Festivals)," music of cumulative craziness, cinematic and in your face. You could practically see the circuses, the wild beasts, the street bands. Polivnick and his players, all 90 of them, ate it up.

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