Orchestra of a Hundred Premieres — And Now, Two More

Source:, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
January 10-17, 2012
By Paul Hertelendy

SAN JOSE---The San José Chamber Orchestra, which recently completed its 20th year, brings forth the sounds of today in abundance. With its mostly-female string ensemble under Barbara Day Turner, it is the closest thing we have to the tradition of the (defunct) Women’s Philharmonic. The group is altogether unique: With 100 first-performances to its credit already, the SJCO presented two more world premieres Jan. 8, with cellos at the forefront.

It has also found its audience, with a near-capacity crowd at the Petit Trianon concert hall enthusiastically participating---this, in a community where contemporary music is shunned by most of the major performing groups.

Elena Ruehr’s new 16-minute “Cloud Atlas” is inspired by the quasi-historical book of that title by David Mitchell. Cello soloist Jennifer Kloetzel introduces the main theme and adds glissandi and harmonics, moving on to dance rhythms from tango and syncopation. Ruehr moves on to slippery meters, as if sliding on ice, while the orchestra alternates between high divisi sections and dramatic clashes of strings. Another recurrent four-note theme containing three leaps leads toward the conclusion, with the cello lyrically conveying veiled messages.

The other premiere was Michael Touchi’s 12-minute “Tiento” (Fantasy), with the orchestra “upside down,” dominated by eight celli. It was inspired by Rossini’s aria “La calunnia” (Slander), fast-paced enough to suggest the speed at which slander propagates. There are superficial similarities in rhythms (and metric shifts) of Ruehr and Touchi, but the sound textures are totally different. The contrabass has a rare moment in the spotlight via Touchi’s cadenza, nicely rendered by Richard Worn. Turner had no problem leading the orchestra and conveying the score; far more chancey was trying to fit some 24 musicians onto the compact stage space, where the idle piano nearly had to be shoved off the edge. The performance was smart and animated.

Certain musical works, like the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings or the Villa-Lobos Bachiana Brasileira No. 5 (1939, 1945) calling for unusual combinations are not readily paired in concert with other pieces. But Touchi’s opus linked up neatly here with the Villa-Lobos “Brazilian Perspectives of Bach,” which uses just the eight cellos, plus a lyric soprano. The cellos (led by Kloetzel) were supple and seductive in this beloved opus, the best-known classical work ever to emanate from Brazil, brought to life by the wordless vocalize of the soprano. Less effective was the poetic text rendered unintelligibly by soprano Ronit Widmann-Levy, who appeared to be battling the ultra-bright hall acoustics all the way.

Also inspired by poetry was local composer Anica Galindo’s intermezzo “A Wintry Vale,” a reflective piece with mellow string writing, offering an alluring lyrical theme spun out in an ardent romantic way. It’s a traditional composition, with the strings divided for added richness.

Brimming with confidence, Kloetzel led off the evening all alone with the Bach G Major Suite---clean, workmanlike, on the brisk side.

San José Chamber Orchestra season under Barbara Day Turner at Le Petit Trianon, San Jose. For info: (408) 295-4416, or go online.