SJ Mercury News: Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel shines in premiere by Elena Ruehr at San Jose Chamber Orchestra

San Jose Mercury News
January 10, 2012
By Richard Scheinin

Sunday night's concert by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra ended with three composers taking bows on stage before a cheering audience at Le Petit Trianon. It was a love fest for living music, and the composers -- Elena Ruehr, Michael Touchi and Anica Galindo -- looked delighted, and possibly shocked.

The world of classical music can be like a mausoleum, with its veneration of past masters. But Barbara Day Turner, the orchestra's music director and conductor, is into something more pan-historical, mixing old and new, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Heading toward her 22nd season -- highlights for 2012-13 are below -- she also wraps her programs in big themes, like Sunday's celebration of the cello, featuring a terrific soloist, Jennifer Kloetzel.

A member of the Cypress String Quartet, which was in residence 2003-09 at San Jose State University, Kloetzel opened the program alone, with Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. At first, she pressed tempos uncomfortably; NASCAR Bach. But in the final movements, she settled into the suite's spacious spirit, her playing robust and earthy, the Sarabande opening into rich sluicing chords.

Kloetzel took a break offstage, while the string orchestra played "A Wintry Vale" by Galindo, who lives in San Mateo and composes as if she's planning a move to Hollywood. This programmatic work, first performed by San Jose Chamber Orchestra in 2007, charts the descent of a snowflake from cloud to earth. It's well-crafted, serene, a little cloying; it would be just right for a sentimental film with a Gaelic bent.

The program's centerpiece (and the first of its two world premieres) followed: "Cloud Atlas," a cello concerto by Ruehr, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and composed this ambitious work especially for Kloetzel.

Two years ago, the Cypress Quartet premiered Ruehr's "Bel Canto," which draws inspiration from Ann Patchett's best-selling novel of the same name, as well as from Puccini, Barber, Schubert and other sources. With "Cloud Atlas," Ruehr does something similar, patterning the concerto on David Mitchell's futuristic novel of the same title -- and with soloist Kloetzel representing one of the characters, a goddess known as Somni-451. Just as Mitchell moves from "flowery 19th century prose to futuristic minimalism" in his prose, Ruehr says in the program notes, she aims for a musical language that weaves through eras, from the lively Baroque dance that appears several times to grieving post-Romantic melody. From a single musical kernel -- a pair of perfect fifths, a half-step apart -- the various styles and episodes are generated.

Sunday, Kloetzel carried the day, sky-gliding over the bustling orchestral backdrop, which at times pulsed like a Steve Reich composition or tolled and chimed in the manner of an Indonesian gamelan. The cellist went sliding through wide, weeping intervals; strummed like a guitarist; and played a sort of ghost duet with Dan Levitan, the excellent harpist, who was practically a second soloist through much of this dramatic musical journey and showpiece.

After intermission, the concert stumbled; apparently, there wasn't enough rehearsal time to carry off this overstuffed program. An arrangement for four cellos of Bach's Sarabande and Bourrée (BWV 1002), from the solo violin partitas, was plagued by pitch problems. Tempos flew apart during Villa-Lobos' "Bachiana Brasileira No. 5," scored for eight cellos and soprano -- here, the opulent-voiced Ronit Widmann-Levy was having one of those nights and strained after high notes.

Finally, there was the world premiere of Michael Touchi's "Tiento" for eight cellos and additional strings -- another raggedy performance. Yet Pleasanton-based Touchi's music is so strongly conceived that "Tiento" was a joy, anyway. Big lyric themes rose above roiling cello riffs -- bluesy riffs, Balkan-ish riffs, Cuban-esque riffs, with cool little modulations and the momentum steadily building. Themes emerged from themes, textures from textures; it was like watching Russian nesting dolls opening up, with secret musical battalions emerging, racing toward the finish.