More than most regional orchestras, Symphony Silicon Valley has a way of stepping outside the box. Once or twice a season, it dispenses with Brahms, Dvorak and the like, inviting its audience to take a less familiar ride. Saturday's excursion was potent, pairing Shostakovich's monumental Symphony No. 10 and William Kraft's exotic Timpani Concerto No. 2, subtitled "The Grand Encounter."
Let's begin with Shostakovich's work, composed in 1953, shortly after the death of Josef Stalin. Saturday's performance at the California Theatre -- the first of two, conducted by Paul Polivnick -- was evocative of the era's tension and terror, extending and extending, like sadness or a shadow. For 50 minutes, Polivnick pressed the composer's narrative, a controlled advance through the many slow and slow-ish tempi, with thick thrumming buildups of dread. It brooded even as it glowed.
This powerful performance peaked in the middle movements. The Allegro, often described as a portrait of Stalin, was delivered with savage thrusts -- this time at a racing tempo, with whirling winds in the lead. Here and throughout the performance, the winds, especially the section's principal players, were superb: clarinetist Michael Corner, bassoonist Deborah Kramer.
This is a very personal piece: Shostakovich spells his name through much of it in musical code, as if thumbing his nose at the Soviet regime. And it received a very personal interpretation here: The Allegretto was enriched by the expressiveness of flutist Maria Tamburrino, English hornist Patricia Emerson Mitchell and hornist Meredith Brown. Gradually, Polivnick advanced the tempi; the low strings buzzed through what felt like a Shostakovich death dance.
Symphony No. 10 has been described as an optimistic tragedy, with its sneakily jovial finale that gets compared to Haydn. I'm not sure there was enough mirth mixed with the misery in Saturday's conclusion, but this still was effective Shostakovich.
Kraft's timpani concerto, which opened the program, was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, which premiered it in 2005 at Davies Symphony Hall with soloist David Herbert. A brilliant player, he recently left his position as lead timpanist in San Francisco to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as its principal timpanist.
Saturday, Herbert was again the soloist for Kraft's opus. He stood inside a "cockpit" of 15 gleaming kettledrums, encircling him in double-deckered rows. Herbert helped design the setup: Six large drums, deep-toned, in the bottom row; nine smaller, custom-built "tenor" timpanis in the upper row, extending not only range but possibilities for color and melody.
For many years the principal timpanist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- he also spent time there as composer-in-residence and assistant conductor -- Kraft has considerably reworked his concerto. In 2005, it unfolded in two movements; now it has three, plus an Epilogue. Its very temperament has changed; this listener recalls moments in San Francisco when Herbert went powering across his mega-drum kit like a classical version of jazz-fusion drummer Billy Cobham.
This newer version of "The Grand Encounter" seemed more pared back and refined, perhaps too refined, its timbres and moods less varied, Herbert's role less thunderous and more ruminative.
Kraft (who just turned 90 and was in the audience) has created a series of ominous weather systems: string sonorities that continually deflate and swell, like sonic equivalents of Salvador Dali paintings. Set against these scrim-like effects, Herbert rumbles and rolls and occasionally hammers, always with precision. He often revolves 360 degrees to complete phrases around his kit, striking the drumheads with the back-ends of drumsticks and then with mallets or "bundle-sticks," continually altering touch, tone and color.
"The Grand Encounter" -- recorded at Sunday's performance and soon to be available on iTunes -- is impeccably crafted, like the workings of a clock. Here, Herbert's lines are a counterbalance to the orchestra; there, they mimic blasts of brass or the splashed chords of the piano, or the shimmery melody of a vibraphone. It's fascinating stuff, but it wouldn't hurt if this "Grand Encounter" were to break out of its skin and deliver a bit more thunder.