Symphony Silicon Valley's strengths made an indelible impression during Saturday's season opener at the California Theatre. The orchestra and its popular conductor, Paul Polivnik -- apparently quite popular with the administration, to judge from his frequent guest appearances -- showed their abilities to full advantage in a Rossini opera overture and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The orchestra gave spirited and confident interpretations to both, thanks in no small measure to Polivnick, a charismatic conductor who communicates as much clarity of purpose to an audience as to his musicians. Hearing his results is as pleasurable as watching him at work.

The overture Rossini appended to his opera "Torvaldo e Dorliska," which premiered in 1815 in Rome, broods dramatically at the start but soon gives way to a familiar melody introduced on the clarinet. The composer reworked that bit to greater effect in the better-known overture to his "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella") two years later. In the work at hand, the orchestra sparkled with vivid dynamics, projecting the images in 3-D clarity, a Polivnik strong suit that is sadly overlooked by too many conductors.

Two other works made up the program's first half, the Love Scene from Berlioz's programmatic symphony "Romeo and Juliet," and the instantly forgettable "Carnival of Pest" by Liszt. The thinly but effectively orchestrated Berlioz scene puts the burden on the strings, its long-limbed melodies aching with tender but passionate love. Disappointingly, and despite Polivnik's urging, the strings were unable to achieve the required intensity implicit in the Shakespeare tragedy -- and so familiar in much of Berlioz's music.

Any lover of Liszt will admit that the composer's vast output contains as many losers as winners. This is one of the losers. Yet, its piano original, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat, affords any keyboard virtuoso a great opportunity to "orchestrate" a highly personal take on its gypsy conceits. It is this complete focus on the individual performer that redeems the piece in all its strutting fire. Alas, no conductor of the orchestral arrangement (by Liszt and his pupil Franz Doppler) would ever get enough rehearsal time to come even close to what a show-off pianist can deliver. With so much great orchestral material available, including Liszt's own, it's hard to figure out why this orchestra wouldn't choose to aim higher, and equally puzzling is why Polivnik wouldn't prefer pieces that challenge him artistically, instead of just technically. Nevertheless, kudos to the orchestra for a spectacular spin of cotton candy and to concertmaster Christina Mok for her generously deported cameo solo.

In the late 1990s, the music house of Bärenreiter published a new critical edition of the Beethoven symphonies edited by Jonathan Del Mar, now being used by many major orchestras (and recorded by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman). If Polivnik didn't use the Del Mar edition, he certainly caught the dash and spirit heard in Zinman's startling recording. What sets Del Mar's edition apart is its attention to details of dynamics and articulation, and some of the technical practices at play in Beethoven's day. Polivnik is always freshly attentive to dynamics and articulation, and in San Jose he elicits an excellent response from the orchestra. He returned the favor with the complete freedom he gave oboist Pamela Hakl in her big, first-movement solo.

The orchestra delivered a spirited reading of the great work, vivid with contrasts and, as Polivnik had envisioned, a fresh look at Beethoven's familiar surprises.

Contact Scott MacClelland at features@mercurynews.com.