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Music Review : Conductor Could Use Some Seasoning

January 11, 1986|KENNETH HERMAN

SAN DIEGO — In a youth-obsessed culture, it is salutary to be reminded from time to time that the young do not possess every virtue. Christopher Keene conducted the San Diego Symphony Thursday evening with an unrelenting, impetuous drive that begged for a healthy dose of well-seasoned aplomb.

The sort of conductor who takes a running leap onto the podium and directs in nothing less than upper-case letters, the youthful Keene pushed the orchestra at full throttle most of the evening. While this produced some exciting moments, especially in Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony, it was also a bit enervating.

Music director of the New York City Opera, Keene is just the sort of conductor one prays for in a revival of some four-hour bel canto warhorse. In a work as infrequently played as the Tchaikovsky Third, however, it would not have been at all untoward to savor some of its finer moments, notably the elegiac middle movement.

Not only were Keene's tempos consistently rushed, his dynamics ran the gamut from loud to louder. Symphony Hall lends a warm patina to hushed orchestral timbres, but Keene explored no such avenues. He may have been standing front and center Thursday night, but his conducting revealed that his musical judgment was buried in some orchestral pit far below the opera proscenium.

Principal bassoon Dennis Michel was featured in Carl Maria von Weber's F Major Bassoon Concerto. As he has demonstrated in previous solo functions, Michel emits no phrase that is less than polished and gracefully arched. The clarity of his tone production in the instrument's lowest range--a sonic region that usually calls to mind a car starting up in cold weather--is phenomenal. Just to watch him coax such judicious sounds out of such a preposterous-looking machine is always worth the price of admission.

Of course, the Von Weber piece is one that is more to be admired for its suitability to the solo instrument than for its innate musical statement. Keene gave Michel center stage in the concerto performance, but his direction of the accompaniment was little more than dutiful.

Most biographers champion Henry Cowell as one of the sainted avant garde American composers of the early 20th Century. While his experimental piano works may have earned him such a niche, some of his orchestral works are blandly conventional. Keene opened his concert with one such example, Cowell's Symphony No. 4. This neo-classical exercise enhanced with pious touches of Americana makes one wish for even a mediocre rendition of Delius. The orchestra made the most of the work's only virtue, colorful and sometimes clever orchestration.

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