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San Diego Non-symphony : A Little Stravinsky In A Very Big Hall

January 25, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Symphony, newly ensconced in its lavishly renovated movie palace, doesn't just serve musical meat and potatoes.

The magnificently kitschy, 2,400-seat Symphony Hall--a.k.a. Fox Theatre--doesn't resound exclusively to the familiar tunes of good old Pete Tchaikovsky and the Three Bs.

That's nice. But lofty experimental intentions alone do not ensure artistic success. Thursday night, some adventurous doings on behalf of Igor Stravinsky proved the frustrating point.

While David Atherton, the resident British music director, was away wafting his baton in London, a British guest-conductor from Pittsburgh named Michael Lankester was imported to man the local podium. As the fates would have it, however, he didn't really conduct the San Diego Symphony.

That, we are assured, he will do next week. This week he waved his arms--efficiently, neatly and con brio --on behalf of 10 players in the skimpy first half of the program, and for seven lonely instrumentalists in the lightweight second half.

The event turned out to be a mildly mixed-media show, a repertory miscalculation that offered Stravinsky's 20-minute Mass as a prelude to a semi-staged performance of his "Soldier's Tale." Both are terrific little pieces. The operative word, unfortunately, is the adjective. Both got hopelessly lost, or hopelessly distorted, in the vast open spaces of San Diego's new musical emporium.

The program magazine correctly described the Mass (a product of the mid-1940s, Stravinsky's early Hollywood period) as "lean, even austere." The annotator pointed out that the work was intended for a choir of boys and men with double wind quintet.

The stage brimmed Thursday with the 135 men and women of the San Diego Master Chorale. They made a big, inappropriately rich and mature sound that turned mushy in the acoustical haze. They articulated Stravinsky's jagged lines accurately, if gingerly. They reduced the contribution of the accompanying oboes, English horn, bassoons, trumpets and trombones to a distant tinkle.

In a small hall or church, with better balanced forces, this strangely neglected Missa Brevis could be emotionally wrenching. Here, it suggested little more than throat clearing.

The tone changed but the problems remained after the seemingly endless intermission.

Jack O'Brien of the Old Globe Theatre concocted a slick dramatic scheme for the 67-year-old "Soldier's Tale" that had the actors moving brashly among and around the musicians. Alan K. Okazaki designed some amusing cartoon props. Patrick Nollet contributed dancerly choreography.

The disparate elements, unfortunately, didn't hold together. The minidrama, ill-focused and badly lit, stumbled off in one direction. The all-too incidental music gurgled in another.

The actors worked hard but found themselves defeated vocally by malfunctioning microphones and disastrous echoes. The wry, bittersweet affect of this quaintly compelling period piece demands a more intimate showplace: a cabaret or an Off-Broadway type hall, or the Old Globe.

Stravinsky's fragile network of tunes and C. F. Ramuz's delicately satirical text (as translated by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black) seemed a chronically trivial pursuit, given the inherent pretensions of symphonic grandeur. Nevertheless, a wisp of wit and a smattering of charm did surface against the odds.

The dauntless cast juggled O'Brien's sometimes realistic, sometimes stylized, faintly Brechtian concepts as if no contradictions or technical glitches were possible. Robert Foxworth served as the worldly Narrator. Sam Woodhouse impersonated a not-so-good Schweikly Soldier. Gary Dontzig, doubled by the balletic Nollet, tended to blunt the Devil's crafty satire. Denise Dabrowski tippy-toed her sweet way through the cliches of the inevitable ingenue--up to and including a prim if unprincessly striptease.

A good time was had by some.

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