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Music Review : Compromise Fails As Art For S.d. Symphony

February 22, 1986|KENNETH HERMAN

SAN DIEGO — In diplomacy, compromise is both a virtue and a high art. In music, however, compromise is more frequently a trap for the well-intentioned. Luciano Berio's set of 11 folk songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (1975) is a textbook example of the pitfalls of such musical compromise.

In his songs, the usually innovative Italian composer combined tonal, melodious, American and European folk songs with sophisticated, contemporary-sounding orchestral counterpoint. What might have been a conductor's dream--a contemporary work with something to please everyone--proved to be little more than a sleek coffee-table volume.

David Atherton and the San Diego Symphony brought this unusual bauble to San Diego Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, assisted by mezzo Shirley Close. If sheer force of conviction could have made a case for this work, Close and Atherton indeed would have come close to the mark. Although her voice does not have a great deal of power, especially in the mid-range, Close projected each song with verve and stylish articulation.

She exhibited more control of this hybrid idiom than she did of Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ" in her 1984 appearance with the orchestra. On the podium, Atherton matched her intensity phrase for phrase and elicited from the orchestra precise intonation and clearly delineated lines. But it merely sounded pretty, not profound; it paled before the inevitable comparison to Mahler's emotionally probing orchestral song cycles.

The evening opened with a larger-than-life reading of Rossini's Overture to "William Tell," one that unleashed the full orchestra's mighty horsepower on a modest, albeit familiar, curtain raiser. While Atherton's heroic, Straussian approach threatened to overwhelm it, the overture did show off two of the symphony's finer soloists, principal cellist Catherine Lehr and English horn player Sidney Green. Lehr's opening cantabile solo was a model of tonal purity and melodic grace.

For the second half of the concert, Atherton indulged in a healthy dose of nationalistic pictorialism. He followed Nordic melancholy, in the guise of Grieg's Two Elegiac Melodies, with American cornfed primitivism--Copland's Four Dance Episodes from "Rodeo." If the orchestra bristled with rhythmic energy and panache in the Copland, it surely lacked the inner urgency and glowing conviction with which it played Beethoven's Fourth Symphony last week under Atherton.

If there was a fault with Thursday's programming, it was a certain lack of intellectual challenge, which is necessary for the orchestra to rise to its full musical stature. Perhaps maestro Atherton was merely saving energy and brain cells for next week's pair of Haydn and Brahms symphonies.

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