SAN DIEGO — Among the sure signs of summer's end are Labor Day picnics and the symphony's all-Tchaikovsky finale. Under the baton of resident conductor Matthew Garbutt, Wednesday night's Tchaikovsky binge at Hospitality Point opened the final week of the Summer Pops' hastily assembled nine-week season.
Despite a year of tribulation and the defection of some key players, the orchestra played well. The concert started off inauspiciously with a brassy reading of "Marche Slave" and a heavy-footed "Waltz and Polonaise" from the opera "Eugen Onegin." But when Garbutt lightened his approach in the "Romeo and Juliet" Overture, the orchestral timbre warmed appreciably.
The suite from "Swan Lake" showed off some of the orchestra's better soloists, including acting concertmaster Karen Dirks in an elegant solo with harp accompaniment. A cleaner ensemble and more fluid sense of melodic line demonstrated that the orchestra was not on automatic pilot. Garbutt shaped their performance of the closing "1812 Overture" with cohesion and discipline, eschewing the bombast that is an ever-present temptation when a piece is used merely as an excuse for fireworks.
An enthusiastic audience of 2,923 added to the musicians' morale and sense of accomplishment. Pops general manager Lee Ellen Hveem predicted a sell-out for Saturday's grand finale; about 3,200 of the 3500 seats had been sold by Thursday morning.
Some players had doubted that the Summer Pops would survive to play the Tchaikovsky finale, however. When the San Diego Symphony Assn. declined to present the orchestra's annual summer season, even though the labor dispute was settled in May with a contract to begin this fall, the musicians hired Hveem and took on the task themselves.
"I had my doubts that first week when the attendance was below what we projected," violist Rebekah Campbell said. Campbell is also a board member of the San Diego Philharmonic, the ad hoc management that had been assembled earlier this year to sponsor the orchestra when they had no contract with the symphony association. For presenting Summer Pops, Garbutt saluted the philharmonic board from the podium.
French horn player John Lorge was the most doubtful when the musicians had to take a pay cut several weeks into the season. "We had agreed from the start that we would go on playing," Lorge said, "but I was pretty disgruntled at that point."
Finishing the season with a modest surplus that may find its way back to the players is just one of the reasons that the musicians' morale is high. "I think we pulled it off in classy style," trumpeter Mark Bedell said.
Like many of the other musicians, principal bassoonist Dennis Michel would have preferred a summer season with more substantial programming.
"Given the circumstances of the last year, we had no room to gamble. We reviewed the past pops programs that drew the best box office and opted for financial expedience rather than artistic merit," Michel said. "Being able to finish the Summer Pops has made us optimistic for the fall season."