Attending a concert that Keith Clark conducts can be a little like riding in a car with a driver who is lost. There is a lot of activity, but it doesn't seem to lead anywhere.
Such was the dominant impression when Clark conducted the Santa Ana-based Pacific Symphony Orchestra in a program of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Dvorak on Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
A pity, because Clark, the orchestra's music director, ventured an interesting rarity that showcased the superlative talents of clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. The work was Prokofiev's Sonata, Opus 94, composed in 1943 for flute and piano and adapted a year later by the composer as a sonata for violinist David Oistrakh. The work underwent two more metamorphoses when University of Texas emeritus professor Kent Kennan transcribed it for clarinet and piano in 1984 and later orchestrated the accompaniment. This version was played Wednesday in Segerstrom Hall, and Kennan, who was in the audience, justifiably received warm applause.
The work displays Prokofiev in a sunny, exuberantly creative mood, playfully weaving together with apparent effortlessness a diversity of styles, from bucolic lyricism to languid, Gershwin-esque jazz, from weighty ethnic dance to expansive Handelian nobility.
Stoltzman traced these different moods with imagination, brilliantly varied tone color and also, as appropriate, with eminently hushed, long-breathed lines. Sadly, Clark offered pedestrian accompaniment, and the strain between the approaches was plain. Stoltzman would occasionally shake his head to indicate rhythms and accents that Clark never seemed to get, and the orchestra never matched the soloist's phrasing.
For an encore, Stoltzman played Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye" (as arranged for clarinet and string orchestra) with such forlorn, tender expressivity that there was rapt silence at the end before the audience erupted in applause.
Performances of two works Clark conducted from memory were marred by a dispiriting sense of aimlessness. In the suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird," Clark may have been aiming to demonstrate the connection with French Impressionism, but the results were a lack of character, mystery, tension, anticipation or excitement.
This was less a firebird than a turkey.
Clark began Dvorak's "New World" Symphony with promising attention to dark moods and arrow-launching phrasings. But he settled into hard-driving, seesaw rhythms and long, unshaped lines and soon had everyone playing notes seemingly without sense of purpose or direction.
Also, whatever the quirks of playing in Segerstrom Hall are, Clark and the orchestra had not mastered them Wednesday. The strings sounded uncharacteristically thin and wiry, winds were dry, brass muffled and the tympany wildly explosive.