LA JOLLA — Few indeed are the months without the seemingly obligatory local performance by pianist Gustavo Romero. The 22-year-old virtuoso at New York City's Juilliard School has probably logged at least a semester's worth of flight time jetting to San Diego to satisfy the relentless demands of his hometown fans.
He returned to La Jolla's Sherwood Auditorium on Monday evening to play Chopin's Second Piano Concerto with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. With fresh recollections of his performance last month at Symphony Hall with the touring Liege Philharmonic, it was hard to avoid unflattering comparisons.
Though his account of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with Liege was less than note-perfect, it glowed with conviction, power and technical brilliance. Pitted against the might of that finely tuned orchestra, Romero generated an unquestionably high-voltage performance.
Monday night's Chopin concerto was low-keyed to a fault. Romero had all the notes firmly under his fingers, and he brought his usual aristocratic composure and technical clarity to the work. Though he dispensed the opening movement's florid ornamentation with limpid elegance and infused the finale's mazurka with balletic grace, the work never caught fire.
Part of the problem was playing with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra under maestro Donald Barra. The prosaic conductor kept his musicians out of Romero's way, but there was little exchange of energy between these two forces. Barra failed to shape the concerto's musical ideas, and his tempos were blandly metronomic. Unable to find a subtle piano dynamic level, Barra fluctuated between a flaccid mezzo forte and a blaring forte in which the winds overpowered the strings.
On film, Fred Astaire may have been gifted enough to dance with a broom for a partner, but Romero--given this stick of an orchestra--was hard-pressed to work such magic. He favored the audience with three encores, a Chopin nocturne and etude and a Scarlatti sonata.
Barra opened the concert with a reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London"). Though the orchestra's ensemble was tighter and its intonation surer than previously evidenced under Barra's direction, those who were looking for refined, thoughtful Haydn were in the wrong auditorium.
Barber's "Adagio for Strings" proved stolid rather than elegiac. The transparent shimmer and subtle phrasing that Los Angeles conductor Heiichiro Ohyama elicited from this same string ensemble during August's SummerFest was sadly absent.