Twenty-four hours after Armin Jordan and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande turned Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa into the world-class facility its managers insist it is, we were back to the sandlot league with Keith Clark and the Pacific Symphony in a program Thursday that relied heavily upon soloists.
Violinist Robert Chen, who was heard with Clark and the Santa Ana-based orchestra in the Sibelius Concerto in 1985, appeared this time in Mendelssohn's Concerto in E minor. And four principals from the orchestra were put forward in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn.
At this stage of his career, the 18-year-old Chen inclined more toward a lyric, refined approach than toward an expressive interpretation of the Mendelssohn work. He produced warm, small, sweet tones with a silken touch, with no sense of forcing or pressure. But he also seemed remote, and played without depth of character.
Indeed, Chen's preoccupation with wistful, gentle dynamic levels became almost manneristic, because there was no corresponding inwardness. Even in the sweeping arpeggios of the first movement cadenza or in the double-stopping of the andante, he stayed within a limited dynamic and expressive range that could be described as salon-size elegance undisturbed by passion.
Clark and company accompanied stodgily, at times crudely out of sync with Chen's phrasings. Nonetheless, the audience applauded Chen and orchestra wildly.
The four soloists in the coolish interpretation of the Mozart work were Barbara Northcutt, James Kanter, David Riddles and James Thatcher. They played seated among their colleagues, in concerto grosso-like fashion, and to the right of the conductor. The orchestra was reduced to a stylish force of about 27 players.
Orchestra members, of course, have to learn to subdue their individuality in the service of the group, and these principals did indeed fail to show much individual profile. But it was a bit surprising to hear how little they responded to one other. Phrases that were meant to connect with or extend each other were played as if by rote and without discernible relationship. Nor did the soloists interpret Mozart's lines with the desired changes in color or shaping.
Fortunately, the opening of the slow movement, taken at a romantically slow tempo, established a dreamy mood which the orchestra continued with delicate accompaniment in the final movement.
Clark opened the program with a characterless, disorganized account of Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche," marred by imprecise ensemble work and raucous climaxes that approached the pain threshold.
But for sheer, crash-bang volume, his version of the Suite No. 2 from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe", which closed the program, could hardly be beat. Clark conducted with an eye on big effects and a lack of finesse, and many in the audience appeared to be delighted.