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MUSIC REVIEW : New San Diego Symphony: A Feeble Phoenix

November 16, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Symphony, founded in 1910, came to an ignoble end on Nov. 11, 1986. Or so we had feared.

The official cause of death was difficult to isolate. It all depended on whom one happened to ask.

Enlightened observers gravely cited any number of alarming ailments: delusions of managerial grandeur, union difficulties, unrealistic artistic ambition, fiscal irresponsibility, community apathy, bungled real-estate dealings, northerly competition, possible greed on the part of the players, possible egomania on the part of the music director. . . .

The fatal outcome no doubt involved all of the above, in various painful, awkward, ill-timed combinations and permutations.

But, as fate and a dauntless executive consortium would have it, the obituaries turned out to be premature. Friday night at the renovated movie palace now known as Symphony Hall, the San Diego Symphony returned. It may not have been well, but it certainly was alive.

The celebration, though possibly a bit ostentatious under the still grim circumstances, adhered to the loftiest I'm-all-right-Jack tradition.

Chamber-ensemble fanfares punctuated the cool night air before the concert began. The hall blazed in spotlit splendor. A semblance of red carpeting was taped to the sidewalk and steps outside the entrance, which was festooned with balloons. Attendants handed out free posies for the ladies (floral sexism lives), champagne and chocolates for everyone. Gushing television reporters interviewed breathless first-nighters in the lobby.

The chairman of the orchestral board declared, in a hyperbolic program-magazine greeting, that San Diego could now boast "a stronger and much more stable Symphony." The mayor proclaimed Nov. 8-14 "Welcome Back San Diego Symphony Week."

A musical phoenix, we were assured, had risen from the ashes. The pre-impressed audience proved generous with push-button ovations, even at the merest hint of a cadence between movements. To some unsentimental observers, however, it seemed like a dangerously feeble phoenix.

As reconstituted, the San Diego Symphony has no music director. A constantly shifting, disorienting parade of guest conductors will suffice for the time being. The instrumental roster has been cut back a bit, and eight principal chairs remain unfilled. The subscription season has been drastically curtailed. The repertory--reasonably adventurous during the controversial regime of David Atherton--has been reduced to a dreary menu of old chestnuts.

What has been touted as a triumph of cultural resilience may actually be a triumph of mediocrity.

There certainly was nothing memorable about the music making at the second symphonic coming. Lawrence Leighton Smith, the excellent guest conductor from Louisville, fought a losing battle, much of the time, with a rusty and uneven ensemble, an excruciatingly dull program, acoustical inequities and a recalcitrant soloist.

From a seat under the balcony in Row Q, the orchestra sounded thin and muffled. Although the strings were suave, the brass blared and the winds whined. Proper intonation seemed a matter of chance.

In Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," which opened the would-be festivities, we could admire dynamic finesse and applaud good intentions. It wasn't quite enough.

In the blissful banalities of Grieg's A-minor Concerto, the primary problem involved wayward pianism.

Jon Kimura Parker disfigured the effusive line with fussy mannerisms and distorted the dramatic outbursts with explosive indulgences. He pulled and stretched the innocent music out of shape and revealed a rather cavalier attitude toward rhythmic logic. Smith and the orchestra did their best to keep pace with the assorted keyboard crashes, sighs and whimpers.

The romantic aesthetic was better served after intermission with Brahms' Second Symphony. Here, Smith could at least enforce some basic interpretive virtues: lyric grace, straightforward propulsion and an intimate expressive scale.

As soon as the final poetic cadence evaporated, a barber-shop quartet, stationed outside, jolted San Diego back to prosaic reality.

A new beginning? Well, maybe.

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