The $64 question about the Pacific Symphony's New Year's Eve concert at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa: What did soprano Roberta Peters stage-whisper to conductor Keith Clark between selections by Franz Lehar?
Up until then, Clark had provided his distinguished soloist with heavy, dragging, occasionally overpowering accompaniment.
Suddenly, everything changed.
The playing began to match Peters' elastic, expressive and aristocratic phrasing; her warm, appealing, sensuous charm; her insight into the words--all the gemutchlichkeit promised by the concert's "New Year's Eve in Old Vienna" title, but not delivered.
Unfortunately, the reprieve proved temporary. In "Vilia" from "The Merry Widow," the next selection, Clark was back to his lead-foot conducting, and Peters could only suggest the nostalgia and poetry of Lehar's music.
Still Peters, a veteran of 36 seasons on the Metropolitan Opera roster, sang with fine focus, agility and accuracy. Admittedly, there was evidence of a thinning top in Adele's Laughing and Audition Songs from Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" (sung in English). But her musicality was never in doubt.
Also never in doubt was how ill-prepared Clark and the orchestra were.
For some strange reason, the orchestra had entered quickly, all at once at concert time, with Clark on its heels, and no one bothered to tune up on stage. As a result, the playing was plagued by excruciating pitch problems until the instrumentalists eventually tackled them--after the midpoint of the program.
Clark did occasionally inject a feeling of lilt and accent into the Strauss waltzes and polkas. But the effort seemed like dotting "I's" and crossing "Ts" in a manuscript that was disintegrating, given the major problems in coordination, cohesion and imprecision. The musicians, for instance, often anticipated or came fractionally behind Clark's inconstant beat; this was true not only among the inner voices but also among some quite prominent parts. But it couldn't have been any fun following that wayward lead.
Von Suppe's "Light Cavalry" Overture, in particular, suffered indignities of distorted phrasing, hectic tempos and ensemble sloppiness. And, adding insult to injury, Clark began the piece before Peters left the stage.
Clark opened the program with a vigorous, graceless account of the Overture to "Die Fledermaus" and closed it with a blurry version of "On the Beautiful Blue Danube." In between, he gave a bandmaster's view of the senior Strauss' "Radetzky March", though the audience responded lustily to his invitation to clap out the rhythms.
For encores, Clark, Peters and company offered "Vienna, City of My Dreams" and a sing-along "Auld Lang Syne." The orchestra then was left on stage to repeat the "Thunder and Lightning" Polka as conductor, soloist and audience left for a post-concert bash at a nearby hotel. One hopes the players partied, too.