SAN DIEGO — After more than a month's hiatus from serious music making, the San Diego Symphony returned Thursday evening to Symphony Hall with an engaging, substantial program led by guest conductor Bernhard Klee.
Instead of heralding this return with some brash, rattling Rossini overture, the genial German conductor confounded programming protocol by opening with Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite," a confection of delicate modal whimsy.
If Klee's conducting appeared overly fussy as he pantomimed each detail of the score to his charges, it became clear as the program unfolded that his intention was always to fuse these minutiae into a coherent architecture in tune with the composers' intentions.
His gestures and facial expressions may have been obvious, but his insights into the music were subtle. It is easy enough for the routine conductor to languish in Ravel's bittersweet melodic tapestry, but Klee picked up the composer's clever juxtaposition of timbres and underlined this with painterly assurance. His Ravel was seen through the orchestral prism of a Webern.
Equally athletic in performance was violinist Elmar Oliveira, who lavished his virtuoso powers on Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. He dominated the work, although Klee and the symphony played second fiddle with respectful allegiance to the visiting superstar.
The work's outer movements are unforgiving in their nonstop bravura demands, but Oliveira proved unflappable. While he exuded a warm, Romantic tone, his pitch was amazingly true and his melodic line free of those portamento swoops some soloists try to pass off as style. In spite of the concerto's rather prickly neoclassicism, he brought the middle movement's cantilena close to voluptuous indulgence.
Klee might have been expected to placate his audience with some sure-fire warhorse after these two 20th-Century vehicles, especially in the current season, which has retreated into the safety of familiar repertory. Instead, he chose Beethoven's infrequently played Fourth Symphony.
After the havoc the orchestra wreaked on Beethoven's "Eroica" last fall, it is a pleasure to report that this Beethoven opus escaped with only some ragged string attacks in the faster sections. Under Klee's energetic but far from frenzied guidance, the textures emerged clean and almost transparent. As usual, the woodwind solos best portrayed the ephemeral spirit of the work.
Klee will return next Friday and Saturday with the San Diego Symphony in a program of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Brahms.