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MUSIC REVIEW : Seattle Symphony in Orange County

January 29, 1988|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Gerard Schwarz has always tended to think big.

When he was music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, from 1978 to 1986, he constantly stretched the repertory in the direction of symphonic grandeur. Now, as conductor of the Seattle Symphony, he has acquired a legitimate outlet for his heroic inclinations, and he seems to be basking in the luxury.

Wednesday, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the instrumental pride of the Pacific Northwest inaugurated a brief Southern California tour--the orchestra's first local visit since 1971--with an evening of mighty gestures and generous emotions.

In its present acoustical incarnation, Segerstrom Hall tends to accentuate, even distort, the fortissimo impulse. To say that the sound was bright and lively would be understating the case.

With a scant 15-minute warm-up in the hall, Schwarz and his ensemble had no chance to adapt to their vibrant, unaccustomed surroundings. The thunderous clashes and crashes, of which there were many, threatened to puncture assembled eardrums.

No matter. Once one got used to that minor aural inconvenience, one could savor ample musical virtues. The Seattle Symphony under Schwarz may not yet be a finely honed precision instrument. It is capable of the occasional linear muddle, and the strings are prone to intonation discrepancies under pressure. But the orchestra does produce a marvelous, rich, warm sound, and it does make music with passionate elan.

Even when the repertory is, shall we say, cautious, these musicians do not fly on automatic pilot. The communal spirit is willing.

Schwarz has adopted a rather unorthodox seating plan, with the string basses stationed on his left, the cellos in the center, and the brass--really splendid, booming brass!--relegated to distant right field. Although the shuffled visual and sonic logistics require some mental adjustment, the choirs mesh and the timbres balance.

As a baton technician, Schwarz favors clarity over subtlety. His beat is easy to follow, as is the purpose behind the beat. There is urgency and authority in his podium manner, but, thank goodness, it does not relate to histrionic display or choreographic indulgence.

To open a relentlessly heavyweight, somewhat superficial program, he chose four contrasting excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet." Exaggerated tempos suggested interpretive abstraction. Slow passages emerged very, very slow indeed, and fast ones bordered on the frantic. Schwarz obviously was thinking of unbridled drama here, not of music that could or should be danced.

The centerpiece took the sprawling, gushing, nostalgic form of Howard Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony. An unabashed orgy of slush-pump rhetoric, it probably seemed crafty and old-fashioned when it was new in 1930. Today it seems quaint and creaky.

Undaunted, Schwarz and friends played Hanson as if he were Brahms at his most feisty. The fiery conviction of the performance nearly overcame the sodden convention of the work.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Wagner. Schwarz offered a frenzied "Tannhauser" overture followed by a broadly paced but not particularly sensuous account of the Venusberg music. Three excerpts from the last act of "Die Meistersinger" proved more notable for festive splash than for introspection.

The Orange County Philharmonic Society audience applauded enthusiastically, and only in the right places. In encore response, Schwarz led his merry, muscular band in a breathless dash through the prelude to Act III of "Lohengrin."

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