SAN DIEGO — Pity the musicians of the San Diego Symphony. Over the last week, no less than four conductors have appeared on the podium to lead this intrepid band. And with the exception of resident conductor Fabio Mechetti, who conducted Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" in the middle of April 9's pension fund benefit concert, they are not likely to see these conductors again in the near future. It is no wonder that the orchestra's sound is unpredictable and its level of execution variable.
Friday evening's podium guest, Italian-born Guido Ajmone-Marsan, brought a sense of discipline and stylistic sensitivity that produced salutary results from the orchestra. From the opening "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," it was evident that Ajmone-Marsan knew how to shape a Gallic melody while keeping the accompanying fabric translucent. The Debussy proved a fitting showcase for the symphony's woodwind section, a cadre of soloists that can stand up to that of any major orchestra.
Sadly, the uncouth Symphony Hall audience took principal flutist Damian Bursill-Hall's deft, sensual opening solo as a cue to rummage through pockets and purses, followed by a ceremonious unwrapping of the retrieved mints and lozenges. Even though the program started late, patrons kept straggling in over the first 40 minutes of the concert. One wonders if the San Diego sun has bleached out any sense of etiquette among the natives and recent arrivals from presumably civilized climes.
Violinist Ida Kavafian dominated the first half of the program with a transcendent interpretation of Chausson's "Poeme" for violin and orchestra. Although her timbre is not large, it is supple, liquid and pure. She infused the composer's overripe themes with compelling urgency, a fervor that was guided by keen insight.
She followed the Chausson with Ravel's "Tzigane," a concert rhapsody that liberally indulged the pyrotechnical virtues of her technique. A fuller, more resonant sonority from Kavafian would have given the piece greater cachet, but such a cavil pales before her brilliant virtuosity. She communicates a delicious sense of abandon, without for a moment losing control. In both concerted works, the orchestra provided the soloist well-focused and sympathetic accompaniment.
As if to compensate for his understatement prior to the intermission, Ajmone-Marsan chose a highly expansive, almost heroic, treatment for Franck's D Minor Symphony, which constituted the concert's second half. This approach not only revealed the orchestra's weaker points--the violins became strident when they swelled to a hefty forte and the brasses overpowered them to boot--but it underscored the composer's tendency to reiterate those bloated melodies that are his trademark.