SAN DIEGO — Toward the harp there is no small amount of condescension. Consider the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, who stated that finding a harp in a symphony orchestration was the equivalent of discovering a hair in a bowl of soup. Someone else once dismissed it as a naked Steinway.
Although few composers have lavished their most sublime thoughts on the harp, there is a modest catalogue of solo repertory for the instrument. Assisted by the San Diego Symphony, guest harpist Heidi Lehwalder brought Alberto Ginastera's Harp Concerto to Symphony Hall Thursday night. Her elegant, energetic approach to the concerto made a strong case for this gently modern composition--Ginastera finished it in 1964--and her enthusiasm almost compensated for some of its structural weaknesses.
At its best, the vaguely neoclassical concerto is a heady melange of vibrant cross rhythms etched by the harp, plucked strings, and a percussion battery that evokes the timbres of South American folk ensembles. Lehwalder and the symphony, under the direction of guest conductor Kees Bakels, gave the Argentine composer's work an authoritative, finely detailed performance. Although the finale failed to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the complexities of the opening movement, it was clearly the composer's fault and not that of the musicians on the Symphony Hall stage.
Saint-Saens' Third Symphony, the "Organ" Symphony, may have been a crowd pleaser, but it sounded under-rehearsed. In the second movement, where the organ, piano, and orchestra should hammer out their grandiose chords in bold unison strokes, there was evident lack of coordination. The local orchestra's modest complement of strings, combined with the hall's unfortunate tendency to absorb their mid-range sounds, robbed the piece of its wonted breadth.
Bakels' visceral interpretation compromised the symphony's suave, Gallic lines for a splashy, declamatory approach that would have been perfect for Tchaikovsky or Scriabin. The silver-haired Dutch conductor appeared rather ungainly, slashing the air with movements borrowed from a martial arts handbook, but the players evidently liked his unabashed style of communication.
Guest organist Robert Plimpton did his best with the borrowed electronic organ, but it barely suggested the grandeur Saint-Saens had in mind for his Organ Symphony. At its loudest, the organ sounded like an over-amplified harmonica. The brilliant, well-focused contribution of symphony's trumpets and trombones, however, was worthy of an Olympic Gold Medal. With the French horns, they carried the evening.
Bakels opened his eclectic program with the second suite of dances from Manuel de Falla's "Three Cornered Hat." The execution was laudable, although Bakels' loudest fortes bordered on the raucous. Since it was his debut in the hall, he may be forgiven the miscalculation. His last local appearance was for San Diego Opera's production of Verdi's first opera, "Oberto." From the deep pit of Civic Theatre, it's difficult to sound truly raucous.