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MUSIC REVIEW : Violinist Sheryl Staples Lifts Level of Symphony Program


COSTA MESA — Violinist Sheryl Staples raised an otherwise lackluster program by conductor John Larry Granger and the South Coast Symphony to a level of distinction Saturday at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

Before her arrival, Granger had ventured some dutiful, rough-shod Haydn and some foggy, ill-balanced, minor Copland.

But with Staples on the scene for Brahms' Violin Concerto, the orchestra pulled together, made firm, determined effort, and, if it proved incapable of initiating flights of Romantic rhetoric, at least it responded without much dilution to the lead of the distinguished young soloist.

Staples presented a tantalizing mix of qualities. She played with refinement and boldness, polish and fire. She could produce big, rich, sweeping tone, lacking nothing in warmth and evenness, and she could entrance with myriad shades of gold.

She favored such edge-less attacks that one frequently did not know just when bow had touched string, so unforced did notes arise. Even when the composer directed her to leap-frog over several octaves, Staples responded with unbroken, unblemished line.

But for all the big gestures, she perhaps impressed most in quieter moments--the sweet elegance and pianissimos she brought to the first movement cadenza, the hushed intimacy with which she edged from there into the coda, the finely felt fusion of introspection and pastoral vision in the Adagio.

Staples basically chose not to wear her heart on her sleeve nor tear a passion to tatters. Some might find her approach a tad patrician for Brahms or regret her hesitancy in exploring distinct voices in double-string passages. Still, hers was an impressive, viable and mature interpretation.

Granger accompanied with alert, sympathetic attention.

Earlier, he had led a reduced ensemble in Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony, achieving most success in the vigorous final two movements. Otherwise, the ensemble was not fully up to the composer's no-place-to-hide demands: articulation was often blurred, attacks lacked crispness, focus was lost, momentum sagged.

Granger had opened the program with Copland's "Quiet City," in which Al Lang was the overly assertive trumpeter, John Ralston, the lyric English horn player.

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