The Santa Monica Symphony didn't need any extraneous pomp or circumstance to herald Allen Robert Gross in his first concert as music director Sunday night at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. No speeches. No opening ceremonies. No National Anthem. Just some invigorating and very promising music making.
Gross has the rare ability to excite an orchestra, to get it to reach beyond its capabilities. His beat is vigorous and sharply cut; he projects assurance and enthusiasm from the podium, clearly in charge.
Beginning with William Schuman's stirring "New England Triptych"--which used to be played a lot more often than it is today--Gross set a quick-stepping pace, snapping off the phrases with bite, pushing the rhythms forward with propulsive verve. In turn, he received some excellent playing from the brasses and winds, who could stay comfortably with the brisk tempos.
The rumbling Schumann/Mendelssohn-like accompaniment of Richard Strauss' Horn Concerto No. 1 also benefited from Gross' structured sense of drive, as did the dramatic, accurate, dynamically alert playing of soloist Richard Todd.
In Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Gross realized the seldom-delivered promise of thwarted program annotators--that forceful, irresistible rhythm is what this symphony is mainly about. While observing every repeat, he was able to shape the argument in a distinctly individual manner, with sharpened edges and the willingness to hold back at the right times in order to crank up the energy level later.
All of this was accomplished in spite of a number of problems--the not-always-cohesive Santa Monica string section, the tympani blotting much of the orchestra out in this acoustic space, the annoyingly high ambient noise level of the hall. Clearly, Santa Monica has found something special in its new music director.