LOS ANGELES — Playing before an enthusiastic home crowd, the USC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Lewis filled the cozy confines of Bovard Auditorium on Wednesday with the sounds of exuberant virtuosity in a program of Benjamin Britten, Morten Lauridsen and Peter Tchaikovsky.
Britten's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, opening the concert, could have been a highlights film all by itself. The piece, apparently conceived by Lewis as a no-nonsense display of instrumental firepower, was performed by the orchestra with such responsive brilliance, from the woodwind solos to the remarkable string intonation to Tina Curtis' nuanced timpani strokes, that the piece seemed to end much too quickly.
Next, Lauridsen's "Mid-Winter Songs on Poems by Robert Graves," performed with the addition of the USC Chamber Singers and Concert Choir, seemed an odd choice, coming at the end of a winter in a region where winter never really comes.
The fact that the 17-minute cycle has received numerous performances in Southern California, both in piano and orchestral dress, is not surprising considering the affecting consolation of its conservative tonal optimism and spirituality. But this performance was merely dutiful and the youthful musicians missed the deep emotional underpinnings of the Robert Graves poems.
After intermission, Daniel Pollack took the stage and turned in a commanding if occasionally plodding performance of Tchaikovsky's first Piano Concerto. Playing on a clattery Steinway, Pollack gave the warhorse the legitimizing benefits of a totally serious approach.
At first the orchestra seemed skittish in its role but soon settled into an effective accompanying mode and embellished Pollack's part eloquently, sweetly and urgently, as required.
The USC forces will repeat the program tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
The USC Symphony, Chamber Singers and Concert Choir play tonight at 8 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program includes music of Britten, Lauridsen and Tchaikovsky. $5 to $25. Proceeds benefit the USC School of Music. (714) 553-2422.