IRVINE — The Pacific Symphony's concert at Irvine Meadows on Saturday night was like one of those ginsu knife ads: The initial offer just kept getting better and better.
From the start, the program of popular American music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin was probably a can't-miss proposition, but as played by the orchestra under Carl St.Clair, it became a whole lot better than that.
Before an audience of 6,616, St.Clair and the PSO dived into the music with what seemed a perfect mixture of exuberance and control, delivering clean, vivid and stylistically idiomatic performances.
There was even a bonus on this otherwise familiar program, in the form of Bernstein's unfamiliar Divertimento for Orchestra, a work written to commemorate the centenary of the Boston Symphony in 1980. It turned out to be top-drawer Bernstein, which is to say light in nature, eclectic and accessible in style, flashy, cute, quirky, pleasing and cheeky in effect.
Set in eight brief movements--with such titles as "Sennets and Tuckets," "Turkey Trot," "Sphinxes," and "Samba"--the Divertimento is a three-ring circus of a piece, filled with popular tunes cut and pasted, distorted and juxtaposed to form a bright collage. Moving from fanfare to out-of-kilter waltz, from cool jazz to spare abstraction, from dirty jazz to folk dance, the work is capped by a big, romping march called "The BSO Forever" that simultaneously waves flags and sticks out its tongue.
In the Divertimento, as in the preceding Overture to "Candide" and Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story," the PSO and St.Clair showed an ease with the popular styles that allowed them to speak fluidly and authentically. Technically, the performances were tight, well balanced and blazingly colored. Bright amplification seemed an asset, not a liability.
After intermission, with the help of baritone Peter Lightfoot, soprano Geraldine McMillian and the William Grant Still Chorale, St.Clair offered 11 selections from "Porgy and Bess." These, too, unfolded in flowing and spirited readings with St.Clair, leading from memory, insinuating the orchestral accompaniment behind the singers.
Lightfoot, with rounded vowels and resonant tone, may have elevated his characters from Catfish Row to the country club, but he phrased stylishly and sang enthusiastically. McMillian, in a resounding but focused soprano, gave appropriately sultry and emotional readings of her numbers. The Chorale produced tight and joyous sounds en masse, and in "Gone, Gone, Gone" revealed solo voices in vigorous health.