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Sinfonietta Proceeds With Caution

February 19, 1996|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Founder Paul Freeman led his 45-member Chicago Sinfonietta on Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center with watchful, paternal, even donnish care.

At one point, he even stepped off the podium to give closer direction to the violas during a particularly tricky rhythmic passage for them. The gesture spoke volumes about how far the 9-year-old orchestra has or has not come.

In music by Gershwin, Ginastera and Rossini, the group played with respectable ensemble and fidelity to the notes. But clearly it is not yet a major institution, much less one with a distinctive musical voice. It probably sounded best and most exciting in the driving rhythmic demands and lyrical lines of four excerpts from Ginastera's ballet "Estancia."

Freeman served essentially as a time-beater. He shaped few lines, varied dynamics hardly at all and revealed few ideas about the music.

One of the few, perhaps, was his attempt to make a case for a Chicago-style jazz approach to Gershwin's "An American in Paris"--if "Chicago style" means cool and clean, which is how he led the work, as opposed to hot and snappy, which seems to suit it better. But overall it was too careful and dull.

Fortunately, pianist Leon Bates proved an intriguing and stylish soloist in Gershwin's Concerto in F. He was subtle and poetic. He was powerful. He found the composer's honky-tonk playfulness and even his sense of improvising his way from one big tune to the next.

Freeman accompanied cautiously.

The conductor prefaced the program with the National Anthem, during which, atypically, even the cellos rose to play.

He opened the program with a hefty account of the Overture to Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia." In response to applause, he led one of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances as an encore.

The program was sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

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