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MUSIC REVIEW

Celebrating Segerstrom's First 10 Years

September 10, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Segerstrom Hall--whose men's room I've been looking for for 10 years and whose red spaceship interior I fear I may never get used to--has turned 10. And the Orange County Performing Arts Center has had to endure a certain amount of ribbing from the national and international arts community for the place and its pretensions.

But the center does seem to have grown more sophisticated over the past decade, and the birthday gala it threw for itself Sunday was fresh and surprising. The center didn't waste its dollars on the most expensive and stellar names in the business; instead it concentrated on quality.

And it didn't have to look very far. Its two main soloists, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore and pianist Emanuel Ax, are also appearing at the Hollywood Bowl this week. The center also commissioned Robert Xavier Rodriguez, a respected Texas composer trained at USC, for a short celebratory piece, and it got six effervescent minutes of upbeat Cuban dance energy. It even had the confidence to let its own resident ensemble, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, under music director Carl St.Clair, take a star turn.

Galas being galas, every work on the program was a fireworks display, and if the programming was ultra-safe, St.Clair seemed to find just the right degree of panache for every moment.

*

The hard, clean acoustic of Segerstrom will not add body when it is not there, and the Pacific Symphony is not the class of orchestra in which the tone in every section, and especially the strings, is silky, rich and sleek. But it boasts very good individual players, and St.Clair played to the musicians' and the hall's advantages with popular showpieces by Dvorak and Rimsky-Korsakov. Neither the former's' "Carnival" nor the latter's "Capriccio Espagnol" allows much opportunity to say anything new. But with the emphasis placed on his players, and conducting with enthusiasm for every detail and with a sense of irrepressible verve and energy, St.Clair got startlingly vivid results.

He also showed his manic side. Midway through the Rimsky, when the audience mistook a particularly emphatic cadence for the ending and began applauding, he turned around not with the usual admonishing frown of an imperious conductor, but with a sheepish look, as if too acknowledge that he may have gotten a little carried away.

Then again he may have been a little tipsy, having just conducted the premiere of "Hot Buttered Rumba," Rodriguez's new piece. An occasional score, it intends nothing more than to give pleasure, with its bright, Bernsteinian harmonies, its supple Latin dance rhythms and its controlled, sexy dynamic swells and ritards. There is a good deal of hidden skill to making a piece like this, and also to making it work in performance. St.Clair made it seem like pure joy.

The presence of Ax ensured the evening a degree of ready-made elegance, though only appearing in Chopin's short "Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brilliante." He plays with a surface grace and ease that has a way of getting under one's skin, each note leaving a kind of lingering heady aftertaste.

*

The rest of the program was devoted to the most famous excerpts from "The Barber of Seville" and "Carmen," with Larmore joined by Canadian baritone Gino Quilico. Our operatic era may end up being remembered in part for its remarkable mezzos: Olga Borodina, Lorraine Hunt and Susanne Meltzer (currently in the L.A. Opera's "Norma"). Add the kind of singing Larmore was responsible for Sunday, and it becomes an embarrassment of riches.

Larmore is no secret. Her record company, Teldec, is pushing her relentlessly. The latest is a poorly assembled compilation disc from some very good recordings that touts the fact that she is from Atlanta to get tie-in cash from Olympics fever. I hope this sort of tackiness doesn't go to her head. There was a hint of it Sunday in her occasional overdone cuteness. Her Carmen had a touch more pouty debutante than Spanish seductress to it.

But she also has a genuinely lively stage presence and a voice that lets her get away with murder. Her tone is full-bodied; if it were a beer it would have the color, honeyed taste and thick foam of the best micro-brewed amber. Yet it is also ideally flexible. Rossini's ornaments in "Una Voce Poco Fa" were turned with ease. Carmen's Gypsy Song became a speed contest with St.Clair and brought the house down. Quilico is a versatile baritone, and, though suffering a cold he nevertheless made a lively partner.

It's the rare gala that leaves one wanting more, as Larmore, Ax and Rodriguez did. Orange County was either very lucky Sunday night or it has come of age.

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