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Pacific Gives 'Gaea' Left Coast Premiere

Music review: Two solos fare better than combined third piece as St.Clair and orchestra take on Bolcom's challenging concertos.

November 08, 1996|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Chalk one up for conductor Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony. They gave the West Coast premiere of William Bolcom's "Gaea" Concertos for Piano Left Hand on Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and it was one of the most interesting and satisfying challenges conductor and orchestra have ventured.

"Gaea" actually is three concertos; two are played separately, then they are combined to form a third. The Pacific, Baltimore and St. Louis symphonies commissioned the work for pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, each of whom was struck mid-career by repetitive-stress injury and deprived of the use of his right hand in concert situations. The two were the soloists here, as they had been at the world premiere in April in Baltimore.

Bolcom distinguishes the separate concertos in terms of orchestration, pitch material and extra-musical concepts. "Gaea,' for instance, refers to the idea of Earth as an ecosystem. Eastern philosophy of yin and yang also contributes.

Although it has a dark second movement, Graffman's concerto tends to be lyrical, airy and patrician. Fleisher's tends be urgent, dramatic and arresting. The same may be said of their playing. Fleisher instantly commanded attention. Graffman was more beguiling and aloof.

Unfortunately, the sum of the two concertos was less than the parts. Textures in the combined work, at least as heard from a seat midway in the orchestra section, were quite muddy. It became difficult to distinguish the piano parts when the orchestra was at full throttle, much less focus on either line or how the two fit together.

The problem may have been acoustics in the hall or the full sonorities of two concert grands.

*

The original plan was to play one of the solo concertos on Wednesday and the other Thursday. The combined concerto was scheduled for both evenings. The plan was wisely changed, however, so that both audiences could hear both solo works--as well as the combined one.

The change added about 20 minutes to the program; apparently that was too much of a good thing for some.

Those who left--and it was a noticeable number--missed a sizzling performance of the pungent dance suite from Alberto Ginastera's 1941 ballet, "Estancia." Guest concertmaster Philip Palermo, assistant concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony, played a sweet solo in the second of the four excerpts.

The program opened with the overlong, overblown suite of Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." The orchestra played cleanly, if at times raucously. But St.Clair attended sensitively to the quieter song passages that alone discard the sense of period and approach timelessness.

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