Michael Palmer, who conducted the Pacific Symphony on Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is an elegant and succinct musician. His baton technique is fluent and crystal-clear, no fuss, no muss. A musical phrase under Palmer's care is fit and tidy, standing tall, head high and walking with a purpose. The orchestra followed his every signal with ease, its playing emerging ensemble-tight and gracious.
In the program--which Palmer took over for the indisposed Bernhard Klee--Palmer's musicianship paid clear if uneven dividends. The music director of the American Sinfonietta produced nicely turned-out playing at all times, but it sometimes lacked interpretive distinction.
The fairy tale charm of Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite found Palmer at his best. These little sound pictures, of Tom Thumb, Beauty, the Beast and others--are gem-like: melodies of nursery-rhyme simplicity orchestrated in sparkling miniature. Palmer nicely resisted the temptation of making this music big and Technicolor (as some do); he dovetailed phrases and textures, coaxed a chamber music camaraderie from his musicians and refused to dawdle needlessly.
His performance of Mussorgsky/Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition," on the other hand, was nothing special interpretively--Palmer seemed more concerned with the music's balances, tidiness and crispness than its lavish pictorialism.
His tempos were fast, better-suited to concision than smelling roses. "Samuel Goldenberg" certainly emerged less pompous than usual because of it. In the "Bydlo" movement--which depicts a lumbering Polish ox-cart--Palmer opted for a fluent euphonium (beautifully played by Robert Sanders) over a heavy tuba for the big solo; but the tuba's ungainly sound is the pictorial point.
So it went, with Palmer pursuing felicitous musical goals while missing the vivid show, smiling at good playing during passages of sinister import.
Anne-Marie McDermott was the soloist in Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." A noted chamber musician, she interwove her part with the orchestra's, creating a conversational tone. At the same time, her own playing was minutely inflected and tautly curved; a highly articulate discourse went on right under her fingers. She rewarded close listening, as did Palmer and the Pacific, who supplied a bouncing accompaniment.
* Anne-Marie McDermott plays with the Vermeer Quartet, Sunday, 3:30 p.m., at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, Michigan Avenue at Del Mar Boulevard, Pasadena, $13-$25. (888) 222-5832.