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San Diego Symphony Opens Winter Season


SAN DIEGO — Searchlights swept the downtown sky, long gowns and tuxes were the fashion statements of the evening and champagne flowed--and flowed.

The occasion: the reopening of a winter indoor season for the once-bankrupt San Diego Symphony, which had returned to life this summer with an outdoor pops season but on Friday night finally came home to handsome, acoustically admirable Copley Symphony Hall in midtown.

High hopes and practicality in equal parts mark the projected 1998-99 season of 47 performances.

The programming, under music director Jung-Ho Pak, is conservative, if not stodgy. The series include Connoisseur Concerts to be given three times on weekends, another series devoted to accompanying classic films from the 1920s, another called Holiday Pops, plus hourlong midweek Rush Hour Concerts and the new, informal "Lightbulb" Concerts. The budget is said to be barely half of the pre-bankruptcy level of $10 million.

Despite the new gloss, the opening program (which was scheduled to be repeated Saturday and Sunday) was formulaic, though impressively performed by the 79-member ensemble.

It offered the world premiere of a fluffy, five-minute piece written by the orchestra's first horn, John Lorge; the Violin Concerto by Beethoven, played solidly but with small authority by the gifted young American Jennifer Koh; and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Heard often over the past three decades, the San Diego ensemble remains promising--and no more. Somehow, its achievements have not matched the often strong conductors on its podium. Friday, aggressive playing alternated with bland playing, and the full range of orchestral dynamics never materialized.

Further, the jollity of Beethoven's finale was dampened by a tempo rut; the lightness in the Waltz of the Fifth Symphony became heavily weighted down. And the high points and the low points in the closing movement resembled each other--what should have been colorful turned out only gray.

What the ensemble needs now--indeed, probably has always needed--is time to grow and build. Up to now, its energies have been spent mostly on survival in an apparently hostile environment.

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