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High and Low Notes

Music review: Technical changes improve sound, but Pacific Symphony struggles with interpretation.

October 23, 1998|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every year, the Pacific Symphony sounds better and better. You have to rejoice. But a new thought nags: As it becomes a better instrument, does the orchestra, now in its 20th season, have anything important to say?

Not a great deal yet, on the evidence of the Ravel-Canteloube-Brahms program Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

True, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade brought real star power to Ravel's "Sheherazade" and to some of Joseph Canteloube's "Chants d'Auvergne."

But when the heavy music came after intermission, conductor Carl St.Clair made it, too, sound French--clear, subtle, light. But this was Brahms' Second Symphony, which is decidedly not French.

*

It's true that St.Clair, who deserves credit for building the orchestra, has taken abuse from these quarters for his generally weighty, Germanic approach. And this was not that. Maybe the guy can't win for trying. But it was at best a judicious, dutiful performance.

First the good news.

The improved sound comes from two sources, according to management. Some new seating arrangements allow musicians to hear each other better, while brighter, cooler, quieter overhead lights eliminate distracting high frequencies that often could be heard on stage and in the hall.

*

The orchestra did sound more balanced and transparent. Basses and cellos had more presence. There was new resonance and depth. There was shimmer and delicacy in quieter passages.

Everything was fine until one of those whopper crescendos St.Clair is partial to. Fortunately, these came rarely--almost entirely in Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso," which opened the program. Even so, coherence remained elusive.

At 53, von Stade has lost some of the plush in her voice, although her artistry, warmth and commitment to the texts remain undiminished. She grew edgy and thin in the heights of "Sheherazade" but sang with opulence below.

(The text of the third section, "L'Indifferent," was printed in the wrong place in the program. It appeared after the second and final verse of Canteloube's comic "Malurous qu'o uno fenno," not with its companion pieces.)

Von Stade was at her best in the character vignettes of the Auvergne songs, which she introduced with personable ease from the stage. St.Clair accompanied sensitively.

But he was a journeyman in Brahms. He conducted the Second as if it were some vague sea picture--in big, wavy phrases without much point and sweep, without much inner passion, without much drama.

*

Everything was clear. It fell into a kind of order. But it didn't build its own logic. It didn't sound necessary or inspired.

Maybe the conductor was taking the measure of the new sound.

The orchestra also was laboring from a key personnel change. Kevin Connolly, concertmaster for only one season, recently resigned for personal reasons, according to management. Appointed in 1997 after nearly a two-year search, Connolly last played with the orchestra this summer at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

Associate concertmaster Paul Manaster took the role this week and at the season-opening concerts at the beginning of the month. He will continue as acting concertmaster during the current search. Let's hope it's not another long one. He certainly played his Auvergne solos with flair.

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