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A nod to Liberace, along with Brahms

June 06, 2003|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

The Pacific Symphony and its music director, Carl St.Clair, have made contemporary American music their selling point -- witness their recent successes showcasing William Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" and Philip Glass' Symphony No. 5. But for every such adventurous work they present, they must play a certain amount of Beethoven No. 9s and "Blue Danubes" to draw audiences.

For their final program of the season, St.Clair and company offered "Le Tombeau de Liberace," a 1996 work by Michael Daugherty, buffered by Wagner's Prelude to Act 3 of "Lohengrin," a Chopin polonaise and, most notably, Brahms' First Symphony.

Wednesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the opening movement of the Brahms was rhythmically slack. The second and third were tighter, thanks to the string section, which displayed a gossamer touch during gentle moments yet still captured the tension in the high tessitura of the Andante. But the fourth movement was disappointing. The grand C-major melody that is the heart of the symphony failed to brim with ebullience.

The performances of the other standards were comparably mixed. Wagner's prelude was spirited but warbly and marred by smudgy horn playing. Pianist Christopher O'Riley followed with a dramatic entrance (in full-length tuxedo coat), then sat down to give a modest, but accomplished, account of Chopin's "Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise."

The centerpiece of the concert, however, was undeniably Daugherty's tribute to Liberace -- naturally, a pastiche of classical and popular tropes -- complete with candelabrum.

O'Riley is a serious musician who is passionate about popular music (as his new CD consisting of Radiohead songs transposed for piano attests), and his dedication to the piece allowed it to succeed as a virtuoso display piece.

The surprise of the evening was that St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony were not as polished in this recent work as they were in the Brahms. Often, it seemed as if sections of the orchestra were a half-beat behind O'Riley. Perhaps the music just didn't inspire them. Unlike Daugherty's other music composed in honor of pop culture icons (his Superman-inspired "Metropolis" Symphony and especially his opera "Jackie O"), this homage to Mr. Showmanship and Las Vegas possesses little emotional substance behind the fur and rhinestone filigree.

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