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Youthful Symphonica Toscanini may be too devoted to namesake

January 27, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The Symphonica Toscanini is Italy's newest major orchestra. Its players are a young collective and mostly Italian. They are full of pizazz and looked good Thursday in Costa Mesa. They undoubtedly wear the best shoes and sport the most stylish haircuts of any orchestra of comparable quality.

They take their name from a disciplinarian of legend, and their first music director is none other than Lorin Maazel, which implies that this could already be one of Italy's slickest, best-disciplined ensembles. It features the music Toscanini played. Its first U.S. tour commemorates the 50th anniversary of Toscanini's death, and the orchestra has mapped out a route stopping where the famous maestro stopped on tours with his Orchestra Arturo Toscanini in 1920 and with his NBC Symphony Orchestra 30 years later.

Of course, he never stepped off the train to play the "Force of Destiny" Overture in the Orange County bean fields where the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall now stands -- it opened just four months ago. And it is also worth remembering that Verdi's overture was written around the time Toscanini was born. It was still as fresh to audiences in 1920 as Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" Overture is to us today.

That was the core of the problem -- along with some weird acoustics -- at Thursday's concert, which ended with an encore of the "Forza" Overture splashily played. The program comprised such Toscanini favorites as Rossini's "Barber of Seville" Overture, Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony and Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" and "Pines of Rome." These are all pieces he recorded with the NBC Orchestra in the early '50s. The Respighi scores from the early 20th century were, for him, new music.

But the Symphonica Toscanini is weighed down by tradition. Nearly a century has passed since Toscanini was conducting the premieres of Puccini operas. By the time he became an icon in America and was made by NBC into the class act of newly invented television, he was an old man and a guardian of Old World musical culture.

There was a fury and intensity to Toscanini's performances that spoke of a different era. He tore into the "Italian" Symphony, and he sounded genuinely excited by the new colors of Respighi. For someone born into Italy during the stormy years of unification, the "Force of Destiny" meant something different to him than it does to us now.

Maazel's performances Thursday were colorful, clever and often rivetingly expert. He plays with all this music by finding funny places to put unexpected accents to keep the phrasing fresh and to keep his young players on their toes. This is not an unappealing way to entertain. But the result was not unlike encountering relics in a high-tech museum where gaudy lighting and computerized displays are the main enticement.

The orchestra here sounded nothing like the NBC Orchestra on its renowned recordings made in a notoriously desert-dry studio. The bass in Segerstrom was liquid and boomy and indistinct. The strings were glassy. The winds lacked sensuality, but the brass were quite impressive. Intonation was not always perfect. And while the orchestra could dazzle, its virtuosity never sounded effortless, the way Maazel's New York Philharmonic does these days.

Respighi's "Fountains" and "Pines" -- a sort of Italian "Planets" -- made the biggest splash, as these pieces often will. Maazel, who conducted everything without a score, brought out rich details and demonstrated that there is more here than the crass effects some conductors emphasize. He found things in the music that Toscanini himself missed. All of which goes to show that the sooner this orchestra gets over trying to be a traveling Toscanini troupe and finds its own identity the better.

As for how the Symphonica Toscanini sounded in Segerstrom, I am bewildered. Where did that boomy bass come from? The Los Angeles Philharmonic was characteristically clean and crisp when it made its debut in the hall Sunday. The New York Philharmonic under Maazel earlier in the season was certainly more vivid-sounding in Segerstrom than the Italians were.

The hall is adjustable, and who is at the controls may make a difference. Segerstrom was not indifferent to the Kirov, the L.A. Philharmonic or the New York Philharmonic. But the acoustics don't flatter, and less elite bands may have to watch their step, however stylish their shoes.

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