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MUSIC REVIEW

Litton is at home in Segerstrom Hall

Making his debut with the Pacific Symphony, the conductor shows a real feel for the venue.

March 24, 2007|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

Andrew Litton may look too young to be called a "music director emeritus," but that's his title with the Dallas Symphony now that he has stepped down as its music director after 12 years. While there, he cemented Dallas' position on the recording map with a long series of discs for the Delos, Hyperion and Dorian labels, making his biggest impression with sonic blockbusters from the 19th and 20th centuries.

It's no surprise, then, that Litton chose one of his pet blockbusters for his debut with the Pacific Symphony in the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Thursday night -- Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. He likes this kind of repertoire, thrives upon it and, gratifyingly, has the capacity to grow with it.

At about an hour in length, the Rachmaninoff Second might seem in some hands like too much of a wallow in an ultra-Romantic Russian Jacuzzi. But like many of Mahler's gigantic symphonies, it is actually grounded in a solid classical structure -- particularly the outsized first movement -- and some astute conducting is required to realize its shape and keep the music from rambling.

Litton, who recorded all three Rachmaninoff symphonies back in 1989, has what it takes to organize the piece, to scale its climaxes with just the right amount of momentum, to sustain the long melodic lines and make them sing, to let the rambunctious episodes rip. Thursday night, he did all that and more, conveying a deeper, more soulful understanding of certain phrases, making all kinds of little adjustments in tempo that indicated a real intimacy with this score. Under Litton's control, the Rachmaninoff Second was not one note too long.

Also, it's significant that Litton seemed to take to the new Segerstrom Hall instinctively -- having worked in another room with Russell Johnson-designed acoustics, Dallas' Meyerson Symphony Center, for so many years. He drew an unusually warm, bass-y, rich sound from the lower strings, with balances distributed evenly throughout the ensemble. He apparently felt so comfortable that he even delivered a pitch from the stage for Pacific Symphony subscription tickets.

Elsewhere, Litton brought along a souvenir from his Dallas years, a curtain-raiser that he commissioned from Cindy McTee called "Timepiece" that became an engaging, pulsating, grooving mechanism once it got going after the two-minute mark. He also accompanied concertmaster Raymond Kobler in Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy," which Kobler dispatched with minimal schmaltz and some jauntiness but not much penetration of tone.

Basically, then, the Rachmaninoff was the show. A keeper.

*

Pacific Symphony

Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 tonight

Price: $22 to $150

Contact: (714) 755-5799 or www.pacificsymphony.org

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