Los Angeles Times

Classical review, Placido Domingo conducts the CSO with Rachel Barton as violin soloist

If we can't persuade Placido Domingo to sing for the foreseeable future at the Lyric Opera, at least we can allow him to pursue one of his many other occupations—conducting—at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Some CSO subscribers would not consider that an even exchange, but let's be fair. Even the Spanish tenorissimo would admit he probably never will occupy the same exalted rank as a conductor that he does as a singer. And you cannot blame the opera world's busiest polymath, at 59, for wishing to conduct major orchestras when he has the time, especially now that his singing career is winding down.

Domingo has already graduated from the level of a competent conductor to a respectable one. In his concert with the CSO Thursday night at Symphony Center, he fared better than another singing batonsmith who guest conducted here in recent weeks. He came well prepared and he maintained good communication with the players. There was a new confidence in his gestures to replace the stiffness and tentativeness of his earlier podium appearances.

It came as no surprise that an opera star who is knee-deep in Wagner at the moment—Domingo will portray Siegmund in a new Bayreuth "Ring" this summer—should want to conduct Wagner too. In place of the announced Nicolai "Merry Wives of Windsor" overture, he gave a warmly expressive account of Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," in its full-orchestra version. As you would expect, Domingo's Wagner really sang. Too bad that because he poured on the rubato so liberally the orchestra had to struggle just to keep the music moving.

If Domingo's Wagner sometimes plodded, his accompaniment to the Mendelssohn E-Minor Violin Concerto occasionally threatened to fly ahead of the soloist or fall marginally behind her. But since the soloist was the brilliant Chicago violinist Rachel Barton, no one feared the musical outcome.

The Mendelssohn is one of those fiddle war horses that every young soloist plays but few can play as beautifully as Barton. Without resorting to any musical distortion, she invested the thrice-familiar phrases with a lyrical grace that seemed newly minted. The commanding ease with which she applied fingers and horsehair to the breathless roulades and passage work of the finale was enough to put the crowd in her thrall, as if they weren't fans already.

One hates to sound like a stuck needle, but it must be said that even a violin tone as full and penetrating as Barton's sounded muted from a seat near the front-center of the lower balcony. Listeners seated near the front of the main floor said they found the acoustics superior there.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony spoke more eloquently for the enduring strength of the CSO's Beethoven tradition, as cultivated by Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, than it did for Domingo as a Beethoven conductor.

Some of his interpretative touches worked and some didn't. He built the reading on a firm harmonic foundation of cellos and basses, kept a mostly steady beat and encouraged clean rhythm from his players. Unfortunately, he allowed the Poco sostenuto introduction to the first movement to sag, dissipating tension, and he committed the same solecism in the Trio section of the scherzo, which dragged at a dirgelike tempo. On balance, Domingo's solid, sensible Seventh could have been a lot worse; but, then again, it could also have been a lot better.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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