Celebrating Bach's 300th birthday at Thursday's San Diego Symphony concert was not on maestro David Atherton's priority list, but guest violinist Henryk Szeryng saved the evening with his encore. Choosing the Prelude from Bach's E Major Unaccompanied Violin Partita, Szeryng sailed through its haunting roulades with finesse and obvious affection.
The eminent Polish-born violinist had just completed his duties in the Brahms Violin Concerto, and was basking in a modicum of audience adulation, although considering Szeryng's aristocratic demeanor, the verb basking is probably too uncouth. Szeryng's Brahms could not have been more elegant, his tone more sterling, nor his cantabile line more refined. But what first appeared as a virtue proved the performer's limitation.
Szeryng's meticulous phrasing and expressive purity in the concerto's architecturally pristine opening movement became the vigorous finale's straitjacket. It was as though the violinist had transplanted the earthy north German composer into a perfumed Paris salon.
Few, however, would accuse Atherton's orchestra of mindlessly mimicking such overrefinement. Having just returned from a two-month hiatus, the instrumentalists were still in search of a cohesive ensemble. In the Brahms, whatever Atherton requested from his players came back in spades. When he wanted an expansive texture, they responded with overpowering volume. When he pleaded understatement, they retreated into an ill-focused haze. The orchestra's overly square rhythmic cadence in the finale was at odds with the concept of both composer and soloist.
For nearly a year the orchestra has been without a regular concertmaster, and although the post will be filled in the fall, the toll on the strings has been marked. The violins especially lack breadth, and the string sections are all too easily overpowered by the wind and brass sections, even when approaching a mere forte. Fortunately, Thursday's program provided the ideal piece for this imbalanced sonority, Silvestre Revueltas' screaming tone poem "Sensemaya."
If Ravel's "Bolero" hints at erotic overtones, Revueltas' pageant of musical primitivism is an orgy waiting to be raided. Both works are based on a rhythmic ostinato, a musical device that seems to bring out the sensual side of certain composers. The seething score and its rhythmic complexities, however, finally cracked Atherton's British composure on the podium. To bring the orchestra to its resplendent climax, Atherton threw in what appeared to be a few pagan dance steps. That touch of suggestive choreography alone was worth the price of admission.
Atherton opened the Civic Theatre program with Schubert's First Symphony. Like the first opera of an Italian composer whose name will not be mentioned, this first symphony should be reserved for scholarly contemplation only. Schubert's skein of meandering melodies proved totally innocent of dramatic organization, and the conductor's efforts to infuse credibility into this flawed essay were to no avail.