Can a businesslike, no-nonsense conductor like John Larry Granger find happiness with a slam-bang, rip-up-the-joint blockbuster like Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony?
Not really. At least, not with the limited forces of his South Coast Symphony, as demonstrated at a concert in Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, on Saturday night. Granger, an efficient if somewhat introverted conductor, elicited crisp passage work and often exuberant playing, while never allowing this often unwieldy beast of a symphony to get away from him.
But let's face it, the work requires much more--more power than the brass could provide, more sensuousness than the often shrill strings could muster, more lushness, more tension, more guts.
Samuel John Swartz attended to his modest chores at a borrowed Allen organ with his usual calm professionalism.
A bank of 14 speakers mounted at the rear of the orchestra projected the organ sound clearly, though the massive chords that launch the finale never quite overwhelmed as they must. Similarly, the faintly heard contribution of pianists Rita Borden and Les Falconer seemed more an afterthought than a crucial coloristic component.
Pre-intermission, radio personality Martin Workman served as narrator in Copland's worshipful "Lincoln Portrait." A lot of great voices have spoken the words of Honest Abe in this rousing tribute. But a booming, theatrical delivery is not a requirement. Lincoln, reported to have a plain, even slightly high-pitched voice, was not, after all, Orson Welles.
In that sense, Workman gave a satisfying reading of the text--it's tempting to call it a workmanlike performance. His voice is not a rich one, but it proved effective. How could one go wrong with such stirring words and a brilliant score to match?
In the latter, Granger and his charges provided a detailed, enthusiastic accompaniment.
The finest music-making of the evening came in the opening set of "Ancient Airs and Dances" by Respighi. Granger seemed at home with these elegant, understated arrangements, and the orchestra responded with warm, attentive playing.