Whether the reasons are historical or genetic, the English have yet to produce a contemporary composer who might be termed radical.
San Diego Symphony music director David Atherton brought a pair of works by 20th-Century English composers to Symphony Hall Thursday night, confirming the urbane music traditions of even post-World War II Great Britain. Sir Michael Tippett’s First Symphony (1945), a West Coast premiere, proved to be too scholarly for its own good, in spite of Atherton’s evident conviction in its merit and the orchestra’s earnest realization of this contrapuntal tour de force.
Like his Russian counterparts, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch, Tippett felt a need to fill the giant symphonic forms of the previous century with 20th-Century musical vocabulary. Without their angst -laden existential overtones, however, Tippett’s attempt fell flat: his orchestral composition was all detail and no plot.
On the other hand, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto (1954), communicated a jaunty, effervescent spirit that easily transcended the limitations of its lyrical, neoclassical idiom. Principal tubist Matthew Garbutt treated with serious intent Vaughan Williams’ affectionate homage to an instrument prejudiced by humorous associations. Garbutt’s strengths were his persuasive melodic drive and his gently blooming bass tones. In the upper range--that seldom-heard region that sounds like a massive French horn--some of his notes were blurred and under pitch, and his cadenzas sounded a bit on the cautious side. Atherton and the orchestra, however, provided a spirited, colorful accompaniment, provoking from the audience an unusually warm reception for such a rarely performed piece.
Atherton surrounded his English offerings with more familiar French fare. While the opening Berlioz Overture, “Le Corsaire,” brimmed with dramatic fire and brilliance, it never descended to those brash cliches that frequently pass for a perfunctory curtain-raiser.
The artistic climax of the evening came with Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” Suite No. 2, assisted by the San Diego Master Chorale. The delicacy of the violins, the shimmer of the woodwinds, and the lush ensemble gave Ravel’s subtle tonal tapestry the palpable feel of the dance. A more vital, vibrant interpretation of the work could hardly be imagined. Responsive and well-prepared, the chorus added the appropriate brio with its full-throated vocalise.