The San Diego Pops season finale ended with a bang and a whimper. The bang was the requisite fireworks display concluding Wednesday night’s all-Beethoven concert. The whimper was David Commanday’s programming, 10 snippets from the composer’s mighty orchestral repertory. While this low-keyed sampler might have been appropriate for, say, Franz Berwald or John Knowles Paine, it was decidedly small-scaled for a composer known as the Titan of Western music.
Fortunately, Commanday, the San Diego Symphony’s assistant conductor, proved a genial host, alternating his earnest music appreciation homilies with decorously humorous anecdotes and asides. If his demeanor suggested that of the star pupil filling in for the absent professor, he was nevertheless fluent and confident in his delivery. His pronunciation of various German titles was punctilious, and only once did he stumble over his umlauts.
It was not, however, a stellar evening for the orchestra. Several of the orchestra’s principal players were not in attendance, and the on stage stalwarts have endured a demanding 12-week summer schedule. Color them tired.
There were a few moments of real musical fireworks. The scherzo from the “Eroica” Symphony skittered across the stage with energetic aplomb, and the last movement from the Seventh Symphony would have soared nobly if the brass had stayed in tune.
Commanday programmed only individual movements from various symphonies, surrounding them with a potpourri of marches, dances and orchestrated piano pieces. The Military Polonaise for winds and percussion added a jaunty, unhackneyed touch in an otherwise predictable evening.
On the podium, Commanday was efficient and thorough, although his conducting gestures were dominated by an exaggerated upbeat shove that understandably failed to induce elegant playing. His grasp of the Fifth Symphony’s opening movement was less than secure, and his nervous tempo worked against the orchestra’s sense of ensemble in what has to be some of its most familiar musical territory. They played the Fifth twice this past winter season.
“Wellington’s Victory” provided a suitable vehicle for the fireworks, although it took a long time for both the piece and the rockets to get off the ground.