In prospect, the first orchestral concert of the Strawberry Creek Festival, Saturday evening at Pepperdine University, seemed enticing. The program featured two relatively young, fresh soloists and intriguing, unhackneyed repertory.
The event substantiated much of the allure, although it began on notes of a disappointment. Rossini's "Cenerentola" Overture replaced Milhaud's "Boeuf sur le Toit" on early enough notice to be printed in the program, but not early enough apparently to elicit more from conductor Yehuda Gilad and his chamber-size ensemble than drab routine.
There were still the soloists, however, and soprano Juliana Gondek promptly made everyone in Smothers Theater glad to be there, or so it seemed. She conveyed the ripe, nostalgic yearning of the "Nuits d'ete" songs by Berlioz with easy, sensuous grace. Some of the low-lying passages in "Le Spectre de la Rose" and "Sur les Lagunes" sounded breathy, but generally voice, text and score merged with mellow effortlessness.
Peter Orth, on the other hand, worked forcefully at Schumann's Introduction and Allegro. The pink-faced, impetuous pianist bounced and bobbed in a furious attack that certainly tested the brakes on his instrument's dolly.
Difficult as it was to watch, Orth's performance was not hard to listen to, always excepting the loud toe-tapping. He hit a few clinkers, to be sure, but the piece capitalizes on bravura vigor, and lyric charm was not lacking either, when needed.
Gilad and Co. served Orth and Schumann better than they did Gondek and Berlioz. The dry, thin sound of the small string section simply could not provide the requisite cushion for Berlioz' complex textures.
The orchestra came into its own in Dvorak's Symphonic Variations. Gilad's studied approach to the work segmented it unduly, but his players--evidently partly students, partly professionals--responded eagerly.