Conductor Fabio Mechetti made his combination debut and swan song as part of the San Diego Symphony's subscription series on Thursday night at Symphony Hall. The Brazilian-born conductor joined the local symphony staff last November as its resident conductor, but announced in mid-March that he would not return to San Diego after his duties were completed later this month. As his previous podium appearances for daytime and educational programs have demonstrated, Mechetti is a skilled but uninspiring technician.
Although he performed his entire program of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Bruckner from memory, his evident careful preparation and unequivocal, diagrammatic conducting manner elicited scant chemistry between orchestra and conductor. Only in the more energetic moments of Bruckner's First Symphony did the somnolent symphony awaken from a sense of disengagement that pervaded the evening's music-making.
The Bruckner symphony was certainly a welcome programming choice, since the orchestra's previous music director, David Atherton, had a deep-seated antipathy for the Austrian composer's effulgent excursions. During the British maestro's tenure, Bruckner was rarely featured on local symphony programs. Perhaps the players' unfamiliarity with the idiom was the partial cause for lapses in intonation and ensemble attack that plagued the violins. The low brasses, however, jumped at the chance to snarl and growl their way through Bruckner's dense undergrowth, and the horns lent a certain nobility to the somber chorale themes. Mechetti appeared to be more in his element here, and he did attempt to organize the symphony's episodic structure with sure-paced discipline.
Cellist Carter Brey gave an unsettling account of Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme." Although Brey has built a solid reputation in chamber, his profile as an orchestral soloist lacked depth and passion. If he displayed a dismaying tendency to play under pitch at the outset, he proved to be a master of what 19th-Century critics called "the ravishing pianissimo." He executed the work's elegant decoration with uncanny finesse, but we heard little of the composer's soulful Romanticism behind the fragile rococo mask.
Mechetti's odd choice to open the concert, Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," not only placed the two variation cycles back to back, a predictable strain on the listeners' attention, but his sedate interpretation reduced the piece to a mere academic etude. If he took such little evident delight in Brahms' contrapuntal forays, he should have substituted one of those spiffy Rossini overtures of which he is so fond.