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MUSIC REVIEW : St. Louis Symphony Opens in Costa Mesa

Times Music Writer

With the opening of a third concert season at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, some observers are still awaiting that predicted letdown in audience interest--and attendance--at center events.

Clearly, it didn’t happen in 1987-88, the second season in the facility. Indications are, and judging from the size of the audience gathered in Segerstrom Hall to hear the St. Louis Symphony, Wednesday night, it may not happen this season, either.

The good news is that 2,400 music-lovers--in a 3,000-seat room--attended this performance by the visiting Missouri orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin, now beginning his 10th season as its music director. (Incidentally, the series that this concert began happens to be 73% sold on subscription).

The bad news, as far as the St. Louis Symphony’s playing goes, doesn’t exist. Slatkin’s youthful ensemble is one of genuine musical strengths, predictable American exuberance and unexpected finesse.

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Opening the 35th season of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, the orchestra, in a program offering Weber’s “Oberon” Overture, Joan Tower’s “Silver Ladders” and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, showed deep ensemble achievement, admirable polish and a wide dynamic palette.

Its string sound, not yet at that place where it can be described in terms of velvet or silk, has an attractive consistency and color-potential; its woodwinds and brass possess strength without overdevelopment; its solo players are solid.

Slatkin, as he showed in Hollywood Bowl a few weeks ago, favors quick tempos in the “Oberon” Overture, but he balances breathlessness with articulation. He had a better string choir (in the L.A. Philharmonic) at the Bowl; in Orange County, he had the advantage of flattering, indoor acoustics, recently enhanced by acousticians and apparently brighter than before.

The improved sound seemed to put an aural probe on the St. Louis ensemble, which did not suffer from such scrutiny. Except that its floor--that is, soft-end--dynamics might be developed even further, this orchestra has built an impressive color-range, which Slatkin uses masterfully.

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Schubert’s “Great” C-major Symphony was the object of such use on Wednesday, in a commanding, tight and unsentimental performance which nevertheless allowed the longish work much of its lyrical expansions without ever lingering over them. No dawdler, Slatkin, but a leader who recognizes poetry even as he sweeps past it.

Given the orchestra’s achievement and the conductor’s predilections, Tower’s brilliant, engrossing and demanding “Silver Ladders,” first introduced in St. Louis in January, 1987, became the perfect contemporary centerpiece for this program.

Dramatic in scope, hyperactive in motion, intense in feeling, the 22-minute work holds the listener through a taut musical scenario.

In the quiet but unrelaxed middle section, tension builds through a series of overlapping instrumental solos which reach not one but two peaks of sensation leading to the extended climax of the finale. Few works written in this century show off the orchestra as gratefully or relentlessly as this one. For those who can master its intricacies--as the St. Louis ensemble has done--it provides a stunning display.

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The 50-year-old New Yorker, who last month completed a three-season tenure as composer in residence with the St. Louis Symphony, was on hand to receive hearty applause for the local premiere performance.

The orchestra continues its West Coast tour this weekend, playing different programs in Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College, tonight at 8 and Saturday night at Royce Hall, UCLA.


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