Since its founding four years ago, the South Coast Symphony seems to have become noticeably more mature, more confident and more ambitious. Under John Larry Granger, the comparatively youthful ensemble opened its current season with verve and vitality at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa on Saturday.
Granger still has some awkward conducting habits; he tends to use large, thrusting motions and does not appear to have developed an independent left-hand technique. As a result, he elicited an aggressive, energetic performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 36 ("Linz") that exhibited very little subtlety. The large string section played with determination and headlong abandon, and a few sloppy passages inevitably emerged. But this reading proved in the long run a reasonably accurate one, and Granger seems to have molded the 70 musicians into a cohesive group.
The evening's high point came after intermission, when violinist Moshe Hammer played Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Hammer produced an unflaggingly satisfying sound. He exhibited stunning control and played with uninterrupted fluidity, and he dispatched the score with unconcerned ease. But his playing was by no means mechanical; expressive drama and probing insight characterized this account.
Granger proved an adept accompanist, maintaining proper balances and presiding over alert and, save for some questionable woodwind intonation, accurate orchestral playing. On the subject of accompaniment, what began as an occasional cough became a veritable chorus of hacks and sneezes from the audience, usually at the soft passages.
As an encore, Hammer offered an unaccompanied Bach Praeludium.
Granger has made some interesting programing choices for this season. Besides such familiar items as Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, concert-goers will hear Nielsen's Fourth Symphony and the premiere of a new work. Saturday's novelty was Bartok's Two Portraits, Opus 5, an early work that finds the composer grappling for his own tonal language. Granger and orchestra delivered the haunting score with intensity, although one would have welcomed greater emphasis on dynamic contrast.