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MUSIC REVIEW : Clark Conducts Pacific Symphony at Center

Times Staff Writer

Conductor Keith Clark offered case studies of his strengths and weaknesses at the first subscription concert of his final season as music director of the Pacific Symphony on Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

Clark seemed at ease with and attuned to some sprawling rhetoric of Richard Strauss and, unfortunately, the bombast of Ottorino Respighi. But the subtlety of a late Mozart Piano Concerto eluded him.

With sympathy and workman-like attention, Clark steered through Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” managing the loose structure; evoking odd, unfamiliar parallels with Mahler, and exploring--reveling in--funereal tempos.

The orchestra did not provide ideal support, however. Intonation was off, ensemble work imprecise. As a result of resignations over the summer and more remunerative work temporarily available elsewhere, a number of new players sat in the orchestra’s string section--which may have accounted for the thin, wiry violin tone. Still, offering fine solo work were first-desk members, concertmaster Endre Granat, second violinist Alexander Horvath, violist Robert Becker, cellist John Acosta and trumpeter Malcolm McNab.

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Clark approached Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with one-dimensional, straightforward propulsion, with lack of light and shade and charm and lyricism. He also seemed determined to phrase the music his way, independent of soloist Misha Dichter.

For his part, Dichter combined grace with strength and demonstrated honeyed, fluent finger work even when hemmed in by Clark’s more aggressive, unyielding accompaniment. Dichter shone best in the unaccompanied opening of the middle movement, where his restrained poignancy was excelled only by the newer depths he revealed in the passage’s return.

Respighi’s “Church Windows,” which closed the program, presents the composer at his most tawdry and simplistic, almost prescient in writing in 1925 music ideal for later silver screen biblical epics, yet heavily indebted to his own “Pines of Rome” written a year earlier.

Clark did little to minimize the languor and the bombast of the 30-minute work, yet oddly failed to let the composer’s religiosity soar in triumph. Nonetheless, afterwards, a fan in the front row handed Clark a bouquet of roses.

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