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MUSIC REVIEW : San Diego Symphony Ends the First Concert of Season With a High Note

Since opening night at the San Diego Symphony turned into a music marathon, it was no small consolation to depart Symphony Hall with the grand, stentorian fanfares of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony still echoing in the lobby.

When guest conductor Leopold Hager’s program was first announced, it was a pleasantly, albeit predictably, balanced offering of a Verdi Overture, Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Two Pianos, and the Sibelius Second Symphony.

For unexplained reasons, the more attractive portions of the program--the Verdi and the Sibelius--were scrapped and replaced by Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 and the Tchaikovsky. Adding two symphonies to the concerto made the evening a 2 1/2 endurance test.

In truth, the symphony management could have saved a bundle by omitting the Mendelssohn concerto entirely. The expense of bringing duo pianists Richard and John Contiguglia, as well as the cost of renting an extra Steinway, was wasted on this turgid, uninspired concerto.

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To his credit, the composer had the good sense never to have sent this silly bit of juvenilia off to his publishers. (The concerto manuscript was discovered in a Berlin library in 1956, where it had languished in well-deserved oblivion.)

On Friday evening’s concert, the fratelli Contiguglia did nothing to make a case for this sorry work. They were alternately fussy and clumsy, their generally wooden attacks and square articulation choking off the few ingratiating moments scattered about the concerto.

On a more hopeful note, in the Tchaikovsky symphony the orchestra exhibited a richer, more balanced ensemble than has been heard here since the heyday of the David Atherton era. New additions to the brass sections brought a welcome level of strength and dependability, although it may be some time before the brass has a truly cohesive, burnished sonority.

For the modest size of the local orchestra, the players produced a full and energetic sound, giving the symphony the compelling, visceral character it needs. In the more subtle inner movements, the lower strings and principal bassoon Dennis Michel brought appropriate warmth and flexibility, virtues otherwise in short supply on this opening night.

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Hager’s modest abilities were sufficiently expounded in the Mozart symphony, which came off respectably, if calculated and slightly labored. The silver-haired Austrian conductor should have required the violins to approximate a lighter and less strident approach to Mozart’s exuberant figurations, although their execution was more unified than usual.

While the program notes gushed that Hager, who is music director of Luxembourg’s RTL-Orchestra, is “one of today’s more important conductors,” it is difficult to imagine, say, Zubin Mehta worrying about the likes of Hager taking his job away. His leadership was competent, unequivocal, and thoroughly undistinguished. If he is the first of a long string of European Kappelmeisters trying out for the symphony’s vacant music director position, this reviewer can only say, “Next candidate, please!”


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