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SYMPHONY REVIEW : Somber Opening Augurs a More Serious ’89

The San Diego Symphony greeted 1989 with one of its most serious, sober programs in recent memory. Under the direction of guest conductor Hermann Michael, Thursday’s Symphony Hall concert opened with Brahms’ “Tragic” Overture, followed by Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Perhaps this earnest lineup is an omen, a sign that 1989 will be the year the local orchestra gets down to the serious business of regaining the musical chops it sported during the heyday of former music director David Atherton.

The optimists at Thursday’s concert will no doubt point to the sleek, energized performance of Bartok’s challenging concerto as evidence of the orchestra’s growing prowess. The pessimists have equal cause to note the rough edges of the Brahms overture, a work that should be a sure-fire staple of any respectable ensemble, as evidence of the orchestra’s lack of polish and dependability.

Michael, a German maestro who has made his name primarily in the opera pit, appeared to relish every detail of the Bartok. Under his watchful eye, the highly episodic piece unfolded with unmistakable urgency and conviction. It was also clear that the concerto was a vehicle to bring out the best in the local players. All the traits Bartok demands--taut unisons, compact phrasing and bold attacks--were abundantly evident. Although the work was designed to mete out solo opportunities democratically, which is why the composer called it a concerto for orchestra, the fine work of the symphony’s trumpets should not go unheralded.

Michael and his Czech pianist projected two entirely different approaches to the Schumann A Minor Piano Concerto. The conductor urged his players to lavish affection on every phrase, while the soloist worked the piano keyboard with stoic detachment. When Michael found Schumann’s pervasive dotted rhythms playful, Ivan Moravec found them severe and precise.

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Schumann requires either poetry or passion, probably an inspired combination of the two, but Moravec appeared intent on applying geometric theorems to the familiar score. Even his inflexible, highly arched hand position contributed to the cold, disembodied tone of the Steinway. Fortunately, at the climax of the final movement, the pianist unleashed a rhapsodic surge of emotion to prove that there was a heart behind his steel technique.

On the podium, Michael made an unsettling impression. While he paid close attention to detail, dispensed cues liberally and thoughtfully shaped each, his busy conducting style came off as patently staged. His dramatic body language was clearly calculated to call attention to the conductor’s art and importance. While this is not exactly a misdemeanor, other conductors have coaxed equal results from this orchestra with far less stagecraft.


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