Over the past two San Diego Symphony seasons, which have been the orchestra’s endless summer of guest conductors, Yoav Talmi has been the most frequent visitor on the San Diego podium.
The intrepid Israeli conductor returned Friday to Symphony Hall with a pleasantly eclectic offering of Berlioz, Ravel, and Dvorak. Though the orchestra responded well to Talmi’s leadership, this display of enthusiasm may be attributed as much to Talmi’s directing skill as to the players’ relief at seeing a familiar face behind the baton.
Talmi likes to feature unusual repertory: On his last visit, he mixed a rarely played Rameau suite with his Ravel de jour , but Friday night’s concert proved that he can rouse comparable passion for the familiar. If his approach to Dvorak’s redoubtable symphony “From the New World” favored heroic proportions, it nevertheless had a fresh, gregarious feeling that prevented it from becoming just another symphonic rerun.
The pacing of the symphony was exemplary, and the orchestra produced a colorful, robust sound and disciplined ensemble.
The orchestra delivered a modicum of well-controlled turbulence in the opening movement, then relaxed for Dvorak’s bouquet of lyrical woodwind solos in the Largo, all executed with lyrical ease. The watchful Talmi, however, never allowed that staple of pops programming to languish.
Everything went swimmingly until the final movement, where Talmi asked for an added measure of intensity and brilliance. Then the orchestra’s sound turned strident, and its ensemble frayed at the edges. Because the orchestra was already playing at its peak, it had no more to give.
Part of the problem, of course, is that this symphony plays with nearly 20 fewer players than, say, the London Philharmonic, which performed at Civic Theatre earlier this week. Until the San Diego Symphony is restored to its full complement of players and works under the regular tutelage of a resident music director, it is likely to endure the consequences of these handicaps.
After a festive reading of Berlioz’s overture to “Benvenuto Cellini,” the orchestra’s program opener, Argentine pianist Bruno Leonardo Gelber offered an idiosyncratic interpretation of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto. His muscular approach sounded as if he had been training on a strict regimen of muscle-enhancing steroids. He favored a rich, dark sonority, and his attacks were percussive, even athletic. While this meant that all of the composer’s jazz-influenced rhythmic complexities stood out in bold relief, the subtle harmonic shifts and suave melodic contours, hallmarks of Ravel’s style, were lost.
Earlier this week, Gregory Allen opened his Civic Theatre piano recital with Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” which he played with all the traditional Ravel virtues: transparency, refinement, and gently nuanced melody. While it would be dogmatic to insist that there is only one valid approach to playing Ravel, Gelber did not win over this Ravel fan.