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Symphony Whips Up Respectable French Souffle at Pops Concert : SAN DIEGO COUNTY

They did not construct a replica of the Eiffel Tower on stage or outline the Arc de Triomphe in fireworks, but the San Diego Symphony gave the French a reasonable musical salute at its Wednesday pops concert.

Guest conductor Bruce Ferden, music director of the Spokane Symphony, chose works by Berlioz, Gounod, Offenbach, Debussy and Ravel for his Gallic souffle. If Ferden, a Norwegian-American from the remote regions of Minnesota, was not an obvious choice to lead an all-French program, the genial, energetic conductor proved more than sympathetic to the French Muse.

In Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture, the program’s opening salvo, Ferden quickly established his easygoing authority, pressing the orchestra through this familiar collage of fanfares with crisp efficiency. The overture exposed his flair for the dramatic--not a surprising trait since Ferden has made his name as a wizard of the opera pit, notably in his interpretations of the recent stage works of minimalist guru Philip Glass.

With the symphony as an eager collaborator, Ferden traversed a suite of six ballet movements from Gounod’s “Faust.” These transparent baubles led directly into a full-bodied reading of Offenbach’s manic overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

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This program’s primary attraction was Maurice Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto with soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. While this was not an ideal setting in which to evaluate his musical mettle--outdoors on an amplified 6-foot grand piano--the 26-year-old Frenchman made a superb first impression. If his opening of the concerto sounded a bit too deliberate, his initial caution quickly gave way to fluent confidence. His perfectly manicured technique, firmness of attack and brilliantly seamless fioritura made the concerto exciting without overwhelming it in virtuoso display.

Bavouzet displayed that natural sense of good taste and restraint that is not only quintessentially French, but requisite for Ravel. Especially in the middle movement, the soloist wooed Ravel’s gentle waltz with such subtle nuance and a rhythmic delicacy that it lost its Viennese pedigree entirely. The soloist’s ardor in the finale made one wonder why he did not move beyond the semifinals in the recent Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

The orchestra was at its best in the concerto, accompanying with graceful and transparent clarity. A few seams showed in Ravel’s “Bolero"--particularly in some botched woodwind solos--but Ferden prodded the symphony to a taut, fiery climax.

About 1,900 patrons heard this concert, which continues at the Hospitality Point site in Mission Beach though Saturday.

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