MUSIC REVIEW : Orchestra Lurches With Unlicensed Driver at Wheel

Just when it appeared the San Diego Symphony SummerPops had its act together, it regressed into its bad old habits. The opening four weeks of the current season have kept the orchestra center stage, performing generally well-chosen and tightly organized programs. But Wednesday night's haphazard tribute to the Broadway musical stage gave the orchestra too little to do--at times the players just sat on stage staring into space--and over-indulged the meager keyboard talent of guest conductor Bob Lappin.

In truth, to honor Lappin with the title "conductor" is to insult every real conductor, from the late Herbert von Karajan down to the local high school bandmaster. Lappin's program biography describes him as a former nightclub band leader who (wisely) went into the soft-drink distributing business in Connecticut.

On the podium, Lappin was more of a follower than a leader, and his conducting motions looked like a comedian's frenetic imitation of a music director. And what did that set of Lionel Richie tunes have to do with the program's Broadway theme?

Lappin bounded out onto the Hospitality Point stage in an electric yellow dinner jacket, looking like a refugee nightclub entertainer. His piano playing was loud and heavy-handed, full of predictable, gratuitous flourishes: that generic cocktail lounge style over which patrons rightly converse and cement business deals. Fortunately, he was less inclined to push his singing, which ranked several notches below his piano playing.

The orchestra coped as best as it could. In the opening Gershwin medley, it sounded fresh and buoyant. Second trumpet John Wilds turned a delicious solo in "The Man I Love," and the percussion section made "I Got Rhythm" sparkle.

During a lengthy Irving Berlin medley, the orchestra marked time while Lappin accompanied guest vocalists Jan Horvath and David Chaney. Although Chaney's pleasantly relaxed baritone proved adequate, soprano Horvath foolishly attempted to make singing flat some sort of stylish trademark.

The two soloists fared better in the lavishly orchestrated "Salute to Andrew Lloyd Webber" that made up the program's second half.

At times, Horvath was able to compensate for her singing under pitch by shouting into the microphone, a less than satisfactory solution to the problem, but she did nothing to dislodge Patti LuPone's "Evita" songs from their icon status. Chaney pulled out his best stentorian notes for a grandiloquent "Memory," although he ducked the highest notes in the final upward modulation. His notion of tempo was either slow or slower, and with an unlicensed driver at the wheel of the orchestra, singer and accompaniment were seldom together.

The show repeats tonight and Saturday at 7:30.

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