The San Francisco Symphony is a distinctive band with a clear sonic identity, at least in the bright acoustic of Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. That's good news in this age of sound-alike orchestras.
As heard on disc and at home in Davies Hall, the features of the San Francisco sound are tight, lean strings and wonderfully fluent, characterful woodwinds. To this mix, Segerstrom Hall added overwhelming brass, giving the orchestra at climactic moments a very thick middle with virtually no top.
The second half of the program heard Sunday afternoon, devoted to Dvorak, had many such moments. Music director Herbert Blomstedt took the currently popular Seventh Symphony with a full measure of Mahlerian hyperbole, stressing dramatic development and formal contrasts. This line unraveled a bit in the Finale, but otherwise proved a cogent argument, its sound and fury signifying much in the way of deeply felt tragedy.
Blomstedt's musicians gave him a responsive, well-integrated performance, always excepting the tendency for the brass-led winds to cover everything in an heroic blaze. The oboes and clarinets in particular covered themselves with solo glory, in a propulsive performance of great definition and excitement.
Polite applause proved an oxymoron as the large crowd clapped for nearly every movement throughout the afternoon, whether it be the exhausted despair of Dvorak's first movement or the end of a Haydn Minuet, with Blomstedt poised to continue. Only at the end of the Dvorak Scherzo did he evade the clapping, launching the Finale almost immediately.
Nonetheless, Blomstedt rewarded the audience with two encores, Dvorak's Slavonic Dances No. 3 and No. 8. These were true to their kinetic roots, vigorously accented and dizzying in contrast.
On the first half, Blomstedt paired Haydn's Symphony No. 86 with David Carlson's Rhapsodies. The latter is a lush sequence of instrumental songs, currently making the rounds of orchestras great and small, far and near.
Reminiscent of Stravinsky's "Firebird" in the shimmering scoring and David Del Tredici's "Alice" music in its yearning sentiment, Rhapsodies is a gushingly accessible orchestral vehicle. Graced with eloquent, pointed woodwind solos and a warm string context, the performance rose frequently to expansive climaxes, glib emotional swellings rather than substantive developments.
Blomstedt began the concert with about half the orchestra, though the effect in the marvelously quirky Haydn was more ritualistic than stylistic. His tempos were brisk and the playing crisp--including some odd, terse ornaments--though again there was a clotted sound with secondary wind parts blurring the essential string lines.
The program was scheduled to be repeated Monday at the Music Center, with a second program slated there for tonight. Wednesday, the touring San Franciscans appear at McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert.