MUSIC REVIEW : Percussion Ensemble Adds to an Eclectic Concert

Some orchestra directors talk about bold, innovative programming, but Thomas Nee, music director of the La Jolla Civic-University Symphony, wrote the book on that subject, thank you. Nee's Sunday afternoon concert at UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium was a prime specimen of his unique eclecticism. Opening with Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, he moved on to a pair of contemporary concerted works featuring the Nexus Percussion Ensemble, added Janacek's rarely heard "Jealousy" Overture, and ended with Dvorak's Te Deum for chorus, orchestra and soloists.

A visit by Nexus, Canada's noted five-man percussion ensemble, occasioned a revival of Henry Cowell's 1958 Percussion Concerto and William Cahn's more recent "The Birds."

Cowell turned a phalanx of typical orchestral percussion instruments--drums, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone and temple blocks--into the Western equivalent of a Javanese gamelan. Unfortunately, Cowell's clever instrumentation was more inventive than his musical imagination. Any one of the concerto's three similarly paced, monothematic movements adequatedly covered what the composer had to say in this medium.

Cahn's "The Birds" indulged more than 100 different bird imitation devices, according to the program notes, in an admittedly frivolous cadenza of barnyard cacophony. But why? Cahn, who is one of the founding members of Nexus, no doubt got a kick out of tooting and tweeting, in consort with his Nexus colleagues, to an innocuous orchestral background. The ample Mandeville audience laughed, but was the Muse amused? Perhaps appreciating percussion high jinks is an acquired taste, and for the aficionados, Nexus performs a solo concert at UCSD today at 8 p.m.

Under Nee's spirited direction, the Dvorak Te Deum was stirring and rhythmically vibrant. Soprano Sylvia Wen's alternately brilliant and melting solos could not have been more stylish or affecting. Wen, who is appearing with the San Diego Opera this season in two productions, crowned the 200-voice chorus and full orchestra with glorious tones. Philip Larson was taxed by his solos, which called for more basso profondo than his lyric baritone possesses.

In the Schubert Symphony No. 8, as well as in the Janacek opus, Nee's instrumentalists sounded unusually precise and well-disciplined.

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