Music director Yehuda Gilad and the folks at the Malibu Strawberry Creek Music Festival do not flinch from the big challenges. Gilad closed the current edition Saturday with a taxing, oddly sorted program mixing a peppy, post-modern premiere with two pillars of Romantic strife and resolution.
At the heart of the program at Smothers Theatre of Pepperdine University lay Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene from "Gotterdammerung," itself a premiere of sorts. Wagner apparently downsized his "Ring" instrumentation for the opera house at Coburg, and that is the version Gilad used, perhaps for the first time in this country.
There was nothing small-scale about the singing of the scene, however. Jeannine Altmeyer supplied potent vocalism, fiercely gleaming above the orchestral fray but also flexible and well-shaded, wilting with the weight of grief as well as blazing with sacrificial fervor. At times she was physically off-balance from the passion of the moment, but for all its expressive vehemence, her singing was never out of control.
For the orchestra's part, the scoring changes were not as noticeable as the wind/string imbalances in the large chamber orchestra. Gilad kept it urgent without exaggeration, and his players followed spiritedly.
The strings were swamped again in Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, as a blaze of brass engulfed the climaxes. Otherwise, this was remarkably suave Tchaikovsky, elegant and kinetically lithe yet deeply felt. Soloism throughout proved pertinent and characterful, as Gilad provided a context of clarified textures and meaningful nuance, while stressing the odd thematic resonances with the Wagner.
Byron Adams' new "Capriccio" Concertante is a zesty opener in an idiom very much like that of Samuel Barber. It quotes the hymn-tune "Nettleton" affectionately and at length, crackles with brash wit, and displays the energy and polish of a band like the Festival Orchestra to good effect.