Some coincidences are illuminating.
Last Thursday, Carl St. Clair opened his second season as music director of the Pacific Symphony in Orange County with an awkward program in which Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs served as elegiac centerpiece.
The following night, Yoav Talmi--in his second season at the helm of the San Diego Symphony--confronted the same challenge in the middle of an emphatically coherent program at Copley Symphony Hall.
Chalk one up for San Diego.
St. Clair obviously appreciated the aching, arching pathos of Strauss' valedictory, but he allowed orchestral stridency to compromise its impact. His rather cool soprano soloist, Benita Valente, sounded fine at the top but her lovely tone became thin and breathy as the line descended.
Talmi encountered no such problems. He favored broad yet flexible tempos and savored extraordinarily mellow, transparent textures in the orchestra.
He exulted in Strauss' telling instrumental effects--the calm and spacious entry of the horns in the "Death and Transfiguration" motive at the end, for instance, leading so naturally the otherworldly benediction of shimmering flutes impersonating larks. At the same time, Talmi provided a remarkably tender, thoughtful accompaniment for his soprano soloist, Georgine Resick.
Resick, an American who has built a distinguished career in German opera houses, commands a slender, silvery soprano more notable for purity than for power. She approaches the Four Last Songs not as a Marschallin but as a Sophie.
It is a precarious though eminently legitimate approach and, given interpretive sensitivity as well as orchestral sympathy, it can work. It worked beautifully on this occasion.
The San Diego audience, unlike its Costa Mesa counterpart, sustained rapt concentration between the songs. Rather sparse attendance may be a problem here, but those who come do not seem to suffer from the premature-applause syndrome.
Like Orange County, on the other hand, San Diego has a program magazine that is compromised by chronically sloppy spelling and proofreading. Is there an editor in the house?
Talmi opened the well-balanced concert with Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477, in a performance notable for stately restraint.
After intermission, he turned to the bucolic ecstasies of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, gently reinforcing the inherent whimsy and lyrical pathos while resisting any temptation to exaggerate the drama.
He made generous use of rubato and fearless use of ritards. He never lost control of narrative propulsion, however, or sight of structural unity. Despite some fleeting orchestral smudges, this was an enlightened performance.
Resick returned to sit stoically through the 18-minute adagio. Then she sang the naive verses of the finale with uncommon sweetness and perfect, childlike innocence.
The audience responded with the ultimate tribute: silence that gave way to an ovation only after everyone could regain composure and catch a collective breath. That seemed to take forever.