Bruckner's Ninth Symphony did not turn out to be a wise choice for the two-part West Coast calling-card program by Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Orchestra on Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The concert was sponsored by the Philharmonic Society.
This sublime score received mechanical, earthbound attention from a musically rigid Lopez-Cobos, who conducted from memory but kept any transcendent ideas he had about the work to himself.
Directing with clear, precise and some might say overly controlled gestures, he put such an emphasis on verticality that one could almost count the bars one by one as they passed. Forget about forward momentum or purposeful goals, much less re-creating the composer's vision of ideal and at times frightening play among cosmic forces.
Here we heard broad, big and crude musical gestures, flat-footed climaxes (mostly all equal in loudness) and machine as opposed to organic or even divine power.
Take, for instance, the exchanges between strings and horns in the Scherzo, which sounded as if some kind of stuck-in-a-rut, dementedly polite and deferential dialogue was transpiring between choirs not really reacting to each other.
As for the gathering excitement in the Adagio--one of the few persuasive instances of a beatific vision rendered in musical terms--here we heard simply another clockwork crescendo. Even the Dresden Amen sequences lacked liturgical connotations.
With such conceptual lapses, no one needed to gripe about the orchestra's sloppiness in pitch, rough textures and overall lack of finesse. True, the Cincinnatians delivered mighty noise and power, but that was not always exactly a virtue in this work.
They were much more successful opening the program with Mozart's Divertimento in D, K. 251, without the final Marcia alla Francese and played by about 35 instrumentalists or perhaps more than five times the number of musicians who first performed it in 1776. (Program annotator Jonathan D. Kramer claimed, with some basis, that the March is not an integral part of the piece.)
Here Lopez-Cobos kept the work moving with bright energy, with attractive if stylishly unfashionable long-line phrasing and light vibrato, and with straightforward affection.
Despite some squirrelly strings, the orchestra played with verve; and, fortunately, oboist Richard Johnson overcame his initial problems with pitch and articulation.