In Santa Barbara's symphonic sweepstakes, the contest continues. This is a season of transition and of decision, as a series of guest conductors takes the stage in a live auditioning forum, and the audience is officially offered an opportunity to "meet the maestros" applying for the job.
Saturday night at the Arlington Theatre, the man with the baton was Isaiah Jackson, currently music director of the Dayton Philharmonic (and, incidentally, one of the few black conductors currently holding an important post with an American orchestra). He brought out of the ensemble measured doses of gusto and sensitivity in a program beholden to standard repertory but including a brief piece of esoterica.
Jackson opened the concert with a sharp reading of the 1944 work, "Symphonic Poem" by the American composer William Grant Still, whose music the conductor championed on a recent CD. Gershwin-esque jazz-blues syntax energizes the first movement. Suddenly, the harmonic tension eases and we're left with orchestral syrup better suited to Broadway than the concert stage. Essentially, the forces of evil succumb to the force of major-key goodness, and evil's charisma is sorely missed.
Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 is a work perched precariously between the 19th and 20th centuries, between tradition and secession. Soloist Abdel Rahman el Bacha brought the required bravado to meet the virtuosic demands, but the overall sound was mushy, thanks in part to the Arlington's uneven acoustics.
To close, Jackson and orchestra offered proficiency and, occasionally, passion to the old Old-World terrain of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, whose familiar, tune-driven machinery needs more than proficiency to save it from the doldrums. The best part of this performance, the Largo achieved a luxuriant glow, complementing the melding of folk-ish theme and romantic sweep at its most alluring.