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MUSIC REVIEWS : Larrocha Steals Solid Concert

All eyes and ears are, ostensibly, on the podium in this transitional season of the Santa Barbara Symphony, as different guest conductors vie for the position left empty by maestro Varujun Kojian’s death last year.

On Saturday night, firm but supple guidance came from the hand of Bernard Rubenstein, leader of the Tulsa Philharmonic for the last decade.

But it was another visitor who seized the greater attention and affection on this night. Pianist Alicia de Larrocha’s effortless elan and consummate subtlety couldn’t fail but steal the show. Added poignancy came from her dedication of her performance to Avery Fisher, who died Saturday.

Amid the kitschy, psuedo-villa decor of the Arlington Theater, Larrocha brought requisite degrees of impassioned and impressionistic playing to Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” It was, however, with Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto that Larrocha’s artistry flew the highest. Her poetic reading of the Adagio assai, with its languid lines and gentle dissonances, and her breezy kineticism in the Presto amounted to a wonder worthy of ovations.

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In the first half, after the brisk, whirling beginning of Berlioz’s “Beatrice and Benedict” Overture, the orchestra performed Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 3 (1938). Rubenstein prefaced the performance with a well-intentioned but patronizing young-person’s-guide-to-the-20th-Century introduction, replete with select passages played by the orchestra. Is this necessary for a piece that isn’t even especially difficult for audiences?

If Harris’ emotionally mercurial Symphony is difficult listening, it is more so in the general design than in the details. Now earnest and confident, now probing and confused, the piece plays like a nomadic anthem of the American spirit--a maze of bravado and skepticism.

Despite a few rough spots, the orchestra under Rubenstein captured the work’s inherent paradoxes beautifully. In all, this was the most satisfying concert of the season thus far.


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