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Orchestra Muted by Mediocrity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Corigliano: Piano Concerto; Ticheli: Radiant Voices, Postcard. Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony. Alain Lefevre, soloist.

Koch International Classics 3-7250-2. In the first recording by Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony, due in the stores next week, the orchestra is following a canny marketing strategy established years ago by the Pacific’s founding conductor, Keith Clark: Record little-known music by American composers. The effort gets attention, merits respect if not reverence and encounters little if any competition.

Clark and the orchestra recorded (on various labels) Copland’s “Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson,” Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 6, Ives’ Third Orchestral Set and Menotti’s Violin Concerto. None was a familiar work. None had been recorded by anyone else.

St.Clair and Co. have recorded, for Koch International Classics, John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto, with Alain Lefevre as the soloist, and two pieces by Pacific composer-in-residence Frank Ticheli: “Radiant Voices,” commissioned in 1992 by the Pacific, and “Postcard,” a concert-band piece from 1991 reworked for the orchestra.

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None will be familiar to anyone except Pacific Symphony audiences who have heard all of them over the last few seasons. None is available on other recordings, although Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony reportedly will issue their version of the piano concerto with soloist Barry Douglas later this year.

None is likely to enter the standard repertory.

As far as recordings go, the Koch sound is more spacious and less acidic than Pro Art’s CD of Clark conducting works by Berlioz, Strauss and Respighi, recorded during the Pacific Symphony’s first concerts at the then-new Orange County Performing Arts Center in October, 1986. That may be a tribute to the Koch engineers or to the evolution of CD technology.

The separation is clear, details are splendidly focused; the orchestra’s strings sound better than they do in real life. Lefevre negotiates Corigliano’s endless bravura passages admirably. St.Clair conducts with complete commitment.

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But one wonders: Why all the effort in the service of such mediocre music?

Corigliano, of course, is much in the news. His Symphony No. 1 (the so-called “AIDS” Symphony) is impressive. His opera “The Ghosts of Versailles” (1991) was the first world premiere the Metropolitan Opera has given in a quarter-century and turned out to be the sleeper hit of the New York season. (The Met was caught by surprise. It had scheduled too few performances to accommodate the demand.)

Still, one wonders if interest in the opera will be sustained. Certainly the symphony does not hold up well after repeated listenings.

The piano concerto, composed in 1968, simply is a bloated, amorphous, numbing affair in which jazzy athleticism alternates with lush lyricism, echoing along the way such composers as Barber, Bartok, Copland, Prokofiev and Ravel, and evoking all the depths of Brian Easdale’sballet music for the film “The Red Shoes” (1948).

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For the Pacific to pair Ticheli with Corigliano appears little more than self-promotion. There’s plenty of underrecorded American music more deserving of the exposure.

The two composers do share some characteristics. They both write so-called accessible music that demands little audience attention and rewards it scantily. Both exploit vast orchestral resources that appear out of proportion to their ideas. They apply slabs of orchestral color to make grand gestures, but they are gestures of little personal expressivity. Corigliano labels the third movement of the concerto “Appassionato,” but the passion one hears here is lukewarm at best.

The CD, made in February and March, features a cover photo of Corigliano, his hands on the shoulders of Lefevre and St.Clair. Presumably, this is an interpretation he fully sanctions.

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In the program notes for “Radiant Voices,” a moody, noisy tone poem inspired by the Los Angeles riots of 1992, Ticheli mentions the initial five-note motif from which much of the work is derived. It is an unnecessary comment: The motif is repeated so often that the listener will have it memorized within half a minute.

Still, the composer manages transitions between the see-saw contrasting sections with skill, even if he doesn’t create a persuasive sense of cohesion and development.

More concentrated is his alert six-minute “Postcard,” a modest effort with an engaging fugal opening. It suggests a talent that was appealing before it succumbed to the grandiose possibilities latent in scoring for a full orchestra.


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