To some, the prospect of the Santa Monica Symphony taking on Mahler's formidable Fifth Symphony might appear to be a case of ambition outrunning common sense, like the local Elks doing "Hamlet," or Don Knotts challenging George Foreman. But it wasn't. Not even close.
With conductor Allen Robert Gross on the podium Sunday night at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the event proved remarkable. Let's not make outlandish claims. No, Gross didn't suddenly turn into Klaus Tennstedt, nor did the Santa Monica Symphony, a mixture of amateurs and free-lancers, transform itself into the Berlin Philharmonic.
Mistakes were heard. The orchestra was challenged, occasionally beyond its technical skills. The string section was hardest hit and a few passages in the violins became mere approximations. None of it approached disaster though.
Intonation was solid, solo playing confident. Anchored by a warm bass sound, powered by a healthy brass corps, the orchestra's sonority was rich and vibrant. Though the players labored, the playing wasn't laborious.
Gross directed with simplicity, clarity and fluidity. He never dawdled over transitions or noodled over details. He didn't delve into personal distortion. Thus, in a swift 65 minutes, this reading was strong on continuity, enlightening in its rhythmic focus. The Fifth emerged as a piece of music first, a diary of Mahler's emotional excesses a distant second. It was refreshing.
Steven Becknell offered magnificent horn solos and David Etterbeek, despite a couple of miscues, provided impressive trumpet heroics. The large audience refrained entirely from clapping between movements but did so lustily at the end. The concert was free, incidentally.