Gisele Ben-Dor is a little like a heavyweight fighter: When it comes down to business, she’s no nonsense. She gets your attention right away. She packs no ordinary punch.
The Uruguayan-born Polish conductor came to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre Saturday night (5,842 in attendance) for no lazy stroll through the park, no tired rehashing of anything-to-please classics. There was urgency to what she did.
On paper, her part of the program with the Pacific Symphony made little cohesive sense. Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, Three Dances from Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat,” and Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” Suite are bedfellows as strange as Ishmael and Queequeg. As it turned out, though, these pieces all happened to be close to Ben-Dor’s heart. Conducting from memory, she showed that she has internalized them, analyzed them, digested and understood them. Best of all, she still likes them.
She was considerably abetted on this occasion by a much-improved sound system. Distorted and glaring in the past, on Saturday it projected mellowness and warmth, depth and natural clarity. But things weren’t perfect: The violins had their sizzle removed, and feedback marred a small portion of the concert, but generally the sound was impressive and encouraging.
In the Beethoven overture, Ben-Dor--the music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony and a former conducting fellow of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute (they keep popping up)--found the stillness of the opening, the impetuosity of the allegro and the fire of the coda. Along the way, she enforced a broad dynamic scheme (including a fragile pianissimo) and energized the Pacific musicians.
To the Falla and Strauss suites, she brought a complete mastery of their sophisticated styles. Her performance of the Falla pieces (“The Neighbor’s Dance,” “The Miller’s Dance” and the “Final Dance”) combined ease and power--the relaxed force of the flamenco dancer. The numerous shifts of gear were handled astutely, without a moment’s hesitation. The music chugged fervently, stomped elegantly.
She captured all the tenderness and glitz of the “Der Rosenkavalier” Suite, and positively reveled in the Viennese waltzes. Stylistic niceties of the form--the luftpausen , the slightly rushed second beat, the winsome stretchings of phrase--were authentically stated. She forcefully sculpted Strauss’ voluptuousness. The orchestra played generously and alertly, with considerable sheen.
Things went well at solo time too, with Christopher Taylor, bronze medalist in the 1993 Van Cliburn Competition, taking on Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. His was not a showy performance. The often bravura aspects of this concerto sounded unusually light and not stormy. But they were not lackadaisical. He seemed to instill every note with poised intensity and to have considered every phrase with calm intellect.
As a result, his reading wasn’t the most exciting you will hear, but it consistently fascinated and explored. It was well-spoken. Ben-Dor and the Pacific had some trouble following him at times, but basically offered detailed support.