MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS : Santa Monica Symphony Opens 50th Season

Somehow, the Santa Monica Symphony gets the job done--it's the little engine that could of our local orchestras.

Opening its 50th-anniversary season Sunday night in Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the 80-member ensemble (equal parts amateur, student and professional) offered an eclectic, confidently executed and satisfying concert under music director Allen Robert Gross.

These musicians took on an old warhorse, Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, and played it with such warmth and buoyancy that ensemble blotches--in the form of small discrepancies in timing rather than intonation--mattered very little: The piece came to life. Indeed, a seasoned listener might wonder why more technically polished performances often fall short of this one.

The concert began with the world premiere of Maria Newman's "Bledsian" (Old English for "blessing"), commissioned by the ensemble. Newman's three-part, 20-minute score is accessible and attractive, drawing on elements from Vaughan Williams (the panoramic spaces, rich colors, folkisms and parallel harmonies), from Coplandesque Americana, from two periods of Bartok. It has humor, exotic and saturated sounds, frank melodies that don't cloy. It reveals a composer unafraid to communicate and please, willing to write something appropriate to the occasion--not such common qualities these days. We should hear it again.

In the concerto spot came an oddity, "The Butterfly Lovers" Concerto for ehru and orchestra by Zhan-hao He and Gang Chen, with Jiebing Chen as soloist. Written in a late Romantic nationalistic idiom (a lesser Smetana from Beijing could have been its composer), the work is quaint and extremely easy to take, though at half an hour it rambles a bit. Chen warbled and crooned elegantly on ehru and its higher-pitched cousin the gaohu , two-stringed, bowed instruments that sound, in their wide vibrato and creamy lyricism, like a cross of the violin and theremin.

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