The first thing one notices about the Pacific Symphony's outdoor playing at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre is how loudly the amplification system reproduces the orchestra's sound, sending it all over the South Coast hillside in aural gusts, just below the threshold of pain.
The second thing is how undistorted, though bright, that sound is.
For the orchestra's latest outing, Saturday night when 6,679 listeners in this bucolic setting got an earful of music written in three and four flats, Beethoven was the composer, Carl St.Clair the conductor and pianist Alain Lefevre the hero.
Lefevre achieved one of the most memorable, aggressive and probing readings of the "Emperor" Concerto in memory.
The French-Canadian musician, in his third visit with the Pacific Symphony, gave as authoritative, ignited, stylish and thought-through a performance as one can imagine.
The musical thrust could take the breath away, yet pianistic control reigned in every bar. Excitement informed all the climactic points, yet caressive passages received detailed scrutiny: an extraordinary achievement, well seconded by St.Clair and the orchestra, against which subsequent "Emperors" will have to be judged.
The bonus proved to be the magnificent--there is no other word--Yamaha piano that Lefevre played, an instrument even and well-spoken in all registers, lavish in sound and powerful throughout.
St.Clair and the ensemble opened the evening with a purposefully deliberate and unblinking account of the "Egmont" Overture. They closed it with the Fifth Symphony in a performance clearly laid out but mostly lacking inner drive, secondary voices and its actual layered subtext.
One heard the notes of the opening movement without the angst, the quietude of the Andante con moto without the serenity, the direction of the Scherzo without the mystery. As a result, the triumph of the finale seemed pleasant but empty.
One jolt we could not have predicted: After his success in the "Emperor" Concerto, Lefevre surprised listeners with an encore not by Beethoven, but by Rodgers and Hart. "My Funny Valentine" was gorgeously played, with limpid tone and a handsome, quiet intensity. But why?