It's easy to make a big impact in Saint-Saens' "Organ Symphony." Just make sure the organ and the orchestra in the last movement rock the hall.
The real test is making the slow movement theme float. Which is what conductor Raymond Leppard and the Pacific Symphony did respectably in a three-part program Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
The sensitivity began with the quiet opening measures and continued in a well-paced if cautious performance of the piece. The playing was generally stylish, although the sound slipped occasionally from French clarity to Germanic weightiness.
Still, even if the Pacific were the Berlin Philharmonic, an ideal performance wouldn't be possible in organ-less Segerstrom Hall. The work needs a cathedral instrument with a sound that fills space. The imported electric organ (played by Lori Loftus) did not create great joy or grandeur.
The program opened with Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole," in which the orchestra sounded ragged and raw--as if it had post-holiday blues, inadequate rehearsal time or lack of rapport with guest conductor Leppard.
Things picked up with Rodrigo's "Fantasia para un gentilhombre," with guitarist Christopher Parkening as soloist.
Parkening played the composer's lovely portraits of faded gallantry with variety and nuance, with introspection and extroversion as required. Reduced to chamber size, the orchestra provided delicate, sympathetic support in depth, even if Leppard didn't give the guitarist much breathing room.
Parkening played Carlo Domeniconi's "Koyunbaba" (The Shepherd), a virtuoso showpiece, as a solo encore.
While it searches for a new concertmaster, the orchestra has been bringing in guests. This time, it placed Jeanne Evans, its own assistant concertmaster, in the position. Evans had few solos but sounded accomplished in them.