Pity the poor violist, who hardly has a concerto repertory and rarely gets to dabble in theatrics. Because of this, we might be sympathetic to the slight dramatization attempted by the Long Beach Symphony in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” Saturday night, when principal violist Kazi Pitelka stood front and center for her solo until retreating to the rear of the orchestra, ostensibly cowed by the “Orgy of Brigands.” The soloist rose again for her final few notes before exiting, while the orchestra continued.
Berlioz’s program provides the defense for this bit of staging at the Terrace Theater, but the result proved more distracting than enhancing. As Paganini said in 1834, when he declined to play the premiere: “There are too many rests.” The viola is not assigned a virtuosic, ever-present solo, but a dreamy, not overly taxing obbligato. The music requires a poet, not a firebrand. Neither appeared here. Pitelka provided a respectful, bland reading.
Beyond the nature of the viola’s role lies the concept of the programmatic symphony--a story told in sound, not action. Guest conductor Paul Freeman pushed the orchestra to spin the yarn in larger-than-life expansiveness, rounding off the edges of even the most emphatic exclamations (and thereby losing some of the punch), and juggling shifting rhythms handily.
Since “Inspiration” by John Kennedy was not ready for its scheduled premiere, Freeman added Adolphus Hailstork’s “Celebration!"--a crowd-pleasing festival of brass and percussion. After intermission, a scaled-down group disclosed clean lines and appealing subtlety in the “Haffner” Symphony by Mozart. Then Freeman’s experience as music director of the Czech National Orchestra bore home-grown fruit in three flavorful, rhythmically flexible Slavonic Dances by Dvorak.