Soviets mischievous and profound dominated the Pacific Symphony program led by Carl St.Clair on Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
The conductor opened the program with two works by Kabalevsky and closed it with a major symphony by Shostakovich. In between, a minor work by Tchaikovsky made an appearance.
First came Kabalevsky's pungent Overture to "Colas Breugnon," which the orchestra played in a lively and alert fashion though prone, as usual, to more than its fair share of fortissimos.
Violinist Gil Shaham was the soloist in Kabalevsky's impish Concerto in C, Opus 48. The piece is all on the surface, but it's fun and entertaining. It merits a place in the repertory, especially when done with the sprightly spirit evident here.
Beaming, crouching, putting all kinds of body English into his bowing, Shaham nevertheless played with limpid, lyric and carrying tone. If there were technical hurdles, he leaped over them so easily they were undetectable. He seemed to be having a ball, engaging in playtime.
St.Clair responded in kind, so sensitively and exactly balancing the orchestra and soloist that one wished he would carry this quieter dynamic into other pieces. The orchestra is a mighty machine, but it doesn't always have to play like one.
Shaham returned with St.Clair to perform Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir d'un lieu cher," as orchestrated by Glazunov. Again, the limpid tone of the violinist was beguiling, even if he didn't find the heart that's in the music.
After intermission, St.Clair turned to Shostakovich's monumental Fifth Symphony. This is a work once widely regarded as the composer's triumphant reemergence after dangerous political denunciation by Stalin. But since the publication of Solomon Volkov's controversial biography, "Testimony," in 1980, it is now more accurately perceived as the composer's scathing depiction of the Soviet juggernaut.
St.Clair led a strongly controlled, strongly played but not strongly characterized performance of the work. He conducted neither a triumph nor a denunciation but something in the middle ground. It was all clearly and cleanly done, but it remained somehow faceless. Even the work of the solo instrumentalists sounded this way.
St.Clair certainly held it all together, and the orchestra played with a newly realized sense of unity. But a lot of grinding inner detail and counterpoint went unheard, which meant emotional values faltered.