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Passion Fills Pacific Symphony’s First Outing

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TIMES MUSIC WRITER

The Pacific Symphony this week officially began its 2000-01 season, Carl St.Clair’s 11th as music director, with a relatively modest, quasi-pops program Wednesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Its modesty may have something to do with the fact that next week, the orchestra will open Orange County’s Eclectic Orange Festival with the West Coast premiere of Philip Glass’ Fifth Symphony.

Still, the evening was generally brilliant and festive too. Though not completely polished, St.Clair’s impassioned conducting of a suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet proved highly emotional, deeply projected, brightly played. And Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, the ubiquitous virtuoso vehicle here ridden expertly by French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard, closed the program in a blaze of keyboard and orchestral display. Nothing succeeds like loudness and fastness.

To do the 52-year-old French musician justice, however, he brought more than decibels and speed to this familiar assignment.

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He may not have been a model of restraint, yet Collard seldom overplayed, and he found all the quiet places in the concerto where pulling back dynamically creates the contrasts that make the piece live. Spontaneity may be too much to expect in this warhorse, but appropriate lyricism, which the pianist found and delivered, makes its revival worthwhile.

St.Clair and company did not collaborate with Collard as tightly as one might have wished--the pianist regularly seemed to run ahead of his colleagues--but no real damage was done. And to program Rach Two--as the public has come to call it--as the evening’s finale made great sense. To put it anywhere else on the agenda would be to create an anticlimax.

Prokofiev’s “Romeo” is one of the composer’s most affecting and successful scores, and the reading the Pacific Symphony achieved Wednesday rediscovered the intensity, vehemence and songfulness so beloved by the ballet public. And to hear it by itself, without the dance component, gives equal thrills to the symphonic listener.

In this performance, the dramatic ironies, the musical poetry and the cathartic moments in the narrative emerged powerfully and in deep contrasts with each other. The entire orchestra participated in this success, but particularly the brass players, the virtuosic woodwinds, and principal viola Robert Becker.

The evening began bracingly with John Adams’ maniacally charming and wonderfully violent “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”

* The Pacific Symphony, conducted by Carl St.Clair, with soloist Jean-Philippe Collard, repeats the Rachmaninoff Concerto, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $28-$32. (714) 755-5799.

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