More is less as pops goes the symphony

Times Staff Writer

The Pacific Symphony dropped a pops program into its regular classical series with a Leonard Bernstein on Broadway program Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Singers were amplified and enacted scenes heavy with shtick. The orchestra sounded miked too, and it was beefed up with extra brass players who sat on risers behind the other musicians and made a heftier-than-usual contribution.

Some of us wondered what we were doing there.

The evening got off to an awkward start when conductor Carl St.Clair asked Jamie Bernstein -- the eldest of the composer's three children -- to share her memories of life at home during the writing of the 1953 show "Wonderful Town." Bernstein replied that she was a toddler at the time and that her memories even of "West Side Story," composed four years later, derive from the 1961 film version.

But Bernstein soon offered some fascinating musical analysis of the latter show. The kernel of the music, she said, is the opening three notes, which include a dissonant interval called a tritone. That interval and efforts to resolve it recur throughout the score, mirroring the plot conflict between two warring gangs and the love between Tony and Maria. That was worth the price of admission.

Musically, St.Clair, one of the conductors Bernstein mentored, balanced a Broadway-hit style with a Mahler "Symphony of a Thousand" grandeur. He took the end of the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" at a tempo fitting for a state funeral. "Make Our Garden Grow" from "Candide," which closed the program, became a heaven-storming crescendo that predictably brought the audience to its feet. But throughout he was lively and engaged.

More often that not, the amplification muddied the diction of the variable soloists: soprano Ilana Davidson, mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon, tenor Michael Slattery and baritones Andrew Fernando and In Joon Jang. Not all of them needed miking, and some looked more at ease than others in the uncredited stage choreography.

The Cal State Fullerton Singers sat on risers at the very back of the stage and were largely underused, singing perhaps less than two minutes during the first half of the program and less than five during the second.

The orchestra played with silken security alternating with overbearing power. It all seemed a squandering of resources.

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