Hot Costa Rican Conductor

01.13.08
Giancarlo Guerrero
SanDiego.com

A Mussorgsky Performance to Remember

In this election season, the news media is filled with overeager analyses of exit polls. In preparation for Friday's (January 11) San Diego Symphony concert, I was treated to an unexpected "entrance poll" as I waited in the Copley Hall lobby prior to the concert. Several orchestra players approached me and volunteered their bright-eyed enthusiasm for the evening's guest conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero, an up-and-coming young Costa Rican maestro who has just been appointed the Music Director Designate of the Nashville Symphony.

This highly unscientific poll proved to be right on the money, however. Guerrero's electricity on the podium, his expressive and beautifully sculpted conducting style, as well as his evident affection for the music enlivened the local players and elicited from the Symphony some of its most buoyant and persuasive playing of the season.

At first glance, you might surmise that Guerrero made his job easier by programming Modest Mussorgsky's evergreen "Pictures at an Exhibition," because "Pictures" is such a surefire proposition. The combination of Mussorgsky's vivid, inventive pictorialism and Maurice Ravel's brilliant orchestration is unbeatable and never fails to please audiences. But Guerrero was not coasting downhill in neutral with this piece. Rather, he combined a meticulous attention to every motivic detail and color variation without losing for a moment his commanding sweep of the whole work. He took nothing for granted, and the players rewarded his comprehensive approach with a remarkably robust yet incisive account.

Notable was Guerrero's skillful build-up of the chorale theme in the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev," keeping its early appearances modest and subtly rounded, then gradually allowing the hymn to expand into its heaven-storming climax. At the other end of the sonic spectrum, the skittering riffs of the opening movement, "Gnomus," made their mark with lightning-quick clarity and prowess, while the elegant traceries of "Tuileries" sizzled brightly, then disappeared without leaving a trace.

In the sixth portrait, depicting the two squabbling Jews, Guerrero drew from the orchestra a massive, rolling unison string sonority of incredible warmth, appropriately incarnating the proud and successful character Samuel Goldenberg. This was counterbalanced by Principal Trumpet Calvin Price's incisive and beautifully controlled rapid-fire iterations of Schmuyle, the wailing beggar at Goldenberg's feet. This was not Price's only vibrant solo in "Pictures," but it was his finest moment among several. In "The Old Castle," the alto saxophone's delectable melancholy theme validated Ravel's choice of this atypical orchestral instrument for the task.

For all of Guerrero's physical exertion on the podium, he called no undo attention to himself, as most podium prancers do. He conducted the Mussorgsky--as well as the program-opening "Light Cavalry" Overture by von Suppe--from memory, so nothing stood between him and the orchestra. His expressive gestures became the score.

The main offering before intermission was Edouard Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole," Op. 21, an unusual hybrid that is not quite either violin concerto or symphony, but something in between that might be described as a rhapsody for violin and orchestra in five movements. Jeff Thayer, the Symphony's Concertmaster, did the honors as soloist, mastering the work's ample technical challenges with aplomb. (Lalo was a violinist and knew how to throw out the most daunting passage work.)

I particularly liked Thayer's interpretation of the second movement, "Allegro molto": his approach was lithe and playful, but he never sacrificed his beautiful, singing tone. Guerrero kept the orchestra's dynamics sufficiently pared back to allow Thayer's elegant playing to shine, although the composer's masterful orchestration solves most of these problems. The fourth movement, a minor-mode "Andante" with a primary theme that calls to mind the synagogue chant "Kol Nidre," gave the orchestra more of a chance to sport its deep, burnished sonorities. For all of Thayer's polish and refined technique, I for one would like greater emotional communication. For such a ripe Romantic endeavor, Thayer's "Symphonie espagnole" exhibited the chilly close-mindedness of the composer's native Lille, a part of France near the Belgian border, rather than the emotional exuberance of the Iberian country Lalo was portraying.