Robert Moody, the first of the seven guest conductors to lead a California Symphony concert this year as part of a search for a new permanent music director, won a number of hearts and minds Sunday as he stood on the Lesher Center for the Arts podium in Walnut Creek to preside over the opening of the California Symphony's 26th season.
Wisely, the skilled, engaging and impressively fit young Moody, who is music director of both the Winston-Salem Symphony in North Carolina and the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine, chose a win-win program for the occasion: "Danzon No. 2," a scintillating, sensuous 1950 composition by Mexico's Arturo Marquez; Piano Concerto No. 2, the mesmerizingly passionate Russian masterpiece Sergei Rachmaninoff composed as part of his doctor-prescribed recovery therapy from severe mental depression in 1901; and the fascinating, evocatively atmospheric Symphony No. 2 composed by the Finnish Jean Sibelius in 1901.
It would have been hard to discover an audience member who was not thoroughly entranced by "Danzon." A commission from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico dedicated to Marquez's daughter, Lily, it is a highly listenable piece with pervasive Latin dance rhythms, dazzling solo parts from various orchestral sections and an important role for piano. A particularly showy solo from the trumpets is intriguingly cast over hoarse sounds created by scratching bow slashes from the string sections. Percussion rhythms
The passion and might of the Rachmaninoff concerto moved most of the audience to a spontaneous standing ovation. This was more of a tribute to Rachmaninoff's own individual powers than to Sunday's actual performance. Bay Area resident Gregory Taboloff, the clearly gifted, multiple-prize-winning piano soloist, can and has done better. There was definite insecurity in some of his passage work and in his coordination with the orchestra. Inadequate rehearsal time could have been the problem. He often looked distractingly back and forth from the keyboard to the score he had placed on top of the piano. A possibility of his being a bit indisposed was suggested, as he paused, whenever the music allowed him time, to wipe his brow with a handkerchief (the outside temperature was, after all, in the high 90s).
Nevertheless, high praise is due for his overall concept of the piece, his often dazzling finger work and power and his lyrically melodic gifts in phrasing and interpretation. To invert the old adage, Taboloff certainly revealed the grandeur of the forest, but, in the process, missed a few of its trees.
With the Sibelius symphony, as in the two previous works, the California Symphony responded with precision and enthusiasm to Moody's deft, incisive baton technique and his masterful interpretive ability. The orchestra's ensemble tightness, technical mastery and suppleness stood out as orchestra and conductor coursed through the evocative, almost pictorial music. Sibelius' music seems to suggest forests of misty birch and pines, bird calls, sonic pictures of brooks and lakes and windlike whooshes.
The orchestra's individual sections shone like never before: There was A-plus playing from the brass, wistfully beautiful solo work from various winds and some fascinating pizzicato passages from cellos and double basses. The magnetic appeal of the work, abetted by its excellent execution by conductor and orchestra, made one long for much more Sibelius to be performed in concert halls.
Next up on the California Symphony podium on Oct. 18 will be East Bay native David Commanday, founding artistic director of the Heartland Festival Orchestra in central Illinois, who has shaped a program that will be a tribute to his late stepbrother, J. Christopher Stevens, the former Piedmont resident and U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in an attack on the mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11.