In his return to the Madison Symphony Orchestra as guest conductor, Carl St. Clair presents himself frankly as a podium showman, even down to lively choreography while at work. His is, in all, an approach that delights both the orchestra and the public.
His March program, which debuted Friday night in Overture Hall, opens with a work usually encountered as the concluding "meat" of a concert, rather than as the opener: Brahms' Third Symphony. Avoiding the sobriety one would expect in Brahms, St. Clair bends the score constantly to his idiosyncratic will.
Arbitrarily skipping the exposition repeat in the first movement -- to the detriment of the movement's structure -- St. Clair imposes constant touches of rubato, with expressive ritardandos at paragraph ends, and a coda that suddenly speeds up, only to slow down drastically at the end. The two middle movements are lovingly shaped, if with exaggerated misterioso at the end of the third's trio. And the finale is turned into almost Wagnerian melodrama.
All this certainly makes for a strongly exciting performance, which the audience loved, but which I found unidiomatic and overly interpreted.
The guest slot is given not to a single soloist, but to four, as embodied in the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. They come to present Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto Andaluz" for four guitars and orchestra. Rodrigo has composed several concerted works for one or more guitars and orchestra, this one written specifically for Celedonio Romero and his three sons. These works are consistently tuneful and vivacious, enjoyably approachable. And in this one Rodrigo very cleverly turns his four soloists into a latter-day lute consort, interweaving against very skeletal orchestral support, especially in the slow movement.
The L.A. members are plainly experts at this music. But it is unfortunate that, perhaps daunted by the size of Overture Hall, they chose to have themselves amplified, giving their playing a hollow, metallic quality that seemed in a sonic sphere separate from that of the orchestra. And, given a chance to play an encore, they become specialty twangsters, using a transcription of the "Ritual Fire Dance" from Falla's "El amor brujo" that does scant justice to the acid bite of the orchestral original.
The Brahms Symphony came first clearly so that St. Clair could have a splashy finale. He extends the Iberian theme with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol." Lest you have forgotten that this is one of the most spectacular of all orchestral showpieces, St. Clair pulls out all the stops, milking every coloristic effect to the maximum degree. This is the loudest rendition of this exhilarating piece you are ever likely to hear.
A crowd-pleaser, no doubt. And it is nice to experience these naughty thrills and chills once in a while. But this was not a concert that left me uplifted.
Repeats, of course, on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.