Santa Fe Symphony
Lensic Performing Arts Center, Jan. 17
Ryan McAdams, a contender in the soon-to-conclude search for the Santa Fe Symphony’s new principal conductor, returned on Sunday, Jan. 17, for another test drive. His initial appearance, last April, apparently impressed the decision makers a good deal — as it did me — since he will be back for still another pair of adjudicatory concerts in May, given over to works by Beethoven.
As programming goes, last weekend’s concert seemed a bit of a catchall. It opened with selections from Bizet’s
Carmen Suites, pieces so entrenched in every orchestra’s collective subconscious that they basically play themselves. The question is whether they ought to be allowed to play themselves. The perfumed Intermezzo received an elegant, well-crafted interpretation under McAdams’ baton, but he gave the orchestra free rein in the fast movements, particularly the opening Les
toréadors and the closing Danse bohème, which were chaotic in orchestral balance. Percussion completely swamped the texture, and often roughshod percussion at that. (Yes, there is a difference between good triangle technique and bad triangle technique.) Cymbal crashes overpowered what needed to be — and, for all I know, may have been — monumental solidity from the orchestral as a whole. In such passages, the group earned an A in Abandon but a D in Discipline. A prolonged rearrangement of the stage followed, in preparation for Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, and McAdams seized the occasion to converse with the audience about this and that. He may have seemed overeager to charm, but the fact is that building a personal rapport with audience and donors is an important strand of the modern music director’s job. The Suite was rendered in small scale, with McAdams presiding from a boxy little harpsichord. Jesse Tatum does reliably excellent work as the orchestra’s principal flutist. She performed solidly as the soloist in the Suite without imprinting much of a personality on her interpretation. It was not to her advantage that this rendition was overbalanced in favor of the strings: six violins, three violas, two cellos, and a double bass vs. the flute. It didn’t matter much in the portions in which her line was doubled by violins (and her unisons with concertmaster David Felberg were attentively phrased and tuned in tandem), but even in the sections that spotlight the flute on its own she could recede into the background. This left only the double of the Polonaise and the concluding Badinerie as soloistic highlights, and for those she earned warm applause.
The show’s big number was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a touchstone of the 20th-century orchestral repertoire. McAdams conveyed a firm conception of the score. His reading was logical and easy to follow, achieving its emotional highpoint in the Largo, where the strings transported listeners to a deep and affecting place. After that, he infused the finale with resounding enthusiasm. His musical instincts are of fine quality, his conducting style graceful and (I would think) helpful to the musicians. Throughout the Shostakovich, he tended to conduct practically on the beat itself. If he were to work with the orchestra more, the players might together find a comfortable gap between his beat and their attack, which could lead to greater refinement of expression and a more flexible flow in the phrasing. Again in this piece the percussion could disappoint. In the first movement, why did the timpani sometimes accent the second and fourth beats of its striding repetitions and sometimes not (the latter was how Shostakovich wrote the part), and shortly thereafter, what prevented the xylophone from following what appeared to me a perfectly clear beat from the conductor? Kudos, however, to the tam-tam player, who hit his note in the finale with perfection.