The following review appeared in the Santa Monica "Outlook" on Tuesday, March 25, 1997.
Symphony's Mahler spirited
By Peter Lefevre
The Santa Monica Symphony continued its 1996-1997 season on Sunday evening at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium as it presented two works of optimism and high spirits: Haydn's Symphony No. 99 in E flat major, and Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major. The Mahler work featured soprano Elissa Johnston in the concluding movement, singing the poem Mahler adapted from a collection of German folk poetry. Johnston, a California native and graduate of USC, is developing a substantial career, having appeared throughout the country in a wide range of operatic and concert performances.
The spirit of Mahler's fourth Symphony is subtle, serene, contemplative, reassuring. Johnston sang with a modest demeanor, in sincerity and innocence. Her polished and communicative voice was overcome on occasion by the orchestra, but enough of her warm-toned, crisply enunciated phrases came through to make her contributions one of the highlights of the evening. The composition itself passed by quickly, no small feat considering Mahler's lack of appreciation for understatement. Conductor Allen Robert Gross kept a firm grasp on the composition's fragile nature, sustaining the piece through its numerous changes in emotional content and instrumental texture. Gross imbued the work with both quietude and dramatics, with intimacy and drippy, gushy warmth. The Ruhevoll movement was peaceful indeed, and the violin solo in the previous movement was artfully executed by David Stenske. The inspiration for the movement (as noted in Raymond Knapp's concise, articulate program notes) is attributed to a picture Mahler saw depicting death playing the violin. Stenske's agitated, anxious, penetrating solo work made a convincing case for the legend.
The Haydn symphony also received an enthusiastic and efficient reading. Though the orchestra Haydn wrote for was not, in terms of personnel, the orchestra Mahler wrote for, the additional power made for an exciting reading: mushy and muddied at times, particularly in the speedy conclusion, but charged nonetheless. The woodwinds, featured prominently in the second movement, contributed some beautiful moments. Gross demonstrated patience here, establishing a nice, blithe tempo and letting his musicians sing out their parts in unhurried clarity.
All was not sweetness and light, however. Gross isn't afraid to show his irritation with uncooperative audience members, or to wait until the hall meets his criteria for silence before starting. He did a nice slow burn over one particularly noisy concertgoer on Sunday. Thank goodness the Santa Monica Symphony plays indoors. One shudders to imagine him responding to a car alarm or a popped champagne cork.
On the whole, the concert reflected the same balanced programming and dedicated musicianship one expects from this group. The symphony is ambitious, but it can walk the walk and talk the talk.
Peter Lefevre is a free lance writer specializing in classical music.