Guest again: Giancarlo Guerrero conducts Beethoven’s Fifth

Giancarlo Guerrero
Orange County Register

By Timothy Mangan

After overseeing an impressive account of Handel’s “Messiah” here a couple of seasons ago, Giancarlo Guerrero was back on the Pacific Symphony podium Thursday night, this time leading the ensemble in a program of standards for a subscription series audience.

Not that the Costa Rican conductor, now in his first season as music director of the Nashville Symphony, made it easy on himself with those standards. He opened with one of the more difficult-to-pull-off pieces in the repertoire, Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and closed with the most familiar (familiarity being a challenge in itself), Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In between, his soloist was guitarist Sharon Isbin, who took on the elegant strains of Rodrigo’s “Fantasía para un gentilhombre.”

Guerrero is a stylish conductor. He’s got taste, he’s got intelligence. A big man, he’s light on his feet. His motions are often refreshingly minuscule, almost non-existent at times except for a certain tension in his hands and body that communicates his involvement in the music. Under his guidance, the Pacific Symphony managed to play more softly, and more expressively when playing softly, than I’ve heard in a while.

The basic smallness of his technique allowed Guerrero to pounce when he wanted to – to sweep and soar arms spread wide, to dig, to dance a little, to smile, even to jump – and create potent contrast. At the same time, the underlying pulse was never heavy. The music was kept on its toes, alert, mobile.

His interpretation of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau” was lovely. It unwound in subtle gradations of soft pastels yet never lost the sense of the Baroque dance upon which the music is based. Working without a baton, he coaxed muted colors and feathery expressiveness from the strings, brought the woodwind ensemble well to the fore – instrumental balances seemed right on. With judicious choices of contrasting tempos, he captured a sense of the overall arc of the piece. The orchestra’s new principal oboist, Jessica Pearlman, rose nicely to the challenge of her intricate solo work.

Guerrero’s Fifth had a lot to offer as well. It got this listener to sit up straight right away by pretty much ignoring the fermatas that Beethoven wrote in bars two and five. We were off. After that, there wasn’t anything particularly odd about his reading, but there were many things to admire. Guerrero’s conducting was concise, and palpably so; every phrase had a plan, a direction, a form, the punctuation all in place. (Those little lifts that Guerrero applied at the end of the second and fourth phrases of the scherzo were good examples.) Bluster was banned, but forward momentum strong, even in the Andante, which never bogged down, but bloomed fragrantly.

Again, the conductor found more soft recesses in this symphony than one imagined were there. What’s more, the playing proved uncommonly well tailored; one could hear the inner workings of the score. It was a fresh and bracing performance.

Isbin, nominated for another Grammy this month (she has already won a couple), gave a subdued account of Rodrigo’s “Fantasía.” This guitarist always performs with amplification (a wireless clip-on microphone and small speaker, placed behind her). And while it allowed her to play intimately and be heard, to explore tone colors and get them across, it also seemed as if she wasn’t working hard enough.

Classical guitarists who play without amplification have to struggle to project their sound over an orchestra, in a big hall. That too, has its down side, but the effort, a certain pressure and excitement, does come through in the music making.

Here, Isbin was serenity itself. She sat back and enjoyed herself, as if playing in someone’s living room. It was pleasant, but not especially compelling. Guerrero and the Pacific Symphony cushioned her with pliant sensitivity.