Santa Barbara Symphony, conducted by Kynan Johns, with pianist Fabio Bidini. At the Arlington Theatre, Saturday, February 18.
Well, that’s the way it goes. This was to have been Kynan Johns’s big roll of the dice, his chance to knock our socks off and be proclaimed the Santa Barbara Symphony’s new music director by popular acclaim, or something like that. In fact, Johns did about as well, and made as good an impression, as it is possible for a conductor to do in one rather short program of three works. He got a lovely, lyrical sound from the band, and seemed to have a genuine rapport with the musicians. His readings were conservative and unchallenging — a pretty fair tack to take before a Santa Barbara audience. Yet most of Johns’s subtle and accomplished musicianship faded into the background once Fabio Bidini sat on the piano stool and played the first few notes of the solo part in Serge Prokofiev’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C Major, Opus 26. Bidini was so fast and slashing, then so intriguingly mysterious, then so triumphantly virtuosic, that the audience exhausted itself applauding and nearly forgot Johns altogether. So many times was he called back that he finally sat down and played some posthumous Chopin — a gorgeous and haunting Nocturne. I ran across Bidini in the lobby and congratulated him on his triumph and asked about the encore. “I like to play it after something like the Prokofiev,” he said, “to prove that I know some tunes, too.” The concert opened with Leos Janáček’s Suite, Opus 3, with a small orchestra. It seemed a suite of dances — some sophisticated, others folksy, but all with that smoky Slavic lilt, poured into Hapsburg molds, which gives Czech music its unique flavor. It was very pleasant, but Johns might have opened with something a little more exciting. After the intermission, lest we forget whose 250th birthday it is this year, the orchestra played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, called the “Jupiter.” This has never been my favorite Mozart symphony, and Johns gave it such a light, cautious reading that it didn’t move up in my estimation, nor down. In two concerts at the Arlington, I guess that more people heard this work than did while Mozart was alive. Well, now we have heard from all the candidates for music director, and I consider them all completely qualified to succeed Gisèle Ben-Dor. My personal choice, from the beginning, was for Lawrence Leighton Smith — not based on the concert he conducted last year, but on the five years I heard him conduct at the Music Academy. He is a genius, and I would love to have him back in Santa Barbara.