In honor of Veterans Day, the Santa Barbara Symphony offered this evening of works by American composers. Tai Williams was the guest soloist, and she made a splendid job of Samuel Barber’s lusty, romantic Violin Concerto, Op. 14. Williams was particularly impressive in the third movement, a so-called “perpetual motion machine” that requires great skill and dexterity. Her playing was rewarded with a standing ovation and several callbacks before the break for intermission.
When the orchestra returned, first up was George Gershwin’s influential An American in Paris. This utterly captivating piece was written in a brief European exile under the sign of Ravel, but it overflows with references to New Orleans jazz and Gershwin’s own inimitable melodies and theatrics. Jon Lewis, principal trumpet, shone, making Gershwin’s walking impressions of French taxi horns sound more like the improvisations of Louis Armstrong. Tuba principal Doug Tornquist also made a mighty contribution to this glittering symphonic dance.
Conductor Nir Kabaretti has a gift that may be an outstanding advantage given the current state of classical music: He seems to get more interesting as his programming becomes lighter. Last season was a legacy year, so we only saw his playful side in fits and starts, but this year, and with this program in particular, we have had a good chance to see how he imagines the potential of the symphony orchestra as it enters the 21st century. Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is at once more and less than an orchestral adaptation of the musical-less because it lacks not only Jerome Robbins’s choreography and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, but also because it leaves out some of the show’s most memorable tunes. But the version also demonstrates clearly and concisely exactly what Bernstein was about. Heavy on Latin-tinged percussion, interrupted occasionally by those trademark hipster finger-snaps, and relentlessly swinging, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is one of the most percussive orchestral works in the repertoire prior to the appearance of modern minimalist works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. As such, it makes a great and clever lead into the upcoming percussion festival the symphony will be presenting in January.