To follow up on the euphoria surrounding the dedication this past September of its first permanent concert hall, the San Francisco Symphony has undertaken its first East Coast tour since the 1940s. For its appearance at the Kennedy Center Saturday evening, the orchestra offered an intriguing program that helped to demonstrate the symphony's stronger points (fine ensemble work and expert brass) and remaining weaknesses (inconsistent string tone).
Music director Edo de Waart opened the proceedings with the Washington premiere of David Del Tredici's "Happy Voices," another in the composer's apparently unending series of musical salutes to "Alice in Wonderland." Brash and colorful, "Happy Voices" sounds as though Richard Strauss and Leonard Bernstein had collaborated while soaking in a hot tub, calling as it does for an oversized orchestra to play all sorts of musical games with a jazzy fugal theme.
It sounded considerably clearer in the Kennedy Center than it did at its premiere in San Francisco's new Symphony Hall (which was not at its accoustical best opening night), but neither the aural improvements nor the polished performance given it elevated the work much beyond the level of a diverting orchestral showcase.
Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," another test of an orchestra's resources, closed the concert, and the musicians met its many challenges with considerable success. De Waart, however, failed to fashion a distinctive interpretation out of the technical display, going for the big effects with gusto, but rarely finding the meaning behind them.
Dwarfed between these two works was Mozart's delicate E-flat "Sinfonia Concertante," featuring a reduced orchestra and the symphony's principal violinist and violist in some elegant but oddly lackluster playing.