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Guerrero shares gift on monumental night.

Byline: TOM MANOFF For The Register-Guard

IT'S CHRISTMASTIME, so let's not mince meat: Giancarlo Guerrero, the new conductor of the Eugene Symphony, is the most exciting personality to arrive in this arts-conscious city since Marin Alsop.

Guerrero's untraditional Christmas concert on Dec. 12 at the cavernous Hult Center for the Performing Arts presented some enticing musical gifts. Not each gift survived unwrapping without a nick here and there, but the music proved Guerrero one hard-working Santa.

I interviewed Guerrero the previous day about the Hult Center's ongoing acoustic renovation. The effort has vastly improved what was once among the worst symphonic venues in the country. Now helping adjust an electronic enhancement system that complements a splendid new orchestral shell, Guerrero's enthusiasm for the outcome is matched only by his excitement about his new orchestra. The 33-year-old Guerrero is also associate conductor of the Minneapolis Orchestra, and has guest appearances with the National Symphony, Detroit Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

I chose my seat with acoustics in mind. Mid-orchestra, all the way left, puts some plaster and wood behind the ears. But from that seat I got my first close-up look at Guerrero, and the occasion made minor concerns about the acoustics irrelevant.

Guerrero has the charisma that suggests an international career. Nicaraguan born and raised in Costa Rica, Guerrero could well end up at the Concertgebouw or Berlin. He will guest with those orchestras some day, surely. Recently signed by ICM, it's hard not to see him at the helm of some European orchestra within a decade.

For this maestro now (don't call him that, he hates the "m" word!), Eugene is Berlin. And Guerrero isn't just passing through. Once an orchestra player himself, a percussionist, Guerrero wants a communal effort building a first-rank orchestra for the city.

No surprise, then, that he didn't program the traditional easy-going Christmas fare. This Santa doesn't have time for a reindeer sleigh-ride. He wants an orchestra of thoroughbreds, and says that these players are getting ready to run with the best. If this concert was any measure of Guerrero's vision and the orchestra's willingness to join that commitment, they've both made a good start.

Vaughan Williams' "Fantasy on Greensleeves" showed off a much improved string section that finally has some sheen to its sound. The new shell helps out. But the emotional warmth comes from Guerrero. When he turns to his first section looking for sweetness, not demanding it like an emotional tyrant with a throbbing hand playing air-violin, the players respond. Guerrero doesn't implore or beg. He shows the players what he feels, and invites them into the moment.

"Jubilee," from "Symphonic Sketches" by the under-rated American composer George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931), was brilliant. A sturdy gem that flashes with tuneful melodies and syncopated rhythms, if it's not the most virtuosic piece in the repertoire, the orchestral colors and musical gestures sounded virtuosic at this performance.

Rimsky-Korsakov's "Suite from Christmas Eve" showed how far the Eugene orchestra has to go. Oddly wrought, its success rests on milking every orchestral color and effect. Programmed no doubt as a challenge for the orchestra, perhaps Guerrero will bring it back in a few years to measure the orchestra's progress.

Bach's rarely performed Christmas cantata (BMV no. 63) had Guerrero choosing another difficult path. All Bach is challenging, but this cantata is downright thorny. Except for bass Mark Kaczmarczyk, soloists and chorus struggled musically, but not by the conductors' hand. The vocal talent did not meet the occasion. The orchestra sounded good, though, buoyed by some spectacular trumpet work.

Eugene's orchestra has its number of musicians who could play anywhere. The leap Guerrero imagines would require some changes in personnel, though, especially in the strings. When not pushed technically, they sound fine. The "simple" Bach chords in a recitative section were ravishing, for example, though it was the kind of effect that boils a Bach purist's blood.

Purists aren't going to like Guerrero's big-scale Bach, but I sure do. I can't imagine a musical culture without an authentic music performance. But it's not a religion, or at least it shouldn't be. And Bach's genius is just too mysterious, too perfect, if you will, to be limited always by historical fuss.

Guerrero looks for two basic things in Bach, at least to my ears. One is the musical kernel that propels every movement, especially its rhythm. The second is the logical and lyrical unfolding of that kernel into an outcome determined by the very first notes.

He doesn't sculpt inside long lines in any Baroque fashion. I'm not sure he would have time even if he wanted to, working so feverishly toward big-orchestral chops with a program this huge. However historically incorrect some may consider Guerrero's Bach, though, I felt something pure and even authentic in his structural and spiritual stance that evening.

And it's not just his Bach. Guerrero's conducting gift is an extraordinary emotional honesty, raw in power but refined in execution. Christmas trees in the Hult Center Lobby were too soothing a symbol for the musical mountain climbing that took place in the hall. They made me want to snuggle down in a plush seat, sing "Silent Night," "The First Noel" and take a load off with the Prince of Peace. I'm looking forward to the day when Santa Guerrero's orchestra is running so clean on all cylinders that he feels he can kick back at Christmas, too.

Meantime, there's a deeper blessing. The wondrous gift this first Guerrero Christmas for Eugene is Giancarlo Guerrero himself. Musical talent matched with emotional honesty, stick technique rooted to a percussionist's body, a commanding presence unblemished by pretentiousness - these are gifts beyond measure.

You can't sit back and make him unwrap those gifts by himself, though. Eugene's orchestra and audiences should bring their best stuff to the show.

Tom Manoff of Eugene is the classical music critic for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

CAPTION(S):

Giancarlo Guerrero, the new conductor of the Eugene Symphony, is also associate conductor of the Minneapolis Orchestra, and has appeared with the National Symphony, Detroit Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. PAUL CARTER / The Register-Guard
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 24, 2002
Words:1025
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