But Saturday there was no mistaking it. The program was Old School. It featured Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino," Grieg's Piano Concerto and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Toscanini would have approved. The 7,356 who attended the concert certainly appeared to. Never underestimate the power of the core repertoire.
It didn't hurt that the orchestra had engaged a couple of talented twenty-somethings to head the proceedings. James Gaffigan, 29, an associate conductor for Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony, took to the podium. Gabriela Martinez, 23, a Venezuelan pianist working on her doctorate in Germany, handled the Grieg. In the care of these youngsters, the familiar tunes never sounded routine.
Gaffigan seemed to genuinely enjoy his assignment. He smiled a lot while he conducted. With his alert and athletic podium manners, he got the musicians of the Pacific Symphony to dig into the music. With most of the regulars back in their seats (last concert, it was mostly subs), the orchestra sounded more like its usual self, strong and committed.
They sounded like a well regulated militia in the Verdi overture. Gaffigan enforced tight ensemble playing, punching brass and unified strings. He coaxed long lyrical lines when need be, and pressed firmly on the gas whenever it was necessary. This always thrilling overture did the rest.
Gaffigan, in fact, knew how to leave well enough alone. His reading of the Beethoven symphony avoided extremes and exaggeration. It trusted the music (well, if you can't trust Beethoven's Fifth, who can you trust?) to do its thing. This was perhaps clearest in his choice of tempos, which were neither fast nor slow, pushed nor prodded.
But he showed smarts, too, in instrumental balances, articulations, accents and rhythms, all of which were clean and robust. With his hand firmly on the wheel, he steered a clear path through the work, never allowing momentum to sag. If, in the end, this wasn't a particularly personal reading, Gaffigan's enthusiasm made up for it.
Martinez proved to be a thoughtful musician, sometimes even cool. She handled the Grieg with a delicate touch, at times, managing its scherzando impulses with pinpointed nonchalance. She allowed the lyrical flights to breathe, taking her time. When the big moments came, she avoided pounding for its own sake, looking after voicing and shape.
If, in the end, her interpretation seemed a little correct more than thrilling, it nevertheless was pleasing throughout and did the Grieg more than justice. Gaffigan and the ensemble shadowed her ably and enjoyed the volcanoes of the moments on their own.
After the Beethoven came the fireworks, accompanied by (when you could hear it) the "Thunder and Lightning Polka" by Johann Strauss, Jr.