OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Gerard Schwarz and The Colburn Orchestra at Ambassador Auditorium

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

______________________

 

The Colburn Orchestra;
Gerard Schwarz, conductor

Takemitsu: From me
flows what you call Time;
Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Saturday, December 4, 2011 Ambassador Auditorium

______________________

 

When Gerard Schwarz was music director of the Los Angeles
Chamber Orchestra from 1978-1986, he regularly led that ensemble in Pasadena’s
Ambassador Auditorium. Saturday night he returned “home” to lead The Colburn in
a program that concluded with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

 

Mahler’s fifth will tax even the finest professional
orchestra, so to some it might have seemed foolhardy to have it tackled by a
conservatory ensemble. However, The Colburn Orchestra — the flagship ensemble
of the school that is the West Coast equivalent of New York City’s Julliard
School — is no ordinary student band as it demonstrated anew Saturday. The
musicians handled all of Schwarz’s somewhat disjointed ideas about this sprawling
work with aplomb and played their collective hearts out for their guest
conductor.

 

The 107 musicians onstage also taxed the resources of
Ambassador’s stage. With the entire brass section arrayed across the entire top
back row, the poor percussionists were treated like second cousins; the timpani
was buried in front of the brass on the left and the balance of the percussion
was tucked away on the right-hand side. The string basses were so tight against
the left-hand wall that Schwarz had to enter from the right-hand door.

 

Schwarz — who earlier this year completed a 26-year-tenure
as music director of the Seattle Symphony — had the violins seated left and
right and the cellos and violas inside of them. Conducting with a score, he led
a heavily nuanced account of the symphony that often veered into fussiness. His
fast sections, particularly in the first two movements, sped along briskly but
he turned the slow sections into sensuous, sometimes overly torpid meanderings.
The result was an episodic reading with little of the sweeping, long lines that
make Mahler distinctive.

 

Joseph Brown got things off to a splendid start with his
trumpet solos; they were a harbinger of things to come as the entire brass
section covered itself in glory throughout the performance. Schwarz brought
Principal Horn Johanna Yarbrough directly in front of him for her
third-movement solos (ask not why — the brass were heard clearly all night from
their top row perch). Although Yarbrough appeared somewhat uncomfortable,
especially during the long stretches when she wasn’t playing, she played her
lines with great sensitivity. The strings produced a lean, taut sound and the
wind sections were also noteworthy throughout the performance.

 

Many conductors would make Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (which
ran 66 minutes long Saturday) the sole piece on the program (when Gustavo
Dudamel conducts his Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela on Jan. 26
at Walt Disney Concert, Mahler’s fifth will stand alone). However, The Colburn
Orchestra elected to preface it with Toru Takemitsu’s quirky meditation From me flows what you call Time, which
featured the percussion group Smoke and
Mirrors
as soloist.

 

Not only is this 25-minute piece that features nine
connected movements quirky, the setup mandated by the Takemitsu is even
stranger. He gave precise instructions for the performers’ attire (white shirts
with colored sashes and black slacks), manner and staging (after the first
section, a flute solo played by Francesca Camuglia, the players sneak in during
the second section). On either side of the stage were different-colored ribbons
rising from the instruments to the ceiling, meant to simulate Tibetan Buddhist
prayer flags.

 

The five ensemble members — Joe Beribok, Edward Hong,
Katalin La Favre, Derek Tywoniuk and Wai Wah Ivan Wan — all study with Jack van
Geem at The Colburn School, and even those in the audience who get no joy out
of the East-West music melange from Japan’s most famous classical composer
could appreciate the musicality and dexterous movements of the soloists, who
were arrayed in front of and behind the orchestra.

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

As is usually the case, orchestra members wrote the
explanatory music notes for the program — in this case, Oboist Briana Lehman
for the Takemitsu and violinist/pianist Bora Kim for the Mahler. It’s too bad
they didn’t include the instrumentation, particularly for the Takemitsu piece.

At intermission the Smoke
and Mirrors
members changed back into formal dress and played the symphony.

Considering that patrons were asked to show up at 6:45
p.m. to assure orderly seating, the entire evening ran more than three hours in
a very warm hall. On the other hand, as Pastor Gwen Gibson noted in her brief
welcome, some people were undoubtedly glad to be in a hall with lights and
heating working, as many in the area continue without power due to Wednesday
night’s windstorms.

Prior to the performance, Colburn President and CEO Sel
Kardan came onstage to recognize and thank Mark Fabulich, the orchestra’s
manager and librarian, who is moving across Grand Avenue from The Colburn
School to assume a similar position with Los Angeles Opera. People like
Fabulich are among the unsung heroes of arts organizations, and Kardan read a
letter from The Colburn Orchestra’s Music Director Yehuda Gilad thanking him
not for his work but for his wise counsel.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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