OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Pasadena Symphony;
David Lockington, conductor

Sawyers: The Gale of
Life.
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 (Andrew Shulman, soloist).

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56, (Scottish)

Saturday, January 14, 2012 Ambassador Auditorium

Next concert: Feb. 18, 2012

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

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There was a multiplicity of themes associated with the
Pasadena Symphony concert yesterday afternoon at Ambassador Auditorium (which
was repeated last night). The predominant theme was Britain: two of the three
composers were English, the guest conductor (David Lockington) and cello
soloist (Andrew Shulman) were born in England but now live in the U.S, and the
concluding work on the program was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish).

 

Prior to the performance, Lockington — music director of the
Grand Rapids and Modesto Symphonies — described the program’s theme as “Looking
Back.” Mendelssohn, who began the symphony at age 21 and completed it 12 years
later, was recalling a trip he made to Scotland as a teenager in 1829. Elgar,
said Lockington, was looking back on the wreckage of World War I when he wrote
his Cello Concerto in 1919 (the program note by Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn said,
“It isn’t a requiem for the war dead, but rather for a lost way of life, the
end of a civilization”). Even Sawyers’ piece, which was composed in 2008, uses
as its text the poem On Wenlock Edge
from the 1896 cycle A Shropshire Lad by
A.E. Housman.

 

A third theme was friendship. Lockington and Shulman played
cello together in the National Youth Orchestra of Britain more than 30 years
ago, and Lockington and Sawyers are now friends. And a final theme was uniform
excellence, as in the performances Lockington, Shulman and the orchestra
delivered throughout the concert.

 

The program’s centerpiece — in placement, as well as in
performance — was Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Shulman captured the work’s aching
melancholy (the first three movements begin Adagio,
Lento
and Adagio) superbly with
his silky tone and expressive musicality, while Lockington and the orchestra
accompanied sensitively.

 

The opening work, The
Gale of Life
a 10-minute
concert overture that ends by alluding to the “Witches’ Sabbath” ending of
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
received an exuberant reading from Lockington and the ensemble; they brought
out sympathetically all of Sawyers’ musical metaphors of the windy cliffs of
Wenlock’s Edge on the England coast.

 

Lockington displayed an assured feeling about Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, which concluded the
program. He had a score in front of him but rarely seemed to look at it, often
turning multiple pages at a time. His overall concept was to imbue the reading
with stately grandeur; call it “Mendelssohn a la Elgar.” The orchestra was in
top-notch form, playing with impressive rhythmic precision in the second
movement and displaying a lush sound from all sections — but particularly from
the strings — throughout the performance.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

One other tie in the concert concerns Lockington and Paul
Jan Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association. Prior to coming to
Pasadena, Zdunek held a similar position with the Modesto Symphony where one of
his moves was to bring Lockington on board as that orchestra’s music director
in 2007.

With Shulman scheduled to conduct next weekend’s Los
Angeles Chamber Orchestra concerts (Jan. 21 at the Alex Theater and Jan. 22 at
UCLA’s Royce Hall), LACO and the PSO took the opportunity to do some cross-promotion
by inserting a flyer with a 20% ticket discount for the LACO concerts. Smart
move, IMHO. Shulman will lead LACO in Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 and Violin
Concerto No. 3, along with Walton’s Sonata for Strings. A link to my article on
Shulman and the PSO and LACO concerts is HERE.

Emulating LACO’s “Sound Investment” commissioning program,
the PSO has begun its “Fresh Ink Society,” which will commission and make
possible the performance of the Symphony No. 1 by Peter Boyer as part of the
opening concert on the PSO’s 2012-2013 season. One of Boyer’s numerous
compositions, Ellis Island: The Dream of
America,
which was premiered in 2002, was nominated for a Grammy Award for
Best Classical Contemporary Composition. For more information on the “Fresh Ink
Society” or to make a contribution, call 626/793-7172.

Lockington’s “Looking Back” theme got me to recall the
first time I heard Elgar’s Cello Concerto in concert, in 1975, when the great
cellist Gregor Piatigorsky was scheduled as soloist in he concerto at a Los
Angeles Philharmonic concert. Zubin Mehta was the conductor, I think it was
opening night, and I believe the other work on the program was Mahler’s
Symphony No. 5. Ronald Leonard had just been named the Phil’s Principal Cellist
and when Piatigorsky had to cancel at the last minute, Leonard stepped in,
which meant his first notes in his new position were the opening lines of the
Cello Concerto (the soloist begins the piece). As I recall, Leonard played it
beautifully, but I’ll always remember it more for his ability to rise to an
unexpected challenge successfully.

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