By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Orchestra; Larry Blank, conductor
Kevin Cole, piano;
Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 Los Angeles County Arboretum
Next performances: Saturday at 8 p.m. Ambassador
To say that this has been an eventful summer for the Pasadena
Pops Orchestra would be to understate the obvious. The orchestra moved into a
new summer home, the bucolic Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia,
completing an odyssey that in three years took the ensemble from Descanso
Gardens in La Caada to a lawn outside of the Rose Bowl and, finally, to
This was the second season under the leadership of Principal
Conductor Marvin Hamlisch, who passed away unexpectedly on August 6 at the age
of 68. Weeks later, the orchestra named noted pianist-songwriter Michael
Feinstein as Hamlisch’s replacement. And prior to last night’s concert, Paul
Jan Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association (which runs both the Pops
and the Pasadena Symphony) announced that Melinda Shea, board of directors
president for the past three years, has stepped aside because she and her
husband are moving to the Northeast U.S. (see the note at the end of this
When Hamlisch and the Pops planned last night’s night’s
concert — the season’s final program –the focus was to be on the music of
George Gershwin. After Hamlisch died, the evening became a mlange of Gershwin
and Hamlisch, appropriate since Marvin was one of the few musicians in our era
who approached Gershwin’s eclectic genius.
Both the replacement conductor, Larry Blank, and the
previously scheduled pianist, Kevin Cole, owe much of their professional
success to their relationships with Hamlisch. Each offered touching
reminiscences of those memories and Cole used the evening to debut two pieces:
a medley of three iconic Hamlisch songs (incliuding The Way We Were) and a piano-vocal song Cole wrote immediately
after hearing of Hamlisch’s death.
Beyond that, the program showed off several facets of
Gershwin’s compositional talent and, for a change (at least in a Pops program
under Hamlisch’s leadership), offered a healthy slice of Gershwin’s classical
side. Cole, Blank and the Pops closed the opening half of the program with the
last two movements of Gershwin’s Concerto in F on a night that marked the 75th
anniversary to the day of a famous memorial concert for Gershwin at Hollywood
Bowl that included Oscar Levant as soloist in the concerto.
Hearing portions of a concerto is rarely a good thing and it
wasn’t last night. Concerto in F, Gershwin’s second major piece for piano and
orchestra, was written in 1925, a
year after Rhapsody in Blue, and it
was the first where he wrote his own orchestra score (Ferde Grof orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue). The concerto has two
pulsating outer movements surrounding a laconic, bluesy second section; hearing
the latter without the opening movement deprives the listener of the contrast
but that’s what we got last night.
On the other hand, given what transpired in performance,
perhaps that wasn’t a bad idea. The orchestra played its best for the evening
in the second movement, with stellar solo work from Donald Foster, clarinet,
Marissa Benedict, trumpet, and Concertmaster Aimee Kreston. Cole seemed to have
been appropriately delicate in the piano portions of that movement, although
the heavy over-amplification makes that judgment pretty much a guess, and Blank
led the movement sensitively.
Unfortunately, the third movement was far less successful,
partly because Cole and Blank had quite different ideas of what the tempo
should be; consequently, the orchestra experienced several rough patches along
Those tempo differences also showed up in Rhapsody in Blue, which was one of the
major offerings after intermission. Although Cole’s take on the piece wasn’t as
off the wall as, for example, Marcus Roberts, it was distinctive and not
particularly easy for Blank and the orchestra to follow, which made for some
The other classical number was a smartly played reading of
Robert Russell Bennett’s Porgy and Bess
The evening also marked the symphonic debut of the
orchestra’s JPL Chorus; the 35-member ensemble sang confidently in I Got Rhythm in the second half of the
program, but had significant intonation problems in Foggy Day, which opened the evening.
As Zdunek pointed out in his preconcert remarks, Shea’s
three-year tenure as PSA president was marked by (a) resignations by Music
Directors Jorge Mester and Rachael Worby; (b) hiring Hamlisch; (c) Hamlisch’s
death; (d) the appointment of Feinstein; (e) the Pasadena Symphony’s move into
Ambassador Auditorium; (e) the Pops’ two relocations; (f) restructuring the
board and the staff; and retiring the association’s $1.2 million accumulated
debt. That’s quite a legacy!
The Pops elected not to provide a printed run list last
night, which left those who are not hard-core Gershwin aficionados at a loss at
several points in the evening (including the two encores) for the songs being
The camera work left much to be desired last night and the
orchestra needs to work on adding speakers throughout the seating area so that
the sound doesn’t need to be as heavily amplified as it was last night.
The Pasadena Symphony and Pops move into Ambassador
Auditorium Saturday night for a concert that continues to be called “Marvin
Hamlisch and Friends,” since Hamlisch had made all the plans for the event to
raise funds for the two orchestras. Blank will conduct and Jason Alexander will
be the emcee. Among those appearing will be composer-pianist Jason Robert Brown.
The Pasadena Symphony opens its 2012-2013 season on Oct. 6
when Mei-Ann Chen — who made a successful PSO debut last year (LINK) returns to
Ambassador Auditorium to lead the orchestra in a program that includes
Beethoven’s Egmont Overture,
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with
16-year-old George Li as soloist. DETAILS
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.