OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony opens 85th season

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Pasadena Symphony; Mei-Ann
Chen, conductor

Beethoven: Egmont
Overture; Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 (George Li, soloist)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9

Saturday, October 6, 2012 Ambassador Auditorium

Next performances: November 3 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

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62552-Chen 10-6-12.jpg

When Mei-Ann Chen (right) made her Pasadena Symphony podium
debut last fall, she concluded the program with a dynamic reading of
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Management obviously liked what it saw and heard;
it quickly re-engaged the now 39-year-old, Taiwan-born conductor to open the
orchestra’s 85th season with two performances yesterday at Ambassador
Auditorium in Pasadena.

 

However, her symphonic vehicle this tine around was a much
more challenging work: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. Chen certainly could have
turned to one of the Russian composer’s more popular symphonies — the
triumphant No. 5 or the pulsating 10th, for example. Instead, she
chose No. 9, which — to judge by Saturday’s smallish crowd — proved far less
marketable than Tchaikovsky (no surprise).

 

Written in 1945, Shostakovich originally conceived his ninth
symphony as a massive work for chorus, soloists and orchestra that would
celebrate the victorious end of World War II. Lengthy grandeur had been his
symphonic style during the war. Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) had been a riveting work documenting in musical terms
the terrible siege that city’s residents would endure for 900 days. Even
Symphony No. 8 had been infused with a heroic, albeit, dour mood.

 

Whatever caused Shostakovich to change his mind regarding
Symphony No. 9 (the program notes cited the tens of millions who had died, a
world still in chaos, and a Soviet Union with Stalin and his “apparatchiks”
firmly in charge), what emerged was a sardonically witty, 28-minute work that
infuriated the authorities and undoubtedly perplexed audiences, as well. The
composer reportedly said that, “musicians will like to play it, and critics
will delight in blasting it.”

 

To judge by Saturday night’s performance, the wind players
certainly enjoyed playing the piece because Shostakovich put many of them in
the spotlight; the list Saturday night was headed by Rose Corrigan, bassoon;
Geraldine Rotella, piccolo; Ben Lulich, clarinet; Louise DiTullio, flute; and
Concertmaster Aimee Kreston.

 

Chen skillfully navigated the five movements (the last three
are played as a unit) and, apart from a couple of rough transitions, the
orchestra played this unfamiliar work stylishly, although the last few measures
could have done with a bit more flourish — the audience didn’t realize the
piece was over until Chen spun around on the podium. As the applause swelled,
she waded into the orchestra to shake hands with the wind principals and then
had each section stand to share in the well-deserved ovation.

 

After intermission, 17-year-old George Li was the soloist in
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. Winner of the 2012 Gilmore Young Artist
Award, Li displayed an abundance of technical chops but not much patience;
after a properly sonorous beginning, he accelerated through the work like an
impetuous teenager.  The upside was
that this was a Rachmaninoff concerto that didn’t wallow; it also lacked much
gravitas or introspection.

 

Chen did her best to rein in Li but it was a losing battle.
She luxuriated in the orchestra’s rich string sound but ultimately it became a
race to the finish. Soloist and orchestra received a standing ovation — have
you ever heard a Rach 2 or 3 that didn’t get one? — and Li responded more
quickly than seemed warranted with two encores that again highlighted his
technique.

 

The evening opened with a well-played account of Beethoven’s
Egmont Overture that Chen led with
confidence and a minimum of podium pyrotechnics.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

In one of those scheduling quirks that tantalize audiences
and bedevil arts organizations, Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 shows up in next
weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts, which — if nothing else — should
provides a contrast for those who attended the PSO concert. German-born pianist
Lars Vogt will be the soloist. Robin Ticcati, a 29-year-old English conductor,
leads the concerts, which conclude with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Ticcati is
the first in a four-month-long series of guest conductors leading the Phil
until Gustavo Dudamel returns to the podium on Feb. 21. Informatioon: www.laphil.com

Chen returns to Southern California
April 4-6, 2013 when she leads the Pacific Symphony at Rene and Henry
Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The concluding work is Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 5; the program also includes the Zhanhao/Gang Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto, with George Gao on erhu, and
Huang’s
Saibei Dance, the piece with which Chen opened
her Pasadena Symphony debut concerts last October. Information: www.pacificsymphony.org

The PSO continues its pattern of using guest conductors in
the Nov. 3 concerts, which will be led by Edwin Outwater, now in his sixth
season music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada.
The program will open with Spring
Festival Overture
by Hong Kong-composer Li Huanzhi and will include
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with Rueibin Chen as soloist. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution