(CORRECTED) AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Opening a new chapter for the Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
Lockington PSO MD
In any musical organization’s life there are a number of key turning points, whether for good or bad. Often the full impact of decisions cannot be fully evaluated for several years but eventually we can look back and realize that an “aha!” moment did occur. Such a time would seem to be occurring with the Pasadena Symphony, which will open its 86th season Saturday with concerts at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium.

The program — Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with Anne Akkiko Meyers as soloist — will mark the inaugural concerts of David Lockington (right) as the orchestra’s fifth music director. (INFO)

More importantly, they also appear to signal the end of more than six chaotic years in which the orchestra amalgamated with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, weathered a nearly disastrous financial storm, remade its board and executive staff, successfully renegotiated a contract with its musicians through 2015, changed performance locales for both the Pasadena Symphony and the Pops (three times for the Pops), and completely overhauled the organization’s musical leadership team not once but several times.

Not all of these steps occurred seamlessly nor were they universally applauded. Good people lost jobs or volunteer positions. Two conductors beloved by audiences — Jorge Mester and Rachael Worby — departed; another, Marvin Hamlisch, died unexpectedly.

Nonetheless, the saga appears to have come to an end. In a decade where several orchestras around the world have folded or undergone significant labor strife, that statement may sound simple but it’s significant.

Michael Feinstein recently concluded a triumphant first season as principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops and his contract was quickly extended. Saturday’s concerts open a new era for the Pasadena Symphony, as well.

Owing to the fact that orchestra seasons are planned several years in advance, this will be the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. In addition, Nicholas McGegan — like Lockington, a native of England — begins his tenure as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the season’s second concert on Jan. 11. (INFO) That more than two-month gap between concerts is one of several issues confronting the Pasadena Symphony Association at it marches forward.

Less than a decade ago, the PSO offered eight classical programs a season (my original post said nine concerts). Can the orchestra continue to rebuild to that former level or beyond and thus increase its relevance to the Pasadena arts community and beyond?

Lockington, McGegan and Feinstein all have busy careers; Lockington and McGegan have long-standing tenures with other ensembles. Both promise to conduct the PSO multiple times in succeeding seasons but can they become part of our community rather than simply “fly in, conduct, fly out” maestros?

Can the PSO find ways to reach out to an audience that more closely mirrors the increasingly broad age and ethnic makeup of Pasadena and the surrounding communities? One way may be a venture that will be launched with Saturday’s concerts: the Pasadena Symphony Lounge, which will be set on Ambassador’s outdoor plaza and feature a “small-plate” menu, hosted by Claud & Co; a full bar; and light music. That sort of ambience might appeal to a younger audience.

Finally, can the Pasadena Symphony Association find a way to solve the riddle that permeates the entire classical-music community: how can organizations offer high-quality programs at reasonable prices for patrons while paying fair compensation to musicians and staff members? That requires rigorous, visionary management, dedication and skill from musicians, and communities that care enough about classical music to donate the funds that will make up the difference between expenses and revenues from ticket sales. Keeping that balance continues to be a high-wire act

So more than a successful opening program is at stake Saturday. Stay tuned to learn whether this is, indeed, becomes an “aha!” moment.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.