REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony, Russian National Orchestra offer “traditional” programs impressively played

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

For decades symphony orchestras have struggled with the question of how to program in ways that will increase their attendance and financial support. “New” music vs. traditional fare, young conductors or older maestros (and, increasingly, women conductors instead of men) are just some of the questions continually being asked and debated.

There is much to be said for orchestras programming a healthy dose of new music because tastes change, although perhaps not as much or as quickly as some might imagine. However, standard classical repertoire continues to remain popular, as sold-out audiences in recent concerts by the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium and the Russian National Orchestra at Valley Performing Arts Center can attest.

To judge by audience growth, the Pasadena Symphony seems to have found the “sweet spot” in terms of programming for its audiences. The throng 10 days ago at Ambassador Auditorium, its home since 2010, was the largest I can remember for an afternoon performance and the evening concert was reportedly sold out.

Some of that can be attributed to the pieces being played — Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 — two of the most popular in the symphonic repertory (in the preconcert lecture, soloist Jennifer Frautschi even dared to call the concerto a “warhorse”). But even more people — a healthy number of whom are younger — are undoubtedly coming because of the orchestra’s exemplary playing under Music Director David Lockington.

The afternoon was a homecoming for Frautschi, who played in the Pasadena Symphony Youth Orchestra and in the back row of the second violin section of the symphony itself during those youthful days.

She has matured into a marvelous, assured artist, playing on a 1722 Antonio Stradivarius violin known as the “ex-Cadiz,” and all of her talent and musicality were on display during her fiery performance of the concerto. She was a joy to watch and it was exciting to hear her play a work that was deemed “unplayable” by its original dedicatee, Leopold Auer. However, it was also fascinating to contemplate the very young-looking blonde near the back of the second violin section and speculate if she was thinking that she might be at center stage one day.

Lockington led the orchestra in a sensitive accompaniment of Frautschi and also in an expansive performance of the Sibelius symphony. The orchestra obviously loves playing for him and that translates fully into what the audience hears each concert.

When the Russian National Orchestra was founded in 1990, it was a unique institution. Although its founder, Mikhail Pletnev, was a close friend of Mikhail Gorbachev the orchestra began with no government support. Last Friday’s VPAC concert was the opening event of a 16-city 25th anniversary tour, a testimony to the ensemble’s staying power and its quality playing.

To no one’s surprise, Plentnev brought an all-Russian program to VPAC but there was just enough variety to make it interesting both on paper and in person. He revels in the deep, soulful tones that characterize Russian music and those were on full display Friday night. He began Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” with rich sonority before exploding into a rhythmically precise reading of balance of the piece.

Likewise, Plentnev’s reading of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” (using the 1945 version as opposed to the more familiar 1919 suite) was deeply felt and the playing of his orchestra — in the printed program, he is listed variously as Founder & Artistic Director, Music Director and conductor — ranged from opulent sonority to crackling intensity. That incisiveness also extended to the two encores: Khachaturian’s Waltz from “Masquerade” and Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Buffoons” from “The Snow Maiden.”

The centerpiece — literally and figuratively — of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s second Piano Concerto, instead of the far more familiar first. Soloist Yuja Wang brought her customary pyrotechnic technical brilliance to her solo work. However, she and Plentnev — who made his reputation as a world-class pianist and has played and recorded this concerto — seemed to be of two minds regarding the first-movement tempos: Yang bounding ahead with Plentnev lingering over the soulful accompaniment.

Yang chose to play the original rendition of this unfamiliar concerto with its long second movement that feels more like a piano trio. That choice allowed the spotlight to shine on superb playing from Concertmaster Alexy Bruni and Principal Cellist Alexander Gotgelf, along with Wang and (occasionally) the orchestra. By the third movement, Yang and Plentnev were on the same page, which meant for a hell-bent-for leather conclusion.

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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