REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony shines brightly in Saturday concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Andrew van Oeyen performed as soloist with the Pasadena Symphony Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium. Photo credit: Kay Kochenderfer.
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Music directors of orchestra, choirs, etc. love to build their programs around themes but Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concert was unique because PSO Music Director David Lockington interwove two themes into the three pieces on the program at Ambassador Auditorium.

Of course it wasn’t necessary that you knew of this thematic duality to enjoy the concert. The masterful performances by Lockington, the orchestra and piano soloist Andrew van Oeyen were enough for any patron in the nearly sold-out house.

The theme of hidden meanings appeared in the first piece, Scherzo Crypto by American composer Alexander Miller, and in the final, far-more-familiar work, Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The Elgar title also alluded to the program’s other theme, variations, which also dominated the middle piece, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

One thing unusual about the program was how the orchestra was seated. It’s not unusual to have the cellos in the middle of the ensemble, which promotes a deep, rich bass sound that was appropriate for all three pieces. However, rather than split the violins as is usual, Lockington placed the violas on the right side of the orchestra, which added to the deep tonal luster, particularly in the Elgar.

Scherzo Crypto is a five-minute bundle of energy. The composer is assistant oboist for the Grand Rapids Symphony (Lockington’s former band) and he composed this overture-like work in 2014 on a commission from the San Antonio Symphony.

Embedded within the piece was a cryptogram about a musical instrument that, it turns out, is a viola. Lockington and the orchestra delivered the piece in a spritely manner and, in a nice touch, Lockington used a light to the right of the orchestra to let patrons know when the cryptogram was appearing.

The program’s centerpiece, figuratively and literally, was the Rachmaninoff and, for a change, the highlight was the orchestra rather than the soloist. Van Oeyen was no slouch — which isn’t a big surprise. He made his professional debut at age 16 with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, won the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award in 1999 and also took First Prize in the Leni Fe Bland Foundation National Piano Competition in 2001.

Now, 22 years later, he is an assured, polished presence at the keyboard, offering crisp yet delicate fingering throughout the Rachmaninoff with excellent degrees of dynamic shadings throughout. His rendition of the 14th variation was even more striking than the famous 18th but overall there was much to enjoy in his work.

However, what was really notable was the accompaniment by Lockington and the orchestra. In his five years leading the PSO, Lockington has taken an ensemble that was already quite good and elevated it into one where excellence is the byword.

That was certainly true in the Rachmaninoff and at the beginning of the Elgar, although — whether through orchestral fatigue or pedestrian composition — things tended to flag a bit toward the end. Lockington’s tempos were calm and majestic throughout, particularly in the famed Nimrod section.

XXXHEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:QQQ
• Just as Lockington was poised to give the downbeat to the Elgar, a cell phone went off in the auditorium. Lockington turned around, pantomimed answering the phone, reset the orchestra and the audience, and moved on smoothly. Other conductors have handled similar situations worse.
• The final concerts in the orchestra’s 90th season are on May 5 when Lockington leads Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) and the Violin Concerto, with Angelo Xiang Yu as soloist. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
• The 2018 Pops summer season begins June 23 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia, as Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein leads tributes to Gershwin and Sondheim. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2018, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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    great concert!