REVIEW: Pianist Zee Zee shines in sparkling Pasadena Symphony program

Music Critic

Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor>
Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Next performance: Dec. 16 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
All Saints Church; Pasadena

My former wife, who died decades ago from Multiple Sclerosis, was a concert pianist. There are a handful of piano concertos that I consider “Jennifer concertos” (concertos she played), which means when they show up on a schedule I draw a big circle around the particular date.

One of those is the Saint-Saéns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, which was (for me, at any rate), the centerpiece — both literally and figuratively — of the Pasadena Symphony’s concert yesterday afternoon and evening in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium (I saw the afternoon performance).

The soloist was the young, award-winning Chinese-born pianist now known as Zee Zee, pictured at the top of this post (I assume she changed from Zhang Zuo because Zee Zee is easier to spell and pronounce). Unlike her compatriot, Yuja Wang, Zee Zee came on stage wearing a blue formal gown — she preferred to let the music and her music making speak for itself. And speak it did, wonderfully.

Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto was once a staple on concert programs but it has fallen into neglect these days. Zee Zee argued a persuasive case for its reintroduction. Her rendition of the lengthy solo fantasia that opens the work was both powerful and musical and those qualities permeated the balance of the concerto, as well. She sailed through the work’s numerous flying octaves with aplomb while at the same time playing trills and runs with effortless pearl-like delicacy. It was a tour de force in the best use of that phrase, and she is somebody the PSO should re-engage as soon as possible.

Music Director David Lockington elected to construct yesterday’s program in an old-fashioned manner: 18th century overture, followed by the concerto and then a Mozart symphony. In doing so, he reminded all in attendance why this format and this music has remained so popular for nearly two centuries.

Lockington opened the program with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, leading a striking performance that melded extraordinary precision with sensitive musicality. Those qualities were also evident in the concerto accompaniment and in the concluding Mozart symphony (No. 41, Jupiter). The Pasadena Symphony usually offers excellent programs — especially when you consider it plays just seven sets of concerts during the season — but yesterday they pushed their level of excellence up a notch or two with their performances.

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FIVE-SPOT: April 27-May 3, 2007

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending. As usual, Saturday requires tough choices this week but Sunday is also chock-full (and I didn’t even include LA Opera’s “Tosca” performance on that afternoon).

8 p.m. at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; Costa Mesa
Two French Canadians are on the program. Jean-Marie Zeitouni leads music by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. Louis Lortie will be the soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2


11 a.m. April 28, 8 p.m. April 29 and 2 p.m. April 30
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Swiss conductor Phillipe Jordan will join with soprano Iréne Theorin and the Phil for an evening of portions of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung. Jordan seems like a natural choice for this program, since he is music director of the Paris Opera where he succeeded James Conlon, and has recorded a CD with his Paris forces of this program.

The L.A. Phil concerts will include the excerpts from all four “Ring” operas that one would expect in this type of program. However, because the program also includes the Prelude and Orchestra Interludes from Das Rheingold, the orchestration includes six anvils, six harps, nine horns, two timpani and one hammer.

The climax, literally and figuratively, will find Theorin singing “Brunhilde’s Immolation” scene, the conclusion of Götterdämerung and the entire cycle. Hearing this music with the L.A. Phil on stage at Disney Hall should be one of the season’s highlights, at least for Wagner lovers.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.


2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Music Director David Lockington will be on the podium for the final concerts in the PSO’s season. The first part of the program includes music by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The second half is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with the Donald Brinegar Singers, JPL Chorus and four soloists joining the orchestra in this monumental work.


8 p.m. at Terrace Theatre; Long Beach
Robert Istaad, incoming music director of the Pacific Chorale, leads an evening of Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute; Symphony No. 25; and Requiem, with the Long Beach Camerata Singers and soloists Elissa Johnston, soprano, I-Chin Lee, alto, Nicholas Preston, tenor, and Randall Gremillion, bass.

BONUS: The Terrace Theatre is easily accessible via the Metro Blue Line. Exit at 1st St. in Long Beach, walk a block south and cross the street to reach the plaza where the theatre is located..


3 p.m. at Soka University; Aliso Viejo
Music Director Carl St.Clair leads his ensemble in an all-Beethoven program: Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), with Joyce Yang as soloist; and the Triple Concerto, with the Faktura Piano Trio (HyeJin Kim, piano, Fabiola Kim, violin and Ben Solomonow, cello) as soloists.

BONUS: This is a great chance to experience one of the region’s unsung concert halls.


7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs an eclectic collection of spirituals and other music on April 30 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Artistic Director Grant Gershon and Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong will conduct 48 LAMC singers in a program entitled “Wade in the Water” (the title comes from the spiritual of the same name by Moses Hogan that will be on the program). The program ranges far and wide, including Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.


7 p.m. at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts; Beverly Hills
The British pianist plays sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Scriabin and other works.

BONUS: Grosvernor also appears with the same program on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa (

Information for April 30:

7 p.m. at Redondo Union High School; Redondo Beach
The orchestra continues its 50th anniversary season as Music Director Gary Berkson leads a program of suites by Grieg, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams and Ravel. Baritone Vladimir Chernov will be the soloist in Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kïjé suite.

BONUS: Free admission.


8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Three of the world’s most celebrated soloists play a series Bach Trios, arranged for cello, string bass and mandolin.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.


(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony takes patron on a world tour

Music Critic

Pasadena Symphony, Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena
Next performance: Tonight at 8:00 p.m.

Publicity for today’s Pasadena Symphony’s concerts proclaimed it as “Mozart and Mendelssohn.” That was an accurate, if incomplete, title, since the program also began with a Schubert overture.

However, Rachel Barton Pine (pictured right), the afternoon’s soloist, had a better description, “Musical Tourism,” as the program began in Italy and continued through Turkey to Scotland, with a detour into Ireland.

Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan was on the podium, conducting as usual without a baton but with his bouncy, ebullient personality and occasionally humorous gestures. Moreover, as usual, the PSO was in top form for him throughout the program, which began with a sparkling account Schubert’s Overture in C Major, D. 591, the second of two that Schubert wrote “In the Italian Style” (the other, D. 590, is in D Major). Principal Clarinet Donald Foster was in the spotlight throughout the performance.

Pine, now 42, has rebounded from a gruesome accident on a Chicago Metra train to become one of the nation’s foremost violin soloists. She demonstrated her prodigious capabilities in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219,, known as the “Turkish” for its final-movement rondo.

Playing on the “ex-Bazzini ex-Soldat,” a 1742 violin crafted by Joseph Guarneri “del Gesu,” Pine poured out a lovely, sweet tone throughout the performance, although her desire to create ultra-quiet moments came across as almost too precious in its concept. She reportedly creates her own cadenzas for Mozart concerti and those today were wonderfully suited to the music and the overall performance.

As an encore, Pine introduced to most in the audience Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s Concert Etude No. 6, which is based on the Irish tune, The Last Rose Of Summer. The work wraps the tune in an introduction and a set of variations and, although somewhat lengthy for an encore, was a big hit with the audience as Pine dazzled with her intricate melding of bowing and pizzicato.

After intermission, McGegan led a vigorous account of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish.”) This is actually the last of five symphonies that Mendelssohn wrote, but like Beethoven’s first and second piano concertos and Chopin’s two piano concertos, it is numbered in terms of its publishing date, not the date in which it was written — in fact, it took 12 years from when this symphony was begun, in 1830, until it was finished.

As Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn wrote in their program notes, “While the music has an undeniably Scottish flavor, it does not quote any authentic folk melodies, a device that Mendelssohn despised. Writing to his father from Wales, he commented: ‘…anything but national music! May ten thousand devils take all folklore… a harpist sits in the lobby of every inn of repute playing so-called folk melodies at you — dreadful, vulgar, fake stuff; and simultaneously a hurdy-gurdy is tooting out melodies — it’s enough to drive you crazy…’ That being said, it’s difficult to distinguish Mendelssohn’s invented Scottish style melodies from the kind of musical nationalism he so despised.”

Whether it was the gloomy opening, redolent of the dank weather in the Scottish Highlands, or the Scottish-like tunes in the second movement, McGegan bounced things along smartly and the orchestra responded with first-rate playing throughout, sending the audience out into the warm afternoon in the spirit of pleasant joy.

• The season’s final concert, on April 29, blends choral music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with its “Ode to Joy” choral ending. In addition to the orchestra, the program will include four soloists, the Donald Brinegar Singers, JPL Chorus and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.
• Given that the last three programs have been virtual sellouts, if you want to hear this program you may want to buy tickets in advance. Information:

Robert D. Thomas is a freelance music writer. Email him at: More of his reviews, columns and features can be found at


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NEW: Pasadena Symphony extends contracts of Lockington and McGegan

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The Pasadena Symphony has extended the tenures of Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan through the 2018-2019 season. Lockington and McGegan were each appointed three years ago with three-year contracts and the contracts have been extended each year, in effect making them “evergreen” contracts.

Lockington will conduct four concerts during the upcoming season, beginning with the opening programs at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on October 8 at Ambassador Auditorium. McGegan will lead two concerts at Ambassador and the seventh event will be the now-annual holiday-music concert on Dec. 17 at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

The final Pasadena Pops concert of the summer season will be Sept. 10 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Pasadena.


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

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PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony to open 87th season with Bernstein-Gershwin program Saturday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
This article was first published today Sunday in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News.

Read my preview of the Pasadena Symphony’s season-opening concert on Saturday HERE.

Performance details:
Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor
Nov. 1; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preconcert discussion one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 S. St. John St., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$110
Information: 626/793-7172;

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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