By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Pasadena Symphony; Nicholas
Mendelssohn: The Fair
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (Nareh
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).
Saturday, March 31, 2012 Ambassador Auditorium
Next performance: April 28 (NOTE: This is a change from the original review.)
Pianist Nareh Arghamanayan, conductor Nicholas McGegan, and
the Pasadena Symphony rehearse Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 for their
For more than a quarter-century, Nicholas McGegan has made
an international reputation as a Baroque music specialist, primarily through
leading his San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. However, in
recent years McGegan (now age 62) has broadened his repertoire and the Pasadena
Symphony grabbed the opportunity to add him to its schedule of guest conductors
for both this season and next.
McGegan is a compact perpetual bundle of energy on the
podium with a seemingly unending smile (even when a cell phone went off between
movements of Beethoven’s Eroica
Symphony, McGegan merely looked over at the offending holder and smiled until
the phone was turned off).
He conducts without a baton and clearly telegraphs his
intentions not only to the musicians but also to the audience. He also seated
the orchestra in an unconventional manner (for the PSO, at any rate), with the
violins divided left and right, the cellos and basses to the left and the
timpani perched on a platform to the right of the orchestra.
However, the key questions about any conductor are (a) how
does the music sound? and (b) how well does the orchestra play? Both answers
were strongly affirmative in yesterday afternoon’s performance (the concert
repeated last night). McGegan shapes phrases lovingly and elicits rhythmic
precision when it is called for. The orchestra responded as if McGegan was a
familiar presence; overall this was a scintillating afternoon of music making.
A major portion of the enjoyment came courtesy of young
Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanayan, who was an elegant soloist in Mozart’s
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. Wearing a wine-colored gown, she
bobbed and swayed to the music to get in the mood even when she wasn’t playing.
When she was in the spotlight, she produced a silken tone, punctuated by occasional
sharp attacks, and a carefully thought-out concept of this familiar, albeit
somewhat dark work, one of just two (out of 27) piano concerti that Mozart
wrote in a minor key. Winner of the 2008 Montreal International Piano
Competition, she is a name to remember. McGegan and the ensemble accompanied
After intermission, McGegan led a buoyant performance of
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). At
46 minutes long, the tempos were brisk but they didn’t seem rushed. The
orchestra (which numbered about 50, the size that Beethoven reportedly assembled
for the work’s premiere) was led by its winds (notably Principal Oboist Lara
Wickes) and played expertly. The members seem to relish exploring and meeting
the challenges that come with having a different conductor for each program.
The afternoon opened with a rarity: Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusina Overture, which has
unmistakable overtones of the composer’s two previous efforts in the
concert-overture genre: Calm Sea and
Prosperous Voyage and The Hebrides, most
notably in their allusions to the rolling sea. McGegan and Co. played it with
considerable panache. At the end, McGegan beamed — as he did all afternoon.
The PSO placed flowers on the seats of those subscribers
who have renewed for the 2012-2013 season. It was a nice touch and also a way
to remind others to either renew or become season-ticket holders.
The season’s final concert on May 15 will see James
DePreist, who has served as the PSO’s music advisor since Jorge Mester departed
as music director two years ago, leading a program of Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Wagner’s Gtterdmerung, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8,
and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with
Christine Brewer as soloist.
When McGegan appears next season on Feb. 9, his program
will pair Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (with the PSO’s Principal Clarinet Donald
Foster as soloist) with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. McGegan will be one of two
conductors repeating from this season (the other is Mei-Ann Chen, who will open
next season on Oct. 6).
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.