OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Pasadena Symphony;
Rossen Milanov, conductor

Borodin: Polovtsian
Dances
from Prince Igor;

Saint-Sans: Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian); Esther Keel, pianist

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade,
Op. 35

Friday, February 18, 2012 Ambassador Auditorium

Next concert: March 31, 2012, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

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Although most people wouldn’t want to make a steady diet of
it, there’s something to be said for a concert comprised entirely of late 19th-century
romantic music (the three pieces on the program were written within eight years
of each other), especially when it’s played as well as what transpired last
night in the Pasadena Symphony Concert before a large crowd at Ambassador
Auditorium.

 

Rossen Milanov became the latest in a long train of guest
conductors to mount the PSO podium during the past two seasons and he made an
impressive local debut. Now age 47, the Sofia, Bulgaria native comes with impressive
credentials. In 2010 he became music director of the Princeton (NJ) Symphony
Orchestra where he is, by most accounts, doing splendid work. Before that he
spent 11 years as the associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and
artistic director of that ensemble during its summer outdoor seasons.

 

Tall and slim, Milanov cuts an impressive figure on the
podium and his conducting style is enthusiastic and demonstrative with the same
sort of infectious grin that shows up on a certain curly haired conductor who
plies his trade in downtown Los Angeles. Now, that conductor (Gustavo Dudamel)
often displays plenty of exuberance on the podium, but whereas I have almost
never seen the Venezuelan use a gesture that didn’t make musical sense,
Milanov’s swooping arms and hands and overly fussy attention to details occasionally — albeit not very often — seemed
to get in the way of the music, particularly in the concluding work on the
program, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

 

Considering that Rimsky-Korsakov’s tone poem is based on the
fabled tales found in 1001 Nights, it’s
hard to kvetch about a performance being episodic, but by the time we got to
the last note I felt as if we had heard all one thousand and one tales, not
just four of them.

 

Part of that problem lies with the composer; Rimsky-Korsakov
gave virtually every principal a solo turn and it’s understandable that Milanov
would want to luxuriate in the sound, given the luscious Ambassador Auditorium
acoustics and how superbly the Pasadena Symphony played throughout the
performance.

 

At the top of the list of principals was concertmaster Aimee
Kreston, who spun Scheherazade’s tales seductively and sweetly, but she
certainly wasn’t alone. The list of solo stars would certainly include Trevor
Handy, cello; Donald Foster, clarinet; Rong-Huey Lin, oboe; David Shostac,
flute; Katherine Oliver, bassoon; Marissa Benedict, trumpet (indeed, the entire
brass section), Teag Reeves, horn, and, perhaps most notably, Allison Allport,
harp.

 

The evening’s other debutante, 26-year-old Esther Keel, also
proved to be special as soloist in Saint-Sans Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian). Presumably the piece was
chosen because it sort of fit into the theme of Middle Eastern/Asian-tinged
music, but it proved to be a perfect vehicle for Keel, who now teachers at The
Colburn School when she’s not performing on the concert stage.

 

Considering what we heard last night, her teaching gigs may
have to be curtailed. Playing a Steinway piano, Keel displayed pristine runs
and trills along with powerhouse octaves throughout the performance. More
importantly, she brought sensitive musicality and a very individual take on
this not-often performed piece. Although I was delighted to hear her perform
this concerto (my favorite of the five), I eagerly look forward to hearing her
again in something slightly more mainstream.

 

Keel’s concept of the concerto wasn’t easy for the conductor
and Millanov did an excellent job of both following Keel and shaping the
accompaniment sensitively, while the orchestra gets kudos for being right on
top of where Millanov and Keel were heading — it wasn’t as easy as it may have
looked.

 

The evening opened with a somewhat raucous performance of
Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. Oboist
Lin got things off gloriously with the “Strangers in Paradise” theme and Foster
added his usual winsome touch on clarinet, but Millanov drove the final four
dances forward relentlessly; a little breathing room would have been nice.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Prior to the concert, the Women’s Committee presented the
Pasadena Symphony Association with a check for $100,000, proceeds from funds
raised at the 44th annual Holiday
Look-in Tour
last December. Gloria Turner, who chaired the event, made the
presentation to PSA President Melinda Shea and CEO Paul Jan Zdunek.

For the record: Scheherazade
was written in 1888, Borodin’s Polovtsian
Dances
were written in 1890, and the concerto dates from 1896. Saint-Sans
wrote the concerto while on a trip to Luxor, Egypt but did not append the
nickname.

The PSO’s season continues on March 31 when Nicholas
McGegan leads a program of that concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). Nareh Arghamanyan will be the
soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466.

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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