They’re off and running again in Pasadena. Saturday night at the Civic Auditorium, Jorge Mester and his Pasadena Symphony
Orchestra ended their season’s opening concert with a mighty sprint through
Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony — transformed for the occasion from the
music of a composer nostalgic for his homeland to the music of a man
apparently obsessed with having a plane to catch. There were impressive
moments along the way, to be sure; the orchestra managed to remain upright
over most of the hurdles its conductor had chosen to erect. But the feeling
remained that a lot less fuss might have produced a lot more music.
Have no doubts: Mester is an exciting conductor, and better his brand of
podium exuberance than the work of certain of his sleepier colleagues. If he
tends now and then to throw caution to the winds (and to the strings and
brass, as well), he has a good aggregation of musicians to do his bidding,
some of the area’s best studio freelancers. The orchestra plays fast and
slow, loud and soft; there were times, in fact — in the symphony’s famous
Largo — when the conductor had throttled the volume of the orchestra down
below the audible level of the hall’s noisy (and inefficient) air-
conditioning system.
This is Mester’s seventh season in Pasadena, where (judging from Saturday’s
turnout) he is much loved. He has now abandoned his post as music director of
the Aspen Festival, and shuttles between his New York base (as head of the
New Music Orchestral Project) and a new post as head of the Western Australia
Symphony, with Pasadena as a handy stopping-off point. The Australian
connection probably explains the new work on Saturday’s concert, Peter
Sculthorpe’s 17-minute tone poem called “Kakadu,” named after a national
park in the northern end of that continent.
Sculthorpe is Australia’s best-known composer, a master at devising sound
patterns that move easily between primitive percussive effects and a lively,
inventive orchestral language. “Kakadu” is a big, attractive piece, neatly
balanced between some impressive moments of violent instrumental cataclysm
and a lovely quiet middle section built around a sinuous melody for English
horn, (Between the Sculthorpe and the Dvorak, the orchestra’s solo English
hornist, Joel Timm, had a big night for himself.)
Midway came William Walton’s Violin Concerto, a work created for Jascha
Heifetz in 1939 and affording a fair workout where empty virtuosity is the
object, but not otherwise one of the splendid Briton’s better works.
(According to a printed program note — illustrated, by the way, with a photo
not of Walton but of Kurt Weill — the composer himself didn’t like it
much.) Perhaps the famous Heifetz tone made its way successfully through the rather
ponderous orchestration (at least it did on the recording), but the soloist
in Pasadena, Kyoko Takezawa, was less successful. When she could be heard,
she seemed to be responding adequately to the work’s limited fund of
eloquence. Beyond question, however, she and the audience might have been
happier with a different choice.

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