At last, the new era at the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra has begun.
One year ago this month, David Lockington led his first concert as music director of the PSO, yet that would be it for the season, as the roster of guest conductors had already been made before Lockington’s appointment was sealed. Same thing with new principal guest conductor Nicholas McGegan — one concert and out.
So 2014-15 is really their first season, with Lockington leading three of the five subscription concerts and McGegan taking the remaining two.
Right off the bat, it looks as if Pasadena will have a good time with Lockington. He cuts a striking figure; some say there is a physical resemblance to Leonard Bernstein, but his graceful, precise right arm motions bring to mind former L.A. Philharmonic Music Director Zubin Mehta. Lockington's light British accent and slightly formal yet engaging way of talking to the audience remind me of fellow British conductor-lecturer Benjamin Zander.
In one sense, Lockington’s first program of the season, on Saturday afternoon at the Ambassador Auditorium, was a continuation of where he left off in 2013. On that occasion, he led Bernstein’s Serenade; on Saturday, he offered more Bernstein music that chronologically follows the Serenade: the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” and a built-in encore, the “Candide” Overture. A natural coupling for that would be something by George Gershwin, so his Concerto in F fit right in.
But first, as a greeting prelude, Lockington contributed a little something of his own, a “Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare” that he wrote for the Grand Rapids Symphony (where he remains music director) in 2009, using the letters of Grand Rapids to generate the musical notes. It’s an attractive, festive piece, a bit cinematic in spots but with a complex underpinning, building to a grand climax with chimes bonging away.
Apropos to Lockington’s talk, Terrence Wilson’s rhapsodic yet always clear piano caught and projected the melancholy in the first movement of the Concerto in F; elsewhere, there was more moodiness than period sass on the part of both pianist and orchestra. Yet Wilson’s encore had plenty of pizazz — a juggernaut of a transcription of Mozart’s “Turkish” March by Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos that Wilson apparently re-transcribed himself by ear.
In “West Side Story,” the jazz of the Prologue sounded a little buttoned-down, but Lockington was able to get the Mambo going with a fine, raucous roar that threatened to come apart, and he brought out the doubting dissonances within the finale. The “Candide” Overture was great, crackling along at Bernstein’s own tempo with the New York Philharmonic, the PSO producing its best playing of the afternoon. Already Lockington’s expressive technique is yielding results — and quickly.