Review: Pacific Symphony’s Eastern European new year

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Relying on the first major concert of the new year as a predictor of the future is obviously bogus prophecy. Still, runes are runes, and one takes what one can get. So if the Pacific Symphony‘s curious rummage through Eastern Europe on Thursday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall is anything to go by, 2009 will be a topsy-turvy year. You’re surprised?

Carlos Kalmar, a Uruguayan with Viennese roots who is music director of the Oregon Symphony, was guest conductor. Freddy Kempf, said to be the brightest of bright young British pianists, was soloist. Mozart’s weighty “Prague” Symphony came first. Ferocious nationalist Czech music by Janácek (“Taras Bulba”) followed.

After intermission the mood lightened with Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and lightened further with Enescu’s “Romanian Rhapsody” No. 1, left over presumably from New Year’s Eve. Finally, the frivolous ghost of Christmas just past appeared in the form of an unexpected organ encore -- Baroque pieces and an improvisation on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” performed by Lori Loftus, who was organist in “Taras Bulba.” The Pacific Symphony is clearly prepared for a year when people will expect to get a few extras for their money.

It was, at every turn, a baffling, if intriguing, evening. On the podium, Kalmar self-consciously pursues flash enforced by condescending prattling to the audience (from which we learned that Freddy’s a good guy and it’s cold in Vienna and Lori’s pretty terrific and what a great bunch are the Pacific Symphony musicians). He has a slash-and-burn stick manner.


He is also, when not trying too hard to show off, quite a good conductor. Mozart’s “Prague” was crisp, propulsive and full of bite. Kalmar used a small orchestra and paid considerable heed to period performance practice. The ensemble playing was generally tight and exciting, although with bouts of weird intonation.

The “Prague” can withstand more drama, bigger forces, additional repeats and slower tempos to draw a listener into its contrapuntal and chromatic wonders. The symphony has the heft to end a program, but Kalmar went for excitement and treated it as an exciting overture. With exceptionally quick reflexes, he also managed some impressively sudden spurts of captivating lyricism.

Kalmar’s tense “Prague” unexpectedly set the tone for Janácek’s tense symphonic tone poem based on Gogol’s novel about the Ukrainian Cossack and his battle with the invading Poles. Kalmar superbly brought out the score’s strange jerkiness, again enforcing a tight ensemble. The score’s colorful and varied mix of instruments often breaks open for solo passages –- including organ -- of haunting beauty. The ensemble was not quite 100% on, but it was close and often spectacular. A Janácek moment hereabouts -- next week the Los Angeles Philharmonic performs the Sinfonietta and Long Beach Opera presents “The Cunning Little Vixen” –- has begun in glory.

Liszt’s piano concerto was to have been the highlight of the program. A dashing young man, Kempf, 32, has been making lively and eloquent CDs for the last several years. But his graceless performance Thursday, full of tiresome and clumsy accents, which in prose would translate to the overuse of capitals and exclamation points, sent me back to his Beethoven recordings.

They hold up. Perhaps Kempf, these days, is worried about being overshadowed by the Chinese competition. But he doesn’t quite have the flair of Lang Lang or the smoothness of Yundi Li. And now there is the teenage Peng Peng, who has just made a dazzling Naxos recording of the Liszt concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony. In the hands of a player such as Rubinstein or Christian Zimmerman, the concerto can be a work of elegant virtuosity. Here, with Kalmar’s assistance, it was vulgar.

The “Romanian” Rhapsody No. 1 is Enescu’s most famous work. He wrote symphonic and chamber works of much greater interest (and a terrific opera, “Oedipe”), and Kalmar said as much to the audience. Still, he played the “Romanian” Rhapsody, and it was a lot of fun.

The organ encore, though, was inexplicable. Hungarians from Liszt to Ligeti were particularly drawn to the organ, and surely something appropriate to the evening’s theme could have been found. But at least Loftus showed off the hall’s recently installed instrument, which is a pleasure to hear and is underused.

Pacific Symphony, Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $26-$99. (714) 755-5799 or

-- Mark Swed