Music review: a Pasadena Symphony restart


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The Pasadena Symphony is Old Faithful no more.

This once ever-reliable orchestra was founded in 1928. It played, for most of its history, in Pasadena Civic Auditorium, building a tradition with music directors who remained often for decades. Richard Lert’s tenure was 36 years. As late as 1972, it was still possible in Pasadena to hear this conductor who, as a boy in his native Vienna, had played for Brahms.


Saturday night, the Pasadena Symphony moved to Ambassador Auditorium, and for the first time began a season without a music director. Also for the first time in a quarter century, the orchestra was conducted by someone other than Jorge Mester, who either resigned or was summarily removed (management has one story, the conductor and disgruntled musicians a different one) at the end of last season.

But in fact the new beginning Saturday wasn’t all that new. The programming was Mester’s. The conductor was James DePreist. Former long-time music director of the Portland Symphony, he is director of conducting studies at Juilliard, a post Mester once held. DePreist was born in 1936; Mester 1935. DePreist, who -- like Mester -- has a reputation as an orchestra builder, now serves as artistic advisor of the Pasadenans, but he will not return for the rest of its short season.

Playing in the 1,262-seat Ambassador is a radically different experience than in the grander Civic Auditorium (3,029 seats). The acoustically sensitive smaller hall is unforgiving. Balance issues require care. It is easy to play too loud, which happened from time to time Saturday. But the immediacy was remarkable.

DePreist, who contracted polio in 1962 and conducts from a wheelchair, showed great caution. His tempos were very slow. Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” Overture, which opened the program, was labored, not the fun fest it had been earlier in the month when Gustavo Dudamel began a Los Angeles Philharmonic gala with the same overture.

At 45 minutes, Brahms’ Second Symphony may not have been the slowest on record (although that is 45 minutes without the first movement repeat). But DePreist’s deliberation was such that in the Adagio the players seemed to struggle with their natural urge to move the music forward. There was, by the end, a sense of dogged monumentality in this, the least monumental of Brahms’ four symphonies, but less notion of lyrical flow.

Anne Akiko Meyers was the soloist in Samuel Barber’s romantic, 1939 Violin Concerto. She played her “Molitor” Stradivarius, which was believed to once have been owned by Napoleon and which she had purchased the previous week in auction for a record $3.6 million.


I was once given a sip of a Cognac reputed to have come from Napoleon’s cellar. Would I have found it so rich, dark, strong, subtle and complex had I been told it was cheap brandy? The “Molitor” sounded rich, dark, strong, subtle and complex. I wonder if it would have sounded even better had the violin been accompanied on stage by Brinks guards.

Meyers played aggressively, but might have been more rhapsodic had she not been carefully constrained by DePreist. Her encore, Gershwin’s “Summertime,” was supple, jazzy and alluring.

The venerable Pasadena Orchestra is now a work in progress. Let us hope that proves an exciting prospect. There is a three-month gap before its next program, which will be turned over to Tito Munoz, the young assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. -- Mark Swed


Pasadena Symphony’s James DePreist keeps eye on ‘artistic ball’