Music Review: Tito Munoz, Narek Hakhnazaryan, with the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium


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For all of the turmoil of the last year, the Pasadena Symphony has done one undisputedly great thing this season: moving into Ambassador Auditorium. The finest concert hall in Southern California before it went dark for nine years, now one of a number of fine halls in the region, Ambassador already is reshaping the sound of this orchestra and underlining the strengths that it always had. This after only two programs -- the second of which was performed Saturday afternoon and evening (I caught the afternoon edition).

To a pair of ears attuned to decades of PSO concerts in the old Pasadena Civic Auditorium, the ensemble sounds warmer, brighter, more detailed and alive, with a firm bass at last, in Ambassador -- and not too overpowering when the volume heats up. The orchestra has long been stocked with excellent players, yet one can senses that they can hear themselves better in this space. And one can imagine a subliminal influence from the ghosts of those who once performed here -- Horowitz, Karajan, Bernstein, Milstein, Rubinstein, et al.


With the long-term future direction of the PSO still in flux, this season’s parade of young guest conductors began with a mixed report on New York City-born Tito Muñoz, 27, who just finished three seasons as Franz Welser-Möst’s assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra.

There was a trace of former PSO conductor Jorge Mester in the choice of Britten’s sparkling arrangements of five Rossini pieces, “Soirées Musicales” -- exactly the sort of offbeat, audience-friendly 20th century programming that Mester liked -- yet this performance could have used more sparkle than it got. Dvorák’s Cello Concerto -- with Armenian-born cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan producing a smallish tone that had to fight its way through the orchestra -- was vigorous, together, yet uninflected, not very distinctive in concept.

It was in Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations that Muñoz, working without a score, finally struck fire. By the second variation, he was imparting character into each phrase, getting dialogues going between instrumental groups, producing a really lovely “WN” variation and patiently building the “Nimrod” section into a warmly flowing emotional climax. The Pasadenans responded resplendently.

–- Richard S. Ginell