Music Review: George Stelluto with the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium


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In lieu of a single, full-time music director –- if that’s what the goal truly is –- the Pasadena Symphony took a look at another guest conductor Saturday night in Ambassador Auditorium. This time, it was George Stelluto, resident conductor at Juilliard (where PSO artistic advisor James DePreist is director of conducting and orchestral studies).

Whether Stelluto was just passing through town or is a possible candidate to succeed the departed Jorge Mester is hard to say; in any case, Stelluto already has another PSO under his command, the Peoria Symphony. But he was definitely worth the look, not only for the spirited, precise way the Pasadenans responded, but for the offbeat programming in the usual concerto slot before intermission.


The piece was a short, flashy but not trashy Concerto No. 2 for kanun and orchestra (1987) by the 20th-century Armenian composer Khachatur Avetisyan (coincidentally, way across town, Jacaranda was hosting an all-Armenian music program in Santa Monica that night). The kanun is a 72-string zither-like instrument played on one’s lap, making sounds like a delicate cimbalom –- and it had a formidable advocate Saturday in one of Avetisyan’s students, Karine Hovhannisyan.

Avetisyan’s concerto is a sandwich of two mirror-image quick dances surrounding a slow, meditative core -– insistent and irresistible in its odd-metered rhythms. With the clatter of finger picks, the kanun makes a startling impression when it enters the orchestral fabric, almost like a visitor from another planet.

However the gentle, bear-like Stelluto managed it –- either with baton in the Overture and Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or without it in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 –- he got through to the Pasadena orchestra. Except for a couple of overly drawn-out passages, the Overture sparkled, the orchestral textures were wonderfully lucid and clear, and the notoriously difficult Scherzo was carefully played yet scrupulously together in all sections.

In the Beethoven, Stelluto realized the value of solid, thrusting rhythm even at fast tempos, the energy firing on all cylinders and building into a fine fury by the mid-point of the finale. He seated the orchestra with the violins split on the left and right, producing razor-sharp antiphonal duels that were especially effective in the medium-sized Ambassador.

People say that having nothing but guest conductors isn’t good for an orchestra’s long-term health. But if there is any deterioration in the Pasadena Symphony, I don’t hear it. If anything, the PSO sounds even better in its new hall.

-– Richard S. Ginell