One of the rewards of being able to observe so many of the touring European and American orchestras that pass this way is the opportunity to appreciate our own home-grown ensembles.

The Pasadena Symphony, for instance, an orchestra historically strong in woodwind and brass sections, but perhaps never more cherishable for its resplendent string choir than it is today. At the ensemble's March concert, Saturday night in Pasadena Civic Auditorium, that choir sang with fervor but never lost its sheen and mellowness.

The program, beginning with Berio's recomposition of Boccherini, "Ritirata Notturna di Madrid," and excerpts from Mahler's "Knaben Wunderhorn," and ending with Dvorak's Fifth Symphony, showed off all those strings--perhaps most often the burnished tone of the cellos--glowingly.

Mester's canny programming was mirrored in performances of sweep and detail. The deceptively campestral Dvorak work moved inevitably to its dark-hued finale. The brief Berio overture--for jaded ears, more interesting than the "Meistersinger" Prelude--bristled with musical subtexts.

Kimball Wheeler and Leslie Guinn were the polished soloists in eight "Wunderhorn" songs. Wheeler's articulate performances explored words and tone-coloration tellingly; Guinn's more generalized and bland singing sometimes failed to cut through the orchestral fabric.

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