Jorge Mester's programming took an economy-sized turn Saturday night, with only 32 members of the Pasadena Symphony occupying the large Pasadena Civic Auditorium stage. One could argue that the program was perhaps better suited to a chamber orchestra than a symphonic organization, but only a pedant would really care, for Mester's choices of music were sound, a bit off the beaten path and, as usual, nicely prepared.
Besides, Mester often made his small forces sound like a larger orchestra, producing grand, sweeping phrases that carried sustained lyrical lines forward like gusts of wind.
Mester was particularly effective in his zesty leadership of a blown-up string-orchestra treatment of Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence" sextet--a piece that is regularly chastised by musicians and critics for reasons that are impossible to understand, given its wealth of good tunes and swinging, driving momentum.
This virtuosic conductor drew a lot of music out of Britten's brilliant Rimbaud-based song cycle "Les Illuminations," leading a marvelously characterful, brisk, propulsive performance, with the sleek surface hinting at the darkness underneath and the Pasadena strings executing the score's unusual effects with real panache.
In one facet, though, Mester perhaps went a bit too far, completely dominating the fluttery, small-scale soprano of Hila Plitmann, who often seemed like just another instrument in Mester's high-powered arsenal.
For starters, Mester offered a quirky, 11-minute Symphony in D by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a proto-classical piece that features some flavorful wind scoring and strange twists and detours within its three uninterrupted movements.