Pasadena Symphony's James DePreist keeps eye on 'artistic ball'

As smaller orchestras continue to reel from the ongoing effects of a recession economy — to say nothing of often routine programming and graying audiences — it's heartening to find that the dark clouds may be starting to part for the 82-year-old Pasadena Symphony, which last May split with its music director of 25 years after several deficit-plagued seasons.

In June, James DePreist, the director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School and an elder statesman in American music, accepted the symphony's offer to be its artistic advisor for the present season, helping shape the orchestra's future and profile. On Saturday he leads his first concerts with the ensemble — the only one of this season's five programs to be conducted by him.

The repertory — Rossini's Overture to "The Thieving Magpie," Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto and Brahms' Symphony No. 2 — is hardly avant-garde, but the soloist, San Diego-born Anne Akiko Meyers, is popular and respected. The program (presented at 2 and 8 p.m.) also marks the orchestra's move from its longtime home, the acoustically disappointing Pasadena Civic Auditorium, to the city's highly regarded but rarely used Ambassador Auditorium.

DePreist, 73, seems to have no illusions concerning the difficulties of the task before him. "My job is to keep my eye on the artistic ball no matter what happens," he said over tea at his hotel on Thursday afternoon. "In a crisis it's easy for everybody in an organization to become so focused on saving money that they lose sight of the fact that if you're going to have an orchestra, you still have to produce great music. Music advisors act as reminders of the mission."

For a quarter-century, defining that mission fell to Jorge Mester, who quit as the orchestra's music director last June after a contract dispute. With Mester gone and the orchestra nowhere near replacing him, someone needed to minister to the ensemble's artistic needs, even if only temporarily.

Enter DePreist, who was hired by the symphony's board after discreet inquiries. "We needed someone artistically beyond reproach and with a proven track record," said Paul Jan Zdunek, the orchestra's chief executive officer since late 2008, "someone willing to step into a tangled web and help us all get through it. And his reputation as far as a careful, steady, thoughtful thinker was also part of the mix. He has experience, plus he's at the mouth of the river where all the new talent is coming from — not only conducting talent but soloists as well. And that's been very helpful to us."

DePreist's tasks include everything from helping select repertory and guest conductors to more long-range plans, but he shies away from discussing specifics. "An orchestra without a music director is an orchestra in limbo," he said. "And especially given how few concerts an orchestra like the Pasadena Symphony does each year, that task is especially important. It's usually a matter of taking care of things until a new music director is in place."

Zdunek suggests that the orchestra is not actively seeking a full-time artistic leader, explaining that there is no timeline for replacing Mester nor even, at this point, a formal music-director search. "It's been 25 years with Jorge without any guest conductors," he said, "so I think we're wanting to take time to experience new talent and see where we go from there. We have a committee of musicians, board and staff looking into the matter, but not everyone coming through is necessarily a candidate."

The orchestra is still not on solid ground financially. The organization's deficit for the last fiscal year, which ended in September, was $500,000. Yet that's a big improvement over the $1.7 million in red ink Zdunek inherited in 2008. "We're moving in the right direction," he said. "People are starting to spend a little more freely, so we're hoping things will continue to improve."

Whether DePreist himself is a candidate for the music directorship is an awkward topic, especially given that the conductor, music director of the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, has yet to perform with the Pasadena Symphony. And yet neither he nor Zdunek will dismiss the possibility.

"I would not say never, but you cannot be music director long distance," said DePreist, who lives in New York. "You have to be there. And the kind of music director that I feel I've been is the kind whose life is 100% dedicated to the orchestra. It's not just coming in, doing a job and collecting a paycheck. It's hard work. I still have the energy and the desire, but the circumstances have to be right, because it is something I would not do lightly. "

Zdunek echoes that first sentiment, even as he maintains that DePreist's appointment as artistic advisor is not a trial run for Mester's old job. "We're wandering through this with a very open mind, but that was never part of the discussion," he said, referring to DePreist's recruitment. "Never say never, but his role is purely advisory at this point."

As for DePreist's talents on the podium, there seems to be no disputing that. "He's incredibly true to the music," Meyers said. "He's a deeply feeling person and has a gift for lyricism. We've played various violin concertos together, and every time it's a dynamic tour de force but not in-your-face. He's a poet himself, you know, so it's like poetic music-making."

That should not be interpreted to mean that DePreist is fragile, though. He accepted Pasadena's offer because of the implicit struggle. "My manager did not paint a rosy picture," the conductor said. "But he said that if anyone could help them, it was me. So I said maybe I can. Each place I've gone has presented challenges. This is just the biggest challenge."

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