Review:  Pasadena Symphony gets the message across in season ender

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The long period of upheaval is over for the Pasadena Symphony. In 2014-15, the new team of music director David Lockington and principal guest conductor Nicholas McGegan will have the entire season to themselves, and we’ll get a better idea of what they can do.

In the meantime, the orchestra’s 2013-14 season ended Saturday with the last of a series of podium guests, the San Diego Symphony’s Jahja Ling, taking his turn at Ambassador Auditorium. Ling was one of Leonard Bernstein’s conducting fellows at the first Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute in 1982; I remember attending the master classes and performances then, and my notes recall that Ling was the most promising of the fellows, with Bernstein giving him tips on conducting Brahms. Ling has since been all over the world, establishing a particularly long-running connection with the Cleveland Orchestra, and he can be an interesting programmer in San Diego.

The Pasadena Symphony is an excellent Shostakovich orchestra, with a backlog of terrific performances of several symphonies under ex-music director Jorge Mester in its DNA. Ling was able to tap into that energy in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in the first of two performances Saturday. He received a solid response from the orchestra, with good rhythm throughout, building steam toward the climaxes, getting impressively hushed playing in the first and third movements that conveyed tragedy and desolation.


Ling seemed to buy into the now-fashionable practice of taking the coda of the symphony slowly, which is supposed to convey the idea of forced jubilation, of being “stretched on the rack” (in Mstislav Rostropovich’s words) so that the dissonances act like torture. Though the effect wasn’t as searing as it could have been, there was enough to get the message through.

To get to the Shostakovich, though, one had to endure a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 that was inert, episodic, routine. Pianist Shai Wosner is capable of adventure; his latest CD on Cedille is a teaming with violinist Jennifer Koh in Kurtág, Bartók and Janácek. But he had little to say in this small-scale, ruminative conception, nor was there much audible rapport with Ling. It’s possible he may have been hampered by the harsh-sounding piano on hand.