Pacific Symphony journeys into a land of Slavic melancholy

Special to The Times

Conductor Carl St.Clair celebrated the 95th anniversary of the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s once-scandalous “Rite of Spring” by having his Pacific Symphony play it well on Thursday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Music of other Russian masters -- Schnittke and Rachmaninoff -- made for a program of Slavic melancholy and cerebral playfulness, all part of the orchestra’s Springfest 2008.

In the concert’s curtain-raiser, Schnittke’s "(Not) a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” St.Clair underlined the composer’s scary-subversive brand of desolation and horror, which is made more acid by being set against the recurring calm of a Mozartean minuet.

This fearless approach boded well for the Stravinsky, but first came Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” featuring Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero. Still associated with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, where she made her concerto debut at age 8, Montero continues to collaborate there with L.A. Philharmonic conductor-designate Gustavo Dudamel.

In the “Rhapsody,” she displayed nimble fingers undaunted by Rachmaninoff’s demanding linear and motoric piano writing. But her playing was not subtle, and tonally she was on the steely side.


Though she cast a lyric spell in the famous “love theme” Andante cantabile of Variation XVIII, much of her reading sounded choppy. Missed were a greater flexibility in phrasing and a more effective use of rubato. By contrast, the Pacific Symphony’s woodwinds sounded warm and supple, and the ensemble was alert and engaged.

Nevertheless, a standing ovation summoned Montero back to the stage. Known for her jazzy-classical improvisations, she took a theme from the Schnittke suggested by an orchestra member and improvised a Piazzolla- like encore. It was a note-crowded mishmash. Why not a Schubert Impromptu or Brahms Intermezzo? Fewer notes, more music.

In the Stravinsky (in its revised 1947 version) after intermission, St.Clair and the orchestra clocked in at an invigorating 30 minutes. This seminal piece, fresh and potent still, became the elemental eruption of rhythm and color its composer intended, with an exciting forward sweep illuminating Stravinsky’s shifting primitive landscape.

Could there have been more repose and carefully conjured atmosphere? Sure. But the Pacific Symphony’s fine playing -- the brasses, woodwinds and basses especially -- maintained an irresistible momentum.

Supertitles above the orchestra indicated the score’s 12 “scenes of pagan Russia,” though it was probably hard to miss “The Augurs of Spring” when St.Clair kicked it into gear. Sometimes veering to the edge of chaos, this “Rite” dispelled in a frenzy of rhythmic vitality all the Russian melancholy that had come before.