Classically Trained: Appeal for the casual listener as well

COSTA MESA — Orchestration and instrumental color are a few of my favorite things. These sounds of music were the hot topics of discussion this past week at the Pacific Symphony's first program of the "Music Unwound" series.

Thursday night's pre-concert talk by Jonathan Beard was a great introduction to the concept of orchestration, the art of writing for the various instruments of the orchestra. He compared it to painters choosing colors that ultimately affect the mood and tone of their paintings. Music is the same way; even the same melody can take dramatically different turns, depending on which instruments are used to play it.

Participants had the chance to "orchestrate" by choosing the various sounds from a quintet — consisting of a violin, viola, trumpet, cello and clarinet — that then played the "Promenade" melody from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." I'm sure audience members found it enlightening when various orchestrations from "Pictures" were played one after another and evoked different emotions.

In all, Beard's lecture was geared especially well for the orchestrally new and curious, therein achieving the symphony's goal of both entertainment and education.

French guest solo pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto was inspired, but the show-stealers came later from the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony's own ranks.

Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," played alongside the 2008 Academy Award-winning cartoon short of the same name, took me in a few unintended directions. The playing of the piece — long a showtime standard of the classical repertoire — was perfectly fine (with wonderful woodwind solos throughout), but the film was so dark and zany that at times the wonderful live music seemed at out of place.

Beautiful, but more evocative of Tim Burton's shadowy worlds, was this film version of "Peter and the Wolf." The music, some of Prokofiev's most bright and happy, didn't gel as tightly as, say, the classic 1946 Disney cartoon version does with its narration and music.

But the concert ended on a strong note with the show-stopper, "Pictures at an Exhibition." The 10-movement piece, originally written for piano and later written for the orchestra by Ravel, musically describes a series of paintings by a friend of Mussorgsky.

"If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, then no number of words can explain music," conductor Carl St. Clair said.

A few of the pictures were shown for the audience before the orchestra performed, but then St. Clair said they wouldn't be displayed during the performance so that the focus could be on the music. That was too bad. Anything that gives music more meaning and context is great, especially for the new and casual listener that many attendees are.

Still, the picture-less performance of "Pictures" sounded great, especially when under the lead of principal trumpet Barry Perkins.

Saturday's two kid-centric "Halloween Goes Hollywood" concerts toned down the seriousness. Princess Leia was spotted playing in the violin section, as well as a hipster cellist and witch pianist. A USC football coach — or a fast-food employee, I couldn't tell from my seat — played in the trumpet section for the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall full of young, costumed children.

Film score favorites that included "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Harry Potter" and "The Imperial March" from the "Star Wars" trilogy kept the youngsters musically entertained. In a nice little act of theatrics, the "Harry Potter" invisibility cloak was put on assistant conductor Maxim Eshkenazy. Somehow — with miraculous acts of some English magic, perhaps — a few pages of the score were turned by Eshkenazy's invisible hand. Even his candle-like baton flew in the air. But a quick spell and retrieval of the cloak by little Harry quickly brought Eshkenazy back within view of his public to conduct the rest of the day.

A fun little play with appearances from Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein and Igor (lugging bags as a bellman for the Hollywood Horror Hotel's famous monster guests) brought a few laughs as the orchestra played along.

Attending Saturday's two Halloween-themed concerts were about 400 kids and their families with the help of the symphony's Heartstrings program. Children from the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana, El Sol Sciences and Arts Academy, and Children's Therapeutic Arts Center got to hear the music — free of charge.

"The great thing is their parents and their siblings are allowed to come, too," said Molly Pontin, the symphony's manager of community engagement. "It's a family program. So if you tell us you also want to bring my mom, my dad, my grandmother and my two little sisters, that's fine. We'll give you six tickets."

With underwriting from the Nicholas Endowment, a Santa Ana-based organization that supports the arts and sciences, the program also provided free bus transportation to the concert. Heartstrings is in its sixth year and brings about 1,200 to 1,300 people annually, including children from local Title 1 schools, to the Family Musical Mornings series.

"The response has been great every year," Pontin said. "We keep building up and building up, and we start to get independent solicitations. People call us who have heard about it who want to participate."

In other Pacific Symphony news, the orchestra recently welcomed new section viola player Erik Rynearson. He comes to Orange County after playing in the New World Symphony and doing substitute work for the Santa Barbara Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

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