By now it must be common knowledge that Jorge Mester can be as creative in his programming and dynamic in his podium leadership of the Pasadena Symphony as his underappreciated predecessor, Daniel Lewis. As Saturday evening's program at Pasadena Civic Auditorium proved, the man who inherited Lewis' post has continued to bring interest and quality to the area's musical life.
One doesn't often hear Carl Nielsen's quirky and devilishly difficult Clarinet Concerto. The piece abounds with the composer's idiosyncratic trademarks: winding melismatic lines, impulsive orchestral outbursts, almost obsessive fugal writing and the snare drum's insistent hammering. Clarinetist David Shifren made a strong case for the 25-minute work, bringing to it virtually faultless technique, stunning dynamic control and contagious enthusiasm. His sound projected with hearty resonance in the chalumeau register and heroic brilliance (with no touch of shrillness) in the upper range. He rendered fast passages with spirit and pluck, melodic ones with lyric charm. Without a doubt, Shifren belongs to an extremely small group of outstanding clarinetists. Mester and the orchestra provided first-rate support.
Despite its accessibility, Walter Piston's frolicsome, boisterous "The Incredible Flutist" receives too few performances these days. The Pasadenans gave the 1939 suite a crisp, festive and good-humored reading (complete with the dog barks), without in any way compromising musical integrity or rhythmic precision.
Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," on the other hand, does receive its fair share of readings. In any event, the post-intermission installment afforded Mester an excellent opportunity to showcase his orchestra--individually and collectively. The soloists--too numerous to list--were uniformly excellent; the ensemble energetic, well-balanced and taut.