The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra has never minded taking risks or going to pains to achieve its aims.
Having dependably stabilized its performance during the past several years under the direction of Jorge Mester, the ensemble elected to open its 60th season in Pasadena Civic Auditorium Saturday night with some major Bartok that virtually amounted to novelty and to top that with the large gestures of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony.
Either that fare proved irresistible to the public, or Pasadenans do not mind a spot of bad weather; the hall was more than comfortably filled.
Considering how much music Bartok wrote and how comparatively little of it is frequently heard, the mere existence of unfamiliar scores is not surprising. But the circumstances surrounding this one are intriguing.
Six years after Bartok composed his Sonata for two pianos and percussion in 1937, he decided to arrange it as a concerto for two pianos. He made some changes in the piano part and transferred some of the music to a standard size symphony orchestra.
In that form it was first performed by the composer and his wife, but the concerto has never achieved the circulation of the original sonata. The percussion section still called for 11 instruments played by two performers.
Not only is the piece formidably difficult, it requires a small army of supernumeraries to get it on the road. Before Mester came on to conduct, Antoinette and John Perry to play the pianos and Kenneth Watson and Dale Anderson to manipulate the battery, an invading horde of page turners, librarians, stagehands and other minor functionaries swarmed over the stage. Bartok may be the fourth "B" of music, but in this case that could stand for beehive.
It was probably worth the bother. The work had been meticulously prepared and nothing was left to chance. The Perrys tossed off the threatening mysteries and the explosive dissonances with eminent authority and as much subtlety as they could coax from topless pianos on a huge stage.
The wielders of percussion tempered their activities wisely, and Mester tied it all precisely together with his baton. Still, the piece is a sort of contradiction in terms. It requires intimate listening while making that impossible with an unwieldy apparatus.
Certainly the Pasadena Symphony is mature enough to challenge the "Eroica." But it is not altogether justified in insisting on its own terms rather than Beethoven's.
It was in general a hasty rather than a considered performance. Too little attention was paid to detail, too little to style and expression, and too much to getting over the ground glibly and speedily.
That left the introductory Overture to Weber's "Oberon" as the most polished episode of the evening.