Jorge Mester, the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra's esteemed music director, is a notoriously innovative programmer. This season, he is flirting with extremes, often placing contemporary music alongside some of the most overplayed standards in the book.
On the other hand, due to its short seasons, the orchestra doesn't get many chances to burn out on the warhorses. That, along with Mester's own energetic input, must have had something to do with the fresh-sounding rendition of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony at the orchestra's season-opening concert Saturday night in Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
Mester attacked each climax with red-blooded swagger, shaped each theme with boldness and/or sensitivity, and found mystery and drama even in some of the most overfamiliar bars of the Largo. Throughout, the Pasadenans produced a lean, solid, propulsive sound, with crisp brasses, unanimous strings, and a sense that they could take on any work at any time.
Earlier, Mester presided over the West Coast premiere of a strange and attractive work by Australia's Peter Sculthorpe, "Kakadu" (1988). With its recurring tattoos of bongos and tom-toms, tense lyrical episodes, and teeming jungles of effects--the strings do terrific imitations of bird twitterings--Sculthorpe's landscape evokes an uneasy combination of natural beauty and underlying fear.