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Music : An Adventurous Opening

October 17, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Pasadena Symphony may not be the most progressive organization in the area, but it does seem to be keeping up with its orchestral neighbors. Admirably.

Earlier this month, the mighty Los Angeles Philharmonic opened its doors with a telling survey of 20th-Century music under Esa-Pekka Salonen. This was followed a few nights later by a similarly adventurous repertory excursion by Valery Gergiev and his vaunted charges from the Kirov Theater in St. Petersburg.

Adventure is, of course, a relative thing.

Saturday night, amid balloons and hoopla at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, it was Jorge Mester's turn. The redoubtable maestro opened the 67th season of his splendid part-time orchestra with a program that mustered only a fleeting glance at the comfy age of romanticism.

The festivities began with some healthy ear-stretching in the form of Carl Ruggles' "Men and Mountains," written in 1924 and ultimately revised in 1941. The program centerpiece--a dazzling vehicle for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg--turned out to be Dmitri Shostakovich's marvelously abrasive Violin Concerto, Opus 77, written in 1948.

Then came the temporal blow. After intermission, the Pasadenans regressed to Edward Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, completed back in 1899. There went the 20th Century.

Oh well. What's a year among friends?

It isn't much when the music-making is as vital and as vibrant as it consistently was on this occasion. Mester is a master. He knows what he wants, and, more important, he knows how to get it under difficult conditions. In 10 years of dangerously sporadic concerts, he has developed a virtuosic, cohesive, extraordinarily responsive ensemble. It may be worth noting, incidentally, that women happen to make up nearly half the roster.

The performances in all three remarkably disparate challenges on Saturday were notable for freshness, vigor and opulence. Also for clarity of stylistic definition.

Mester traced the craggy outlines of Ruggles' rugged Americana with simple bravado, reveled with equal conviction in the economic melodies and heroic dissonances. The 12-minute suite served as a bracing wake-up call.

In Shostakovich's often jaunty, sometimes grotesque yet pervasively lyrical concerto, the conductor and orchestra provided uncommonly sympathetic, always propulsive support for their soloist. Feverish and frenetic, Sonnenberg dug into the diabolical cantilena as if lives were at stake.

She never blurred the line in the process, however, and never stooped to distortion or mannerism. She made the central cadenza a poignant study in dramatic abstraction, and she breezed through the burlesque finale with exhilarating speed and staggering rhythmic impetus. For once, the instant ovation was deserved.

These days, many conductors regard Elgar's antiquated "Enigma" as a Victorian curio. They perform the dated, stubbornly effective showpiece with a certain degree of condescension. Not Mester.

He performed it with passionate gusto. He made the strings throb, the horns thunder and, ultimately, the organ roar. He favored broad tempos, spacious accents and generous detours, stressed colorful details and luxuriated in zonking climaxes. He made the cliches sound like inspirations, and he actually came close to giving the lavish rhetoric contemporary validity. That is quite a feat.

The feat seemed doubly remarkable when one realized that the Pasadena Symphony has so few opportunities to hone ensemble values. The new season, which ends in May, entails only five programs, and none is to be played more than once.

It shouldn't be enough. It may be enough, alas, for Pasadena. The old auditorium, which seats 2,964, wasn't nearly full even for the supposedly gala opening.

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