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MUSIC REVIEWS : Walter Ponce Plays Brahms in Pasadena

November 21, 1994|DANIEL CARIAGA

On a good night, as seemed to happen at its opening concert in October and again Saturday back in Civic Auditorium, the Pasadena Symphony plays like a major orchestra.

Its music director, Jorge Mester, puts together brilliant programs, then leads them with panache and intelligence, often achieving the right chemistry. The ensemble usually responds appropriately.

Since its players are the cream of an instrumental talent pool unique to Southern California, and since the roster remains largely unchanged over the seasons, the results are admirable as well as reliable.

One variable among several, however, is the visiting soloist. That was the element that did not work Saturday and its non-workability caused dismay.

Playing Brahms' D-minor Piano Concerto on the concluding half of this performance, the Bolivian musician Walter Ponce delivered all the notes in correct sequence and with great and resourceful solidity.

Yet he missed by far any re-creating of the Romantic heart of this work. This was doubly regrettable since the orchestra approached so closely the warm-hearted, dramatic core of Brahms' inspiration in a strong and striking performance by any yardstick.

Ponce--whose appearance and stolid, workmanlike playing recalls that of the late lamented William Masselos--seemed to apply to the surfaces of this familiar piece cleanser instead of polish. So well-scrubbed was the solo part, it was as if there were spaces between the notes. Alas, where Brahms requires legato and long, arching lines, the soloist provided choppiness and sectionalization.

In the first half, Mester & Co. beautifully unraveled Kodaly's complex "Peacock" Variations; before that, they brought their considerable art to a probably unworthy project, Erno von Dohnanyi's poppish "Symphonic Minutes."

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