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WEEKEND REVIEWS : Music : Mester the Master as Pasadena Symphony Opens 68th Season

October 16, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Lights. Balloons. Action.

With the redoubtable Jorge Mester on the podium and Louis Lortie at the keyboard, the Pasadena Symphony began its 68th--repeat, 68th--year Saturday night at the Civic Auditorium.

The program was interesting. Mester is an imaginative leader. Most of music-making was fine, and much of it was better than that. The dressy celebrants registered enthusiasm. Still, an air of frustration hung over the proceedings.

For all its artistic excellence and despite its lengthy history, the Pasadena Symphony does not seem to fill an intrinsic need in the community it so bravely, so nobly and so stubbornly serves.

The season hardly can be called a season at all. It spans a mere five programs spread over eight months. Each program is played only once and, given the size of the opening-night audience, that may be enough. Under the circumstances, it is astonishing that the orchestra displays any ongoing sense of musical identity.

Perhaps Pasadena lies too close to Los Angeles and its glamorous Philharmonic. Perhaps there are more secondary orchestras in Southern California than the traffic wants to bear. In any case, the fittest are hardly surviving.

For an introductory exercise, Mester ventured a world premiere in the modest and concise form of "The Dove Descending" by George Tsontakis. Not to be confused with "The Lark Ascending," this overture turned out to be a 10-minute exercise in quasi-neo-romantic rambling, created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations and "dedicated to peace."

The inherent intentions are lofty. The composition is innocuous.

Tsontakis, an American who teaches at Sarah Lawrence, has come up with one of those nice little throat-clearing pieces that, in a vain attempt to seem modern, spike basic conservatism with occasional wrong-note dissonances. Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, which happened to close the program, sounds a lot more progressive, and it was written in 1944--seven years before Tsontakis was born.

Chopin's F-minor Concerto, the centerpiece of the agenda, served as a splendid local-debut vehicle for Louis Lortie. He traced the ornate lines with extraordinary delicacy, attended to the dreamy lyrical indulgences with bel-canto fluency, yet mustered plenty of surging force for the gushing climaxes.

The Canadian pianist offered an elegant, enlightened perspective of the fragile rhetoric. It was seconded with more expressive sympathy than technical finesse by Mester and the orchestra.

The blockbuster came after intermission with an astonishingly virtuosic, high-energy performance of the grandiose Prokofiev symphony. Mester savored the sardonic wit, the wry sentimentality and the driving passion of the piece in equal measure, yet steadfastly avoided exaggerating the obvious. The orchestra responded with heroic thrust and muscular grace, as needed. It was terrific.

*

Incidental intelligence:

* Although the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Pacific Symphony managed to inaugurate their seasons without bellicose fanfare, patriotic Pasadena got the usual drum roll, rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air.

* Herbert Glass provided fascinating if somewhat vague program notes. Unfortunately, the management deemed background reading irrelevant and kept everyone literally in the dark.

* The season brochure, distributed in the lobby, turned out to be a lavish hoot, assigning a soap-opera label to each concert and illustrating each program with an unintentionally campy portrait of the maestro. "Wardrobe provided by Nordstrom Glendale Galleria," it says here. "Floral arrangements . . . by Margit Holakoui Florist."

The key blurb for Saturday's extravaganza turned out to be "Sumptuous!" To prove the point, a beaming Mester was shown fondling a yellow pepper while modeling a crimson sweater and pin-stripe apron in someone's picturesque kitchen.

We hope this sells tickets. Somehow we doubt it.

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