Just to be different, perhaps, Jorge Mester chose to end his Pasadena Symphony's 1995-96 season--its 68th season--with a pops program consisting of Puccini's "Crisantemi," the Violin Concerto by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Experienced observers may have had to rack their brains to remember the last time they heard the familiar Fifth indoors.
Not surprisingly, however, the warhorse sounded fine in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium--at least from the loge, upstairs--Saturday night, when Mester & Co. reexamined its profile. The conductor never speeded it up unduly or underlined unimportant details; he kept it moving and let its luxuriant melodies breathe.
By all standards, this became a convincing, intelligently rethought reading of a work too well known to seem new. Among the bright, game soloists were clarinetist Emily Bernstein, hornist James Thatcher, bassoonist John Steinmetz and timpanist Thomas Raney.
The Sibelius Concerto showed Robert McDuffie's perfectly controlled, deeply resourceful technique and subtle musical rhetoric to belong in that long line of American violinists who have made this challenge their triumph. From its mystical beginning through the heartfelt slow movement and the pinpoint virtuoso display of the finale, McDuffie seemed to own the piece in the way he caressed its quietness and proclaimed its aggressions. For the most part, Mester and his orchestra kept their contributions discreet.
The lush tone and expansiveness the conductor projected in Tchaikovsky's Fifth proved regularly missing in the evening's opener, Puccini's wondrous "Chrysanthemums."