The Pacific Symphony delivered a delicious evening of music by cool American dudes Thursday night at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa.
Under the baton of music director Carl St.Clair, the orchestra played Leonard Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs," Duke Ellington's "The Three Black Kings" and two George Gershwin standards.
The "front men" for the pieces were led by pianist Angela Cheng, making her debut with the PSO in Gershwin's "Piano Concerto," saxophonist Charles Owens in "Kings," and the orchestra's principal clarinet, James Kanter, in the Bernstein piece.
The orchestra sounded as good as if they were on a soundtrack. Intonation in the strings was particularly outstanding, and the viola section, sitting on the conductor's outside right, made gorgeous sounds all night.
No matter how brilliantly a modern symphony orchestra plays music rooted in jazz, of course, the conductor must decide how much of the genre's defining sexuality to incorporate. With St.Clair apparently opting for glamour, the orchestra responded with a full-bodied, wholesome sound that moved the music along smoothly and not too slowly. While moving gracefully on the podium, St.Clair listened carefully to the orchestra and never seemed to make one balance adjustment or change of speed. Cheng partnered him well in the Gershwin, letting the music's flow, rather than her elegantly played notes, predominate.
The concert began with the jazzy little thing Bernstein wrote for big-band superstar Woody Herman in the 1940s. It can take more shaking than it got, but it sounded splendid in a 1990s sophisticated way; certainly, few clarinetists could have played more elegantly than Kanter.
The concert ended with Gershwin's "American in Paris," its taxicab horns and alley cat mentality toned down but wistfully beautiful in a familiar way. (And anyway, they say, it's illegal to honk your horn in Paris these days.)
The second half began with Duke Ellington's 21-minute ballet score, commissioned by the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1973, in which Ellington reflects on the lives of Balthazar, Solomon and Martin Luther King Jr.
"Kings," which is in essence a gently moving liturgical suite, spoke most personally when the cool blue tones of Charles Owens' soprano saxophone were resonating with the bleak emotional overtones that still serve as a deeply sad reminder of where jazz came from, and what it once stood for.