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Pasadena Symphony's opener gives quirky choices their due

October 14, 2002|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

The opening concert of a 75th anniversary season would seem to call for a portentous blockbuster piece.

Yet the Pasadena Symphony kept the pomp mostly away Saturday night, fittingly zeroing in on one of its strengths under maestro Jorge Mester -- quirky, interesting programming of things that you don't hear in live performance very often.

For openers, there was Alfredo Casella's wonderful 1942 divertimento "Paganiniana," a vigorous virtuoso piece written during a difficult time yet full of mischievous wit (which Mester brought out in full), hints of Hindemith and Respighi, and bustling revelry that was originally meant for the Vienna Philharmonic's centenary.

On the other hand, the Sinfonia Concertante for Four Violins by the 19th century German composer Louis Maurer came off as merely a pleasantly innocuous piece, while providing many opportunities for violinists Karen Gomyo, Ju-Young Baek, Sarah Kapustin and Steven Moeckel to converse, pair up and gang up on one another in coy, sometimes humorous fashion.

Mester reminded us what a wickedly clever, dramatic tone poem Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" really is, bringing out a lot of glittering, hidden detail in a piece that has been, in effect, Mickey Moused into concert hall oblivion.

Elgar's "Enigma" Variations was the closest thing to a live repertoire staple on the bill. Yet for all of Mester's rambunctiousness, the quietly intense opening to the "Nimrod" passage, and superb solo work from the first desks, the variations didn't fuse into a whole entity this time.

Aside from the pipe-organ-reinforced conclusion to "Enigma," the sole display of anniversary pomp came when the Pasadena High School Marching Band, in full regalia, played "Happy Birthday" from the aisles of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

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