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Beethoven gets weird workout

October 13, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

In introducing Beethoven's Grosse Fugue from the stage Saturday at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, conductor Jorge Mester said, "This piece is unbelievably weird." He was only half-joking.

The centerpiece of a Beethoven program opening the Pasadena Symphony's 76th season, the fugue is difficult to play and difficult to listen to. Beethoven was not out to inspire or charm anyone -- characteristics of the other pieces on the program, the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and the Violin Concerto in D. He was following his muse in solving technical problems.

The orchestra played the work gamely but effortfully -- perhaps there is no other way -- in Felix Weingartner's familiar transcription for strings.

But what was really weird was the disconnect between Mester and soloist Ilya Kaler in the Violin Concerto.

He produced a big, burnished, rich sound. He offered what sounded suspiciously like his own cadenzas. He stretched and played with tempos. On this occasion, he also appeared to conduct.

Mester started at one tempo, but Kaler, who had warmed up by occasionally playing along with the orchestra before his entrance, slammed on the brakes when he did come in. This dual conception of the piece continued until Mester, perhaps deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, capitulated and followed the soloist.

The loser was Beethoven. The orchestra sounded heavy and dutiful, unable to mirror Kaler's poetic, sometimes wayward playing on the fly.

The program opened with an earthbound account of the "Leonore" Overture. Maybe all the rehearsal had gone into that thorny Grosse Fugue. It was all a little weird.

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