Jorge Mester and the Pasadena Symphony went all Mexican, all the time, with a vengeance at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Saturday night.
Mester has made partial excursions south of the border in previous seasons, but apparently this was his first total immersion in Mexico with the orchestra.
The conductor was born and raised in Mexico City, which in itself doesn't guarantee anything, but it was clear Saturday that he knew how to get a zesty, spicy, just-raucous-enough response from the polished pros in the Pasadena ranks. The old hall percolated to the rhythms they cooked up.
First was a sizzling rendering of Carlos Chavez's "Sinfonia India," once the composer's signature piece and uniquely unlike his other, more cerebral five symphonies in its insistent, battering, folk-drenched drive.
Then came a curiosity, an honest-to-goodness Concerto for Mariachi and Orchestra ("Pasion Mexicana") -- billed as a one-of-a-kind fusion, and I wouldn't doubt it.
The piece had two composers: Jose L. Hernandez, who started it and contributed its patriotic-sentimental text, and Jeff Nevin, a born-again mariachi from Chicago who in collaboration with Hernandez expanded it into a three-movement concerto.
How do you fit a mariachi band -- Nevin's own idiomatically outfitted 15-piece Mariachi Champana Nevin -- into a symphony orchestra? With some difficulty, for much of the piece seemed like a relentlessly blasting mishmash in which the mariachis -- bolstered by seven violins in their ranks -- thoroughly dominated the action. But there were some colorfully exotic flutterings and percussive knocks in the introduction to the slow movement that gave the orchestra its own character role beyond merely amping up the decibels.
The suite from Silvestre Revueltas' seething "La Noche de los Mayas" has become almost standard repertoire in the last decade, and Mester really nailed its grooving rhythms and ominous implications, having his 12-person percussion section and a conch shell virtuoso work out at length in a rowdy, improvised stretch in the finale. Jose Pablo Moncayo's "Huapango" received a deeply felt performance, with solid soloing all around.
Alas, this season-opening display of Mexicana is the last we will hear from the Pasadena Symphony until January, for an unexpected shortfall in funds forced the cancellation of its Nov. 15 concert.