By Ted AYALA
If last year was a turbulent year for the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra (PSO) you would never have guessed it when listening to their performance on Saturday, Feb. 19 at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Indeed, there was something almost defiant about the orchestra, under guest conductor Matthias Bamert, filling the despite a powerful rain storm. As the clouds burst open outside, the PSO’s unity of ensemble and intonation, and sheer élan seemed to suggest that here is an organization that is meant to endure and succeed.
Certainly the PSO will continue to thrive thanks to a matching gift of $500,000 from the orchestra’s Women’s Committee that was presented to the orchestra before the concert. The gift was a combination of $400,000 from the estate of the late Beebe Oliver Nuetzman and the proceeds from the committee’s 2010 Holiday Look In Tour. Representatives from the Women’s Committee were present to award a ceremonial check to the PSO before the concert.
With James de Priest as the PSO’s artistic advisor, the orchestra has enjoyed a stream of fine guest conductors with Swiss conductor Bamert wielding the baton at the PSO’s latest concert. Bamert is well known to record collectors for his critically acclaimed series of recordings for Chandos Records with the BBC Philharmonic and the London Mozart Players. Among his notable recordings are a series of CDs devoted to works by contemporaries of Mozart, the symphonies of Roberto Gerhard, symphonic works of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a superlative set of the orchestral transcriptions of Leopold Stokowski, for whom Bamert served as assistant conductor during Stokowski’s tenure at the American Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s.
Bamert in his youth had studied composition in Darmstadt, Germany with, among others, Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was this facet of Bamert’s craft that the audience came face-to-face with at the head of the program via Bamert’s work for string orchestra Ol-Okun. Inspired by African folklore, the work makes imaginative use of not only the string instruments, but of the musicians themselves.
“The music needed to describe [this folktale] had to be wild. The musicians are called to do all sorts of weird things with their instruments. But not only that: they must also hum, whisper, clap, and even sing,” said Bamert in a pre concert talk. Apologizing for this music of his “reckless youth” he humbly offered his work to the audience with these words: “I sincerely hope I can count on the tolerance of your ears.”
There was no need for such modesty. Ol-Okun is a fascinating and engaging work written in a freely chromatic idiom. Beginning with a rising four-note motif for solo violin, the work winds its way through an almost dream-like musical sounds cape. The use of unorthodox string techniques (one of the violinists was called upon to play her instrument upright at one point) as well as the chanting and clapping could easily have been a trap in lesser hands and proved to be mere gimmickry. Bamert’s language, however, is anything but gimmicky. All his resources were used with great intelligence and taste. Fading away on a hushed pedal point, the initial four-note motif inverted, Ol-Okun left a positive impression on this listener as it seemed to with the rest of the audience who warmly received Bamert’s work.
Pianist Peter Thies was the guest soloist for the next work on the program: Robert Schumann’s evergreen Piano Concerto. Bamert proved to be a sensitive accompanist here giving Thies plenty of room to maneuver – and maneuver splendidly he did. Thies’ pianism was a marvel here. His tone, broad and aristocratic, lent a patrician glow to Schumann’s flights of romantic expression. Power was bound with nobility in Thies’ hands. His avuncular touch in the concerto’s Intermezzo, matched by the PSO’s pliantly expressive cellos, was deeply satisfying. In the concerto’s closing moments, Thies’ piano pealed forth with broad, luminous tone, polished to a bronzed gleam that brought the audience to its feet in hearty applause.
Closing the program was Mozart’s oft-heard Symphony No. 40. Bamert’s interpretation was vital and rhythmically alert; a fine example of the best Kapellmeister tradition of playing. Bamert’s Mozart was plain spoken and direct; self effacing, but not faceless. The PSO’s playing was lean and crisp, supported by a strong bass foundation. The handling of the minuet was especially striking – not as severe as one often hears it. Bamert elicited playing of dance like gracefulness from the PSO here, with sunny woodwind and horn playing in the trio. Still, I wish Bamert hadn’t been in such a haste during the second movement Andante, which was more Allegretto than Andante. Mozart wrote such lovely music there that one can’t help but want to linger a little longer in that movement. I would also have preferred that he eschewed the repeats in the second and fourth movements, which only serve to remove the thrust of the musical argument. But these quibbles aside, Bamert excelled here and the PSO gave their all.
Next month on March 12, the PSO will feature conductor George Stelluto at the helm in a program that will include the Beethoven 7th Symphony.
For more information and tickets, contact the PSO at (626) 793-7172 or visit them online at www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org