By Ted AYALA
It takes some work to take an oft-played chestnut like Felix Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Overture, polish it to a brilliant gleam, and allow the listener a glimpse as to how it must have struck the work’s first audience. But that is exactly what conductor George Stelluto and the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra (PSO) were able to do on the afternoon of March 12 at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium in a concert that bound Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Armenian composer Khachatur Avetisyan together.
The audaciousness of Mendelssohn’s sonic conception and the sureness of the young master’s grasp of sonata form (Mendelssohn was only 17 years old when he wrote this work) came vividly to the fore under George Stelluto’s baton. Hearing the magical wind chords and sylvan string scamperings that opened the overture under Stelluto’s command was to be reminded of what a singular genius Felix Mendelssohn was; what striking originality and mastery he displayed even as a youth.
Beethoven and Schubert were still alive and kicking when Mendelssohn wrote his overture, but the PSO and Stelluto breathed a wide-eyed wonder into it that brought into bold relief this music’s exploration of hitherto unexplored paths of sound which helped augur a new dawn for music. Nowhere to be found was the musty stereotype of the reactionary, conservative Mendelssohn who was the favorite of dowdy Victorian salons. In the lusty string brayings of Bottom and the spellbinding pianissimi of the fairy music, Stelluto and PSO channeled the young composer whose music was drenched in delight of life; in awestruck wonder over its beauty and the limitless horizons that beckoned to him.
Stelluto, weaving his baton like a master storyteller over his spellbound audience, brought a winsome, “Once upon a time…” quality that was a pure joy to hear. When the closing bars that reprised the overture’s magical opening swelled and ebbed away, one felt a regret that one couldn’t be allowed to linger just a bit longer in this fairy world; that all stories have to end, after all.
Following the overture was the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s later revisiting of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, now as a world renowned master of 42 years of age. Though a quarter century had passed since Mendelssohn first musical realization of the Bard’s play, he nonetheless captured and fused seamlessly his vibrant early voice with the more sober style that he had since acquired in maturity. Characterful and pert wind solos chattered away; the strings’ other worldly ostinati played with panache and unity. Stelluto and the PSO wove web after web of diaphanous orchestral sound. It’s rare to hear Mendelssohn played with such love, wit, and devotion these days. I won’t be soon forgetting Stelluto’s dazzling Mendelssohn–this was a concert to treasure in one’s memory for years to come.
Khachatur Avetisyan’s brilliant Kanun Concerto followed with soloist Karine Hovhanissyan on the kanun. Hovhanissyan brought her formidable musicality and her profound knowledge of the work with her, having studied the work under the composer himself.
Beginning with a jagged, syncopating, xylophone-capped orchestral tutti in octaves that alternated between duple and triple rhythms, Avetisyan’s concerto was a brawny and square-jawed work. Thorough composed in one single movement, the work was as much a concerto for the orchestra as it was for the Hovhanissyan. Bright orchestral moments with pounding percussion shuffled alongside skittering arpeggios from the kanun. A soulful, slow section–framed on either side by brief cadanzas for the soloist–and a reprise of the opening made for a splashy show from Hovhanissyan and the orchestra.
After intermission, the PSO and George Stelluto returned to close the program with Beethoven’s “7th Symphony.” Stelluto steered a solid and clear-eyed reading of Beethoven’s symphony; a conception that focused on rhythmic drive and momentum over cosmic contemplation. The famous second movement Allegretto (recently used to memorable effect in the Oscar winning film “The King’s Speech”) was light and airy, rather than severe and mournful. Under his baton, Stelluto conducted the succeeding scherzo, which so often can rudely dispel the mood of its A minor predecessor (the great Sir Thomas Beecham once likened this movement to “a bunch of yaks jumping about”) with fleet grace, an impression augmented by his eschewing of the scherzo’s repeats. The finale crackled and popped with energy. Here Stelluto’s decision to divide the violins antiphonically paid enormous dividends by not only clarifying the symphony’s textures, but also adding to the symphony’s head-long excitement, with first and second violins goading each other to greater heights of frenzy.
After the concert. Maestro Stelluto brimmed with praise for the PSO. “They’re great,” he said. “They’re all highly sophisticated musicians. If you read the resumes of these players, your jaw would just drop.… It was a privilege to work with them.” As we were talking, one of the violinists approached Stelluto and shook his hand. “Thank you so much for this concert,” she smiled. “We really enjoyed playing it–and we really like you.” Then she emphatically added, “Please come back soon.”
I’ll second that.