Pasadena Symphony Bids Adieu to Season with Richard Strauss Musical Farewell
By Ted AYALA
When the Pasadena Symphony’s artistic director and musical advisor James de Priest had to pull out of the orchestra’s season closing concert on a recent Saturday owing to an emergency heart bypass operation, a minor stir was created by those looking forward to de Priest’s arrival. In stepped Michael Stern who created his own stir with the orchestra’s audience. Stern, son of the violinist Isaac Stern, has led the Kansas City Philharmonic since 2005 with whom he has made a handful of recordings that have been received warmly by press and audiences alike. He’s also no stranger to Southern California having appeared in 2010 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
From the Pasadena Symphony he elicited playing that was alert with a fine rhythmic bounce. His shaping of Siegfried’s “Dawn and Rhine Journey” from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung— emerging from nothingness to a joyfully raucous din— was an attractive first taste of his abilities. Especially memorable was the deft subtleness of the cellos’ first entry, slipping into the musical texture almost imperceptibly.
More routine, but still satisfying was Stern’s take on Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 8.” Crackling with fire in some places, earthbound and slack in others, the symphony sounded as if it still had yet to congeal fully in Stern’s hands; the impression gained being one of the work being grasped only piecemeal. Adding to the pallor in places was clipped phrasing that didn’t allow each note to resound to its full value. Nevertheless, at the symphony’s coda Stern whipped up the orchestra to an enviable lather; Dvořák’s Bohemian revelers finally able to partake of some much needed světlé pivo and borovička.
The centerpiece of the concert, however, was guest soprano Christine Brewer’s singing of Richard Strauss’ autumnal “Four Last Songs.” Composed in 1948, the set of songs represents not merely a summation of Strauss’ life work, but also a reflection on a life and way of life quickly fading into history. Though it is unclear whose voice the composer had in mind when he composed these songs, the responsibility of giving their world premiere ended up on the shoulders of the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad.
Brewer’s voice, with its refulgent warmth and heft, vividly recalled much of her predecessor’s finest qualities. When she turned to sing in one’s direction the sensation was like being met with a column of sound; the sheer power of her singing pushing the listener to the back of her seat. Yet for all the power and majesty of her singing, she was able to meet the composer’s demand for sweetness of tone and vulnerability. Even the hint of dryness in her voice that caused a pair of minor flubs in the second song, “September,” were unable to undo the spell she cast over the audience. There was luxuriousness of tone to spare. Richard Strauss would have approved.