By Ted AYALA
Conductor Mei-Ann Chen’s appearance last year at the Pasadena Symphony made quite a stir in the audience. Her style: bold, aggressive – and loud. Attributes that perhaps were at times a mismatch for her program of Tchaikovsky and Korngold at the Pasadena Symphony’s (PSO) opening concert last season. She opened the PSO’s season again on Saturday. The program consisted of the music of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich: all of them composers working in primary colors that suit Chen’s strengths.
Again, like last season, she started the concert with the “Star Spangled Banner.” Again, her gestures on the podium were dramatic; her arms swooping in great circles, her hands seemingly urging the orchestra to wring every last bit of expression from them.
Yet the result, at least at the start, was curiously muted.
Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” a work teeming with the kind of musical heroics one would think Chen was born for, sounded as if it was kept on a far too tight leash. The powerful, roof-raising climaxes that Chen summoned with ease last season were nowhere to be heard in music that dearly depended on them. Between her and Beethoven was a chasm of frosty respect. This was an Egmont not as a living, red-blooded being, but under observation by a diffident technician. Not bad, but surprisingly bland.
In the Shostakovich “Symphony No. 9” things improved. The first movement was the least impressive, with the trombone’s braying interjections being little emphasized. But they were in fine form in the next four movements. Especially beautiful was the somber fourth movement with the tearless grief of the bassoon wailing over a frozen landscape. Chen and the PSO’s handling of the second movement, too, was superb. Quivering nervously between moods – is this parody or genuine sentiment? – Chen and her forces allowed the music’s uneasy ambiguity to speak for itself.
At the end Chen, was joined by young pianist George Li. Muscular rhythmic sense, climaxes that pin the listener to their seat – here the Chen that overwhelmed audiences last year came fully to the fore.
In Li, Chen found a partner fully equal to her big-boned conception of Rachmaninoff. It wasn’t a subtle approach, but then again Rachmaninoff tends to wither when treated too delicately. Li is an impressive technician though, despite his technical precocity, he succumbs to the mannerism and willfulness that plagues many young performers. But there also emerged moments that hinted at what could eventually blossom under the proper conditions. His graceful manner in the closing bars of the concerto’s central movement captured just the right sense of wistfulness and longing for something lost. Within the child can be caught glimpses of the promise of a mature artist.
Li obliged the audience with two encores: a finely shaped but aloof Rachmaninoff “Daisies” and the same composer’s transcription of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The last was a dazzling chip of technical display and tonal polish.
Going on its third season without a permanent music director, the PSO is sounding as fine as it has ever been. The winds and brass especially sounded lustrous and expressive. This is an ensemble that truly is the gem of the “Crown City.”