By Ted AYALA
The audience at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium hardly had a moment to take a breath after the lights dimmed in the hall on Saturday. No sooner had it gone dark in the hall that a loud snare drum roll stirred the audience. Out from the wings bounded guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen onto the podium, with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra (PSO) rising to its feet to deliver a forceful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
Her podium language is extrovert: swooping her arms broadly over the orchestra one moment; standing on the tip of her toes next. No wonder that Chen herself was heaving and sweating afterward–and she still had a whole program to conduct.
“What can I say? I’m just so honored to be here,” she said briefly before the start of the program.
A native of Taiwan who is currently the music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta, Chen has garnered a solid reputation. She has won the top prize in the Nikolai Malko Competition, and has appeared alongside esteemed podium lions such as Marin Alsop and Thomas Sanderling.
Beginning the program was the Saibei Dance by Chinese-Canadian composer. Think Aram Khachaturian by way of Beijing. Or something a Chinese Tikhon Khrenikov or Andrei Eshpai would have approved of. It was flashy music–and not terribly original. But lasting only some five minutes, it scarcely had opportunity to wear out its welcome.
James Ehnes joined the PSO in Korngold’s autumnal Violin Concerto. Patrician elegance and refinement are the keystones of Ehnes’ musical personality. Throughout the concerto, Ehnes delivered playing that was warm, supple, and alert; never descending into self conscious display of excess. It’s probably safe to say that Ehnes is the Korngold concerto’s greatest living exponent–and he played the work as if he owned it.
Chen kept the orchestra under control, reigning in her impulse to let the brass storm through, and was a fine accompanist. But in the work’s coda, where the finale’s galumphing country dance consumes the entire orchestra, she finally let the PSO off its leash. The din in the closing bars was thrilling.
The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony that ended the evening displayed some of Chen’s best attributes, but also spot-lit some areas that could be polished over time. The swells of orchestral sound that rattled the Ambassador definitely kept the audience at the Ambassador from nodding off. But as the symphony wore on, the impression that Chen really only came to life at the climaxes grew. Every climax was a stop-pulling riot of sound. But with each climax writ so large, the architecture of the symphony unraveled, and cast a pallor of sameness over Tchaikovsky’s symphony.
Despite this, there were some very lovely moments, including the dapper clarinet work of Donald Foster and the brilliant trumpets led by Marissa Benedict.
It was by no means a bad interpretation. But Tchaikovsky, despite his reputation, is a composer that thrives not just on energy and passion, but also subtlety and nuance. It would be very interesting to revisit Chen in this work a few years from now and listen to how her interpretation has matured.
But, minor quibbles aside, the PSO’s inaugural concert was definitely a memorable one and should adequately whet the audience’s appetite for the coming treasures this season is sure to reveal.