By Ted AYALA
The Pasadena Symphony has been navigating some choppy waters since its management and long-time music director Jorge Mester parted ways less than amicably in 2010. Choppy waters not because the orchestra has faltered technically in the three seasons. (Its excellence and polish remained, thankfully, intact.) Nor has it exactly been hurting for cash recently—a minor miracle considering that even “Big 5” orchestras proved to be vulnerable in this persistent economic malaise. But glancing at the staid programming that marked the orchestra’s seasons over the past three years, it was hard to ignore that it was missing something. Call it a sense of direction, of purpose.
Gone was the zesty, imaginative programming that characterized the best of the Mester years; in its stead was… well, the same old, same old. And except for a few occasions—most memorably under the visiting batons of Matthias Bamert, George Stelluto and (now principal guest conductor) Nicholas McGegan—the orchestra seemed incapable of rousing itself beyond bland efficiency.
So has the orchestra finally regained its way with the appointment of the UK-born David Lockington to its music directorship? If the results from last Saturday’s afternoon matinee concert at the Ambassador Auditorium were any indication, the answer was a resounding “yes.”
Take exhibit A: the performance of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture which opened the concert.
The music, fortunately, is loud and exuberant enough to carry the day even through the most jaded of performances. But this, just as fortunately, was no routine run-through. Lockington goaded the orchestra into delivering playing that was rhythmically crisp, deftly nuanced, and surging with forward movement. For all the excitement he was able to muster, nothing sounded forced or strained. It was a deeply musical and satisfying performance of this blustery, brilliant piece.
Those same qualities carried over into the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, with Anne Akiko Meyers taking the solo violinist spotlight. Lockington proved to be more reserved than any of the composer’s three masterly recordings of the work. But he also heightened the music’s modernism, presenting the piece as a stark, jagged aural mosaic whose geometric soundscapes often recalled the stripped-down, Bauhaus aesthetic of Hans Eisler. To this Meyers added playing of great refinement and noble lyricism; expressive, but aloof.
But both orchestra and conductor really put on a show for the last work on the program—Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
This year happened to be the centenary of the work’s notorious premiere in Paris, with Southern California enjoying at least three other performances of the ballet music in recent months. Of all the ones heard this year, Lockington and the Pasadena Symphony’s probably win hands down.
The orchestra is no stranger to the work, with a 15-year-old recording for a small audiophile label conducted by its former music director under its belt. The performance under Lockington, however, was superior. It had the unstoppable, frenetic energy of a machine on the verge of losing control—appropriate for a work that is both apotheosis of Late Romanticism and presage of the post-World War I Machine Age.
Some very brief moments of fallible orchestral execution were had: an early double bass entry in the Introduction of Part I, an early viola entry during the “Spring Rounds.” But nothing that seriously detracted from a performance that—in case one wasn’t listening to the preceding 40 minutes of music—augured a potential golden period for the orchestra.
That golden period, if and when it comes, is on hold until next season. Lockington only takes full command of the orchestra beginning the 2014 – 2015 season. Until then, his audience will have to wait eagerly as they go through one more season of rotating guest conductors. And judging from the polished and vital playing he coaxed from the orchestra, the musicians are probably no less eager for his quick return.