By Truman C. Wang
Photo credit: Doug Gifford /Pacific Symphony
2018 is the Pacific Symphony’s banner year. It turns 40 years old (39 with Carl St. Clair) and toured China for the second time in 12 years. Who would have known 40 years ago that a new local band named “Pacific Chamber Orchestra” would one day become Orange County’s important culture ambassador around the world?
In an age when music directors at major orchestras and opera houses are changing like a revolving door, we no longer have the luxury of an orchestra being honed and trained over decades by a skilled hand like the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy, the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell, or the Met Opera Orchestra with James Levine. The Pacific Symphony is fortunate to have Carl St. Clair who, at his best, is able to make his orchestra sound much greater than the sum of its parts.
Allow me to elaborate. Take the Frank Ticheli’s “Shooting Stars” that opened the 9/29 concert. It’s a brilliant scherzo-like piece lasting four minutes, giving off the kaleidoscopic effect of a meteor shower, with different instruments bouncing off notes and melodic fragments at one another. The overall impression was that of glitz and bling, befitting the opening night festivities and the concert hall’s location next to the posh South Coast Plaza – the favorite So Cal shopping destination for the nouveau-riche Chinese.
Now, fast-forward to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K.364 in the second half of the concert. The collective brilliance of the orchestra here gave way to collaborative efforts between the orchestra and the soloists. This is where the unevenness among the orchestra’s ranks sometimes rears its ugly head. New concertmaster Dennis Kim and principal violist Meredith Crawford did not exactly have the best rapport – she a sensitive, poetic ‘singer’ on her instrument; he an athletic showman, often flippant in his dialogs with her – both in sound and in deportment. Watching this performance, I was reminded of Mozart’s preference for the viola over the violin (which infuriated père Leopold). He wrote the viola part for himself and would play the viola in his ‘Haydn Quartets’, with Haydn playing the violin. Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein (the physicist’s cousin) considered K.364 a seminal work for breaking away from ‘entertainment music’ to reach a new level of profundity. (Apparently Mozart had also benefitted from his own world tour).
Looking ravishing in a classy flowing ball gown of purple and red, pianist Olga Kern, a perennial favorite here in O.C., returned to play her trump card, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 – the piece that won her Gold at the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition. Except on this occasion, she had nothing to prove. The tempi were more leisurely and the playing more lyrical, reserving the explosive power and speed for the ‘big moments’. Vladimir Horowitz was fond of saying he did not know many real ‘pianists’. Listening to her gentle, poetic treatment of the second subject in the long virtuoso cadenza, I was more convinced than ever that Olga Kern is one of the finest pianists of our time. (Someone please tell me why she has not played at the Disney Hall!) Under maestro St. Clair, the orchestra accompanied her impeccably in fine Russian style – a mixture of fire, melancholy, but no tears.
The concert concluded with Ravel’s ‘entertainment music’ Boléro. A giant screen above the stage showed a video retrospective of the Pacific Symphony’s 40-year history. This season the orchestra is celebrating two birthdays – its 40th and Bernstein’s 100th. As fate would have it, Bernstein was also a mentor to St. Clair at Tanglewood in the 1980’s. An all-Bernstein concert is scheduled for October 25-27.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.