Review: Pacific Symphony

Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony devoted their December classical subscription concerts to a potentially sticky program that they dubbed “Strauss’ Vienna.”

Carl St.Clair. Photo by Vern Evans.
photo by Vern Evans

It featured that Sherman tank of piano concertos, the first one by Brahms; that meandering glop of frosting also known as the “Der Rosenkavalier” Suite by Richard Strauss; and one of the most familiar pieces in the universe, “The Blue Danube” Waltz by Johann Strauss II. If in the end the evening (I heard it on opening night, Dec. 1) turned out the be an invigorating delight, it wasn’t because it was easy.

In this season of orchestra strikes (in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth), the Pacific Symphony musicians had been engaged in tough contract negotiations with management and had even authorized a strike of their own. An agreement had reportedly been reached by concert time (though not ratified), apparently to the satisfaction of all concerned. The musicians would now be guaranteed a certain number of services a season, securing themselves a minimum salary, as it were. They played like they were happy about it.

He accomplished a small miracle with the Brahms, seeking clarity and momentum without negating poetic warmth.

The concert opened with the Brahms behemoth, with American pianist Jeremy Denk in the driver’s seat. The Avery Fisher Prize winner and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow is one of our most intelligent pianists, a gifted writer and scholar in the tradition of Charles Rosen and Alfred Brendel. He accomplished a small miracle with the Brahms, seeking clarity and momentum without negating poetic warmth.

The Maestoso first movement was, for a change, flexible in tempo, instead of glacial, surging, and surprisingly quick and fiery at times. The slow movement was painted delicately and sculpted purposefully, just so. Somehow, the lumbering finale became exciting, and ever more so as it went along. St.Clair and the orchestra supported him with measured expressiveness, discovering surprising colors in the orchestration throughout. It was, in a word, wonderful.

The Andante from Mozart’s K. 545 sonata served as Denk’s encore, perfectly chosen and gorgeously wrought.

After intermission, St.Clair may have occasionally gotten mired in the “Rosenkavalier” goo, but those occasions proved the exception not the rule. He whipped things up crisply from the very start, and then relaxed elegantly and traced knowingly. Instrumental textures shimmered, fortes boomed. The potential sprawl was minimized in the connected ebb and flow of St.Clair’s pacing. As the orchestra continues its search for a new concertmaster, the violin solos, expertly done, were by guest Searmi Park, currently concertmaster of the Eugene Symphony.

And then it was on to the “Beautiful Blue Danube.” The piece doesn’t play itself. And while St.Clair and the orchestra may not have quite captured the authentic Viennese swing of it — you may have to be Viennese — they did the next best thing which was not try too hard. This remained on its toes throughout, tripping along and floating on air. St.Clair had a smile on his face the entire time, and you could hear it in the music.

The musicians even prepared an encore, the “Thunder and Lightning” Polka, which they dispatched with considerable pizzazz and panache.

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Timothy Mangan
Timothy Mangan

Timothy Mangan served as The Orange County Register’s classical music critic from 1998-2016 and no longer looks likes his picture. He is a contributor to Opera News and The Los Angeles Times, and he has also written for The Baltimore Sun, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Musical America and Gramophone, among other publications. In 1999 he won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his writing on classical music. He is co-editor of Paul Bowles on Music, published by the University of California Press. He resides in Mission Viejo splendor with a wife, a son, loud neighbors and new air-conditioning. You can read more of Timothy's work on his blog Classical Life

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