Pacific Symphony Turns 40 With a Bang and a Big Party

Pianist Olga Kern, left, plays a Rachmaninoff concerto with conductor Carl St. Clair, right, and Pacific Symphony at its 40th anniversary gala and concert on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony)

Like every successful Orange County socialite who turns 40, Pacific Symphony pulled out all the stops on Thursday for a glitzy birthday party that celebrated its many successes over the last four decades.

At the concert that anchored the multi-part gala evening, there was even a Facebook-like photomontage that took us down memory lane, all the way back to the orchestra’s humble birth, while it gamely attacked Ravel’s “Bolero” as an accompaniment. For a fleeting moment, it felt like we were siting not at Segerstrom Concert Hall but a private room at Mastro’s Ocean Club.

Was it all a bit over the top? Of course. It was also fun, frolicsome, and fitting for a group that has beat some long odds to become a financially healthy regional orchestra with indisputable strengths. And it was an appropriate way to salute a year that included a well-received Carnegie Hall debut and a whirlwind tour of China.

The concert part of the evening promised variety and derring-do, to say the least. Besides “Bolero,” a genuine orchestral torture test, music director Carl St.Clair had programmed Rachmaninoff’s devilishly tricky Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor and an equally challenging Mozart chestnut, Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra.

To light the fuse, the show started with “Shooting Stars,” a short but explosive work by Frank Ticheli, the orchestra’s former composer-in-residence.

Written for the orchestra’s 25thanniversary and expanded slightly for this occasion at St.Clair’s request, it’s a galloping beast of a piece whose insistent rambunctiousness sometimes hides its high degree of craft. Ticheli, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s vaunted composition program, clearly absorbed some of the nifty orchestration tricks of its faculty, especially William Bolcom. (There are little touches of Leslie Bassett and William Albright in there, too.) It was the perfect musical palate cleanser, clearing the way for the high-cholesterol first course to come.

Rachmaninoff’s massive, daunting piano concerto isn’t among my favorite works of the Russian master. Its themes are too ephemeral and disjointed, and its textures often too soupy, for the ear to discern the big structural relationships that are essential to making long works hang together.

But we weren’t there to nitpick about a long-dead composer. We were there to hear Olga Kern, the first woman to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 30 years. She didn’t disappoint.

Long and lean, Kern manages to convey intensity and languidness simultaneously as she plays. The Rachmaninoff is an unforgiving monster – the fast, turgid outer movements are full of impossible leaps and feats of pianistic legerdemain. Many pianists drop more than a few notes in those passages, but Kern is fully committed. She got firmly to the bottom of the key bed even in the most furiously kinetic passages, and there was no guesswork to those lightning-speed left-hand octaves.

In the bravura passages, Kern’s approach is fluent, seamless and assertive without succumbing to harshness. And she transforms her sound into a dreamy, creamy pianissimo when the need arises.

The Mozart followed intermission, and its purpose was clear: to trot out the orchestra’s new concertmaster, Dennis Kim.

The Sinfonia Concertante is a well known but thrilling showcase, providing many high-octane passages for the soloists while sacrificing none of the composer’s compositional genius.

I’m going to reserve judgment on Kim, obviously a capable player. On Thursday it seemed as if he was holding back slightly, possibly for reasons of acoustics or balance, and as a result his tone, especially on the E string, wasn’t as full and lush as one would have hoped. But it’s a pleasant sound – focused and sweet, if slightly steely – and his musicianship, particularly his sense of ensemble, is impeccable. I’m assuming he just needs to get more comfortable with the venue.

Violist Meredith Crawford was the big surprise of the evening. The Maine native has been playing with Pacific Symphony for a few years, and she was promoted to principal viola last year. Crawford has a big, warm, inviting tone that’s reminiscent of master violist Donald McInnes. Like him, she makes the frustratingly fuzzy-voiced instrument sound focused and melodic, like a big violin rather than the kid brother of the bass. Her glorious sound was paired with tasteful musicality.

The orchestra, slimmed down to classical size, played ably enough, although there were one or two problems of intonation.

“Bolero” is a good indicator of orchestral stamina and ability. It’s a notoriously difficult score for some instruments, and a daunting challenge for all. Its endlessly repeated serpentine melody is subjected to countless feats of divine orchestration, a Ravel specialty. St.Clair and his ensemble approached its delicate moments (most of them in the quieter first half) like a bunch of jewelers cutting pricey diamonds.

Though it was a touch slow for my taste, the orchestra offered a textbook interpretation. The woodwinds were especially haunting and accurate. For a while, I even stopped watching the family pictures.

All in all, Thursday was the 40thbirthday party the orchestra deserved. Now that this ensemble is in is prime, and a new concertmaster is in place, it’s time to climb some higher mountains.

The concert will be repeated tonight (Sept. 29) at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 3 p.m. is a shorter program without the Mozart.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.