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Review: Orchestra musicians have been sharing their work throughout the pandemic, but the full orchestra has been muted for almost a year. The Pacific Symphony debuts the first in a series of mini, online concerts and it’s good to hear them play together again, even if we still have to do it online.

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In their first concert back in about a year, the musicians of the Pacific Symphony decided to serenade the audience. The serenade took place online rather than under a window, but it was a mild Thursday evening all the same, just like the old days, when the orchestra launched its subscription series programs on Thursday nights.

As the cameras scanned the various familiar visages of the players and conductor Carl St.Clair (many of them in masks), one felt like serenading them back. It was good to see them, to hear them. More than 320 other listeners probably felt the same.

This was on YouTube, which offers a headcount, on the orchestra’s channel at 7 p.m. The comments streamed in from merry viewers, but I put the video on full screen so as not to be distracted. During the concert, the musicians were socially distanced in two different formations on the stage of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The mini-agenda consisted of, yes, serenades by Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky.

The Pacific Symphony winds section rehearses together on stage at Segerstrom Concert Hall. Wind musicians play behind individual Plexiglas partitions. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

This was the first event in a new series the orchestra is calling Symphony Thursdays @7pm. The pre- but newly recorded programs are available to listeners for free not only on YouTube, but also on the orchestra’s Facebook page and website, and they only premiere at the said time. They’ll remain available for weeks.

The first one was a modest delight, not only for its welcome-back qualities, but for its repertoire. Pandemic protocols make it wiser to feature smaller groups of musicians, as well as to separate the winds from the strings. Here, we had a piece for winds, Strauss’ Serenade for Winds, Op. 7, performed by 13 wind players each in their own Plexiglas compartment. Then came the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, played by a smaller than normal string contingent, all of whom were socially distanced and wearing masks.

The announced repertoire for the rest of the series, which runs through April 8, makes similar nods to current necessities, therefore veering in fresh directions. The second program, March 4, for instance, is for brass and percussion alone, and features two living composers. Later programs will include such delectables as Mozart’s Serenata notturna (which is actually scored for two small orchestras — early stereo), chamber versions of Ravel and Stravinsky ballets and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, not the usual fare for this orchestra.

The Pacific Symphony strings section rehearses together on stage at Segerstrom Concert Hall. String musicians play masked and socially distanced. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

The concerts aren’t full length either. One wonders if this was an artistic decision or a monetary one, or perhaps a combination of the two. Thursday’s premiere lasted just a shade more than 23 minutes, including credits and a bit of talk. I’d say I wanted a little more than that, but maybe not much more. Watching a concert online does have its limitations.

There was nothing wrong with the production, though. The sound was well balanced and blended, with just enough detail to hear the individual grain of sound of the various instruments. There were multiple camera shots and angles, and they mostly followed the important musical motives.

Both the Strauss and the Tchaikovsky serenades were composed in the early 1880s; Strauss was in his late teens, Tchaikovsky was 40. The Strauss is a precocious work, extremely well crafted, conservative in style, owing a great deal to Mozart. It is not something one would recognize as being written by the later Strauss, who was in the musical vanguard in adulthood. Tchaikovsky’s serenade is pure Tchaikovsky, though, very much in the manner of his ballets and symphonies.

St.Clair led warm and solid accounts, as satisfying as necessary despite some minor flaws. These musicians hadn’t been together in a while — there was some carefulness in the playing, and a frayed seam here and there. No matter. Onward. Though online music making lacks a little something in impact, it’s all we can do right now.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.

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