By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Pops Orchestra; Rachael Worby, conductor
Alfredo Rodriguez, pianist; Valarie Pettiford, soprano
Saturday, August 14, 2010 • The Lawn Adjacent to the Rose Bowl
This season is the beginning of an era for the Pasadena Pops, which has shifted its concerts from Descanso Gardens in La Cañada to the prosaically (albeit accurately) named “The Lawn Adjacent to the Rose Bowl.” As it turns out, it’s also the end of an era, following Music Director Rachael Worby’s announcement this week that she will leave her position after next September’s final concert of the season, her 11th with the orchestra.
Since I was out of town for the Pops’ first two concerts of this season, this was my first chance to see and hear the new venue. See the bottom of this review for some of my comments on the venue. Judging by last night’s concert, Worby is ending her tenure on a high note, indeed.
The all-jazz evening included two soloists named in the program and several orchestra principals not listed. Together with the Pops, it made for a mostly exemplary evening. Worby was at her most erudite commenting on the various composers in the program, offering little-known facts along with humorous anecdotes.
After opening with a stirring, a cappella rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, vocalist Valarie Pettiford opened the evening with “hot” performances of John Kander’s All That Jazz and Henry Mancini’s Le Jazz Hot. After an orchestral interlude, she returned for equally noteworthy renditions of Abel’s Where Do I Find Love and Harold Arlen’s Come Rain or Come Shine. She came back after intermission for three pieces, ending with Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries. In all of these selections, Pettiford delivered a rich, powerful tone (although the heavy amplification wasn’t an asset to her), and she commanded the stage with her presence and showmanship. Pettiford was ably (no pun intended) backed by the Pops and by Worby, who seems to have been born to conduct jazz.
The surprise hit of the evening were three pieces composed by Thelonious Monk, as arranged by Alan Steinberger, the orchestra’s principal keyboardist. The middle movement — a soulful song with Steinberger joined by Principal Clarinet Donald Foster, Principal Trombonist Alex Iles and bassist Drew Dumbowski — was particularly noteworthy. The two outer movements added jazzy bookends to the entire suite.
The evening’s major disappointment was the concluding work, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with Alfredo Rodriguez playing the solo portion for the first time, according to Worby in her introduction. The Cuban pianist, who defected to the U.S. in 2009, is a protégé of Quincy Jones and played in Gustavo Dudamel’s Hollywood Bowl extravaganza, ¡Bienvenido Gustavo!, last October.
Although the overly loud amplification made it difficult to accurately assess volume control, Rodriguez mostly pounded his concept of “Gershwin a la Rachmaninoff.” He’s clearly a major talent but he pushed and pulled tempos all over the map and, although there were moments of musicality, he seemed to delight mostly in showing off his prodigious technique. Worby and the Pops didn’t help things much; if you like your RIB languid then you loved last night. I don’t and, thus, didn’t.
The other major Gershwin piece, Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of selections from Porgy and Bess, which closed the first half of the evening, fared much better, although there some scrappy moments, probably the result of a lack of sufficient rehearsal time. A Duke Ellington medley opened the second half.
The season’s last concert, and the final in Worby’s tenure, September 25, a Hollwood-themed event that features vocalist Jodi Benson and saxophonist Douglas Masek. Info: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org.
There’s plenty to like about the new venue:
• The parking is terrific. I arrived 40 minutes in advance of the concert, dinner in hand, and got right into general parking, which — thank goodness — isn’t stack-parked. Consequently, I was out of the venue in 90 seconds from the time I reached my car and on the 134 Freeway in a few minutes more.
• You do have to be careful to find some landmarks to line up your car, since there are no lanes marked or signed.
• The green faux-vegetation fence surround the concert venue helps to seal off the venue from the rest of Brookside Park. Although the lawn is adjacent to the Rose Bowl, I couldn’t see the venerable stadium from my seat.
• The shell is visually attractive, the apparatus holding the speakers isn’t too obtrusive and two large video screens on either side of the shell offer closeups of conductor, soloists and various instrumentalists.
On the negative side:
• Something (possibly the reflective materials used inside the shell) made faces on the video screens look overly red and harsh, not at all flattering to Worby, in particular.
• Loud, portable generators to power the parking lot lights create a hum that’s quite noticeable within the venue, even with the overly loud amplification.
• Several helicopters buzzed near the venue during the concert. Given that the season is only four Saturdays long, perhaps the city could investigate the source (JPL?) and ask them to be more careful.
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.