By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Symphony; Tito Muñoz, conductor; Narek Hakhnazaryan, cellist
Sat., Jan. 22; 2 p.m. Ambassador Auditorium.
Britten: Soirées Musicales, Op. 9; Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104; Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme Enigma, Opus 36
Next performance: Tonight at 8 p.m.
During more than half a century, we in Los Angeles have grown use to discovering young, unknown, charismatic conductors: Zubin Mehta, Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lionel Bringuier and Gustavo Dudamel, to name but a few. Not so in Pasadena, where Richard Lert, Daniel Lewis and Jorge Mester — none of whom meet the above criteria — were at the helm of the Pasadena Symphony for decades.
So it was with considerable interest that a smallish audience came to Ambassador Auditorium for this afternoon’s Pasadena Symphony concert, which was led by a 27-year-old conductor with Latino roots named Tito Muñoz. In the space of but a few rehearsals, Muñoz (a native of New York City) had the PSO playing in top form and led the orchestra in arresting performances of two ultra-familiar pieces and one unknown work. The ensemble rewarded Munoz’s leadership not only with stellar playing but by insisting that he take a bow on his own at the concert’s conclusion.
The musical world is beginning to discover this burly young maestro, who was recently named Music Director Designate of the Opéra National de Lorraine and Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy in France. He has just finished a three-year stint as assistant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra and held a similar post with the Cincinnati Symphony. So Pasadena is lucky to have this time with him. Who knows what the future will bring?
Wearing a black shirt with his tux, Muñoz bounded quickly on stage and immediately took charge with a spirited performance of Britten’s Soirées Musicales, five miniatures based on songs and operatic excerpts by Giacomo Rossini. Britten composed the work in 1935 as a film score for Britain’s General Post Office and the piece is a winning mixture of the two composers. Muñoz’s athletic, albeit stylish conducting style was infectiously exuberant and the orchestra was razor-sharp in its playing, a foretaste of things to come.
The entire program was youth oriented, as 22-year-old Armenian-born cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan made his local debut as the soloist in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. Throughout his 25-year tenure as the PSO’s music director, Jorge Mester specialized in uncovering young, emerging soloists (a list that included Midori, among others) and Hakhnazaryan is apparently the last of those selections.
Hakhnazaryan’s competition awards include first prize in the 2008 Young Artists Series, whose alumni include pianist Emmanuel Ax, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers (who appeared with the PSO last October), and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Thus, it’s no surprise that Hakhnazaryan displayed prodigious technique; what might be more noteworthy was his somewhat lean, but silky tone (he plays a 1698 David Tecchler cello). He ripped through the Dvorak’s arpeggios, luxuriated in the second movement and, apart from a momentary intonation bobble at the opening of the third movement, brought grace and style to this most famous of cello concertos.
For Muñoz, what Dvorak wrote was definitely a concerto for cello AND orchestra. He brought a good deal of though to his concept and the orchestra’s winds brass, in particular, shimmered throughout performance.
After intermission, Muñoz led a bracing performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Considering the sweeping romanticism that he brought to the opening theme, one wondered where Muñoz might go with the balance of the performance, especially with the Nimrod variation, but in the end, his concept was notable for the variety of the 14 variations and the orchestra’s mostly impeccable playing.
In the end, one was also reminded of how fortunate the PSO is to have moved to Ambassador Auditorium (the pre-performance plugs for the auditorium’s owner, HRock Church notwithstanding). Ambassador’s acoustics are so good that the Philadelphia Orchestra (in its Ormandy-Muti heyday) recorded there, and never were the acoustics more on display than with Cellist Dane Little’s limpid solo in the 12th variation and Donald Foster’s impossibly soft, yet clearly audible solo at the conclusion of the 13th.
If you’re reading this review Saturday and don’t already have tickets to tonight’s performance, you might want to rearrange your schedule and catch the concert. You may one day look back and remember these two local debuts.
The next concert is Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Swiss conductor Matthias Bamert will lead the PSO in his own Ol-Okun, Mozart's Symphony No. 40 and Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto, with Robert Thies as soloist. Info: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.