By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Symphony; Matthias Bamert, conductor; Robert Thies, piano
Bamert: Ol-Okun; Schumann: Piano Concerto; Mozart: Symphony No. 40
Saturday, Feb. 18, 2011 • Ambassador Auditorium
Matthias Bamert journeyed from his home in Switzerland to Pasadena to conduct the Pasadena Symphony yesterday afternoon and evening at Ambassador Auditorium. The 68-year-old Bamert came with a reputation as a Mozart specialist and from the moment he bounced onstage and launched into the first notes of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, it was obvious advance publicity wasn’t just empty hype.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 was the composer’s next-to-last effort in the genre and it’s less well known than the two works that bookend it; all three were composed in a two-month span in 1788 and the 40th is one of only two symphonies that Mozart wrote in a minor key. It does cast a dark shadow but under Bamert’s leadership, this was a performance of richness and demonstrated that a master was at work both in the composition and the conducting.
Bamert made no concessions to the period-instrument performance style; the orchestra numbered just 47 but the sound in Ambassador’s warm acoustics seemed larger. In each of the four movements, Bamert enforced strict tempos but they never seemed unyielding. He treated the piece as if he were caressing an old friend but was completely in control throughout. He shaded dynamics expressively, coaxing rounded phrases rather than the angular concepts that we might have gotten from Jorge Mester.
The orchestra responded with resplendent playing throughout. The first movement was spritely and the second was a brisk andante. Bamert danced his way through the third movement and the finale was a perfectly couched summation.
The first half of the concert was far less successful. In addition to his work with Mozart, Bamert has spent much of his life studying other, less-known composers of the Classical period; perhaps he would should have rounded out the program with some of their music.
Instead, he opened with Al Okun, a piece Bamert wrote 35 years ago that is based on an African legend (he has maintained quite an interest in the continent). In the preconcert lecture, he said matter-of-factly, “My composition is weird.” He introduced the work prior to the performance by explaining that he stopped composing 30 years ago, then told the story of the legend, and asked for “tolerant ears” from the audience. If he got them, it was with a struggle.
The 18-minute work sounds like it came from the Pierre Boulez style of the mid-1970s and he asks a lot of the 10 string players. In addition to playing sounds that ranged from scratching to quasi-minimalism, the instrumentalists had to hum, sing, clap hands and snap their fingers. The telling of the story was more interesting than the music and the audience responded with polite, tepid applause.
Pianist Robert Thies was the soloist for Schumann’s Piano Concerto (this has turned out to be a Schumann concerto weekend; the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts this weekend include performances of the composer’s cello concerto).
Bamert and Thies seemed to struggle to find common ground when it came to tempos and styles in this familiar concerto and the result seemed disjointed. After Bamert’s totally assured Mozart conducting, watching him lead the orchestra in the Schumann was almost painful. Part of the reason may have been that he used a score in the Schumann and not in the Mozart. But whatever the reason, his body language (as seen from the rear) made it seem as if he was struggling with the concerto and that’s what it sounded like, as well.
Thies wasn’t much help. He played all the notes correctly but there was no sense of lilt in the performance until the final movement when things more or less clicked into synch. It wasn’t a bad performance but it wasn’t special; perhaps last night’s run through was better.
The PSO’s guest-conductor parade resumes March 12 when George Stellluto, music director of the Peoria Symphony and resident conductor at The Juilliard School, will lead a program of the Overture and Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and the Kanun Concerto No. 2 by Khachatur Aveitsyan, with Karine Hovhannisyan as soloist (the Kanun is a 72-string Middle Eastern lap harp). INFO
• Prior to the concert, the Pasadena Symphony announced that it had received a $500,000 gift from the Women’s Committee, which includes a $400,000 bequest from the late Beebe Oliver Neutzman, a long-time committee volunteer. MORE
• Kudos to Pasadena Symphony CEO Paul Zdunek for coaxing some interesting tidbits out of the somewhat reticent Bamert in the preconcert lecture. Among other things, Bamert said he had made 50-75 CD recordings of music of contemporaries of Mozart. “There’s a repertoire for performance that seems to be shrinking and a repertoire for recordings that is expanding,” said Bamert. How, asked Zdunek, do we bridge the gap? Bamert’s only solution was to do what essentially happened in yesterday’s program; mix lesser-known works with familiar ones.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.