By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Symphony; George Stelluto, conductor; Karine Hovhannisyan, kanun
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Overture and Scherzo);
Khachatur Avetisyan: Kanun Concerto No. 2; Beethoven; Symphony No. 7
Saturday, March 12, 2011 • Ambassador Auditorum
In a talk before yesterday afternoon’s Pasadena Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium, guest conductor George Stelluto explained the pros and cons of his position as resident conductor at The Juilliard School in New York City.
On the plus side, Stelluto explained, he’s gained broad experience by preparing Juilliard’s student orchestra to play 130 works in six years. On the other hand, in nearly every instance a better-known guest conductor has whisked into town, often to lead just a dress rehearsal and the performance. Consequently, Stelluto admitted, it was a pleasure this week not only to prepare a concert but enjoy the full fruits of his efforts and those of the musicians.
Stelluto didn’t choose yesterday’s program (all of the concerts on the current season were chosen by former PSO Music Director Jorge Mester before he and the orchestra acrimoniously parted company last year) but he embraced it fully. The element of dance wove seductively through the three pieces, and Stelluto and the orchestra responded with lively performances.
The program’s novelty was the second Kanun concerto of Armenian composer Khachatur Avetisyan (whose son, Mikael, happens to be music director of the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra).
For those not in the know (which included many, if not most, in the audience) the Armenian kanun, according to the program notes, “has 72 strings over a flat trapezoidal wooden box with a narrow section covered by a membrane. Two or more levers change the tension of the strings to vary the pitch. Horn or tortoise shell plectra attached to a ring placed on the index fingers pluck the strings.” The soloist is seated and the instrument is balanced on her lap, quite a feat especially during the more intricate moments.
Those fingers, in this case, were attached to the arm of Karine Hovhannisyan and she played this three-movement concerto with a sparkling display of virtuosity and musicality that included a surprisingly wide spectrum of dynamics.
The two outer movements, which seem nearly identical, are filled with driving, relentless rhythms in an odd metre (usually five beats to the measure), while the inner adagio features mystical melodic accompaniment that sets off the soloist’s cadenzas. Stelluto and the orchestra played the outer movements with razor-sharp precision and offered discretely sympathetic accompaniment to Hovhannisyan in the middle movement. The entire piece — less than 15 minutes in length — was over almost before it began.
After intermission, Stelluto — who conducted without a baton — led a stylish performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and the orchestra responded with its customary top-flight level of playing.
The first movement began with a stately tempo that set off the brisk allegro nicely. The Allegretto second movement (which has received lots of notoriety recently because it was featured prominently in The King’s Speech) had a sense of urgency and long musical arcs. The final movement was taken at a breakneck speed that rivaled the tempos of Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. That the PSO musicians could handle the tempos for the most part was impressive but it was not the must musical of renderings.
The concert opened with spritely performances of the Overture and Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which accentuated nicely the dance programming concept.
• The concert was one of the shortest in recent memory; it lasted less than 100 minutes, including announcements and the intermission.
• The preconcert discussions, with the PSO’s CEO Paul Jan Zdunek interviewing each of the guest conductors, have proved to be highly enjoyable, enabling the audience to get a sense of the guest conductors and, in particular, how they came to conducting. Stelluto pointed to his education in West Virginla public schools as extremely important in setting him on a career path.
• Stelluto also admitted that he has yet to see The King’s Speech.
• In addition to his work at The Juilliard School, Stelluto this season became music director of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra.
• The final concert of the PSO’s classical season will be May 7 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Chilean-born conductor Maximiano Valdés will lead the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Chinese pianist Chu-Fang Huang as soloist.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.