By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
The Colburn Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Takemitsu: From me flows what you call Time; Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Saturday, December 4, 2011 • Ambassador Auditorium
When Gerard Schwarz was music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 1978-1986, he regularly led that ensemble in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Saturday night he returned “home” to lead The Colburn in a program that concluded with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.
Mahler’s fifth will tax even the finest professional orchestra, so to some it might have seemed foolhardy to have it tackled by a conservatory ensemble. However, The Colburn Orchestra — the flagship ensemble of the school that is the West Coast equivalent of New York City’s Julliard School — is no ordinary student band as it demonstrated anew Saturday. The musicians handled all of Schwarz’s somewhat disjointed ideas about this sprawling work with aplomb and played their collective hearts out for their guest conductor.
The 107 musicians onstage also taxed the resources of Ambassador’s stage. With the entire brass section arrayed across the entire top back row, the poor percussionists were treated like second cousins; the timpani was buried in front of the brass on the left and the balance of the percussion was tucked away on the right-hand side. The string basses were so tight against the left-hand wall that Schwarz had to enter from the right-hand door.
Schwarz — who earlier this year completed a 26-year-tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony — had the violins seated left and right and the cellos and violas inside of them. Conducting with a score, he led a heavily nuanced account of the symphony that often veered into fussiness. His fast sections, particularly in the first two movements, sped along briskly but he turned the slow sections into sensuous, sometimes overly torpid meanderings. The result was an episodic reading with little of the sweeping, long lines that make Mahler distinctive.
Joseph Brown got things off to a splendid start with his trumpet solos; they were a harbinger of things to come as the entire brass section covered itself in glory throughout the performance. Schwarz brought Principal Horn Johanna Yarbrough directly in front of him for her third-movement solos (ask not why — the brass were heard clearly all night from their top row perch). Although Yarbrough appeared somewhat uncomfortable, especially during the long stretches when she wasn’t playing, she played her lines with sensitivity. The strings produced a lean, taut sound and the wind sections were also noteworthy throughout the performance.
Many conductors would make Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (which ran 66 minutes long Saturday) the sole piece on the program (when Gustavo Dudamel conducts his Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela on Jan. 26 at Walt Disney Concert, Mahler’s fifth will stand alone). However, The Colburn Orchestra elected to preface it with Toru Takemitsu’s quirky meditation From me flows what you call Time, which featured the percussion group Smoke and Mirrors as soloist.
Not only is this 25-minute piece that features nine connected movements quirky, the setup mandated by the Takemitsu is even stranger. He gave precise instructions for the performers’ attire (white shirts with colored sashes and black slacks), manner and staging (after the first section, a flute solo played by Francesca Camuglia, the players sneak in during the second section). On either side of the stage were different-colored ribbons rising from the instruments to the ceiling, meant to simulate Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags.
The five ensemble members — Joe Beribok, Edward Hong, Katalin La Favre, Derek Tywoniuk and Wai Wah Ivan Wan — all study with Jack van Geem at The Colburn School, and even those in the audience who get no joy out of the East-West music melange from Japan’s most famous classical composer could appreciate the musicality and dexterous movements of the soloists, who were arrayed in front of and behind the orchestra.
• As is usually the case, orchestra members wrote the explanatory music notes for the program — in this case, Oboist Briana Lehman for the Takemitsu and violinist/pianist Bora Kim for the Mahler. It’s too bad they didn’t include the instrumentation, particularly for the Takemitsu piece.
• At intermission the Smoke and Mirrors members changed into formal dress and played the symphony.
• Considering that patrons were asked to show up at 6:45 p.m. to assure orderly seating, the entire evening ran more than three hours in a very warm hall. On the other hand, as Pastor Gwen Gibson noted in her brief welcome, some people were undoubtedly glad to be in a hall with lights and heating working, as many in the area continue without power due to Wednesday night’s windstorms.
• Prior to the performance, Colburn President and CEO Sel Kardan came onstage to recognize and thank Mark Fabulich, the orchestra’s manager and librarian, who is moving across Grand Avenue from The Colburn School to assume a similar position with Los Angeles Opera. People like Fabulich are among the unsung heroes of arts organizations, and Kardan read a letter from The Colburn Orchestra’s Music Director Yehuda Gilad thanking him not for his work but for his wise counsel.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.