By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Christine Brewer was the soloist in Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in yesterday’s Pasadena Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium with Michael Stern conducting. Photo by Ivan Schustak for the Pasadena Symphony.
Normally when you hear that Christine Brewer is going to appear with an orchestra in Southern California, you’d expect that the ensemble would be the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not this year. For the final concert of its 2011-2012 season, the Pasadena Symphony engaged the well-known American soprano and had the good sense to ask her to sing one of her signature pieces: Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in two concerts yesterday at Ambassador Auditorium.
Actually, Brewer is better known for her Wagnerian roles (she was a stellar Isolde in the L.A. Phil’s “Tristan Project” under Esa-Pekka Salonen several years ago) but these were the 81st and 82nd times she has performed Strauss’ magnificent look back on his 84 years of living. She sang them sumptuously yesterday afternoon.
When Strauss wrote the songs, he was looking back to a musical era — 19th century Romanticism — that had vanished amid the wreckage of what World War II had done to Germany and, in particular, its artistic life. Although there’s no evidence that Strauss intended to group the songs (that was done after his death by his publisher), Strauss used a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff and three by Hermann Hesse for his evocative texts.
Brewer’s lustrous voice swept over the four songs like a soothing balm. The opener, Spring, was bright and the second, September, was wistful. In Going to Sleep, Concertmaster Aimee Kreston’s rich solo line was a perfect complement to Brewer’s singing, and the final song, In the Twilight, was full of aching melancholy.
The orchestra, under the sure hand of guest conductor Michael Stern (music director of the Kansas City Symphony), delivered rich, sumptuous accompaniment for Brewer. Together, it was a memorable performance.
Stern (who by the way, is the son of legendary violinist Isaac Stern) was subbing for the PSO’s music advisor, James DePreist, who is recovering from recent heart bypass surgery. Stern kept the original program, which began with Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Wagner’s Götterdämerung, the sort of music for which Strauss was longing in his Four Last Songs. Stern led a brisk rendition of Engelbert Humperdinck’s concert version of Wagner’s music, highlighted by James Thatcher’s horn solos.
After intermission, Stern concluded the program with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Stern obviously knows this piece well (he conducted without a score) and offered a distinctive reading of this four-movement work that Stern, in his preconcert discussion, characterized as another of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. You might not have fully agreed with Stern’s push-and-pull tempos but the orchestra played gorgeously and he made me think about what was being played — altogether, not a bad combination for a very familiar work.
• Although the classical season officially ended yesterday, two free concerts have been added next Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium. At 2 p.m., Jack Taylor will lead his Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra in music by Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland and others that will be a preview of the ensemble’s upcoming European tour. At 7:30 p.m., Donald Brinegar will lead a new chorus that has been formed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory along with the Pasadena City College Chamber Singers in music by Britten, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Fauré and others. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
• The Pasadena Pops opens at its new home, the Los Angeles County Arboretum, on June 16 when Marvin Hamlisch leads a concert version of his own musical, They’re Playing Our Song, with Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein as soloists. The evening will also include a tribute to Arnaz’s parents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.