By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
California Philharmonic; Victor Vener, conductor
Sunday, July 15, 2012 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: July 28 at Santa Anita Racetrack and 29 at Disney Hall
Each of the three orchestras based in the San Gabriel Valley has its own distinctive personality. In the case of the California Philharmonic, at least two elements contribute to its identity.
Unlike the Pasadena Pops and Muse-ique, the Cal Phil performs each of its five concerts in two locales. On alternating Saturdays during July and August, the Cal Phil plays in its new home in the infield of Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia. The following day, the group repeats the programs in Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, making it the only orchestra locally to regularly perform indoors during the summer months.
Moreover, Music Director Victor Vener continues to mix major doses of classical music with pops fare in each program. It’s a formula that has continued to draw loyal audiences, although Sunday’s attendance at Disney Hall seemed sparser than what I recall from last summer.
The anchor of Sunday’s program was The Association, the folk-rock band that began in 1965 at Pasadena’s Ice House and has produced enough hits to sell more than 80 million records in its nearly half-century of existence.
Some of the original members are still performing, while others have been replaced, but the sextet offered a winsome reprise of their distinctive music that featured most of their megahits, including Wendy, Never My Love and Cherish. Several of the songs’ composers were in the audience. The group also paid tribute to the Mommas and the Poppas, with whom it performed 60 times, by singing California Dreamin'. Vener and the Cal Phil provided discrete accompaniment on half of the numbers.
Vener surrounded the pop group with three classical numbers. He and the orchestra opened with a solid rendition of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture taken at a stately tempo and continued with Richard Strauss’ first tone poem, Don Juan. Overall, the orchestra played well although Vener failed to find all of the glorious sweep of Strauss’ music.
The major work after intermission was three movements of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Vener’s pattern is to limit any one classical selection to about 20 minutes, although with his commentary that length stretches out considerably.
On Sunday, Vener took the time to explain the story behind the piece and each of the selected movements (The Ball, March to the Scaffold and Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath). This was helpful for those in the audience hearing for the first time a work that describes the composer’s drug-induced fantasy. Moreover, considering that the piece is really five distinct sections as opposed to one interconnected unit, the verbal interludes did little damage to its overall effect.
Unfortunately this familiar work is played by many orchestras locally and Vener’s ungainly conducting style looked particularly lumbering when compared to other maestros. Nonetheless, a good time was had by most.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.