By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Symphony. Mei-Ann, conductor; James Ehnes, violin
Huang: Saibei Dance (from Sabei Dance Suite No. 2); Korngold: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Saturday, October 29, 2011 • Ambassador Auditorium
Mei-Ann Chen, a 38-year-old Taiwan-born conductor, is diminutive in stature but she packs a wallop on the podium; in fact, she’s a human dynamo who makes Gustavo Dudamel seem sedate by comparison. She’s also one of the fast-rising stars in the conducting firmament with positions at the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfionietta (the “Windy City’s” equivalent to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra).
This afternoon she helped open the Pasadena Symphony’s 83rd season before a disappointingly small crowd. Too bad; they missed an exciting concert with some top-notch music making. (the program repeated this evening to a larger audience).
Chen’s exuberance was on display from the Star Spangled Banner — she had the snare drum rattling as she walked briskly on stage. After that unfortunately predictable opening, Chen introduced to local audiences Saibei Dance, a four-minute dance/fanfare by Chinese composer An-Lun Huang whose flashy rhythms were perfect for Chen’s arm-whirling, gyrating conducting style and the performance benefitted from spiffy solos from Donald Foster, clarinet, Gary Woodward, flute, and James Thatcher, horn.
Violinist James Ehnes then joined Chen and the orchestra for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, a 1945 work that melds tunes drawn from Korngold’s motion picture scores from the 1930s overlaid by a wicked violin solo line that Jascha Heifetz asked the composer to make more difficult than he had originally written.
Ehnes — who towers over Chen — has become a champion of this neglected work; his recording of the Korngold, Barber and Walton violin concertos with Bramwell Tovey and Vancouver Symphony won Grammy and Juno Awards in 2008. Ehnes’ sweet tone was very much in evidence in the first and second movements and he handled the final movement’s pyrotechnic difficulties with seeming ease. Chen and the orchestra accompanied sensitively.
After intermission, Chen concluded with has become her signature work: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the piece she conducted in the finals when she became the first woman ever to win Denmark’s Malko Conducting Competition, in 2005.
This was a reading full of pulsating energy from first note to last. Chen shaped each phrase with flair and the orchestra responded in first-rate fashion. The strings were lushly resonant, the wind principals (especially Foster, Laura Wickes, oboe, Rose Corrigan, bassoon and Woodward) were at the top of their games, and the brass rang out with gleaming vigor. Even when compared with many performances of this familiar work this fall, this one measured up well.
The PSO seems content to continue with a series of guest conductrs and Music Advisor James DePreist, but Mei-Ann Chen is someone definitely to keep very much on the radar screen.
• On a note of irony at afternoon when the PSO and Ehnes were playing the Korngold Violin Concerto, Turner Classic Movies was showing the 1938 motion picture, The Legend of Robin Hood. Korngold won an Oscar for his score for that film.
• The next PSO concert is a holiday program on Dec. 3 at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper, music director of the West Virginia Symphony, will lead the orchestra, Donald Brinegar Singers, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and vocalist Lisa Vroman.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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