By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
In this three-part series I’ll offer some thoughts on the future of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra following the departure of Jorge Mester as the orchestra’s music director. Since I had just begun writing for the Pasadena Star-News in 1983, my tenure with the paper overlaps Mester’s quarter-century leading the orchestra. Today I look back and pay tribute to Jorge for his 25 years leading the PSO. Wednesday I’ll discuss some the issues surrounding the PSO’s immediate future. Friday I’ll look at the question (and perhaps provoke some discussion about), “What is the long-term future for the Pasadena Symphony?”
When Jorge Mester’s 25-year tenure as Pasadena Symphony music director came to an abrupt end last Saturday (LINK), it marked the conclusion of a remarkable quarter-century run for the Mexico City-born conductor in Pasadena. It also marked an ironic closing of a circle for the 82-year-old orchestra, an ensemble that, once again, is at a turning point.
When Mester conducted his first Pasadena Symphony concert in 1984, Ronald Reagan was finishing his first term as United States President. George Deukmejian was California’s governor. Tom Bradley was mayor of Los Angeles and Bill Bogaard was in his first term as Pasadena’s mayor. Finally, 23-year-old Barack Obama was working in New York City, having graduated the year before from Columbia University (he attended Occidental College in 1981).
The past quarter century has been momentous in so many ways. Just three years before Mester came to Pasadena, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the AIDS virus. It would be six years before the Gulf War would erupt, and 9/11 was a date that signified nothing unless you were born on it.
Those flying in 1984 might well have used Pan Am or TWA. On the West Coast, you could have been flying PSA. If you were flying Southwest Airlines, it was probably in Texas and nobody had even dreamed of JetBlue. If you were traveling between Europe and the U.S., you might have flown on the supersonic Concorde.
The year 1984 saw the introduction of Apple’s Macintosh computer; soon we would all come to realize that a mouse was more than a rodent and that a folder could be in something other than a steel filing cabinet. A laptop was something onto which your dog jumped and “kindle” meant starting a fire.
Most written communication was still on paper. Although the origins of the Internet date from the 1950s, it wouldn’t be opened to commercial use until 1988. The World Wide Web wouldn’t begin until 1991 and in 1984 the phrase “You’ve Got Mail” would have meant a paper envelope in your postbox.
When Mester began with the PSO in 1984, the Los Angeles Olympic Games had just been completed. The Los Angeles Raiders defeated the Washington Redskins, 38-9, to win the Super Bowl the previous January; the Raiders would return to Oakland in 1995. The Los Angeles Rams had already moved south to Anaheim; in 1995, it would relocate to St. Louis, leaving Los Angeles — the nation’s second-largest city — without a NFL team. The Lakers were in the midst of the “Showtime” era in 1984 and a year later won the NBA Championship. The Dodgers were three years removed from winning the 1981 World Series and would win another title in 1988. Tiger Woods was eight years old.
Much has also transpired in the musical world in the past 25 years. Most recordings were still produced on large vinyl discs called LPs and played on turntables using a toner arm with a needle (or, as Radar O’Rielly once described it in a M*A*S*H episode, “a fang on a one-armed cobra”). Compact discs were becoming commercially available and would quickly supplant LPs. Less than 20 years later we’d be downloading music from Internet sites such as iTunes.
In 1984, Los Angeles Opera was still two years away from its first season. Gerard Schwarz was music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; it played concerts at Ambassador Auditorium, which was in the midst of a remarkable run as an internationally renowned arts impresario — next October, it becomes the Pasadena Symphony’s new home.
The month after Mester’s debut in Pasadena, the Long Beach Symphony cancelled its season due to mounting debts. A task force appointed by the mayor of Long Beach called for reorganization through new leadership, restructuring, repayment of the debt and strict financial controls. Within two years the debt was eliminated and five years later JoAnn Falletta would usher in a stellar new era musically.
In 1984 Zubin Mehta was conductor of the New York Philharmonic; the orchestra has worked under three musical directors since. Riccardo Muti was leading the Philadelphia Orchestra; it’s had two music directors since and is searching for a third. Sir Georg Solti was head of the Chicago Symphony; next fall, Muti becomes that orchestra’s second music director since Solti departed.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic was reeling in 1984. Carlo Maria Giulini, who had succeeded Mehta as music director, was force to resign because of his wife’s serious illness. André Previn took the LAPO post in 1985 but it wasn’t until Esa-Pekka Salonen took the reins in 1992 that the orchestra’s fortunes and mission changed dramatically. Meanwhile, in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, four-year-old Gustavo Dudamel was just beginning to study music in 1984 through “El Sistema,” that country’s remarkable music education program.
The Pasadena Symphony was also in the midst of its own transition troubles in 1984. Daniel Lewis had succeeded the PSO’s second music director, Richard Lert, in 1972, solidifying the orchestra into an all-professional ensemble, but Lewis’ 12-year tenure ended in 1983 amid acrimony and the orchestra was searching for a new conductor.
Luring the 50-year-old Mester west (he was then chair of the conducting department at The Juilliard School but was best known for his 12-year stint with the Louisville Orchestra), was quite a coup for the Pasadena Symphony and it proved to be one of the orchestra’s best decisions.
During the ensuing quarter century, Mester would elevate the Pasadena Symphony’s playing to a new level; few orchestras of its budgetary size in the U.S. can match its sound quality. In the process, he has built an amazingly loyal cadre of musicians, taking advantage of the large number of quality musicians working in the motion picture industry in Southern California. By all accounts, Mester has always created a supportive, almost family-style environment in which those musicians have continued to take the time to create beautiful music with the PSO.
Yet in some frustrating ways, the PSO is the same organization as when Mester took over. Although it once played as many as eight concerts each season, it has reverted to playing five annually for several years. Incidentally, Mester has conducted all but one of those concerts during 25 years (he had to withdraw from one because of the impending birth of his daughter).
Mester’s programming has remained rooted firmly in a traditional mode. His choices of “new music” have been underperformed works rather than truly contemporary compositions. The recently concluded season contained nothing that could be considered new, except that some of it had rarely been performed locally. By contrast, ironically, the 2010-2011 season (LINK) is “daring,” with music by Philip Glass, Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten. The one real oddity, the Kanun Concerto by Armenian composer Kachatur Avestiyan, is more than 50 years old. Glass’ Symphony No. 3, written in 1995, is the newest piece. However, next season also contains 10 ultra-familiar pieces including symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, and concertos by Dvorak, Schumann and Liszt.
Mester wasn’t always this conservative. In his first years, he started, but didn’t complete, cycles of symphonies by Shostakovich and Mahler. The orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in his second or third season remains a high point of Mester’s work with the orchestra, in my mind. He tried a couple of innovative concerts melding narration and other theatrical elements with music (e.g., Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Grieg’s Peer Gynt) but they proved to be problematic from an artistic point of view and didn’t do well at the box office, either.
One of Mester’s strong points was an ability to discover and nurture young soloists. Perhaps the most notable was Midori, who performed the Dvorak Violin Concerto with the PSO very early on in her career, but others included Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Robert McDuffie. Hampered by budgetary concerns, Mester also found more experienced but nonetheless mostly unknown artists (locally, at any rate) who proved to be of high quality, including pianist Howard Shelley.
While the constant throughout the past quarter century has been Mester’s ability to maintain a uniformly high standard of performance excellence in PSO concerts. few, if any, PSO programs during the past few seasons have generated the sort of audience enthusiasm that has been seen and heard at Walt Disney Concert Hall from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel eras. Moreover, attendance at PSO concerts has drifted downward during the past decade, in part due to the aging of the orchestra’s mainstream audience.
Enthusiastic response (which is more than applause, by the way) is not the “sine quo non” for evaluating classical music organizations, but neither is it to be discounted. Moreover, while musical excellence may be its own reward, it may not be enough on its own to sustain future growth. Thus, two primary questions for the Pasadena Symphony are:
(a) Does the organization still have an important role to play in a city that prides itself on its cultural life?
(b) How does the PSO reposition itself for the 21st century in an area that is changing rapidly in terms of demographics and tastes?
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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