By Bill Peters
Pasadena Symphony’s Classics Series presented last Saturday evening at HRock’s Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena was inviting, ingratiating, and as advertised, seductive. The theme of the concert was “Seductive Scheherazade”.
Who could overlook concertmaster Aimee Kreston’s suave violin playing in Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade. Or piano soloist Esther Keel’s magnificent artistry, emotion and pianistic skill in Camille Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5 in F-major, slyly named “The Egyptian”. And how about guest conductor Rossen Milanov with his driving beat directing in the showpiece, Alexander Borodin’s “Polyvtsian Dances” from “Prince Igor”?
The Symphony had named the program “Seductive Scheherazade” but the entire performance was filled with a siren call to listeners to hear an orchestra that is coming into full depth of spirit and of playing.
Esther Keel’s performance at a wonderfully voiced concert-grand Steinway was phenomenal. Keel utilized keyboard technique that seems to blend old-style accuracy and modern sensibility leading to a rendering of the not-too-often heard Saint-Saens work filled with colorful timbre, careful pedaling, and brisk, clean arpeggios. I am tempted to recall a concert pianist who I believe lived in a mansion on the Ambassador property before it was acquired by the Ambassador College: Amparo Iturbi. Her impeccable technique and fluid playing brought her international fame. Amparo and her brother, José Iturbi, lived in the mansion fronting Orange Grove Avenue. Keel, even at age 26, could be compared.
Milanov is rather boyish in appearance. His conducting style is buoyant and bouncy. While too much bounce might prove distracting, it is hard to know if the style brought the top-rate performances that resulted. It appeared that was the case. Whatever the reason, the bookended opener and closer, the Borodin and the Rimsky-Korsakov couldn’t have been better.
The violins were burnished in warmth, the brass shone brilliantly, the winds waxed eloquent. In the “Scheherazade”, beyond Kreston’s marvelous (and even soulful) playing, outstanding performances came from every principal player with special work by Rong-Huey Liu oboe, David Shostac, flute, Donald Foster, clarinet, Katherine Oliver, bassoon, Marissa Benedict,+ trumpet, and cellist Trevor Handy.
This orchestra is receiving broad community support as it reaches probably its highest level of achievement in its long history. Laurie Turner, chair of the 2011 Holiday Look-in Home Tour, represented The Women’s Committee of the Pasadena Symphony Association to present Chief Executive Officer, Paul Jan Zdunek, a check for $100,000 as a result of their successful Holiday tour. The Women’s Committee, with the help of a generous donation from the late Beebe Nuetzman, last year donated $500,000 to the Symphony which, according to Zdunek, was matched over the summer.
Beethoven and Mozart make up the next Pasadena Symphony program in two performances, at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, March 31, as guest conductor, Nicholas McGegan, and pianist Nareh Arghamanyan perform. Arghamanyan will be heard in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D-minor; McGegan will lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica”.