By ROBERT D. THOMAS / CONTRIBUTING WRITER
For the opening subscription concert of the Pacific Symphony’s 38th season Thursday night – and marking 10 years at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa – music director Carl St.Clair programmed a quartet of big, bold, colorful pieces.
Moreover, whether or not it was intentional considering that the orchestra’s musicians and management are struggling to reach a new labor agreement, St.Clair used the program to spotlight nearly all of the ensemble’s principal section leaders, at least a couple of of whom are new this season.
Big and bold are words that best describe the evening’s soloist, Russian-American pianist Olga Kern, who powered her way through Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in a performance that emphasized her pyrotechnic virtuosity, as sparks seemed to fly from her piston-like fingers. There were occasional moments of meditative lyricism but not many. St.Cair and the orchestra hung on for dear life during their accompaniment.
Responding to a standing ovarion, Kern raced through Prokofiev’s Etude No. 4 in C Minor. We had already learned she could play fast and loud – some contrast would have been welcome.
After intermission, St.Clair and the orchestra presented the world premiere of “I Got a Little Wiggle That I Just Can’t Shake” by another pianist-composer, 22-year-old Illinois native Conrad Tao.
In his program notes and a video interview projected on a screen above the orchestra, Tao – who has appeared as soloist with the orchestra several times – said he was inspired by the wavy interior and exteriors of Segerstrom Concert Hall.
He used a large orchestra, complete with extra percussion, piano and pipe organ, and had the strings create strange noises including the rustling of the players’ scores. St.Clair had said in the interview that the piece was “10 or 11 minutes.” Actually, it ran 16 minutes — shorter would have been better. The audience response was tepid.
Bookending those two pieces were Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture” and Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The latter was the orchestra’s most impressive work of the evening with a lyrical offstage trumpet solo by Barry Perkins in the second movement, plaintive solos by principal clarinet Joseph Morris in the third movement among the highlights.
St.Clair built the final movement inexorably to the shattering climax, using the bass pipes of the hall’s pipe organ to add weight and a brass choir in the choral-singers loft to add brilliance to the performance.
Some other notes from the season-opening concert:
• Whether the screen above the orchestra helps or distracts from the musical experience is a matter of taste. Screens help people to see in large outdoor venues but are they really necessary in an indoor locale such as Segerstrom Hall? Not, IMHO.
• The screen did make possible screening the video interview. On the other hand, management missed an opportunity by not projecting the section titles for “Pines of Rome.”
• St.Clair announced that the Hal & Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation has extended its sponsorship of the Pacific Symphony’s classical series through the 2022-23 season.
• The next subscription concerts – concluding with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and including a world premiere by Composer-in-Residence Narong Prangcharoen – are Oct. 20-23.
Contact the writer: Robert D. Thomas is a freelance music writer. Email him at: BobTatFORE@aol.com. More of his reviews, columns and features can be found at www.insidesocal.com/classact/