Last Friday, Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony took on two seemingly disparate giants of the orchestral repertoire, Johann Sebastian Bach and Gustav Mahler.
The program notes mentioned Mahler’s interest in Bach’s counterpoint during the time he wrote his Fifth Symphony, spurring the creation of some contrapuntal elements of the score. It made sense in concept, and while in practice Mr. St.Clair’s interpretation of Bach’s tidy little world seemed far removed from his bold take on Mahler’s expansive universe, the contrast worked well.
The Mahler 5th was particularly compelling. The Pacific Symphony’s Music Director has a reputation as a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of conductor, and as such, one might have expected a wide-open interpretation full of space and raw emotion. Not so this time.
This was a finely honed performance, propulsive and full of energy yet very much in control. He chose rather healthy tempos throughout, but still gave the music room to breath and nothing ever felt rushed. When the big moments came in all their grandeur, they seemed inevitable, never forced.
The orchestra responded well, and while a rough edge appeared now and again, sounded quite good overall. Principal Trumpet Barry Perkins was absolutely superb with his first movement solos as well as many other exposed moments. Principal Horn Keith Popejoy overcame an opening note blip in his 3rd movement obbligato to offer some very respectable solo work himself. As an ensemble, the brass gleamed bright throughout without ever becoming overbearing.
When the strings finally got their moment in the sun during the famous 4th movement Adagietto, they sounded gorgeous, playing with a warm, nicely balanced sheen. Among all the solid work by the woodwinds, Principal Clarinet Ben Lulich stood out with his particularly rich tone.
Two works by Bach were featured before intermission. Opening the concert was the familiar “Air” from the Third Orchestral Suite. Mr. St.Clair took a moderate pace, neither pushing nor stretching the line. It was a charming performance, though the strings sounded a little unsettled, not yet blending as tightly as they did during the Mahler.
Next up was Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 3, with Dejan Lazić as soloist. Despite choosing to perform on a full-sized concert Steinway piano, he rarely used the pedals and kept his dynamic range compact, with the entire performance tucked neatly between mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte. One could easily admire his deft, crisp playing, but a little more expressivity and/or variety in color would have been welcome, especially given his choice of a modern instrument. That said, it was still an enjoyable interpretation, with Mr. St.Clair and the orchestra offering sensitively measured support.
As an encore, Mr. Lazić offered a lovely account of one of Scarlatti’s D minor Sonatas.
Random other thoughts:
- The music of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 3 in D major, BWV 1054 is probably familiar to many in nearly identical guise as Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in E major, BWV 1042. For a comparison, click HERE for the 3rd movement of the violin concerto as done by Hillary Hahn and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra vs. HERE for Glenn Gould playing the harpsichord concerto on a piano with the Columbia Symphony. BTW: Note the difference in key signature. Apparently, the violin concerto came first, and the keyboard concerto was transposed down a whole step because the top note of harpsichords of the time was only a D.
- Mr. St.Clair spoke briefly between the two Bach works, extolling the virtues of the orchestra’s upcoming 2013/2014 season and mentioning that a subscribers’ table in the lobby would be available for patrons wanting information. That table was quite busy during intermission.
- As Mr. St.Clair stepped up to the podium to begin the Mahler 5, he looked right at Concertmaster Raymond Kobler, even as Barry Perkins began the trumpet fanfare that opens the symphony. This caused the conductor to act startled, as if he were caught off guard. I trust this was, in fact, just a little playing around, as many conductors allow their trumpeter to play those opening notes when they are ready and at their own pace. Of course, I can’t be 100% sure about that . . .
Pacific Symphony: March 22, 2013; Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Dejan Lazić, piano
Bach: “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
Bach: Harpsichord Concerto No. 3 in D major, BWV 1054
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
- Carl St.Clair: photo by Marco Borgreve
- Dejan Lazić: photo by Susie Knoll