Pasadena Ascends: New Era Begins for Symphony & Pops

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Ambassador Auditorium, home of the Pasadena Symphony, once hosted such luminaries as Horowitz, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Karajan and  Pavarotti. (Richard S. Ginell)
Ambassador Auditorium, home of the Pasadena Symphony, once hosted such luminaries as Horowitz and Rubinstein.
(Richard S. Ginell)
By Richard S. Ginell

PASADENA – There are symphonic alternatives to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Southern California, though less publicized and certainly less well-funded. You may find one of them by taking a drive on the Arroyo Seco Parkway – an ancient, narrow, twisting highway that reminds one of the parkways of New York State – north from downtown L.A. Eventually, you are dumped onto the streets of Pasadena, a proud old city near the San Gabriel Mountains that is the home turf of the venerable Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, whose season opens Nov. 2 with newly appointed music director David Lockington on the podium for the first time.

David Lockington is music director of the Pasadena Symphony. (Adrian Mendoza)
David Lockington heads the Pasadena Symphony. (Adrian Mendoza)

Outside of Southern California, the PSO is known, if at all, as one of a number of regional orchestras whose ranks contain expert musicians who toil in the studios by day and play symphonic music on the side. The quantity of music is modest – only five programs spread throughout the winter season – but the quality is high, sometimes sky-high. In the summer, the PSO gives way to the Pasadena Pops, which used to be a separate group until its merger with the PSO in 2007. Hence, the official title of the organization, Pasadena Symphony and Pops.

Founded in 1928 by Reginald Bland and then presided over for 36 years (1936-1972) by the respected German émigré Dr. Richard Lert, the Pasadena Symphony really hit its stride under Lert’s successor, Daniel Lewis, who sharpened the ensemble and brought some maverick programming ideas (I particularly remember a fine performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and a striking, semi-staged rendition of Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake). Lewis was succeeded in 1985 by Jorge Mester, who kept up the high standards, put the PSO on recordings for the first time, and stayed for 25 seasons. There were occasions under Mester when the PSO could outplay the Philharmonic – for example, two devastating performances several years apart of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 that, had they been recorded, would have been the equal of any on the market. [The orchestra’s history is further amplified here.)

However, the road has been bumpy for the PSO since 2007 – and in the last three years, especially racked with trauma and drama. Both the PSO and the Pops just did survive the Great Recession: according to the organization’s Recovery Plan, both were living beyond their means, and their merger only “exacerbated” existing problems. There were massive budget cuts: music directors Mester (PSO) and Rachael Worby (Pops) took 10% salary cuts, as did the CEO. Then, in May 2010, Mester either quit or was dismissed (depending upon which side was speaking), having failed to come to terms about a re-negotiation of his contract, which ran until 2012. He gave his last concert only two days later. (For Mester, 2010 was a year to forget; on top of the PSO debacle, his Naples [FL] Philharmonic refused to renew his contract and his Louisville Orchestra filed for bankruptcy.) In August 2010, Worby also left, although it was at the end of her contract and she said the parting was amicable.

Both orchestras changed locales that year. The PSO moved from its longtime home, the aging Pasadena Civic Auditorium, into a hitherto little-used acoustical gem, Ambassador Auditorium, less than a mile to the west on Green Street. Ambassador once hosted one of the most glittering concert series in the West – Horowitz, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Karajan, Pavarotti, and a plethora of other legends performed there – but it had been dark most of the time since 1995. The Pops moved from Descanso Gardens in La Cañada to a portable stage on a lawn near the Rose Bowl.

Then, the searches for new music directors were hit by events beyond anyone’s control. Within days of Worby’s resignation, the Pops snared the famous Broadway and Hollywood composer Marvin Hamlisch, who added Pasadena to his lengthy string of pops orchestras around the country. Ticket sales shot up an astonishing 80% (from 2011’s figures) at the Pops, with Hamlisch’s drawing power and another move to a larger, lush space at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia as factors. But in August 2012, Hamlisch suddenly died of lung failure only 16 days after leading a Pops concert with singer-pianist Michael Feinstein.

Feinstein Pasadena 350 (Pasadena Pops)
Michael Feinstein leads the Pasadena Pops. (Pasadena Symphony)

The PSO decided to bide its time and audition a number of candidates over the next three seasons, hiring veteran conductor James De Preist as artistic adviser to keep a steadying hand on deck as a series of guest conductors led the orchestra. But last February, only six months after Hamlisch’s death, DePriest also died, with the music director post still vacant.

With Hamlisch gone, the Pops immediately asked Feinstein if he would like to take over in 2013. Feinstein was game, but there was one little problem: He had never conducted before in his life – anywhere. Yet Feinstein’s debut in June has to be rated a success, for while his motions seemed strictly out of the instruction manual, he somehow got the orchestra to play better for him than the experienced Hamlisch did at his debut. Not only that, his presentation was outstanding, with far more enterprising and informative programming than the usual “pops” fare. As a result, Feinstein was quickly handed an extension on his contract through 2016.

Meanwhile, the PSO – despite the turmoil and revolving door of guest conductors – was flourishing in Ambassador. Freed from the large but acoustically cramped Pasadena Civic, the orchestra could at last produce a firm bass sound as well as a warmer, brighter, clearer blend that allowed the musicians to hear each other better. Due to the small size of the hall and differing audience demographics, the PSO started playing two performances of the same program on Saturdays, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

Along with the parade of relatively young candidates, the PSO was trying out the Bay Area’s Nicholas McGegan, known far and wide as an 18th-century period-performance person but now eager to extend his reach into the 19th and 20th centuries. He led Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 for the first time in his career in February – and it was fresh, buoyant, even laced with a bit of mischief springing from his personality.

Nicholas McGegan is Pasadena's principal guest conductor. (Steve Sherman)
Nicholas McGegan is PSO principal guest conductor. (Steve Sherman)

Finally, in March there came a decision: The PSO settled upon a pair of experienced British expatriates. Lockington, 57, currently music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan (and married to violinist Dylana Jenson), would become the music director, and McGegan, 63, was given the newly created post of principal guest conductor.

Lockington’s inaugural program this weekend is a stimulating mix of 20th-century music: Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Bernstein’s Serenade (with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers), and Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. That’s his only conducting date of the 2013-14 PSO season, the schedule having been worked out while the orchestra was still booking candidates for the music director job (McGegan has only one date as well) – but both will be regulars in 2014-15.

So, at last, some stability may be in store for the Pasadena Symphony and Pops. And it has been hard-earned.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.