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Pasadena Symphony: An Attempt to Tie Spring to Rebirth of the Orchestra

March 23rd, 2009 by Temple City Tribune

The Pasadena Symphony presented its March concert as the Pasadena Symphony strives to regain its financial balance.  Under the title, "Rebirth", formerly The Orchestras of Pasadena, has now reverted to The Pasadena Symphony Association, a name the group has held since sometime in the 1950’s, used the coming season, spring, to announce its intention to be reborn into a successful symphony orchestra.  But will it simply be a renewal and not a complete makeover? Music cannot answer that question, but the concert held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium last Saturday, orchestra musicians and the program, tells a lot.

The concert consisted of two top-ten standards, Antonio Vivaldi’s "Spring" from "The Four Seasons" and Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring" plus one lesser well-known number, also considered standard concert fare: Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, known as "Spring".Jorge Mester, conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, led the orchestra in a concert of music to announce the spring season as a call for renewal.  The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, having faltered financially, looks to a rebirth.

As a crowd pleaser, the program was a winner.  In the opening piece, the Vivaldi, orchestra concertmistress Aimee Kreston played the lead violin with no conductor.  As she always does, Kreston played with authority and beautiful tone.  The ensemble of orchestra members followed her lead admirably with solid playing.

In the second, Copland’s "Appalachian Spring", Mester conducted an extraordinary version that was truly re-born: a fresh offering; a rare new feeling.  The orchestra followed Mester’s command for a modern sound and nuance.  Mester often looks for and gets a modern feel.  This performance confirms that the Copland ballet suite has changed from its introduction in 1944 from the original chamber arrangement and the full orchestra score of the piece he wrote a few years later. 

As with all too many American compositions, Leonard Bernstein, for all his brilliance, took command of the music and pretty much had his interpretive way with it without challenge.  It is nice to say Mester challenged that in his lively, even jazzy interpretation.  Mester brought out the timing eccentricities and syncopation that resulted in an updated version that should be emulated.  In a curious turn during the ‘rebirth’ of the orchestra, the orchestra did not match the persuasive interpretation.  Surprisingly, there were several missed cues and some portions that seemed less than pristine even with Mester’s accomplished handling.    

Any small infractions that may have occurred in the Copland work was firmly put aside when, following intermission, the orchestra launched into Schumann’s "Spring" symphony with distinction.  The Scherzo movement actually promised a good spring.  At the end, the audience reacted with sustained applause that allowed three curtain calls for Mester

If a rebirth of this orchestra is to be, CEO of the Association, Paul Jan Zdunek has a ways to go, as he said in opening remarks from the stage of the Civic Auditorium.  He said "Rebirth" will be the theme. Zdunek was blunt in telling the audience that their financial support is critical to the continued success of the orchestra saying that the organization is now living "paycheck to paycheck".  But then, on an upbeat note, the Women’s Committee of the Pasadena Symphony Association came to the stage to present a check for $90,000 to the orchestra’s conductor, Jorge Mester.  Their funds had been raised during December’s "Holiday Look-in" event.
Zdunek has set a goal to raise between $2.5 million and $3 million by Sept. 30.
The restoration of this concert and other orchestra activities is a part of the ambitious program undertaken by Zdunek, a crisis management expert. 

While a renewal of the orchestra would be less dramatic than a rebirth, Zdunek has spotted the need for full-scale change within the organization and intends to accomplish it.  The crisis has already produced a new name—dropping the misleading "Orchestras of Pasadena" (or Oops!) nomenclature for the combo Pasadena Symphony and Pasadena Pops and reclaimed the old, better known and highly respected name Pasadena Symphony Association. 

The history of the Pasadena Symphony Association spans sometime in the 1950’s.  h_1940picsm Prior to that period, the organization was known as the Pasadena Civic Music Association.  The orchestra itself was founded in 1928 with an annual budget of $3,500 with most funding coming from the City of Pasadena.  In 1936 Dr. Richard Lert took the helm and brought distinction to the community orchestra and soon added professional musicians that included orchestra principal flutist, Louise DiTullio’s, father, Joseph DiTullio, as principal cellist.  Others in the 1940’s included  bassist Stuart Sankey and local well-known violin teachers Roberta Nowlin, who served as concertmaster, and Frieda Stoehr Keck who is remember fondly by many.  Daniel Lewis became Music Director in 1972.  Although he brought professionalism and distinction to the orchestra, his programming of modern music did not generate a high level of support and by 1983 the Association was facing bankruptcy.  With direction from such music stalwarts as Dr. John D. F. Tarr, Anthony Phillips (one of the co-sponsors of the March 14 concert) and Robert Ziegler and many others some of whom remain on the  Symphony Board, the orchestra had a genuine rebirth.  On opening night in his first year in 1984, Jorge Mester, newly named as conductor, cut a decorated cake to celebrate both the orchestra’s renewal and rebirth in a ceremony that took place in front of the auditorium.  That financial sturdiness lasted until last year when the crisis in the markets took away leading corporate sponsorship and other financial problems beset the 81 year-old symphony orchestra.

As in the past, the Board and the new management team at the Pasadena Symphony Association anticipate a springtime rebirth something the Association has done before and will certainly accomplish again.


By Bill Peters

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