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Critic's Notebook: Jorge Mester says goodbye to Pasadena Symphony

May 16, 2010 |  3:01 pm
Mester
William Foster Apthorp, a music critic in Boston a century ago, memorably said of the ending of music’s  most famous Fifth Symphony that “Beethoven seems absolutely unable to make up his mind to stop, and keeps hammering away ... in sheer mad jubilation.” 

Completing his 25th season as music director of the Pasadena Symphony with an unusually bittersweet Beethoven Fifth at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Saturday night, Jorge Mester hammered away with consummate professionalism, with taste and determination but not quite jubilation, mad or otherwise. Mester had absolutely made up his mind to stop. At a rehearsal two nights earlier, he announced to the orchestra that he would no longer continue as music director. Saturday was his last concert.

We don’t have the full story. The Pasadena Symphony Assn. put out a press release Friday stating that it could not reach an agreement with Mester “on revised contract terms.”  Mester has declined comment. Before the concert, the chief executive of the Pasadena Symphony and Pops, Paul Jan Zdunek, came on stage to thank the orchestra’s sponsors. He left it to the organization’s president, Melinda Shea, to announce Mester’s decision and briefly thank him for his 25 years, which is a third of the conductor’s life.

It was an uncomfortable evening for the relatively new management struggling to keep the orchestra afloat. The turnout for a program devoted to heroic, middle-period Beethoven was large, and Mester was welcomed as hero. He led a concise account of the “Coriolan” Overture, letting this brief portrait of an ancient Roman freedom fighter speak for itself as well it could in the dry, acoustically uninviting auditorium.

Fraut A leisurely, moving account of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto followed, and after that the soloist Jennifer Frautschi, who played with a sweet tone and a chamber musician’s lyricism, returned to the stage with a microphone. A Pasadena native, she spoke of Mester’s support throughout her career, beginning when she played for him in 1985 at age 11 and Mester's invitation to her two years later to sit in with the second violins.

The Fifth Symphony was also broad and not particularly driven, as if Mester wanted to savor his last moments with his musicians. The ensemble playing was tight and committed. The phrasing was elegant. There was no showboating; there never is with Mester.

Much of the hammering away came not from Mester or Beethoven but from the audience and the orchestra. Violinist Julie Rogers interrupted a standing ovation to tell the audience she had been selected to speak for the players. Fighting back tears, she called Mester’s departure “an insurmountable loss to the orchestra and the community.” “We play not because it’s our job but because it’s you,” she said. Many members of the Pasadena Symphony are studio musicians who sometimes turn down lucrative dates to have a life in symphonic music.

The orchestra played “Auld Lang Syne” in tribute to Mester, who then, his voice cracking, addressed his musicians and said: “I love you very much. I’ll miss you very much.” He went out on a high note, with a Dvorak “Slavonic Dance” as an unscheduled encore.

This is not a welcome state of affairs. Mester, at 75, is a highly respected musician and member of the Pasadena community. The Pasadena Symphony, founded in 1928, has had only four music directors, each one significant. The longest-standing was Richard Lert, who once was taken to play for Brahms as a young boy growing up in Vienna and who remained in Pasadena for 36 years.

Whatever the contract disagreement is, the orchestra is likely now to lose more in music than what a few thousand dollars can buy. The Pasadena Star News reported Saturday that Mester’s salary for a five-concert season was $235,000 in 2007, the most recent year that tax records were publicly available. Given that the Pasadena Symphony, now merged with the Pasadena Pops, has barely weathered the economic downturn since then, Mester’s salary likely also has taken a downturn.

But the Pasadena Symphony will have no future at all without strong artistic leadership. The orchestra moves next season to the intimate Ambassador Auditorium, and a master like Mester will be needed to guide the ensemble in a much more exposed environment. A succession of young, inexpensive conductors, which the management expects to engage next season, cannot accomplish that, let alone plan seasons for the Ambassador.

This may well be the appropriate time for Mester -- who is also music director of the orchestras of Louisville, Ky., and Naples, Fla. -- to begin to transition out of Pasadena. Might a bit of fancy fundraising and an olive branch allow Mester to stay long enough to make a reasonable transition possible? As a start, I would ask the orchestra to restore the history of the Pasadena Symphony once on its website. Then everyone might better appreciate what is at stake.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Top, Jorge Mester takes his emotional final bow as music director the Pasadena Symphony Saturday night in Civic Auditorium. Bottom, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, second left, hugs Mester after performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major. Credit: Ann Johansson / Los Angeles Times

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