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Music review: Carl St.Clair conducts the Pacific Symphony at Segerstrom Hall [updated]

October 15, 2010 |  2:15 pm

Conductor Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony began this season's "Music Unwound" series Thursday in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall with works by Ravel, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky. The music-making was first rate, but the gimmick — part of a three-year venture attempting new formats and thematic programming — came off like a pre-concert lecture that got out of hand.

Usually a program serves up its concerto and guest soloist — in this case, the brilliant pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in his Pacific Symphony debut — as the concert’s centerpiece. But here Bavouzet took immediate command in Ravel’s Concerto in G. The orchestra initially sounded a bit scrappy trying to keep up, then settled into the pianist’s poetic rendering of the Adagio and matched him in the thrilling Presto finale. It was a terrific performance of breathtaking clarity, cushioned tone and rhythmic vitality.
Bavouzet, 47, part of the French generation that produced pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, has plenty of stage presence and charm. He’s recently been riding a big career wave with an award-winning CD set on Chandos of Debussy’s complete piano music, and he’s just released a richly atmospheric disc of Bartok’s piano concertos. He continues fruitful collaborations with major conductors, like Ashkenazy, Boulez and Gergiev. Yet reportedly Bavouzet could not recall the last time he performed in California.

While the piano was being lugged off stage, St.Clair spoke about the art gallery and interactive iPads in the hall, inviting audience members “to create your own art or music” during intermission. Then he talked about the next piece, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” set to Suzie Templeton’s 2008 Oscar winner for best animated short film, projected above the stage. The orchestra offered expert, sharply characterized accompaniment.

After intermission, St.Clair talked some more. Then Bavouzet joined the conductor to illustrate on the keyboard how Ravel orchestrated “Pictures at an Exhibition” from Mussorgsky’s piano score. His virtuosic takes on the Bydlo and Ballet of the Chicks sections became tantalizing mini-encores. Then we waited as the piano was lugged off stage. Nevertheless, the orchestra’s reading of “Pictures” maintained a powerful sweep, suggesting what we knew all along: The music speaks for itself.

— Rick Schultz

[Updated: An earlier version of this review referred to iPods, when it was iPads.]

Pacific Symphony, with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet; Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $25 to $185; (714) 556-2787 or

Photo: Bavouzet and St.Clair with the Pacific Symphony. Credit: Pacific Symphony