Orange County Register

March 26 2002

Symphony on a smaller scale
In a new series, the PSO and Carl St.Clair explore a chamber-sized view of Beethoven.

The Pacific Symphony Orchestra and conductor Carl St.Clair have branched out this season to the Irvine Barclay Theatre with a pair of chamber orchestra programs devoted to the slightly lesser-known music of Beethoven.

Sunday afternoon, the second of these "Beethoven at the Barclay" concerts featured the "Triple Concerto," with the Claremont Trio as soloists, the concert aria "Ah, perfido!," sung by soprano Kelley Nassief, and an overture and symphony as bookends. The orchestra numbered about 40-strong.

The series seems designed for friendliness. The men in the orchestra wore suits and ties, the women answered in vibrant reds and floral prints. Spoken program notes were offered by the always lively Alan Chapman, and St.Clair joined in, too. A question-and-answer session with the musicians followed the concert.

The term "chamber orchestra" is something of a misnomer, actually, at least when it is used to refer to ensembles of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Composers wrote for orchestras, period, only often (though by no means always) they happened to be smaller than the modern variety. Size wasn't an issue in the composition process.

But the PSO's chamber series makes sense for several reasons. For one thing, it gives the players an opportunity to perform in a smaller configuration and thus develop a more intimate and nuanced musical relationship with each other. What's more, it gives the audience a chance to hear the group in a smaller hall and the music in a sportier light.

That was the impression given Sunday—it was as though we were making our way through these pieces in a sports car, with its sharper handling and bumpier ride, rather than in the usual luxury sedan. The music was vivid, exciting and in-your-face. It didn't work invariably, though. These musicians, including St.Clair, who are accustomed to projecting their musical thoughts in a larger space (Segerstrom seats some 3,000, the Barclay around 750) and in larger ensembles, sometimes overplayed their hand.

The Claremont Trio—twin sisters Emily and Julia Bruskin, violin and cello respectively; pianist Donna Kwong—gave a hugely enjoyable reading, tight in its teamwork, individual in its solos and gung-ho in mood. Not the least of its merits was the close-up feeling the venue allowed. In all, the work was put over more convincingly than it often is.

—Timothy Mangan