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Kluxen’s Debut Impresses, Launching Pacific Symphony’s Conductor Tryouts

REVIEW: The Danish conductor made a strong case for himself with a dazzling reading of

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.


Man dressed in a tuxedo raising arms passionately while holding a baton in his right hand.
Christian Kluxen is the first of eight guest conductors who will lead the Pacific Symphony this season. Photo courtesy of Doug Gifford, Pacific Symphony.
 

The games have begun and they’re going to be fun.


A series of guest conductors arrives at the Pacific Symphony this season, each (unofficially, but pretty obviously) auditioning for the job as the orchestra’s next music director. Carl St.Clair, now in his 34th year in that position, has said he will be stepping aside in the nearish future. Time to get hopping and find a replacement.


The first candidate, one Christian Kluxen, made his debut with the orchestra Thursday night in Segerstrom Concert Hall. Now, as a general rule, in normal times guest conductors bring along music that they have a special affinity for, the better to impress their hosts. When the event is also a job interview, you can bet they’ll bring their absolute best stuff.


If Thursday’s performance is any indication, it looks like we’ll have guest conductors swinging for the fences all season long.


Kluxen is a Danish conductor in his early 40s, music director of the Victoria Symphony in Canada and principal guest conductor of the Turku Philharmonic in Finland. His resume is already a long one; among the tidbits is a Dudamel Fellowship at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2014-15.


The big work on his agenda was Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, a sprawling wartime masterpiece. In remarks made from the stage, Kluxen nicely connected the work to our own troubled times, quoting the composer’s wish to make an optimistic statement with the symphony, “in search of a new way” of living our lives.


The performance was an impressive one, to say the least. From the very opening bars, which Kluxen led with remarkable simplicity and warmth, the conductor showed that he had clear ideas about this symphony’s many paths and byways.


The work is an intricate one, but Kluxen knew the map. His tempos in particular, constantly in flux, were never hesitant, always confidently and immediately taken, hands firmly on the wheel and stick shift. Rhythms and phrases were taut and shapely (even in big climaxes), and as a result energy levels were high.


The orchestra responded enthusiastically and, even better, with great discipline — instrumental balances were consistently maintained, the sound never blared, the score’s rich colorations bloomed. Kluxen was clearly having a good time on the podium and occasionally got a little theatrical with his motions, but even these showed results in the orchestra, with pops of playfulness and electricity.


It was most satisfying to hear this work played with such accomplishment and understanding.


The choice of a new music director will depend on a lot more than just an exceptional performance of a single symphony, of course. Many things matter. Including public speaking, for instance. In this Kluxen showed himself to be affable and even witty, if not quite so well prepared as his Prokofiev.


The program included Boulanger's D'un soir triste ("Of a Sad Evening"), Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D. Minor, Op. 47 (played by violinist Esther Yoo who is pictured in photo one) and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100.

Photos courtesy of Doug Gifford, Pacific Symphony

 

How a conductor accompanies a soloist also matters. Here, he was asked to partner with the young (29) American violinist Esther Yoo. Yoo, winner of a couple of prestigious competitions, and already well-established in the recording studio and international circuit, chose Sibelius’s Violin Concerto as her vehicle.


And quite a vehicle it proved to be, perfect for displaying her gorgeous tone, her prodigious technique (wow, the finale flew), and her bejeweled phrasing. The thing went off without a hitch, though at times it lacked a sense of spontaneity, that there was actually any room left in her interpretation to breathe. Her encore was an arrangement of a Korean folksong, “Milyang Arirang.”


Kluxen and the orchestra’s Sibelius, in the meantime, was hearty and exuberant, as if, famished, they were digging into grilled steak and potatoes. The strings were burnished and burly. If Kluxen comes back, under any circumstances, we must have more Sibelius from him.


He opened with a rarity, Lili Boulanger’s tone poem D’un soir triste, composed just before she died, at age 24, in 1918. Twelve minutes in length, scored for a large orchestra, the piece is misty and melancholy, surging, dissonant, and quiet, showing the composer already a master of her craft. It seemed a slight miscalculation as a concert opener of this occasion, however, setting a less than celebratory mood. Good to hear, though.

 

Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.

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