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Prieto and Pacific Take the Fifth (Mahler’s, That Is)

REVIEW: In an impressive reading of the composer’s symphony, Carlos Miguel Prieto makes his case for the orchestra’s directorship.

 

Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts the Pacific Symphony. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford
 

We’ve had a number of Fifths this season at the Pacific Symphony, as guest conductors/suitors parade through, vying for the soon-to-be vacated music directorship of Carl St.Clair. We’ve had Prokofiev’s Fifth and Shostakovich’s Fifth and what used to be known as Dvorak’s Fifth (the New World).

 

The latest Fifth, Thursday night in Segerstrom Concert Hall, was Mahler’s, with Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto doing his presumed best by the work.

 

Prieto, 58, like several of the other candidates, has already had a sturdy career, with long stints leading the Louisiana Philharmonic and Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México behind him, an extensive discography, and a reputation for championing new music and music from Latin America. This season he began in his new position as music director of the North Carolina Symphony.

 

Mahler’s Fifth turns up not infrequently on programs these days (the Pacific Symphony last played it 11 years ago), but it’s still something of an occasion whenever it does. It’s a sprawling, challenging, moody, exuberant and convoluted work (especially since it coincides with Mahler’s new-found interest in Bachian counterpoint) and it takes a skilled horseman (not to mention ensemble) to reign it in on a few days of rehearsal, or ever.

 

There are excesses here for sure — Mahler seems to be a Columbo-like composer who, whenever he’s about to leave a room, turns and says, “Oh, and one more thing” — but, in the event, Prieto proved a good conductor to focus them.


Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts with a style that loops up quickly from below the beat. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

He kept the tempos moving for one thing, and didn’t dawdle over transitions or over-dramatize the many emotional paroxysms, an approach which emphasized the through line. (At 20 minutes compared to Karajan’s 18 in the same, the central Scherzo might be said to have been a little on the slow side, but it didn’t come off that way to these ears. People are always timing Mahler.)

 

What’s more, his slightly peculiar conducting technique kept rhythms smartly inflected and articulated, never heavy. Prieto, a tall and thin man, generally holds his arms at his sides, and rather than come down hard on the beat from above, he loops up quickly from below the beat, urging it, lifting it, jabbing it. Certainly an effective practice in this case.

 

The orchestra played fleetly and urgently for him. Not asked to pound relentlessly, the players could pounce on a musical exclamation point or tempo transition like a boxer on his toes. The few examples of ensemble dishevelment, and one or two places when the strings were blanketed, proved exceptions to the rule of transparency and equanimity. Trumpeter Tony Ellis and French hornist Keith Popejoy handled their substantial solo work with aplomb.

 

French hornist Keith Popejoy playing a featured solo the Pacific Symphony's performance of Mahler's Fifth. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford
 

Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, performed before the interval, is a delightful early work of the composer, sprinkled with touches of the Baroque style, only a few years past. The soloist was Sterling Elliott, 24, still a student at the Juilliard School, but already launched on an impressive career. He came at the work in exactly the right way, emphasizing its nimbleness and grace, while never neglecting its expressive charms. His playing was clean and unforced and warm and friendly. Prieto and company, a chamber-sized orchestra, supported him with equal parts vigor and finesse.

 

The audience went fairly crazy for Elliott at the end. Grateful for it, and forced by Prieto into his chair, he offered Mark Summer’s “Julie-O," a fun little folksy crossover piece, as an encore, niftily played.


Juilliard student Sterling Elliott was the featured soloist performing Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C with the Pacific Symphony. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

A new work by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, Kauyumari, written in 2021, opened the concert. The piece, just seven minutes long, meant to celebrate the return to live music performance after the pandemic, is wholly pleasant. It begins with meditative trumpets echoing each other in the balconies before the orchestra takes up the same melody at an allegro tempo and with jaunty metrics, repeated joyously as if just happy to get out of the house.

 

The orchestra laid into it merrily, Prieto juicing the rhythms with those jabs, and the listeners actually went “woo!” at the end of a contemporary piece of music. You don’t hear that every day, not in these parts at least.  

MAHLER’S FIFTH

ARTISTS

Carlos Miguel Prieto, conductor

Sterling Elliott, cello

Pacific Symphony

PROGRAM

Gabriela Ortiz: Kauyumari

Haydn: Cello Concerto in C

Mahler: Symphony No. 5

When: 8 p.m. March 14-16

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa

Cost: Remaining seats available between $27 - $217

Contact: pacificsymphony.org

 

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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