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Robert D. Thomas/Class Act
Reviews, features, commentary and other information about classical music in Southern California.
653 Entries
By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. • Feb. 9 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com
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Two of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century, John Corigliano and Morten Lauridsen, will be featured on programs during the next fortnight in Southern California.

Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 will open the Los Angeles Philharmonic programs this weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. L.A. Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel will lead the concerts, which will also include Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.

MortenMeanwhile, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will offer two evenings in tribute to Lauridsen (pictured right) — long-time professor of music at the USC-Thornton School of Music, the Master Chorale’s composer-in-residence from 1994-2001, and a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama in 2007.

On March 14, the Master Chorale will honor Lauridsen at the Alex Theatre in Glendale with a screening of the documentary Shining Light: a Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen, followed by a discussion between the composer, LAMC Music Director Grant Gershon and film director Michael Stillwater.

On March 16, Music Director Grant Gershon will lead 48 singers of the LAMC in an evening of Lauridsen’s music with the composer accompanying one of the pieces at the piano. The program will include Mid-Winter Songs, Ave Dulcissima Maria, Canticle/O Vos Omnes, O Magnum Mysterium, , Madrigali, Nocturnes and Les Chansons des Roses (Lauridsen will accompany the last two pieces on the piano). Ironically, the only major piece the Chorale won’t be singing is Lux Aeterna, which has become a choral landmark since it was premiered and recorded by the Master Chorale in 1997.

Lauridsen, who turned 71 this week, lives in Hollywood but spends his summers composing on remote Waldron Island, located off the coast of Washington State in the Pacific Northwest’s San Juan Archipelago in the Pacific.

The 74-minute film being screened Friday has won several awards and features interviews with Lauridsen in both of his homes and in Scotland, interspersed with his music. Other composers and critics are also interviewed, including Southern California musicologist and conductor Nick Strimple, who describes Lauridsen as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic … and the most frequently performed American choral composer.” Terry Treachout has an online review of the film in the Wall St. Journal HERE.

Following their performances this weekend, Dudamel and the Phil will make Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 a centerpiece of their North American tour, which runs March 11-23 (DETAILS). The work, paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, will be played in San Francisco, New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Montreal and Boston.

The alternate program — Brahms’ Symphony No. 2; Blow bright, by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason, which received its world premiere in Disney Hall last December; and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Yuja Wang as soloist — will be played in Kansas City and New York.

Dudamel has elected to pair the uber-familiar Tchaikovsky fifth on tour with the far-less-known Corigliano work because, “[although] they were composed nearly a century apart, these two works communicate similarly deeply human messages … and highlight core aspects of the Philharmonic’s unique programmatic philosophy” of spotlighting significant contemporary works.

Written in 1988 when Corigliano was age 50 and first performed by the Chicago Symphony under the baton of Daniel Barenboim in 1990, the 41-minute-long Symphony No. 1 was the composer’s first large-scale work and was written as the AIDS crisis was raging in the United States.

Corigliano“At the time,” said Corigliano (pictured right) in an e-mail interview just after his 76th birthday last month, “I had lost over 100 friends and colleagues. My closest friend (for three decades) was dying, and came to the performances, accepted the dedication to him, and passed away a week later. This was a horrible time and writing my symphony was all I could do. So my feelings at the premiere were enormously influenced by my friend, Sheldon [Shkolnik], his state and the world then around me.

“Since then,” continued Corigliano, “many things have changed, especially concerning the treatment of AIDS. So hearing the work now has been more of a nostalgic experience. The memories of my friends come back to me, and I feel grateful to be able to mourn them in this different way.”

Symphony No. 1 won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Composition in 1990 and captured Grammy Awards in 1991 for “Best New Composition” and “Best Orchestral Performance” (by Barenboim and the CSO). Six years later the piece won another Grammy, for “Best Classical Album,” a recording by the National Symphony led by Leonard Slatkin. That combo played the work at Disney Hall in 2005.

Dudamel will be conducting piece for the first time. It’s just the second time that the Phil has played it; the first was in 1993 with David Zinman conducting. Corigliano will be in town for the rehearsals this week. “I always listen to any of my works in two ways,” said Corigliano, “one, as a trouble-shooter in rehearsal, and the other remembering the genesis of the work and the people I wrote the piece for.”

In his program notes for the symphony’s premiere, Corigliano wrote: “A few years ago I was extremely moved when I first saw ‘The Quilt’ (LINK), an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing.

“I decided to relate the first three movements of the symphony to three lifelong musician-friends,” Corigliano continued. The dramatic opening of shimmering dissonant strings punctuated by a clanging bell and pounding percussion boldly proclaims the opening-movement’s title, Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance.

“The first movement is highly charged,” wrote Corigliano, “and alternates between the tension of anger and the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering. It reflects my distress over a concert-pianist friend contracting the disease.

“The second movement, Tarantella, was written in memory of a friend who was an executive in the music industry. He was also an amateur pianist, and in 1970 I wrote a set of dances (Gazebo Dances for piano, four hands) for various friends to play and dedicated the final, Tarantella, movement to him.

“This was a jaunty little piece whose mood, as in many tarantellas, seems to be at odds with its purpose. For the tarantella, as described in Groves Dictionary of Music, is a “South Italian dance played at continually increasing speed [and] by means of dancing it a strange kind of insanity [attributed to tarantula bite] could be cured.” The association of madness and my piano piece proved both prophetic and bitterly ironic when my friend, whose wit and intelligence were legendary in the music field, became insane as a result of AIDS dementia.

“In writing a tarantella movement for this symphony, I tried to picture some of the schizophrenic and hallucinatory images that would have accompanied that madness, as well as the moments of lucidity.”

“The third movement (Chaconne: Giulio's Song),” continues Corigliano, “recalls a friendship that dated back to my college days. Giulio was an amateur cellist, full of that enthusiasm for music that amateurs tend to have and professionals try to keep. After he died several years ago, I found an old tape recording of the two of us improvising on cello and piano, as we often did. That tape, dated 1962, provided material for the extended cello solo in this movement. Still other friends are recalled in a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.

“The symphony's final part (Epilogue) … is played against a repeated pattern consisting of ‘waves’ of brass chords. To me, the sound of ocean waves conveys an image of timelessness.”

(Read the entire original program note HERE).

While knowing the symphony’s origins provides rich background reading, it’s not essential to enjoying the work, says the composer. “There are no rules on how to listen to this piece,” he said in his email. “When it was played in Kiev, with no program notes written, it was heard as a tragic symphony. When it was played a month later in San Francisco, many of the audience heard it in an intensely personal way. Both are correct.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
8 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Free tickets still remain for Los Angeles Opera’s world premiere of Jonah and the Whale, the latest installment in its community opera, which presents family-oriented opera at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angeles in downtown Los Angeles. This production will be presented March 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Jonah and the Whale was composed by Jack Perla to a libretto by Velina Hasu Houston. LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct and the opera and will be directed by Eli Villanueva.

Tickets are free, although there’s a $1.00 service charge. They usually go fast for these presentations. Information: www.laopera.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
8 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Saturday, February 22 • Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Remaining performances: March 2 at 2 p.m. March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

Budd-Seated
Liam Bonner in the title role sings his final soliloquy in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd,” which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Robert Millard.
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Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd can be approached from several — perhaps dozens of — perspectives: religious, political, sexual, etc. It has allusions to the operas of Verdi and Wagner who, like Britten, celebrated important birthdays last year (200 for the first two and 100 for Britten).

But first and foremost, Billy Budd is a gripping drama with a marvelous musical score. Liam Bonner, who made his role debut last night, told me last week that he believed most people would come to the opera first through the drama and then through the music.

Last night, in the first of six performances, Los Angeles Opera succeeded marvelously on both important points. I was on the edge of my seat right to the end and my wife stayed awake all evening — the highest of praise. Everyone involved — cast, orchestra and, in particular, the men of the LA Opera Chorus — sang, played and acted Britten’s music wonderfully. With this production, the company’s multi-year “Britten 100/LA” celebration is ending on an extremely high note.

Britten wrote the original version of Billy Budd in 1951, using a libretto written by E.M Forester and Eric Crozier. In 1960, Britten revised the opera from four acts to two acts plus a prologue and an epilogue. This later version is now standard and is being used here.

Billy Budd is unique in several ways. The cast of more than 20 and a chorus of 46 men and 10 boys (from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus), plus 14 fighters and supernumeraries, are all men. In his typically erudite pre-performance lecture, Music Director James Conlon noted nobody had every done that in an opera before. The orchestra of more than 70 was the largest Britten ever used, including in Peter Grimes.

However, Billy Budd has similarities to Britten’s other two big operas: Peter Grimes and Death in Venice. Most apparent is the fact that all three operas use the sea as their locale. In the case of Billy Budd, that’s literally true because the entire opera takes place on an English warship, the HMS Indomitable, sailing the Atlantic in 1797 in search of the French.

In Francesca Zambello’s spare, yet highly effective production — created in 1985 with sets and costumes by Alison Chitty and last seen in Los Angeles in 2000 — that ship is a large triangular plank that juts from the stage over the orchestra pit; part of the plank raises to form a battle station and the captain’s cabin. Ropes and a mast add verisimilitude to the atmosphere aided, particularly in the last scenes, by Allen Burnett’s lighting design. Director Julia Bevzner moved the action along smoothly.

Bonner, a baritone from Pittsburgh, is creating the title role for the first time and last night the world discovered it’s next great Billy Budd. At age 32 (and seeming much younger) Bonner really looks the part of the sweet, innocent young man. But this was no one-dimensional performance. Bonner sang with impressive power and pathos throughout the evening, particularly in his final soliloquy in which he praises Captain Vere, the man who ultimately condemned him. Equally important, his acting was subtle and thoughtfully conceived from beginning to end, and he deserves special kudos for dangling quietly for 10 minutes following his hanging near the opera’s end.

VereAs Vere veteran tenor Richard Croft (right) at times displayed the sort of gleaming voice Britten always favored in his tenors (particularly his life partner, Peter Pears) but in other scenes Croft’s voice turned appropriately steely. His anguish in the scene in which he must choose between enforcing the King’s strict justice over compassion for Billy Budd was heart-rending, as was his concluding epilogue.

Greer Grimsley, making his LAO debut as the evil John Claggart, a Britten-esque Iago, brought Wagnerian fervor to the role. As usual LA Opera has assembled a very strong ensemble cast; that ability has been one of the company’s strengths during its recent run of Britten operas, including The Turn of the Screw and Albert Herring.

Among the many cast members, special mention goes to James Creswell as Dansker, Keith Jameson as Novice and, in particular, Greg Fedderly as Red Whiskers. The men of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, a vital part of the opera, acted and sang splendidly throughout the evening while successfully negotiating steep stairs and scrambling up and down ropes.

Conlon has a deep and abiding love for Britten and that shows every time he steps into the pit for one of the composer’s operas. Last night was no different as Conlon and the orchestra played the score with equal portions of grandeur and grace. Never has a three-hour-long evening flown by so quickly.

Budd Crowd
The crew prepares for battle aboard the HMS Indomitable in Francesca Zambello’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd.” Photo by Robert Millard.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• LA Opera has a number of articles in the “Learn More” tab of the Billy Budd section of its Web site HERE. They and the synopsis provide good reading ahead of time, particularly if you’ve never seen the opera before. The opera portion of the printed program is also available for downloading. And, of course, don’t miss Conlon’s frenetic, pre-performance lecture.
• The final performance of Billy Budd overlaps the beginning of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which opens on March 15 in a new production that stars Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the title role. DETAILS.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
8 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this story is online today and will run in the print editions of the above newspapers Sunday.
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Tomorrow, March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 16 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

Hemmings-Family-2-4Web
Rory, Amelia, Michele and Rupert Hemmings, in front of a portrait of Peter Hemmings, founder of Los Angeles Opera. Photo by Robert Millard
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Although Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd is undeniably a tragedy, there’s also an element of sweetness to the title character whose innocence leads to his demise. However, there’s another element of sweetness to Los Angeles Opera’s production of the opera, which opens tomorrow night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the first of six performances.

If you scroll down the cast list in the printed program, you’ll see listed as the Cabin Boy the name Rory Hemmings. It might ring a bell. Rory is the son of LAO Senior Director of Production Rupert Hemmings and the grandson of Peter Hemmings, who was the company’s founding general director, serving from 1984 to 2000.

That lineage was almost broken before it began. “Dad really didn’t want to hire me,” remembers Rupert, “because he was afraid that people would think it was nepotism. Fortunately, someone else in the company hired me and when the paperwork crossed Dad’s desk, he signed off reluctantly. I had to call him ‘Mr. Hemmings’ in the office but when we got home, we’d have a glass of whiskey and talk about how things were going.”

Rupert left the company in 2000 to become a free-lance producer with major companies around the United States, including Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Florida Grand Opera in Miami. “I did everything you could do in producing opera and was really hands-on in rehearsals,” recalls Rupert, “but it was a pretty hectic lifestyle.”

While in Miami, he met his future wife, Michele, who was in the young artist program at Florida Grand Opera. They married while in Florida and their two children, Rory and Amelia, were born in Miami but when Christopher Koelsch, now L.A. Opera’s chief executive officer, offered Rupert the chance to return in 2007 as LAO’s Senior Director of Production, he signed on willingly.

Rupert spends his days involved in virtually every production decision for the company, including hiring directors, set designers and costume designers. “I love all the elements I am able to touch,” he says. “especially in a good-sized company such as ours.”

Ten-year-old Rory was born after Peter had died but he is beginning to understand the importance his grandfather’s legacy. “When we were upstairs in the company’s offices this week,” recalls Rupert, “Rory looked up and saw a photo of Peter on the wall and said, ‘Hi, Grandpa!”

Rory, a fifth grader at McKinley School in Pasadena, isn’t a music major, although he does play the violin. His favorite subject is chemistry and he’s an avid gymnast. However, last summer he and his sister — perky, nine-year-old Ameila — attended the LAO Opera Camp where he performed in a production of Brundibár and an in-school tour of The Prospector with LAO’s Education and Community Outreach Department.
Rory4Web
When the company was looking for a 10-year-old to play the Cabin Boy in Billy Budd Rory (pictured right, with Richard Craft as Capt. Vere) got the nod. “I started working with my Mom about a month before rehearsals,” he explains. The work paid off; his non-singing role has grown from three lines to five during rehearsals. When not rehearsing his scenes, Rory has enjoyed hanging out with the cast, particularly Liam Bonner, who plays the title role. “We just sit and talk together,” says Rory. “It’s pretty neat.”

While all this is swirling, Mom Michele also juggles a full life. In addition to mothering her family, she is an active mezzo-soprano, singing with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and in choral backup groups for motion pictures. She also teaches at the Pasadena Conservatory of music and privately — “every gig that comes along,” she says with a laugh.

One of those gigs will make L.A. Opera will truly a family affair in March. While Rory and Rupert are finishing up their jobs in Billy Budd, Michele and daughter Amelia will be appearing in the world-premiere LAO production of Jonah and the Whale March 21 and 22 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

Since he returned to LA Opera in 2007, Rupert has watched the company weather the challenges of producing its first “Ring” cycle and grow steadily since then. “I loved what Achim Freyer did with his production of the ‘Ring’ and am very proud of our company’s total effort,” says Rupert.

However, the most fun he’s enjoyed has been with LAO’s world-premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino, which debuted in Los Angeles in September 2010. “Not only was it a wonderful success here in Los Angeles,” recounts Rupert, “but I got to be there when it was produced in Mexico, Daniel’s birth country, and in Chile, which was where Pablo Neruda spent much of his life. It’s also been produced around the world in places such as Vienna and Paris, so that was significant for our company, as well.”

But for the moment, Rory and Rupert are focused on Billy Budd, which adds a final touch of nostalgia for Rupert Hemmings. When this production last played at LAO in 2000, it was Peter’s final production at the helm of the company he founded. That was bittersweet for Rupert, who was the Assistant Director/Assistant Stage Manager for that production. “On the last night, when everyone else was taking their bows,” he remembers wistfully, “I had to push dad out on stage so he could take a final bow. So having Rory onstage for this revival will really be meaningful for me.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
9 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Every music critic has received the occasional “Were you and at the same concert?” letter or email, so I’m happy to report that theater critics apparently can engender the same reaction. The Bridges of Madison County, a musical adaptation of the 1992 tear-jerker bestselling book by Robert Weller, officially opened last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City. The book adaptation was by Marsha Norman, Jason Robert Brown (Parade) wrote the music, and the show stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale.

Broadwayworld.com has a roundup of clips from the reviews HERE. Although there are many similarities, there are some points where I did, indeed, wonder, “Were you folks at the same show?” Remember, dear readers, that a review is one person’s opinion.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
9 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

My “Around Town/Music” column in the above newspapers listed links to upcoming schedules for Hollywood Bowl, L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information. (NOTE:) My full column for today is HERE.

Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale 2014-2015 season (below the Hollywood Bowl blurb)
9 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Several significant events will take place during the next fortnight, headed by Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which opens next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the first of six performances running through March 16 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Four performances are in the evening while two are in the afternoon.

LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct this production and will offer one of his typically erudite lectures an hour before each performance. Billy Budd concludes the company’s celebration of the centennial of Britten’s birth on Nov. 22, 2013.

Baritone Liam Bonner performs the title role for the first time, joining with tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere and bass Greer Grimsley, making his company debut, as John Claggart, whose attraction to Billy is the pivot point of the opera. The production, by Francesca Zambello, originated in Geneva in 2004 and at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1995; it was first seen in L.A. in 2000.
Read my preview story HERE.
John Farrell’s story in the above newspapers is HERE
David Ng’s preview story in the Los Angeles Times is HERE.

Information: www.laopera.com

• The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presents its annual “Discover” concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena Saturday night at 8 p.m. The program this year focuses on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). In the first half of the program, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will lead the orchestra in a demonstration and discuss this pivotal work in classical music history. The second half will be a complete performance of the symphony.

Information: www.laco.org

• The Los Angeles Philharmonic begins its “TchaikovskyFest” series on Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a performance by the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra String Quartet and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Beginning Friday and continuing every night (and some days) except one through March 2, Gustavo Dudamel will lead his two orchestras, the Phil and SBSO, in performances of all six of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies plus other assorted works. Mark Swed has an interview with Gustavo in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

Information: www.laphil.com

• Muse/ique continues its “Uncorked” series with a performance on Feb. 24 at “The Noise Within,” the theatre/performing space located just north of the Gold Line’s Sierra Madre Villa station at the eastern edge of Pasadena.

Music Director Rachael Worby will lead 13 members of her ensemble in Aaron Copland’s original score for the ballet Appalachian Spring. However, in true Worby fashion, that’s just part of the evening. The 70-minute program will also feature Mike Simpson (aka EZ Mike of the Dust Brothers) and fits + starts for electronic music with live cello, a piece commissioned by L.A.’s Hysterica Dance Company from composer Anna Clyne. Kitty McNamee and members of Hysterica Dance Co. will supply choreography for the evening.

Information: www.muse-ique.org

• The 2014 summer schedule for Hollywood Bowl and 2014-2015 season schedules for L.A. Opera, L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale have been released. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information:

Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale 2014-2105 season (below the Hollywood Bowl story)
9 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Feb. 22, March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 16 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

BillyBudd_5_4Web
LA Opera will use Francesca Zambello’s striking production when it presents Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd beginning Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo from Washington National Opera.
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As the clock ticks toward next Saturday, anticipation is beginning to mount as Los Angeles Opera prepares to present Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, the climax of the company’s nearly two-year-long “Britten 100/LA” celebration of the centennial of composer’s birth on November 22, 2013. Staging, lighting, orchestra and cast rehearsals are fusing into what the company hopes will be a seamless whole; dress rehearsals begin Sunday and the Feb. 22 opener will be the first of six presentations of an opera that many people consider Britten’s finest work, although it isn’t as well known as Peter Grimes.

This morning some media members and other guests got a backstage glimpse of the set for the production, which was created by a then-young New York City native named Francesca Zambello. Gary Murphy, LAO’s director of public relations wittily termed the morning “Walking the Plank.” As always, the perspective from the stage is radically different from the seats, although the morning began in the Founders Circle so that we could get front-facing perspective of a set that was still coming together.

This production debuted in Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1994 and opened the next year at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It played in Los Angeles in 2000 and has become, says Rupert Hemmings, LAO’s senior director of production, “THE iconic production of this opera.” Plácido Domingo, LAO’s general director, believes this is the Zambello’s best work. In fact, it is so popular that there are two versions in existence, one based in London (which LAO is using) and the other housed in Paris.

Despite the fact that the opera is set entirely on a British man-of-warship in 1797, the HMS Indomitable, Zambello specified to set and costume designer Alison Chitty that the production couldn’t include a ship and the sailors couldn’t wear military uniforms.

Instead, Chitty created a raked, triangular wooden plank that stretches the width of the Pavilion stage and comes to a point looming over the orchestra pit to symbolize the ship’s deck (rigging and other paraphernalia in the background add verisimilitude to the effect). The front 2/3 of the plank tilts up sharply to reveal the cabin below where much of the second act takes place; from the seats, the effect resembles a geometric “Jaws-like” shark.

Several of us “rode the plank” as it tilted up and down; others climbed warily down the ultra-steep stairs from the deck to the cabin (with my bad foot, I elected not to risk my neck on that trip — the all-male cast that numbers about 25 clearly has to be in great shape to maneuver on this set; no “Falstaffs” here).

What the audience will see is exactly what Zambello created, although Julia Pevzner is credited as the director. “When a company rents a production, as we are doing with this one,” explained Hemmings, “you are contractually obligated to produce what was originally created. Moreover, if the original director isn’t in charge, he or she has to sign off on the director. This production clearly has Zambello’s imprint.”
Bonner
Zambello — now general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in England and artistic director of Washington National Opera — has, in fact, been in L.A. for what Hemmings described as a week of “intense” rehearsals. Liam Bonner (right) who is portraying the title character for the first time, remembers Zambello telling him, “You already look like Billy Budd; you don’t have to jump around a lot. Stand still!”

For L.A. Opera Music Director James Conlon, who is conducting Billy Budd for the first time, this production continues a life-long love affair with Britten. “When I was growing up,” Conlon wrote in an Opera News article, “Benjamin Britten was a contemporary composer.” As a high school student, he heard Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, perform two recitals in New York City.

Nonetheless, for Conlon, the complexity of Billy Budd makes it unique. “A universe within the universe,” writes Conlon in the LA Opera program, “it touches upon Britten’s recurrent themes: outrage for the destruction — not just the loss — of innocence; the abdication by civil authorities of their moral authority to the detriment of the weak; and the importance of compassion and its lamentable absence in the affairs of men.”

Written in 1951 and revised nine years later, the opera uses a libretto by E.M. Forster (who write A Passage to India and A Room With a View, among other works) and Eric Crozier from a novella by Herman Melville. “It is the second of three operas, along with Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, that play out in or around the powerful influence of the sea,” notes Conlon. “It is [also] the biggest of his large-scale works.” The orchestra (the largest Britten used in an opera) has more than 70 musicians, the L.A. Opera Chorus numbers 46 and there are 10 boys from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. Altogether, counting stagehands and lighting folks, more than 200 people will be involved in this production (“not counting ushers and ticket takers,” says Hemmings with a wry smile).

In the title role, Bonner — a 32-year-old Pittsburgh native — steps into the shoes of Southern California native Rod Gilfry who created the part in the London production and played it here 14 years ago. Although new to this role, Bonner has an extensive background in Britten’s music; he played the role of Sid in LAO’s production of Britten’s Albert Herring in 2012.

“Britten does such a wonderful job of writing for the voice,” says Bonner. “What I’ve learned is that to sing his music well I have to be true to myself. The challenges are mainly that you have to be very strict with the rhythms and keep moving forward. There’s always an energy, a current that seems to keep running through the music; it never seems to stops. And yet, there are moments of stillness — in fact, stillness is an important part of the action.”

Although it’s by coincidence given the lengthy schedule times for operas, the revival of this production and the unveiling of an acclaimed 2010 production from Glyndebourne Festival Opera, directed by Michael Grandage, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, (LINK) are especially timely because of the mounting of Charles Wuorinen’s operatic version of Brokeback Mountain, which opened recently at Teatro Real Madrid. “Without Britten having introduced the issue of homosexuality in Billy Budd,” says Hemmings, ”Brokeback Mountain as an opera doesn’t get written.”

Britten’s homosexuality certainly played a role in the writing of Billy Budd, although how much is open to debate. “The homoerotic aspects are certainly a driving force in this piece,” said Bonner in an interview with Chris Carpenter in Rage Monthly, “but they have more do with Claggart than with Billy. Billy is too innocent and naïve, I think, to even realize the way Claggart is drawn to him … Billy is so real and so sincere in his answers, always.” This morning, Bonner summarized Billy as “an innocent. He cannot see the bad in anything.”

One of the critical elements to the role is that Billy stutters; in fact, the opera’s tragedy revolves around this impediment. “What makes that particularly difficult,” says Bonner, “is that Britten writes the stuttering into the music and no two times are the same. You really have to stay on your toes.” Especially when walking the plank.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The opera runs about three hours with one intermission. It is sung in English with English supertitles (it will be interesting to see how much those are necessary).
• Conlon will deliver a pre-performance lecture an hour before each performance.
• The are several excellent articles in the “Learn More” tab of the LAO Web site.
• The sets nearly didn’t make to L.A. in time. Bad weather in London and then New York pushed things to nearly the breaking point.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
9 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

For the past two decades (at least) the Los Angeles Philharmonic has led the world in creating innovative programs for orchestras, but the 2014-2015 schedule at Walt Disney Concert Hall — entitled, appropriately, “Moving Music Forward” and announced officially yesterday — takes that concept into stratospheres never before envisioned, at least in a single season.

The various initiatives are complex enough that they can’t be fully grasped in one reading. Following is my first take on what’s ahead. In addition to the chronological schedule (HERE), you may want to download much of the press kit (HERE) and take some time to study what it contains.

Several sets of programs feature multiple disciplines, including three that combine video with music. LA Phil Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen will combine with artist Refik Anadol in a program that incorporates a new video into Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet Nov. 6, 7 and 9. Salonen and the Phil will be joined by three soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The Friday program will inaugurate the Phil’s new “in/Sight” series of music and videos. The other programs include Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on Jan. 9, to be conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (part of a series of events celebrating MTT’s 70th birthday); a staged production of Unsuk Chin’s opera, Alice in Wonderland on Feb. 27 and 28, 2015; and a program featuring music by Steve Mackey and Steve Reich on May 29 and 31. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the last two programs; all four programs will be repeated on days surrounding Friday.

The Romeo and Juliet program will be one of three sets of concerts that Salonen will conduct during the upcoming season. On Oct. 24, 25 and 26, Salonen and organist Olivier Latry will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Disney Hall organ with a program that includes the U.S. premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Maan varjot (Earth Shadows).

The upcoming season will feature the largest emphasis on the Disney Hall organ since the instrument made its debut in 2004. Dudamel will conduct programs on Nov. 20, 21 and 22 that will feature organist Cameron Carpenter in the long-delayed world premiere of Stephen Hartke’s Symphony No. 4 (Organ), originally slated to debut in May 2010, along with Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (Organ). Carpenter will also play his own arrangement of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2. There will also be five organ recitals during the upcoming season.

Another new Friday series will be “Inside the Music with Brian Lauritzen,” four programs hosted by the KUSC radio personality. Each concert will include a Lauritzen-produced video sent to audience members ahead of time, along with pre- and post-concert discussions with the hosts and artists and an online forum. Dudamel will conduct two of the four programs, one of which will be the organ program noted above.

In his sixth season as the Phil’s music director, Dudamel will conduct 12 subscription programs during the upcoming season, along with the annual Opening Night gala concert, which will feature violinist Itzhak Perlman and the music of John Williams. In December Dudamel will lead a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Music Center that will include a performance of Salonen’s Helix, with the music being relayed live into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where it will accompany a world-premiere presentation from LA Dance Project.

Dudamel will also lead the orchestra on an Asian tour in March 2015 that will visit Hong Kong, Bejing, Seoul and Tokyo. The programs will include Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World), Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, and John Adams’ City Noir, which was composed for Dudamel’s inaugural gala program in 2009.

Another new series, “Next on Grand,” is being described as “a recurring festival that converges upon a creative force or cultural element.” Next season’s focus will be on contemporary Americans ranging from “old-timers” such as Phillip Glass, Adams and Reich to relative compositional newcomers such as Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the band, the National, and Chris Cerrone.

As part of this venture, the Phil will collaborate with L.A. Opera in a production of David T. Little’s Dog Days at REDCAT, the black-box theatre inside Disney Hall, and will also produce John Adams’ Available Light at Disney Hall with Frank Gehry designing the sets and Lucinda Childs creating choreography.

Overall the season will have 10 commissioned works, eight world premieres, five U.S. premieres and seven West Coast premieres. Orchestras along with the Phil will be the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas on March 24, 2015 and the Seoul Philharmonic, led by Myun-Whung Chun on April 15, 2015. The “Sounds About Town” series has been bumped back up to three local orchestras: The Colburn Orchestra (led by Sir. Neville Marriner), USC Thornton Symphony, and the American Youth Symphony. There are also numerous other programmatic genres; as noted at the top of this Blog, there’s almost too much to absorb in one reading.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
9 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Schedules for 2014-2015 continue to flow in:

• Three different versions of hair are among the highlights of the 93rd Hollywood Bowl season, which was announced Tuesday. The 2014 season begins June 14 and 15 with the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festivals and spans 15 weeks through September.

Amid a dizzying number of pops, jazz, world music and movie nights, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have its 10-week-long classical season, which begins July 8 and concludes September 11. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, he of the curly hair, will lead four programs over five evenings, including another segment of his “Americas & Americans” series, an evening entitled “Noche de Cine” that will include a suite from Dudamel’s score to the movie Libertador on July 31.

The other hair-related programs will be a 50th anniversary re-creation of The Beatles appearance at Hollywood Bowl that will take place August 22, 23 and 24, and a production of the 1968 Broadway musical, Hair, on August 1, 2 and 3. Since the listing for Hair includes the words “contains mature subject matter and brief nudity,” one can assumed this will be a virtually complete production.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Phil’s Conductor Laureate, is among the conductors who will lead the Phil. He has programs scheduled on July 15 and 17.

Read the complete schedule HERE.
The entire Hollywood Bowl press kit is HERE.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 51st season will have Music Director Grant Gershon leading 10 concerts (14 performances) in Walt Disney Concert Hall that feature world premieres by Shawn Kirchner and Nack-Kum Paik. Nearly half of the 20 composers represented in the schedule are alive.

One who isn’t alive (literally, at any rate) is Johann Sebastian Bach whose St. Matthew Passion will be featured twice: the Chorale, along with the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, will offer Bach’s version on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, while Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew will be sung April 11 and 12, 2015. Dun’s piece was commissioned by Helmuth Rilling for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000.

Another “Passion” oriented work will open the season on Oct. 19 when the Chorale presents Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light/The Passion of Joan of Arc. Written for chorus, soloists and orchestra, the piece accompanies Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The season announcement also reveals a bit about the upcoming Los Angeles Philharmonic season as the Chorale will sing in performances of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and John Adams’ Harmonium led by Gustavo Dudamel October 9-12; for performances of Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen November 7-9; and in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis to be led by Michael Tilson Thomas January 9-11, 2015.

Details on the Master Chorale season are HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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