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Robert D. Thomas/Class Act
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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 Philharmonic; Bramwel Tovey, conductor
Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. (includes Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Information: www.laphil.com

As a professional music critic, I try not to write reviews based on comparisons with other performances I’ve heard. It would be disingenuous to say that I don’t recall them; that wouldn’t be human nature and, indeed, there are a double handful of performances that are seminal in my musical life. Nonetheless, I try to take each performance as I hear it, on its own merits or lack thereof.

Having said all of that, I cannot remember a more stunning performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 than I heard played by Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, nor can I imagine the Phil playing any better period. This one goes in my double handful!

From the first notes, it was obvious that Tovey had his own take on this towering, 45-minute piece written in 1937 when the composer was in the midst of one of his battles with the Soviet Union government bureaucracy and, specifically with Joseph Stalin.

Moreover, this was one of those performances when the orchestra seemed at one with the conductor, both making this performance a living, breathing organism. I’ve seen this happen between the Phil and Gustavo Dudamel but rarely with other conductors; last night, happily, was one of those times.

I could toss out kudos to every player but must single out the Phil’s new principal flute, Julien Beaudiment. When Tovey waded into the orchestra to acknowledge principals, Beaudiment’s hand was the first he shook, and with good reason. Throughout the piece, his playing was deeply soulful with a gorgeous tone.

Others to note were Marion Arthur Kuszyk, oboe, Principal Clarinet Michele Zukovsky, Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, and the entire brass section. More than individuals, however, were the sound and precise execution of each section in the orchestra: strings, winds, brass, piano, harp and percussion.

As the Largo movement unfolded majestically, I was reminded of Howard Posner’s program note (which, interestingly, is not the one posted online). Posner wrote, “The Largo had much of the audience in tears. It does not tend to have the same effect on us because we do not hear echoes of Russian funeral music in its melodies, and we have not experienced the devastating upheaval that they lived with.” Perhaps not, but as the final hypnotic notes died away, I could appreciate why those first Russian audiences wept; the effect last night was deeply moving (thanks, also, to Disney Hall’s marvelous acoustics).

Tovey immediately launched into the fourth movement, taken at an imperial, majestic tempo, before cutting the orchestra loose in frenzy. As he did throughout the performance, Tovey layered the levels of sound perfectly in this movement (kudos, again, especially to the brass), and the final measures, taken in as slow a tempo as I have ever heard, were riveting, the final tympani and bass drum blows ringing out as canon shots. The audience, predictably, went bonkers.

All of this, ironically, eclipsed the Los Angeles premiere of Tovey’s own Songs of the Paradise Saloon (in a hilarious talk before the performance, Tovey looked back at the score and joked that he can never remember whether it’s Songs of the Paradise Saloon or Songs from the Paradise Saloon.)

Either way, the piece — which grew out of Tovey’s opera, The Inventor — proved to be a jazzy, jaunty look at a New York City bar (Tovey, ever the Brit, called it a “pub”). In truth, it’s really a trumpet concerto, written for Toronto Symphony Orchestra Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless.

Last night, British trumpeter Alison Balsom — this year’s Gramophone “Artist of the Year” —gave a bravura performance of the piece, which is essentially a theme and 12 variations, all of which last about 25 minutes. The variations proved to be fascinating and Balsom seemed to sail effortlessly through everything, displaying a golden tone throughout the performance as she played at various times on two trumpets and a flugelhorn.

Tovey and the orchestra accompanied her with impressive sensitivity, not always easy because at some spots — especially when she put a mute into her trumpet — Balsom’s sound was barely audible. The interplay between Balsom and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and between Balsom and Principal Cellist Robert DeMaine were particularly noteworthy.

This is a piece I would love to hear again, although my wife thought it sounded crazy. I pointed out that’s exactly the scene the music was written to convey.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The concerts tonight and tomorrow afternoon include a performance of Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was omitted last night in the “Casual Friday” format.
• Based on last night’s crowd, there should be plenty of tickets available for tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Grab one!

5 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 Philharmonic; Bramwel Tovey, conductor
Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Saturday and Sunday only)
Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon; Alison Balsom, trumpet
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com
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Tovey_2013There are multiple reasons why people choose concerts to attend. Sometimes it’s the ensemble or soloist performing. Sometimes it’s the hall. Sometimes it’s the program. Sometimes it’s the conductor.

Occasionally it’s all four and that’s the case for me this weekend when Bramwell Tovey (right) conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in three concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Tovey, now in his 14th season leading the Vancouver Symphony, is always a welcome guest on the podiums at Disney Hall and Hollywood Bowl (where for several years his title was Principal Guest Conductor).

In addition to being a first-rate conductor, Tovey is one of the most erudite lecturers I’ve ever heard. Although Veronica Krauses is listed as the preconcert facilitator, I certainly hope Tovey will make an appearance; no offense to Veronica but Bram by himself would be just fine.

Friday’s concert is part of the orchestra’s “Casual Friday” series. After introductory remarks, usually by a member of the orchestra, this Friday will open with Tovey’s own work, Songs of the Paradise Saloon, which was written in 2008 for Toronto Symphony Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless. It ultimately ended up in Tovey’s opera, The Inventor, commissioned by Calgary Opera and premiered in January 2011 (with a libretto by John Murrell). Rather that rewrite the story of Tovey’s work, I suggest you read his own program note HERE.

I would expect Tovey to spend a few minutes talking about the program and, specifically, about his own work, and there will be a Q&A session after the performance. The soloist for these concerts will be English trumpet soloist Alison Balsom, winner of Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” for 2013. (INFO)

Like many organizations, the Phil is pairing Tovey’s piece with a famous repertoire works: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. It should be a big night for the Phil’s brass and percussion sections. The Saturday and Sunday concerts open with Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which would have been a perfect choice for a “Casual Friday” concert, although the two pieces selected are just fine, by me.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

5 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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Igor Stravinsky’s score to the ballet, The Rite of Spring, is 100 years and five+ months old but it remains one of the most unsettling works ever written, no matter how often you’ve heard it. Pairing “Rite” with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture made for a formidable opening concert to the Pasadena Symphony’s 86th season Saturday afternoon at Ambassador Auditorium.

The program —David Lockington’s first as the PSO’s fifth music director — offered major challenges for the players, conductor and the audience; the latter included a sizeable number of children and young people (always a healthy sign for an orchestra).

The 57-year-old, British-born Lockington’s conducting style seems precise (judged from an audience seat) and he generates a great deal of energy on the podium. As we learned from when he first conducted the PSO in 2012, the orchestra clearly responds well to his leadership. Lockington also delivered erudite comments in the preconcert lecture and prior to the playing of Serenade.

In The Rite of Spring Principal Bassoonist Rose Corrigan spun an appropriately ominous line at the beginning and Lockington and the orchestra built the tension until the first driving, rhythmic section exploded. The orchestra’s winds and the percussion section, headed up by Timpanist Wade Culbreath, were in top form throughout the afternoon. The overall performance was solid, but not breathtaking and the audience responded with a generous standing ovation.

Lockington chose Bernstein’s Serenade as a companion piece because, in his words, “I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.” The rarely played 30-minute work, written in 1954, was inspired by Plato’s dialogue “Symposium” and is the most un-Bernstein sounding piece he ever wrote, although his familiar snappy, jazzy motifs (think West Side Story) do finally emerge in the final movement.

Anne Akiko Meyers gave a superbly virtuosic performance, playing on a 1741 Guarneri del Gesu violin, “Ex-Vieuxtemps,” for which she recently received lifetime performance rights (details HERE) Her lyrical portions sang sweetly (her pianissimos were particularly striking) and she sailed through the thorny sections as if they had been written for her instead of for violinist Issac Stern. Lockington and the orchestra provided supple support.

The program opened with a sizzling rendition of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. Lockington took tempos that were just short of frenetic but not over the top and the PSO was at its razor-sharp best.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Because orchestra schedules are planned well in advance, this was the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. Beginning next season, he’s expected to lead at least three of the classical concerts. Read my story on Lockington HERE).
• The Pasadena Symphony’s holiday concerts are Dec. 14 at 4 and 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper conducts the orchestra, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, vocalist Lisa Vroman and the L.A. Bronze handbell choir. INFO.
• Nicholas McGegan (LINK) makes his first appearance as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the orchestra on Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. The program is scheduled to be Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E minor, with 13-year-old (yes, you read that right) pianist Umi Garrett (LINK) as soloist. Info on the concert is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

5 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A version of this article will be published Friday in the above papers.
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Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor Shostakovich: Festive Overture
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato's "Symposium"); Anne Akiko Meyers, violinist
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. • Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Lockington-pensive4WebWhen David Lockington (right) takes the podium Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium, it will mark a new chapter in the 86-year history of the Pasadena Symphony, as he becomes the orchestra’s fifth music director and the first to hold the position since Jorge Mester in 2010.

However, it will also mark a new chapter in the life of the 57-year-old Lockington, a career that has spanned two continents and carried him from coast to coast in the United States. Although he was born in England, in a sense he’s returning to family roots because his wife, acclaimed violinist Dylan Jenson, was born in Los Angeles and has many family members in Southern California.

Saturday’s programs, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. will include Shostakovich’s Festive Overture; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers as soloist. This marks the second consecutive concert Meyers has soloed for a conductor making his PSO debut; in 2010 it was James DePreist leading his first concert as the orchestra’s Music Advisor.

Meyers (below, right) will also be playing an historic instrument: the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. Earlier this year, Meyers received lifetime use of the “Vieuxtemps” for concerts and recitals thanks to an unnamed benefactor who purchased it at a Chicago auction (read more about the story of Meyers and her violin HERE).

Lockington has served as the Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra since 1999 and has held the same position with the Modesto Symphony since 2007 (where he worked with current Pasadena Symphony Association Executive Director Paul Jan Zdunek). He is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias in Spain.

However, when he was named PSO Music Director last March his focus changed. He’s not yet certain whether he and his family, which includes three grown children and a daughter in middle school, will relocate from Grand Rapids to Southern California. Nonetheless, he says, “I’ve always had a strong belief that if I can’t literally live where I’m working that it’s important for me to have a strong presence in the community, and that certainly will be the case with Pasadena.”

Since he first conducted the Pasadena Symphony in January 2012, Lockington has been in the city five times, meeting people and planning for the future. “The Pasadena Symphony musicians are so quick and so responsive and so professional, says Lockington. “They want to be led but they have a strong desire to make it work and are willing to go wherever you take them, However, if we don’t reach people, if I’m not strongly enough here as the face of the orchestra, then we won’t be doing our job.”

One thing that Lockington has learned is the Pasadena Symphony musicians’ high quality. “Southern California is a London sort of situation with this incredible pool of musicians,” notes Lockington from first-hand experience. Over the years, he has collaborated with several London orchestras; a new recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons he and Meyers made with the English Chamber Orchestra (the first with Meyers playing the “Vieuxtemps” violin) is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Although Lockington will continue to conduct the Modesto Symphony, he will end his relationship with the Grand Rapids Symphony after next season. “That will be 16 years with the orchestra and will mark its 85th season,” explains Lockington. “It was an appropriate time to move on to another chapter.”

He remains unsure about the Spanish job. “My contract is through end of next year (he has led up to 10 concerts a year) and after that we’ll see,” he says. “I love going there,” he says with a chuckle. “Among other things, I can take a long weekend to visit my mother, who still lives on the outskirts of London.”

That kind of innovative planning characterizes Lockington’s musical life, as is evidenced by Saturday’s program. The Rite of Spring was an obvious gift,” says Lockington, “because this year is its 100th birthday. I suppose virtually every orchestra has programmed it (Lockington opened the current Grand Rapids Symphony season with the work).

“Gustav Mahler said of his music, ‘My time will come.’ You wonder whether Stravinsky could have imagined the vast number of performances of “Rite of Spring that have taken place this year and how it has become a staple of orchestral repertoire. It doesn’t have the same shock value as when it premiered, but when you look at the audience attendance numbers every time it’s played it draws well. That shows how more sophisticated audiences have become.”

MyersWebBernstein’s Serenade is much less known than The Rite of Spring Nonetheless, says Lockington, “I love this piece. It’s not typical of Bernstein; it’s so different than West Side Story, which was composed in 1957, three years after Serenade. There are measures that sound sort of Russian. There’s something knotty about it that reminds me of the Russian school. I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.”
Although this is the only PSO concert that Lockington will conduct this season (orchestra schedules are typically planned several years in advance), he will lead three of the five classical concerts beginning next year; the other two will be led by newly named Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan.

Lockington also indicated he would be open to conducting a summer concert at the Los Angeles County Arboretum; he has led outdoor concerts in Grand Rapids and Modesto and attended two concerts at the Arboretum last summer. “The setting is great and the programs are so diverse, always interesting,” he marvels. “I think it’s amazing so see so many people sitting at so many tables; it was mind-boggling! I loved the atmosphere and the peacocks in the background.”

Like many conductors, Lockington was an instrumentalist before he took up the baton. In his case, he played the cello, first in a youth orchestra conducted by his father and later for two years in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (where one of his colleagues was Andrew Shulman, now the PSO’s principal cellist).

Lockington came to the U.S. to earn a Master’s degree at Yale University (he is now a U.S. citizen). He played cello in the New Haven Symphony and was assistant principal cellist for the Denver Symphony for three years before turning to conducting.

“I spent a lot of time observing conductors and what worked with them,” says Lockington. “As a cellist and sitting up front, I had a perfect nest-eye view of what was going on. Being unencumbered by my instrument was also important. If I’d been a violinist, I would have had my instrument in my ear but sitting with my head free couldn’t have been a better way to learn.

“Because I played the cello in an orchestra, I know first-hand what being an orchestra musician is like,” continues Lockington. “I realize it’s a stressful life and I know from experience the precision that’s required, the preparation, the emotional, mental and physical energy it takes to be engaged for long periods of time. So I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for musicians.

“I’m still a practicing cellist,” notes Lockington. “It keeps me honest. I’m asking people to do things every single day that I do when I practice. I know the process and efficiency that’s required to keep in shape and to be able to pull something off in a short period of time. So, in a funny sort of way, I feel like it gives me a license, the right to demand these sorts of things of people because I’m doing it every day.”

Lockington believe there’s another advantage that he has as a cellist. “Being in touch with the string family, the main sound producer of the orchestra, means that the sound I can draw out of the strings affects the total sound of the orchestra,” he believes. “Being a string player means that the sound I listen for and the sound that I draw out is different than if I were a pianist or a horn player for example; not necessarily better, just different. I hope it’s colorful and I hope it’s beautiful. The music has to be special and we have the musicians to do that here.”
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

5 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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Estonian National Symphony; Neeme Järvi, conductor
Friday at 8 p.m. • Valley Performing Arts Center (Cal State Northridge)
Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B; Narek Hakhnazaryan, soloist.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Remaining tickets: $62-$77.50
Information: www.valleyperformingarts.org

Narek-hakhnazaryanNearly three years ago — on Jan. 22, 2011 — the Pasadena Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium featured a virtually unknown (locally, at least) Armenian-born cellist named Narek Hakhnazaryan, who would go on to win the gold medal in the 14th Tchaikovsky International Competition the following June. (A link to my story about his win is HERE).

Hakhnazaryan, now age 24, returns to the Southland not via any of our local ensembles but with the Estonian National Symphony, which appears Friday night at CSUN’s Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. His vehicle will be the same as he played in Pasadena — Dvorak’s Cello Concerto — so it will be interesting to see how three intervening has changed his interpretation of the most famous piece written for cello and orchestra.

The ENSO’s performance at VPAC is the second stop on a nationwide tour of 15 concerts over 18 days; just the California portion seems arduous: Thursday in Santa Barbara, Friday at VPAC, Saturday at Stanford University, Sunday in Aliso Viejo, with a day off before appearing in Ames, Iowa on Nov. 5. Later tour stops are in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Georgia and New York, including concerts at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The California stops will include three of the state’s newest — and highly rated — concert halls: VPAC, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford and the Sokia Performing Arts in Aliso Viejo.

Estonian native Neeme Järvi, the orchestra’s artistic director and patriarch of a well-known conducting line (LINK), is leading the initial portion of the tour.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

MyersWebMuch of the buzz for Saturday’s concerts by the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium surrounds David Lockington’s first concerts as the orchestra’s fifth music director. However, the soloist, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, has quite a story to tell, as well.

When Meyers (left) played the Barber Violin Concerto to open the Pasadena Symphony’s 2010-2011 season, it was the first time she had played in a concert with her new violin, the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon,” a Stradivarius dated 1697, which she purchased for a then-world-record price of $3.6 million (the “Lady Blunt” Strad was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million). In a review of that concert, I wrote that she “produced a rich, creamy tone throughout a vibrant performance and set off fireworks in the third movement with her prodigious technique.”

However, when she returns to open the PSO’s 86th season Saturday, she will be playing not her Strad but the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, an instrument Meyers calls “one of the most iconic violins ever made.” Earlier this year, Meyers received lifetime use of the “Vieuxtemps” for concerts and recitals thanks to an unnamed benefactor who purchased it at a Chicago auction.

“It is very big responsibility,” says Meyers of the “Vieuxtemps,” which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. “[The ‘Vieuxtemps’] has this projection and richness; there’s such a breadth and dimension to the sound that’s unlike any instrument I’ve ever played.” (Meyers writes about her first experience playing the instrument HERE)

“There are very few of these [iconic] instruments in existence now, maybe 50,” said Meyers to James Cushing for an article in the San Luis Obispo Tribuine earlier this year. “Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz played Guarneri Del Gesu violins. Paganini himself played one! Most of them — actually, most violins at this level of quality — are usually locked away in museum display cases and never touched,” she said. “Whenever I see these instruments behind glass, I feel like I’m visiting some sort of zoo. Animals were made to run free, and these instruments were made to be played.” (Read Cushing’s complete story is HERE)

The “Ex-Molitor” was actually the second Strad that Meyers had purchased; the other was a 1730 instrument named the “Royal Spanish.” She made good use of both violins; Meyers's most recent recording, Air: The Bach Album with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio, features Bach’s solo violin concerti as well as the double concerto with Meyers playing the solo parts on both the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” (which Myers nicknamed “Molly”) and the “Royal Spanish” Strads. The album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Classical chart and was one of the top-selling classical albums of 2012

The “Vieuxtemps” received its recording debut with Meyers playing when she performed Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, along with Arvo Part's Passacaglia, accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lockington. The recording is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Meyers has not decided what to do with her two Stradivarius violins. “As I was given lifetime loan of one of the most important violins ever created,” she said in an email, “I am playing on the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” almost exclusively now. I am deciding what to do with the “Royal Spanish” Strad and the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” Strad.” Given her statement earlier about instruments in museum cases, one might expect that the two Strads will find their way to other musicians.

Saturday’s concerts mark the second consecutive “debut” concert for Myers with the PSO; when she appeared in 2010, it was James DePreist’s first concert as the orchestra’s music advisor.

For Meyers, Southern California concerts count as homecoming. Her career began in Southern California (Myers was born in San Diego). Now age 43, living in Austin, Texas, where she is Distinguished Artist and Professor of Violin at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music and the mother of a two daughters, Meyers was living with her parents in Ridgecrest at the age of seven when her mother drove her more than three hours each way to Pasadena so Myers could study with famed teacher Alice Schoenfeld at The Colburn School.

Meyers’ rise in the musical world was meteoric. She appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at age 11, made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut the same year and a year later soloed with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. At age 23, she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, the only artist to be the sole recipient of this annual prize, and embarked on an extensive recording career with RCA Red Seal (at the time one of the most prestigious labels in the industry).
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Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Local violinist Laurie Niles (who also runs an excellent Blog site entitled “Violinist.com”) has two stories on Myers and her “Vieutemps” HERE and HERE
• You can see a YouTube video clip of Myers talking about the violin HERE and that same clip is currently the lead when you click on her Web site HERE.
• Information on Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concerts is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

5 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

Lockinton cond 4 web In any musical organization’s life there are a number of key turning points, whether for good or bad. Often the full impact of decisions cannot be fully evaluated for several years but eventually we can look back and realize that an “aha!” moment did occur. Such a time would seem to be occurring with the Pasadena Symphony, which will open its 86th season Saturday with concerts at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium.

The program — Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with Anne Akkiko Meyers as soloist — will mark the inaugural concerts of David Lockington (right) as the orchestra’s fifth music director. (INFO)

More importantly, they also appear to signal the end of more than six chaotic years in which the orchestra amalgamated with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, weathered a nearly disastrous financial storm, remade its board and executive staff, successfully renegotiated a contract with its musicians through 2015, changed performance locales for both the Pasadena Symphony and the Pops (three times for the Pops), and completely overhauled the organization’s musical leadership team not once but several times.

Not all of these steps occurred seamlessly nor were they universally applauded. Good people lost jobs or volunteer positions. Two conductors beloved by audiences — Jorge Mester and Rachael Worby — departed; another, Marvin Hamlisch, died unexpectedly.

Nonetheless, the saga appears to have come to an end. In a decade where several orchestras around the world have folded or undergone significant labor strife, that statement may sound simple but it’s significant.

Michael Feinstein recently concluded a triumphant first season as principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops and his contract was quickly extended. Saturday’s concerts open a new era for the Pasadena Symphony, as well.

Owing to the fact that orchestra seasons are planned several years in advance, this will be the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. In addition, Nicholas McGegan — like Lockington, a native of England — begins his tenure as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the season’s second concert on Jan. 11. (INFO) That more than two-month gap between concerts is one of several issues confronting the Pasadena Symphony Association at it marches forward.

Less than a decade ago, the PSO offered eight classical concerts a season (NOTE: my original post said nine). Can the orchestra continue to rebuild to that former level or beyond and thus increase its relevance to the Pasadena arts community and beyond?

Lockington, McGegan and Feinstein all have busy careers; Lockington and McGegan have long-standing tenures with other ensembles. Both promise to conduct the PSO multiple times in succeeding seasons but can they become part of our community rather than simply “fly in, conduct, fly out” maestros?

Can the PSO find ways to reach out to an audience that more closely mirrors the increasingly broad age and ethnic makeup of Pasadena and the surrounding communities? One way may be a venture that will be launched with Saturday’s concerts: the Pasadena Symphony Lounge, which will be set on Ambassador’s outdoor plaza and feature a “small-plate” menu, hosted by Claud & Co; a full bar; and light music. That sort of ambience might appeal to a younger audience.

Finally, can the Pasadena Symphony Association find a way to solve the riddle that permeates the entire classical-music community: how can organizations offer high-quality programs at reasonable prices for patrons while paying fair compensation to musicians and staff members? That requires rigorous, visionary management, dedication and skill from musicians, and communities that care enough about classical music to donate the funds that will make up the difference between expenses and revenues from ticket sales. Keeping that balance continues to be a high-wire act

So more than a successful opening program is at stake Saturday. Stay tuned to learn whether this is, indeed, becomes an “aha!” moment.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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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.

As the classical music season moves into high gear, a few concerts stand out over the next couple of weeks.

• Jeffrey Kahane conducts the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in the second concert of its orchestral series on Saturday at 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium and next Sunday at 7 p.m. in UCLA’s Royce Hall. The orchestra is using Ambassador, once its long-time home, while Glendale’s Alex Theatre undergoes renovation.

The concerts feature the U.S. premiere of the chamber-orchestra version of Do You Dream in Color? by Bruce Adolphe, who among other things taught Kahane at The Juilliard School in New York City. The text comes from four poems written by blind mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, who will be the soloist for the premiere.

Also on the program are Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, part of the Southern California celebration of the centennial of Britten’s birth, and Haydn’s Cello Concerto, with French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras as soloist.

Information: 213/622-7001; www.laco.org

• The 10-year-anniversary celebration of Walt Disney Concert Hall would not be complete without an appearance by former Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Although many people were instrumental in getting the hall built, Salonen provided a key measure of inspiration because his travels in Europe had given him with examples how a great hall (e.g., Berlin’s Philharmonie) could enhance an orchestra.

Salonen conducted the first notes in the new hall 10 years ago. He retired as Phil music director in 2009 but returns as the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate to lead the ensemble in quintessential Salonen programs this week and next.

This Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the program includes Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Debussy’s Nocturnes, along with the world premiere of Magnus Lindbergh’s Cello Concerto, featuring Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen as soloist. The women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale sing in Nocturnes.

Information: www.laphil.com

On Oct. 23, Salonen and the Phil open the “Green Umbrella” series with the world premiere of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. Zappa (founder of the band “The Mothers of Invention”) originally wrote 200 Motels. for a 1971 British film of that name. However in 1970, according to the Phil, “Zappa had collaborated with Zubin Mehta and the LA Phil for a concert that formed the basis of his magnum opus. Next weekend’s performances will be the first complete realization of Zappa’s musical vision.”

BTW: The Phil’s Web site notes that “mature language and content” as well as strobe lights will be used in this performance. According to an article by Sanchez Manning in London’s The Independent, (LINK) after the movie was released, a concert scheduled at London’s Royal Albert Hall was canceled because a representative of the venue found some of the lyrics obscene. In 1975, Zappa lost a lawsuit against the hall for breach of contract. Reportedly after the judge heard Penis Dimension (a portion of the score) he responded, “Have I got to listen to this?” Presumably most listeners in 2013 will be less offended, but the caveat is worth noting.

Concert Information: www.laphil.com

The concerts on Oct. 25, 26 and 27 pair Salonen’s own Violin Concerto with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. Leila Josefowicz, for whom the work was written, returns to appear as soloist. Although the Phil’s program notes for the concerto list this as a world premiere, this is a “cut and paste” typo (something with which I am all too familiar). In fact, the premiere was in 2009.

Information: 323/850-2000; www.laphil.com

• One other Disney Hall concert worth mentioning takes place tonight when organist Hector Olivera opens the Phil’s Organ Series with a recital at 7:30 p.m. His program includes several familiar pieces — Bach’s St. Anne Prelude and Fugue, Franck’s second chorale and Leon Boëllman’s Suite Gothique — along with others less well known. The recital will end with one of Olivera’s improvisations on a theme submitted from the audience. If you’ve never heard the Disney Hall organ before (or even if you have), this recital should be on your “must hear” list.

Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Hartford Symphony; Carolyn Kuan, conductor
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Edward Clark, organist, Connecticut Youth Symphony (Daniel D’Addio, music director)
Harrison: Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra; Wu Man, soloist
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”); Edward Clark, organist
Friday, October 11, 2013 • Mortenson Hall at The Bushnell; Hartford
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m.
Information: www.hartfordsymphony.org
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KuanWhen Music Director Carolyn Kuan (right) and officials at the Hartford Symphony planned the opening concerts of its 70th anniversary season, they tried to pack a lot of elements into the programs. Nonetheless, Kuan and a cast of hundreds managed to pull things off successfully for the most part.

Since the concerts were played in Mortenson Hall at The Bushnell, rather than the much smaller Belding Theater, the orchestra took the opportunity to spotlight the hall’s Austin Organ, which was built in 1929 and installed when the hall opened a year later. The HSO partnered with the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists for what it called “Bachtoberfest,” with dozens of demonstrations, concerts and lectures at churches around the city in the fortnight preceding the concerts. One can only hope that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will consider a similar strategy next year when it celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Walt Disney Concert Hall organ.

At 4 manuals and 102 stops, the Bushnell organ is good sized, although not gigantic; it’s smaller than the Disney Hall instrument and, considering that Mortenson Hall is quite a big larger than Disney, lacks the presence of the Los Angeles instrument. Nonetheless, it’s an important instrument by one of America’s oldest and most important organ builders, which is located in Hartford, so the evening’s focus made eminent sense.

Choosing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, was an obvious, if predictable choice, but Kuan at least changed things up a bit. Edward Clark, the HSO’s long-time organist, opened the evening playing the toccata as a solo. The HSO and the Connecticut Youth Symphony then combined forces to join Clark in Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of the fugue made popular in Walt Disney’s 1940 movie, Fantasia (the choice was also a subtle promo for the screening of Fantasia at The Bushnell on Oct. 26, with the HSO playing the music live). The orchestras and Clark alternated portions of the fugue until they amalgated for the grand finale at the end.

It’s never easy to keep 150+ musicians on the same page but Kuan — who cuts an energetic presence on the podium — was successful for the most part. Clark added a few flourishes to Bach’s familiar opening measures although, in my experience, Austin Organs aren’t designed to sound like German Baroque instruments. As an unannounced encore, Kuan and the two orchestras gave a spirited account of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture.

After intermission, Kuan, Clark and the HSO delivered a solid performance of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”). Heard from a center balcony seat, Mortenson Hall accentuated the lush sound of the orchestra’s strings, and the brass players were quite prominent during their shining moments. However, possibly because Kuan had the entire orchestra seated on the stage floor (as opposed to risers), the wind sections disappeared into a sonic haze for much of the performance.

Kuan opened the performance deliberately but soon had things humming along with a brisk sense of urgency. Clark conveyed a proper sense of mystery to open the second section and his C Major chord to fourth section burst forth with grandeur; by the end, he and the orchestra were playing with full-throated glory.

If neither the Bach nor the Saint-Saëns were adventurous programming choices, Kuan made up for it by inserting Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra in between the two warhorses. Wu Man, Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, was the soloist playing a piece that Harrison had written for her in 1977, but that was only part of the story.

Last June, Man was carrying her 17-year-old pipa (an ancient Chinese lute-like instrument with a long neck and four silk strings that she holds on her lap when performing) on a US Airways flight when a flight attendant accidentally broke it. After the instrument was declared irreparable, the airline paid for Man to fly back and forth to Bejing to have a new instrument made by the same master who made her old model (read a New York Times story HERE).

Last night’s concerts were Man’s first with her new pipa. Although Man said in the article that, “It [the new pipa] definitely has potential, but it will take a couple of years to get my own music out of it,” she’s probably the only one who could tell. Her playing was both dexterous and delicate, she got sympathetic support from Kuan and the HSO strings in the rhythmically challenging work, and the audience ate it all up. After a generous ovation, Man responded with a flashy encore, which brought forth even louder applause.
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Hemidemisemiquavers (thoughts from an outsider):
• The printed program had no information on the organ (!).
• There was also no preconcert lecture, which was too bad because the Harrison concerto could have benefitted from some explanation.
• No information on Mortenson Hall, either, which seems a pity since the larger-than-usual crowd undoubtedly included people who had never been inside (the size of the crowd was undoubtedly swelled by parents, grandparents and other relatives of the kids).

The inside of the hall has a stunning art deco effort. When I first looked at it I was reminded of Radio City Music Hall (minus the latter’s garish red décor). Turns out that both buildings were designed by the same architectural firm: Corbett, Harrison and MacMurray (Radio City was opened in 1932 two years after The Bushnell). According to Wikipedia, “Drama, the largest hand-painted ceiling mural of its type in the United States, is suspended from the Hall's roof by numerous metal supports. Painted by Barry Faulkner, the painting cost $50,000 to create in 1929.”
• Although the orchestra’s Web site indicates there that senior rush and student tickets are available, it gives no price for either. The cheapest tickets I could find six weeks in advance of the concert were balcony seats at $38.50 each (plus internet service charges). There were only a modest number of folks sitting in the balcony, although the Web site says that balcony tickets for tonight’s concert are nearly sold out. The vexing issue of pricing tickets in a way that keeps the organization in the black but opens doors for newcomers and lower-income folks is obviously an issue in Hartford as it is in most other cities.
• Parking was free in adjacent government lots, a far cry from Los Angeles where the government parking structures are money-makers for the county.
• Most of the “Masterworks” series of concerts are held in the 900-seat Belding Theater and are spread out over four days (Thursday through Sunday). Former music directors Michael Lankester and Edward Cummings are returning to lead concerts in this 70th anniversary season and violin soloist Peter Wingrad is the son of another former music director, Arthur Wingrad.
• Kuan has some interesting programming choices throughout the season. Among the most intriguing: Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) with Mozart’s Requiem.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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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 Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Lieberson/Knussen: Shing Kham (Pedro Carneiro, percussion); Schubert Symphony No. 4
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Yefim Bronfman, piano)
Last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com
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For most orchestras, first subscription concerts are a major event, complete with the high hopes attendant with the opening of a new season. In some cities — e.g., Chicago, New York and Los Angeles — the luster is dimmed a bit by an opening gala concert but not completely. Usually the galas are light-hearted affairs designed to lure major donors with easy-listening music and a party afterwards. The heavyweight fare comes with the first subscription concerts, which in L.A. usually includes a blockbuster piece to close the concert and, often, a premiere.

Although last Monday’s L.A. Phil gala was an unusually serious program for such an event, this weekend’s opening subscription concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall follow the familiar pattern. Gustavo Dudamel, beginning his fifth season as the Phil’s music director, offered a program that concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed with equal parts musicality and ferocity by Yefim Bronfman, Dudamel and his brilliantly playing band.

There was, however, a touch of nostalgia to the world premiere of Shing Kham, the final piece written by Peter Lieberson before he passed away in 2011 at the age of 64 from complications of lymphoma. What was going to be a three-movement, 25-minute percussion concerto written for Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro became instead an unfinished single movement of about 10 minutes that was later “realized” by English composer Oliver Knussen partly from Lieberson’s sketches and partly from Knusses’s and Carneiro’s best guess as to how Lieberson would have finished the movement.

You might expect a product to be a mishmash, but actually the result was a somewhat episodic set of mini-movements that was, nonetheless, fascinating from start to finish. There were measures of driving intensity, interspersed with jazzy sections, lyrical moments and a final flourish that sounded like vintage Leonard Bernstein.

As is often the case with a percussion concerto, watching Carneiro maneuver around an array of instruments was part of the attraction. The list included a marimba, snare drum, 12 tom toms (six of which were wood), bass drum, four suspended cymbals and a triangle — the last was the only instrument that Carneiro brought with him from Portugal; he also brought the two dozen or so mallets that he used in the performance, often holding two in each hand. The array was lined up to the right of the podium.

The work also called for some heavy-duty work from six percussionists in the orchestra, so another part of the interest came from the interplay between Carneiro and the orchestra (in the program note, Carneiro said, “Every step of the way I need to connect with every single player in the orchestra.”) The stylish performance received a respectful semi-standing ovation from the Friday-night crowd.

After intermission came the blockbuster. Many pianists come determined to show all of their formidable technique in Tchaikovsky’s famous work. Bronfman, instead, chose to probe the work’s musicality first; in the process, of course, he also displayed plenty of musical chops but that’s not surprising for those who have heard him play during the past quarter-century.

Given that I’ve heard this concerto played live at least 50 times and who knows many times in recordings of various formats, I was surprised and pleased how involved I became last night.

This was a big-boned performance both by Bronfman and the orchestra (this is, after all, Tchaikovsky, not Mozart). Bronfman probably missed a note or two somewhere but not so as you would notice. Dudamel had the trumpets and trombones on the top tier with nobody on the level below them, so they were ultra-bold but not strident in their opening measures and beyond. Dudamel, who conducted without a score, shaped phrases expertly; the buildup to the descending octaves that herald the first cadenza, for example, was gripping. That subtle phrasing meant that the “attack” chords, particularly in the first and second movements, really jumped out.

The second movement unfolded without haste, even in the second section. Bronfman studied with Rudolf Serkin at The Curtis Institute and in this performance was channeling Serkin’s elegant playing. The third movement was fast but not perilously so, until the final climactic measures when all hell broke loose from everyone.

I don’t think I’ve every heard this concerto conclude when a standing ovation didn’t occur but for once, this one was eminently deserved. After several curtain calls came an encore. Many pianists would offer something delicate or playful as a contrast to the concerto; not “Fima,” as he is known to many; he alternately powered through and toyed with what someone in the audience said later was a Paganini Caprice.

Before intermission, Dudamel and Co. offered an elegant, refined, albeit large-scaled performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor. This was one of a torrent of works that Schubert wrote during the years 1815 and 1816 when he was still a teenager; he later appended the moniker “Tragic” to the title. According to Brian Newbould, Schubert’s output during those months included more than 20,000 bars of music, more than half of which was for orchestra including nine church works a symphony, and about 140 songs.

The long first movement last night (it takes up about 40% of the piece) and the second movement, with its wonderfully Schubertian song tune, featured luxuriant strings interplaying with the winds; I was again reminded how well Disney Hall allows inner voices to be heard. The third movement, with what Lucinda Carver noted in her preconcert lecture is a meter similar to Beethoven’s fourth symphony, allowed Dudamel a chance to dance but he never overdid it. The final movement was a blaze of majestic glory.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Bronfman was either exhibiting a dry sense of humor or twitting Carver in the preconcert lecture. Carver, who is a well-known pianist, conductor and teacher, characterized Bronfman’s sound as unique and asked how he did it. “With my hands,” he deadpanned. Later she described a report that Tchaikovsky made changes to the concerto after Nikolai Rubinstein originally excoriated it. When Carver asked Bronfman what changes were made, he said, “Nothing important.”
• Carneiro said that he almost never travels with instruments because they’re too hard to ship. He does bring his mallets but other than that, he assembles instruments from the place he is going to perform. He did bring a small triangle to Los Angeles because he thought Lieberson would have particularly liked the sound.
• The Phil rearranged the play order at the last minute (the original called for the Schubert first, followed by Shing Kam. The array of solo instruments was probably easier to take down than set up and the changeover took only about five minutes, although one of the stage crew nearly knocked over the snare drum before adroitly catching it on the way down.
• I’m not sure whether Bronfman played the encore Thursday night (Mark Swed’s review in the L.A. Times today doesn’t indicate — I was hoping to get a confirmation of the title, which Bronfman did not identify).
• The program note on Shing Kam is HERE.
• This program is part of the 10th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Details on upcoming concerts are HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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