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Robert D. Thomas/Class Act
Reviews, features, commentary and other information about classical music in Southern California.
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

One question I often am asked is, “What can I get a classical music lover for Christmas?” My answer always begins with tickets, because seeing a concert (recital, opera, whatever) live is still the best way to enjoy it.

Just in time for the holiday gift-giving season comes this offer from the Pasadena Symphony: on Monday, Dec. 2 — for that day only — you can get 65% off of the price of any remaining single tickets for the balance of the 2013-2014 season at Ambassador Auditorium.

To take advantage of this offer, visit www.PasadenaSymphony-POPS.org, select the concerts you want, and use discount code 6CMON5 when checking out to get 65% off ticket prices. The sale ends at Midnight on Monday.

All concerts are at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on the dates listed below:
• January 11 — Nicholas McGegan, the orchestra’s new principal guest conductor, conducts Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with 13-year-old Umi Garrett as soloist. DETAILS
• February 15 — Kazem Abdullah leads Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Morten Lauridsen’s Midwinter Songs. DETAILS
• March 29 — Andrew Grams conducts music by Bolcom, Bruch and Schuman. DETAILS
• May 10 — Jahja Ling, music director of the San Diego Symphony, conducts Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Israeli-born pianist Shai Wossner as soloist. DETAILS

For details and information, call 626/793-7172.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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

If you weren’t able to attend the performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Sunday in Orange County or Monday in Walt Disney Concert Hall, KUSC (91.5 FM in Los Angeles and www.kusc.org) will air the L.A. performance on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Details: www.kusc.org

James Conlon conducted The Colburn Orchestra, members of the USC-Thornton Symphony, three soloists and more than 400 choristers ranging from local universities to the Los Angeles Children's Chorus in the performances.

Links to my preview story and my review are HERE and HERE.

BTW: A Caltech link has the complete text HERE so you can follow it. Although the diction was exemplary during the Disney Hall performance, being able to read Wilfed Owen’s gripping poetry would definitely be a plus.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

10 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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Have you ever thought ... what the world would be like without music? ... We would all be humans and life would go on, but it would be much more difficult to mourn our losses and celebrate our loves. God gave us music, I think, so that we would have some hint of what She is like. God sings to our hearts with music, telling us of love about which we would know much less if it were not for music.

— Andrew Greeley, “Star Bright”


Thanksgiving is a schizophrenic time from my perspective as a classical music columnist. On one hand, I like to list things for which Southern California classical music lovers should be grateful. However, it's also a time to look forward to the holiday season, because for many people, Christmas comes alive through its music. But before we dive into the holiday music season, let us give thanks.

Many things remain constant year after year — music is, after all, a universal and, in some ways, a timeless art. Unfortunately, not every constant is a positive. Once again this year, we need to give special thanks for music educators in schools, conservatories and churches who struggle to keep the music candle shining in a society that increasingly finds it hard to believe that art is an indispensable part of the educational process.

Moreover, let us remember parents who know the value of music and the arts and who work hard to find the extra income necessary to give their children a music education. I believe there is a direct correlation between the decline in music education and society's increase in violence. May we come to our senses before it is too late.

There are so many others — musicians, conductors, administrators, volunteers, patrons, audiences and others — who come together to enrich our lives through concerts, recitals, opera productions and other events. Many are unsung, working tirelessly behind the scenes. We need to remember, support and give thanks to all of them, especially at this of the year.

The best way of saying thanks is, of course, to attend concerts and, fortunately, there will be plenty of musical cheer offered during the holiday season, some of which I will list in my column on Sunday. Take the time in your busy lives to make music part of lives. And, to paraphrase songwriter Henry Smith, take time to give thanks with a grateful heart.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children's Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)
New Zealand Youth Choir (David Squire, music director)
November 25, 2013 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.
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Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the monuments of choral literature. It stands with the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms and Verdi and alongside other choral masterpieces such as Handel’s Messiah.

But there’s a catch. Britten’s magnum opus is so rarely performed that its emotional impact seems outsized when compared with the others on this list. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but it certainly lessens the effect of these better-known pieces.

At last night’s preconcert lecture immediately preceding a stunning performance of War Requiem at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when Conductor James Conlon asked how many people would be hearing the piece for the first time, nearly every hand was raised. Imagine how staggered you would feel if you were hearing, for example, Verdi’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah for the first time.

Thus it’s truly amazing that this rare performance of War Requiem, was sung and played not by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or one of our other professional ensembles but by about 400 instrumentalists and choristers, all college age or younger, along with three soloists. What could have been a train wreck was instead a vibrant, cohesive unified front, all under the steady hands and baton of Conlon, who somehow managed to sandwich this concert and last Sunday’s performance in Costa Mesa between conducting Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Los Angeles Opera.

The two local War Requiem concerts took place just days after the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth; the 50th anniversary of President John K. Kennedy’s assassination added to the emotional nature of the evening.

How Britten, a pacifist, came to write War Requiem is reasonably well known (you can read some of the details in my preview story HERE). The basics are that he was commissioned to write a piece of his choosing for the dedication of the new St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. The premiere took place on May 30, 1962.

Part of Britten’s genius in writing War Requiem was that he melded the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass text with gritty poetry written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. (Ironically, Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week — almost to the hour — before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war; he was awarded a posthumous Military Cross). As a preface to War Requiem, Britten quoted Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” That’s just a sample of the emotional impact of the poems.

Another aspect of the work’s greatness is how Britten deployed his forces. The adult choral forces (182 voices, if everyone listed in the printed program actually sang) join with the soprano soloist to sing the traditional Requiem text, accompanied by a full-sized orchestra. A children’s chorus, accompanied by an organist, adds a potent angelic element at key points, sung last night from the top rear balcony. Tenor and baritone soloists, simulating a German and English soldier, sing Owen’s poetry, accompanied by an ensemble of 13 instruments.

In some performances, the male soloists and chamber orchestra are separated from the main body and led by a second conductor (indeed, that’s how the premiere performance was played; Britten conducted the smaller contingent while Meredith Davies led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra).

However, Conlon chose to conduct the entire performance by himself, placing the chamber ensemble directly in front of him with the larger orchestra behind them. The male soloists — tenor Joseph Kaiser and baritone Phillip Addis — flanked the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamara Wilson sat in the middle of the front row of choristers on the choral benches. Conlon led some portions using a baton; for many of the choral sections, he laid down the stick and conducted with expressive hands.

The choral forces delivered a beautiful tone and were amazingly precise throughout the 84 minutes, but particularly in the extended fugal writing in the “Dies Irae” sections . The combined children’s choruses floated gorgeous sound with precise diction from their “heavenly” location in Disney Hall.

Soprano Tamara Wilson, symbolizing a Russian soldier, poured out rich opulent sounds that carried even over the combined choral and orchestral forces. Her melding with the chorus in the “Lacrimosa” was a highlight of the evening.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser, singing music written for Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears, delivered that bright tone so favored by English composers and Kaiser’s diction so precise that the projected supertitles were not needed. Baritone Phillip Addis’s voice turned gravely in the lower registers but he was emotionally strong in delivering some of Owen’s most poignant lines.

The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony played splendidly, especially given the fact that, according to one story, only Concertmaster Jeffrey Myers had ever played the work before. The 13-member ensemble (the same number that Britten used to accompany his three chamber operas) passed Britten’s melodies from hand to hand, as it were, while offering sympathetic accompaniment to Kaiser and Addis.

All forces eventually join in the final movement, “Libera Me,” in which Kaiser and Addis sang Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” a commentary on companionship between enemies after one has killed the other, interspersed with the final words of the Mass. Two bells — C and F-sharp — continue to toll as they have throughout the piece and the chorus finally dies away in a mysterious vapor. The capacity audience sat spellbound, silent for 20 seconds, before erupting in wave after wave of standing ovations for the performers — and, one thinks, also for the piece. Conlon appeared to be spent emotionally; for most of the audience, the feeling was the same.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Conlon’s typically erudite preconcert lecture was particularly helpful in showing the influences of Verdi, Berlioz and Mozart on Britten’s writing.
• The organist last night was Christoph Bull, head of the organ department at UCLA, a nice — if somewhat ironic — touch to counterbalance the presence of the USC-Thornton Symphony and two USC choirs.
• In honor of the Britten centennial, Decca has released a newly remastered version of the original recording of War Requiem, featuring the three singers who Britten intended to sing the premiere: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). Because of international tensions, Vishnevskaya didn’t sing at the premiere (English soprano Heather Harper stepped in) but Vishnevskaya did perform in the original recording. The new version include a CD of War Requiem, , a Blu-Ray Audio format, which allows the recording to be heard at 24-bit, and a CD featuring Britten in rehearsal at the sessions in January 1963, which was produced by the legendary John Culshaw.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

10 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This article is being posted on the 100th birthday of the great English composer Benjamin Britten. A shorter version will be published Sunday in the above papers.
NOTE: The revision is the second of two Coventry Cathedral photos in the middle of the story.


Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano; Joseph Kaiser, tenor; Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children's Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)

Sunday at 8:15 p.m. • Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by Dr. William Hall.
Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

Monday at 8 p.m. • Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by James Conlon.
Information: www.laphil.com
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Brittenr4WebWe’re in the penultimate two months of a year honoring birthdays of three of history’s most important composers: the bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the centennial of Benjamin Britten (right), which occurs today (Nov. 22). The Britten centennial reaches its climax locally Sunday and Monday with a massive collaboration on Britten’s most significant work: War Requiem.

These performances are among hundreds that have been part of Britten 100/LA, which has been spearheaded by Los Angeles Opera but which has involved hundreds of different organizations, large and small, throughout the Southland.

LA Opera Music Director James Conlon takes a break from conducting the company’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to lead The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony (the work calls for a large main orchestra and a smaller-sized ensemble), organ, three soloists, five university choirs and the Pasadena-based Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in War Requiem Sunday at 8:15 p.m. at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and Monday at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. “Break” may be a misnomer; Conlon leads a Falstaff performance beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, so he may be changing clothes as he drives/flies down the freeway.

Coventry_Ruins

Two Coventry Cathedrals4Web

War Requiem premiered on May 30, 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral in the center of England. The city’s 14th century Gothic cathedral, St. Michael’s, had been destroyed by a Nazi air raid on Nov. 14, 1940. Only the tower, spire, outer wall and the bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs, survived. (Top photo, above)

Following a competition that received entries from more than 200 architects, Basil Spence was selected to design a new cathedral. He insisted that the ruins of the old cathedral be kept as a stark memorial and his dramatic new cathedral was built alongside; a glass canopy connects the two buildings. (Bottom photo, above). For his stunning conception, Spence was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960.

Britten, a renowned pacifist, was 48 when the piece was first performed and was given free rein to compose the dedicatory work. He chose to interleave portions of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass with gritty poems written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. Britten used one of Owen’s poems as a preface to the work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war.

The piece lasts about 85 minutes (there is no intermission), and is considered by most to be a landmark 20th century composition. A unique part of the composition is that Britten wrote for soloists (soprano, baritone and tenor) who were meant to characterize individual Russian, German and English soldiers.

According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, “Britten intended that the soloists at the first performance should represent three of the nations involved in World War II: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). In the event, precisely because of this tri-national partnership of representatives, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to attend by the Russian Minister of Culture. Although she was later able to record the work, she did not sing it until 1963; her place at the première on 30 May 1962 was taken by Heather Harper.”

The Disney Hall performance is part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sounds About Town” series, which this season has dwindled to just two concerts, both by The Colburn Orchestra. One feature of this series has always been its low prices: tickets for “War Requiem” range from just $15.99 to $41.50. By contrast, the Segerstrom Concert Hall tickets are scaled from $20 to $150.

Conlon will give a preconcert lecture an hour before the Disney Hall performance. At Segerstrom Hall, Dr. William Hall, who led one of the first Southern California performances of War Requiem, will deliver the lecture at 7 p.m. In part because of the work itself and in part because it is so rarely performed, this is a “don’t miss” event.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Photographer credit for bottom of two Coventry Cathedral photos: Tim Eccleston. Copyright – Coventry Cathedral.
• How rare are these concerts? According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, these concerts and a set by the San Francisco Symphony next weekend are the only North American performances of War Requiem for the balance of this year (performances have been held recently in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago — see below).
• The SFO schedule is somewhat odd: Nov. 27 and 30 with nothing between.
• It’s possible that this will be the only time that most of the instrumentalists and choristers will play and/or sing War Requiem in their lifetimes.
• The program notes for tonight’s Segerstrom Hall concert are HERE (they come courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony). Click on the note to make the type larger and click on the arrows to navigate the pages. These notes (actually pages from the program book) also include the text and performer bios.
• The program notes for the Disney Hall performance are HERE. These also include an iTunes link to the original cast recording with Britten conducting HERE.
• The writeup on War Requiem from the Britten-Pears Foundation is HERE.
• A fascinating interview in The Guardian with composer Oliver Knussen’s reflections on Britten is HERE.
• Anne Midgette, music critic of the Washington Post, and her husband and fellow critic, Greg Sandow (who is also a composer, consultant and educator) have written a series of articles on recent performances of War Requiem in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, including somewhat contrasting reviews of the same performances. If you’re interested, click HERE for an overview and follow the various threads to the relevant stories. However, you might want to wait until you’ve seen either of the local concerts.
• When Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony in War Requiem last week, he honored Britten by using Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, English tenor John Mark Ainsley and German baritone Matthias Goerne as the soloists. Nice touch.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

10 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.
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Los Angeles Opera: Mozart’s The Magic Flute
Nov. 23 and 30, Dec. 5, 11 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 15 at 2 p.m.
Preconcert lecture one hour before each performance by James Conlon (except Dec. 13)
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.org
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Flute-1_for_Web
Black and white silent film images are a unique part of a Los Angeles Opera presentation of a Komische Oper Berlin production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which makes its U.S. debut Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Photo from the Komische Oper Berlin by Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de)
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When Los Angeles Opera announced its 2013-2014 season earlier this year, one of the offerings was to be Mozart’s The Magic Flute, using a popular, 20-year-old production directed by Sir Peter Hall and designed with colorful cartoon-like sets by Gerald Scarfe that had been presented four times including its 1993 debut.

The Magic Flute is still on the agenda — it opens Saturday night in the first of seven performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, running through Dec. 15 — but not with the Hall/Scarfe production. Instead, LAO President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Koelsch journeyed to Berlin and fell in love with a wacky production from Komische Oper Berlin that mixes, as the company says, "Mozart, Buster Keaton and Nosferatu.” In a published interview, LAO Music Director James Conlon, who will conduct the local performances, called the concept “an extraordinary idea and an extraordinary execution of that idea. For L.A., the birthplace of movies, it's a perfect fit.”

Created by the British theater group “1927” — led by director Suzanne Andrade and filmmaker Paul Barritt — in collaboration with Australian Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, the production will be making its U.S. debut. This will also mark Kosky’s American debut as an opera director.

The silent-film images come during the opera’s “singspiel” portions that are a unique part of The Magic Flute. Instead of the “song-speech,” the production projects minimalist texts above the Buster Keaton-style images. A review in “Bachtrtack” (a classical music Web site) states, “It might seem a gimmick, or an acknowledgement of the oft-stated opinion that Schikaneder’s spoken dialogue is long-winded and tiring, but it’s actually only the beginning. The technologically audacious, faux-naïve style of 1920s cinema proves an inspired lens (so to speak) for this work’s quirky tone.”

Kosky says, “The rhythm of the music and the text has an enormous influence on the animation. As we worked together on The Magic Flute, the timing always came from the music, even — especially — in the dialogues, which we condensed and transformed into silent film intertitles with piano accompaniment. It’s a silent film by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so to speak!” Beyond the black-and-white aspects, the production also includes a number of colorful images, including flying pink elephants.

Conlon, who conducted the orchestra in the 2006 film version of The Magic Flute directed by Kenneth Branagh, will lead a cast that includes two Americans: soprano Janai Brugger, a LAO alumna, who will appear as Pamina, and tenor Lawrence Brownlee in his LAO debut as Tamino. Also making company debuts will be soprano Erika Miklósa as The Queen of the Night, bass Evan Boyer as Sarastro, and baritone Rodion Pogossov as Papageno.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The Hall/Scarfe production of The Magic Flute (which LAO owns) hasn’t been abandoned, said Koelsch when this new production was announced. It will be retained for possible future use.
• Strong advance ticket sales encouraged the company to add the Dec. 8 presentation to the original slate of six presentations.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

10 months ago | |
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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This article was first published today in the above papers.

Los Angeles Opera: Verdi’s Falstaff
Nov. 13, 16 and 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 24 and Dec. 1 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.com
Concert performance: Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa
Information: www.scfta.org

Falstaff4Web

Roberto Frontali stars in a new production of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
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One of the hardest jobs for any opera company is to retire a beloved production for a new one. One has only to look at recent events at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to realize how fraught with peril such a change can be.

For its opening production in 2009, the Met retired a beloved (by most) 20-year-old Franco Zeffirelli production of Tosca that was a sumptuous, literal recreation of Puccini’s concept. In its place went a stark, symbolized rendering by Swiss director Luc Bondy. The headline for Alex Ross’ review in “The New Yorker” of that opening night summed up many people’s feelings: “Fiasco.” Time has softened attitudes only slightly.

Likewise, when the Met replaced its decades-old, literal production of Wagner’s Ring cycle with a quirky new one by Robert Lepage, the results were even more disastrous, to say nothing of far more expensive.

So it must be with a bit of baited breath that Los Angeles Opera introduced a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff last night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the first of six performances with others occurring through Dec. 1. There will also be a concert performance on Nov. 26 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

The production of Verdi’s final opera — based on Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor — is being directed by Lee Blakeley, with scenery and costumes designed by Adrian Linford; both are making their LA Opera debuts. Rick Fisher is the lighting designer and Nicola Bowie is the choreographer.

This replaces an historic production that originated not with LA Opera but with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982. What made that production special was that the Phil’s Music Director, Carlo Maria Giulini, was conducting the opera, something that he had not done for 14 years.

Donal Henahan the New York Times music critic wrote of that night, “For one golden moment, at least, this opera-starved city has become the center of the opera universe.” LA Opera took over the production and revived it three over the succeeding decades.

However in this bicennial year of Verdi’s birth LAO General Director Plácido Domingo and Music Director James Conlon elected to mount an entirely new effort. Conlon will conduct all six Los Angeles performances and the concert performance in Orange County.

Italian baritone Roberto Frontali will appear in the title role as Falstaff, along with soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford and Marco Caria as Ford. Other cast members are Ronnita Nicole Miller and Erica Brookhyser, alumnae of LA Opera's young artist program, as Mistress Quickly and as Meg Page; tenor Robert Brubaker as Dr. Caius.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

11 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
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!

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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.

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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.

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