Classical Music Buzz > Robert D. Thomas/Class Act > AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Looking back ...

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

With Christmas Eve and Christmas Sunday church services coming on the weekend this year, I’m going to post my “End of the Year Wrap-up” column today so I don’t forget to do so. I hope all of you will find time to attend a service, listen to the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge (locally on KUSC, 91-5 FM, at 7 a.m. Saturday), and have a blessed and joyous Christmas.

Looking back on the classical music year 2011 brought a fascinating flood of remembrances. I discovered that (counting this column) I have posted 236 times during the year on subjects as diverse as the genre. Some of these posts also appeared in the above newspapers but — newsprint space being what it is — obviously this Blog gives you much more. Following are some of the significant occurrences of 2011, listed in sort-of-alphabetical order.

The Pasadena hall with great acoustics will never approach the number of events it hosted when it was built in 1974 but HRock Church (which now owns the auditorium) has made it available to a number of performing groups, including the Pasadena Symphony, Colburn Orchestra and, for one concert a year, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Grant Gershon celebrated his 10th anniversary as music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale last season. This fall Jeffrey Kahane began his 15th season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Both men — and both organizations — are among the reasons why the Southern California music scene is so vibrant.

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, a 22-year-old Armenian who in January played the Dvorak Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony, won the gold medal in the 14th Tchaikovsky International Competition in June. Meanwhile, Nigel Armstrong, a 21-year-old graduate of The Colburn School, won fourth place in the violin portion of the competition. Earlier, Armstrong — who studied with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn School — won an award for his performance of Stomp by American composer John Corigliano.

BTW: Armstrong (who is now a grad student at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia) will return to Los Angeles to perform with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Jan. 21 at Glendale’s Alex Theatre and Jan. 22 at UCLA’s Royce Hall (LINK).

Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto. The work was premiered in April 2009 with Salonen conducting the L.A. Phil and soloist Leila Josefowicz (who grew up in Los Angeles and, like Nigel Armstrong, studied with Ronald Lipsett at The Colburn School).

The award also spotlighted the Phil as America’s premiere orchestra for commissioning and performing new music, another legacy of Salonen’s 17-year-tenure as LAPO music director. The Phil is the only orchestra to have commissioned and premiered two Grawemeyer Award compositions (Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs in 2005 was the other) and Salonen is the only conductor to have led the first performances of two winning scores (Neruda Songs and his own concerto).

Martin Haselböck, music director of Musica Angelica — the top-notch Los Angeles-based period instrument ensemble — won a Grand Prix International du Disque award for a recording he made with his other ensemble, the Vienna Academy Orchestra, entitled The Sound of Weimar: Franz Liszt; The Complete Works for Orchestra, Vol. 1.

Each year often brings one or two pieces that seemingly everyone wants to present, and this year was no exception. There were four performances of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 within a 16-day span in October (and two more to come next month). Fortunately, several of the performances (Gustavo Dudamel with the L.A. Phil, Yuja Wang) rose to exalted levels. Runner-up in this category was to multiple performances of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (at least four in four months) and an unusually large number of performances of Handel’s Messiah in December.

Although the death of Steve Jobs on Oct. 5 dominated the year’s obituaries, bringing to an untimely end the career of a man whose inventions such as iTunes and iPod revolutionized the music industry, there were other notable passings in our field, as well, including:
• Daniel Catán died unexpectedly on April 8 at the age of 62. Although he composed many works, Catán was riding high after his opera Il Postino (The Postman) received its world premiere in September 2010 by Los Angeles Opera.
• Peter Lieberson (April 23), whose compositions included Neruda Songs, which (as noted above) was premiered by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2005. The soloist for whom the Grawemeyer Award-winning piece was written was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer’s wife, who died the following year.
• Sidney Harth (Feb. 16) was concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic the 1970s. He later became a conductor, most notably with the Jerusalem Symphony.
• Kurt Sanderling (Sept. 17) was a beloved guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the 1980s and 1990s.

One other note: Salonen and Pierre Boulez returned to Los Angeles on March 29 for a poignant tribute concert to the life and legacy of Ernest Flesichmann, the orchestra’s longtime managing director who died in June 2010. It was a concert that Fleischmann would have loved, both for its innovative programming and the quality of the performances.

Now that the hoopla surrounding the now-30-year-old Venezuelan’s debut as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director has subsided somewhat, we’re watching this remarkable conducting talent mature as each year passes. Although the Phil’s “Brahms Unbound” cycle devolved to “Brahms Unwound” as illness, death and tardiness conspired to eliminate most of the new compositions originally scheduled for the five-week-long “festival,” Dudamel and the Phil delivered some superb performances of Brahms and newer works, as well. Next month comes an even bigger challenge: The Mahler Project (more on that next week and in January).

Two years after presenting Wagner’s Ring cycle, LA Opera has put together a string of very successful productions, including Verdi’s Rigoletto, Rossini’s The Turk in Italy and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw earlier this year and then Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and, in particular, Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte to open the current season.

Although it occurred in 2010, the world premiere of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino (The Postman) continued to resonate this year, in part because of the untimely death of the composer and also because PBS’s “Great Performances” series telecast the world-premiere production earlier this month.

The jury is still out as to whether live telecasts of orchestra concerts will attain the same level of popularity as the Metropolitan Opera’s HD telecasts, but Dudamel and the Phil offered persuasively for the new format in four concerts during 2011. The interviews and rehearsal footage are worth the price of admission.

The one telecast that really stood out for me was the concert that melded readings from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet with music that Tchaikovsky wrote inspired by each play. The actors performing the sketches were much easier to follow on the telecast as opposed to being in Disney Hall. For the first concert of the current season, Dudamel did a surprisingly good job acting as both host and conductor. The next telecast is Feb. 18, a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 live from Caracas, Venezuela.

A year after stepping down as music director of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, Rachael Worby returned with her life-long dream of a group that would provide innovative and flexible programs. The opening event was an orchestra concert on the lawn adjacent to Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium that featured soprano Jessye Norman as the soloist. Both the locale and the program proved to be quite special. Two small-ensemble programs followed in the fall. Stay tuned in 2012.

Springtime erupted when the Los Angeles County Arboretum announced that it had selected the Pasadena Pops to replace the California Philharmonic at the Arcadia venue beginning summer 2012. After much angst and anger, the Cal Phil then decided to move slightly east to a venue that might — if early projections actually come to pass — prove to be a more congenial home: Santa Anita Racetrack.

Hollywood Bowl provided its usual solid set of programs, a handful of which were noteworthy. Gustavo Dudamel concerted three concerts to open the Bowl’s classical season, notable perhaps for the fact that less people showed up than appeared the previous year. The Internet hoopla over Yuja Wang’s “little orange dress” overshadowed her breathtaking performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3; when she appeared at Disney Hall this fall, she was dressed less flamboyantly and everyone could focus on her extraordinary talent as soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. As one person summed up at the Disney Hall concert I attended, “She’s more than a dress.”

Now into its second season without a music director and, seemingly, satisfied with that situation, the PSO welcomed a series of lively, young guest conductors — including Tito Muñoz, George Stelluto and Mei-Ann Chen — to its new home, Ambassador Auditorium. Stelluto and the PSO also unveiled one of the genuine “finds” of the season: a Kanun concerto by Khachatur Avetisyan, played with sparkle and grace by Karine Hovhannisyan.

Meanwhile, as the Pops prepared to move to the Arboretum this fall (see above), it welcomed a new principal conductor, Marvin Hamlisch, who proved to be a master at the pops-concert genre.

At long last, the San Fernando Valley has a major performing arts center located on the campus of Cal State Northridge. The hall is visually attractive and acoustically solid, as was demonstrated by the appearance of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra from St. Petersburg, Russia. Now comes the hard part: finding and successfully marketing high-quality performances.

Several other cities also opened new halls, including the Soka University in Aliso Viejo, the New World Center in Miami Beach (complete with a stunning outdoor video wall), and Maison Symphonique de Montreal in that Canadian city.

Next week: looking ahead at 2012.

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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