SAME-DAY REVIEW: 1,000 students shine during L.A. Master Chorale High School Choral Festivazl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

There were several different ways to experience the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 28th annual High School Choral Festival this afternoon in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

You could start with the observation that it was amazing that 1,000 students from 29 high schools could actually be quiet at the same time, not once but several times! Not only that, they managed to get into their seats not once but twice nearly on time, a logistical feat approximating the D-Day landings on Normandy.

One could also be amazed at the technical prowess of the combined forces who were seated in the orchestra and orchestra view seats surrounding the Disney Hall stage. In seven pieces that ranged from Handel’s Your Voices Tune to several contemporary pieces, the students — led by LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon — sang with impressive diction and articulation and managed to create a wonderfully harmonious sound in those pieces where harmonies were at their lushest.

Two of the pieces — Bring Me Little Water, Silvy and Stand in that River — were by guest artist Moira Smiley (actually, as she explained, the former was a Ledbelly tune), who was on hand to teach the performers the percussion to accompany Bring Me Little Water, Silvy. Although students learned all of the music ahead of time, somehow everything managed to come together in a morning’s rehearsal, yet another amazing feat.

Midway through the choral concert, Gershon led 91 singers selected from the participating schools who comprised the Festival Honor Choir in three difficult, contemporary songs from around the world. The ensemble acquitted itself with distinction during this set; the final work — Tiptipa Kemmakem by Philippine-born composer Nilo Alcala — was particularly intricate in its time signatures.

Another aspect of the concert was to experience the amazing acoustics of Disney Hall, the second day in a row where that was the case (read my review of last night’s Los Angeles Philharmonic HERE). Although Disney Hall is one of the world’s great orchestra halls, it is best during choral concerts, especially during soft moments.

Today was actually three separate programs, beginning with a performance by the 16-voice L.A. Master Chorale Chamber Singers, led by MC Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong. Considering that she memorized the entire 40-minute set, this may well have been part of her Doctor of Musical Arts degree program at USC’s Thornton School of Music. She conducted the set with expressive hands and careful attention to the pieces’ many moods, and the singers’ tone resonated throughout the hall.

Among the highlights was Wir Juden (We Jews), a new composition by 18-year-old USC freshman Lucy McKnight. The moving, five-minute work, McKnight’s first choral piece, was selected as the winner of the Master Chorale’s second annual Young Composers’ Competition and is based on a poem by Gertrud Kolmar, a German-Jewish writer who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943.

The hit for the assembled students was True Colors by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, as arranged by Saunder Choi. The students were given colored lights and encouraged to illuminate them at appropriate times; the results made for a dazzling light display to accompany the singing.

After the Chamber Singers’ program, organist John West gave a demonstration of the Disney Hall organ, beginning with Bach’s Toccata in D Minor and ending with a Star Wars medley that brought forth the waving light show once again. A good time was had by all, especially those who had never heard this instrument!

Prior to the afternoon program, the 29 choral directors were honored onstage with certificates from the Master Chorale. Later, Gershon paid tribute to his high school choral teachers and encouraged the students to keep on singing. “God knows we need harmony in our lives today,” he said.

Next Master Chorale concert:
Gershon and Wong will conduct 48 Master Chorale singers in a program entitled “Wade in the Water” on April 30 in Disney Hall. The program’s title comes from the spiritual of the same name by Moses Hogan that will be sung during the concert. The music ranges far and wide, including Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor. Information: www.lamasterchorale.org
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Jacobs, Robertson and L.A. Phil offer a dazzling organ concerto premiere

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Paul Jacobs is the soloist this weekend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto. He’s pictured last November in the world premiere of the piece with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo credit: Philadelphia Orchestra

Los Angeles Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Ives: Three Places in New England; Rouse: Organ Concerto;
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (“from the New World”)
Next performances: Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com
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With pipe organs being installed in concert halls in increasing numbers during the past decade or so, composers have gained increasing opportunities to create new organ concertos. Christopher Rouse, one of America’s more prolific composers, has added to the canon with his concerto, which was given its west coast premiere last night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conductor David Robertson, and organist Paul Jacobs at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Remarkably this concerto is just the second organ piece that Rouse has composed (the first, a solo piece, has been “euthanized” from his catalogue, as he puts it). Jacobs premiered the new work last November with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rouse’s Organ Concerto is quite short, just a shade under 20 minutes, written with three connected movements. The Phil’s “FastNotes” states: “Rouse’s Organ Concerto has connections to two famous organ works: a brief reference to the Poulenc Organ Concerto at the beginning, and a hint at the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony at the end. (‘The notes have been changed to protect the innocent,’ Rouse says.)”

Despite its brevity, Rouse’s new work packs quite a wallop. It opens with a loud bang and concludes with an even louder chord. Immediately after that opening punch, Jacobs launched into an extended pyrotechnical cadenza and the movement then shifts to lyrical, tonal writing punctuated with occasional bursts of sound.

The lyrical second movement — with mounds of organ chords atop the dreamy accompaniment — gives way to the finale, which allows the organist to stretch her (or, in this case, his) virtuosic chops.

The Phil placed the organ console at the very front of the stage, which allowed many in the large crowd (which included hundreds of young people) a chance to see Jacobs’ hands fly up and down from one keyboard to another and his feet dance along the pedal board.

Robertson and the orchestra ripped through the accompaniment with aplomb and the audience gave Jacobs, Robertson, the orchestra and the composer an enthusiastic standing ovation following that climactic outburst of sound.

Jacobs responded with a sparkling account of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, as an encore, which showed off his technical prowess (the pedal cadenza at the end was dazzling) as well some intriguing registrations on the Disney Hall instrument.

Any orchestra that has a significant pipe organ (or Cameron Carpenter’s international touring instrument) and a top-flight organist available now has a wonderful piece to alternate with the usual organ concerto suspects. I hope the Phil brings it back soon.

Robertson’s programming choices are always interesting; last night was no different. He opened with Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, a 20-minute work with a lengthy gestation period; Ives began it in 1903 and didn’t finish revising the piece until 1929.

Ives’ father told him, “You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.” Despite that admonition, with its spooky beginning and incorporation of snippets from familiar hymns and folk tunes Three Places in New England is one of this craggy composer’s most accessible works and, consequently, one of his most played, as well. Rouse even seemed to quote the work in his concerto.

Robertson and the orchestra gave Three Places in New England a sensitive, probing performance, particularly in the third movement where the organ’s rumbling bass notes provided added heft.

Although Robertson has undoubtedly conducted Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony hundreds — perhaps thousands — of times and the Philharmonic musicians have played it innumerable times, as well, conductor and musicians treated last night’s performance as if it, rather than Rouse’s work, was the premiere.

The piece offers innumerable solo opportunities and the Phil’s section leaders were at the top of their game, beginning with Carolyn Hove’s plaintive second-movement solo, and also including (but not limited to) Denis Bouriakov, flute; Burt Hara, clarinet; Anne Marie Gabriele, oboe; and Andrew Bain, horn.

The 58-year-old Robertson — who has announced he is leaving his post as music director of the St. Louis Symphony in a couple of years — is a wildly exuberant presence on the podium. Where with Gustavo Dudamel, for example, you are entranced by his hands, with Robertson you watch his feet — if he ever touched the metal supporting bar behind the podium after his feet slid along the carpet he’d probably get a static-electricity shock.

Nonetheless, he clearly communicates his feelings to orchestra and audience alike and really makes effective use of pianissimos and, especially, silences, which always seem to resonate at Disney Hall. In total, the results last night were thrilling, even to a critic who has heard the piece hundreds of times, and the audience ate it up.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• At the conclusion of the Dvorak, Robertson came onstage to the sustained applause and acknowledged Hove and Bain before asking the entire orchestra to stand. After exiting the stage again, he reappeared but this time to stand with the brass section and then with the winds — a nice touch, even if he didn’t ask the orchestra to turn and acknowledge thos seated behind them as Gustavo always does.
• Because Three Places in New England has both piano and organ parts, Joanne Pearce Martin (the LAPO principal keyboard player) had to leave her piano bench to a colleague, Vicki Ray, and race upstairs to sit at the rarely used organ bench high above the bench seats to play the organ in the third movement.
• The first L.A. Phil performance of Three Places in New England was led by Nicolas Slonimsky in 1932. Most of us know Slominsky as a musicologist, particularly for his marvelous book, Lexicon of Musical Invective. However, Slonimsky was also a conductor and Ives created a chamber-orchestra version of this work for his Boston Chamber Orchestra in 1930.
• The “New World” Symphony was one of the first pieces every played by the Phil when Walter Henry Rothwell conducted the first LAPO performance on Oct 25, 1919.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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LINKS: Two views of the L.A. Phil from the east coast

Alex Ross in the New Yorker HERE and Zachary Woolfe in the New York Times HERE sing the praises of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, while hoping that LAPO President and CEO Deborah Borda’s transfer to a similar job at the New York Philharmonic will lead a revitalization of that important ensemble.

The headline on Woolfe’s article — “Los Angeles Has America’s Most Important Orchestra. Period.” encapsulates the article’s thrust. Ross’ article from a month ago includes this quote: “The L.A. Phil’s 2017–18 season, just announced, is so far ahead of that of any rival, in America or around the world, that the orchestra is mainly competing with itself.” Both articles give the LAPO a lot to live up to.

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FIVE-SPOT: April 20-23, 2017

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending. Once again, Saturday will be a VERY busy day.

APRIL 20, 22, 23: LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
8 p.m. April 20 and 22; 2 p.m. April 23
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, returns “home” (he’s a Santa Monica native) to lead the Phil in a program that features the west coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto, with Paul Jacobs as soloist. The concerto is bookended by Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“from the New World”). The Rouse concerto, a L.A. Phil co-commission, debuted last fall in Philadelphia.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

APRIL 21: HIGH SCHOOL CHORAL FESTIVAL
1 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles (see “Additional Concert” below)
1,000 high school students from 30 Southland schools can be heard in a free concert when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presents the 28th Annual High School Choir Festival. The Festival choir will be led by LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon in a varied program that features works by this year’s guest artist singer/composer Moira Smiley. Smiley will also teach the massive choir body percussion to accompany one of her songs.

BONUS: Free admission, first come, first served (which means it’s a great — and cost effective — opportunity to hear choral music in Disney Hall).

ADDITIONAL CONCERT: Assistant conductor Jenny Wong will lead 16 members of the Chorale in a concert at 11 a.m. This one is also free but tickets must be arranged through the Master Chorale Web Site (see below).

Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

APRIL 21: THE COLBURN ORCHESTRA
7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Guest Conductor Christian Arming (music director of the Liège Royal Philharmonic) leads this top-notch conservatory orchestra in a program that features a collection of songs by Irving Berlin sung by tenor Joshua Wheeker and danced by The Colburn Dance Academy. The songs are bookended by Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet.

BONUS: This concert is part of the L.A. Phil’s “Sounds About Town” series, which means that tickets are very reasonably priced ($15-$44). So, if you’ve never heard a concert in Disney Hall, this is a great opportunity.

Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

APRIL 21: “WEST SIDE STORY”
8 p.m. at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts; La Mirada
The McCoy-Rigby mounting of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, his iconic retelling of Romeo and Juliet, moves to La Mirada for an extended run that lasts through May 14.

BONUS: Nice ticket prices: $14-$70.

Information: lamirdadatheatre.com

APRIL 22 AND 23: LOS ANGELES CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
8 p.m. April 22 at Alex Theatre; Glendale
7 p.m. April 23 at Royce Hall, UCLA; Westwood
In his penultimate concert as LACO Music Director, Jeffrey Kahane leads the orchestra, soloists and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Information: www.laco.org

APRIL 22: BACH’S “GOLDBERG VARIATIONS”
3 p.m. at The Huntington Library; San Marino
Harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon will play one of Bach’s most famous keyboard works as part of Camerata Pacifica’s 27th season.

Information: www.cameratapacifica.org

APRIL 22: AMERICAN YOUTH SYMPHONY
6 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA; Westwood
Music Director Carlos Izcaray leads his young musicians in a performance of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with Rachel Ostler as soloist.

BONUS: Tickets are free but should be reserved in advance (the concert is nearly sold out). The concert is followed by a ticketed gala dinner; reservations are required.

Information: aysymphony.org

APRIL 22: PUCCINI’S “TOSCA”
7:30 p.m. at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Los Angeles
Sondra Radvanovsky returns to L.A. to reprise her role in Puccini’s tear jerker. James Conlon conducts and John Caird oversees his original LA Opera staging. Other performances are April 27, May 2, 5 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 and May 7 at 2 p.m.

BONUS: The Pavilion is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the Temple St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station, walk north to Temple and then west up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laopera.org

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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: “Into the Woods” continues to work its magical spell

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

I’m by no means an expert on musical theater but those I like I tend to see multiple times (the same is true of certain books and movies, and I’ve seen most M*A*S*H episodes enough times to be able to double the soundtracks). Some of the reasons are pure enjoyment but I also find that multiple viewings allows me to experience different levels of thinking inherent in whatever it is that I’m viewing.

Thus I saw Into the Woods Saturday for the third time. I first experienced it during its original Broadway run in New York City and then saw it again at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles a few years later. It’s back at the Ahmanson again, but this version by the wonderfully named Fiasco Productions is quite different from the original and light years away from the 2014 Disney movie.

Five things I think I think (with apologies to Peter King of SI.com, who runs “10 Things I Think I Think” in his weekly “Monday Morning QB” column …)

1. The play, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, continues to be as fresh and thought provoking as when it first opened. The mashup idea (merging several familiar fairy tales with one, the Baker and his wife, invented by Lapine) was a stroke of genius.
2. The concept of Act I being “they lived happily ever after” and Act II being the consequences of the characters’ actions was particularly effective in this rendition (although that might have resulted from my multiple viewings). The shift is stark enough that one of the characters reminded the audience before the performance began to be sure to come back for the second act.
3. The Fiasco Productions concept was highly inventive, with many of the 11 performers playing multiple parts and several also playing different instruments throughout the performance.
4. The cast was uniformly exuberant and strong. Darick Pead earned the biggest laughs for his portrayal of Milky White and Evan Rees gets special plaudits for his work on the piano (which is onstage during the production).
5. I was amazed at how many young children were in the audience Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure this is really a work for young children (teenagers, yes) but it’s great for them to at least be exposed to a major musical theater work in such an excellent production.

Information:
Into the Woods runs through May 14 at the Ahmanson. Information HERE.
• You may be able to find discounted tickets through Goldstar HERE.
• The Ahmanson is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the Temple St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station, walk north to Temple and then and walk up two blocks to reach the hall.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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