OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Bartók, Janáček dominate L.A. Phil’s Disney Hall concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Today and tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

Yuja Wang was the soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

As we drove home following the concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, fireworks blazed in the sky over Dodger Stadium. They paled compared to the fireworks that exploded inside Disney Hall.

Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic began a two-week series last night that will conclude the Phil’s 2016-2017 indoor subscription season. The cycle revolves around the three piano concertos of Bela Bartók, with Yuja Wang as the soloist. Dudamel is surrounding each concerto with music by Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček — this weekend it’s two rarely heard and disparate pieces based on Roman Catholic liturgy: Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Since her Phil debut at Hollywood Bowl in 2011, Wang has been one of the most enjoyable pianists at Phil concerts and recitals both for her playing and what she wears. In her Los Angeles Times profile of Wang yesterday (LINK), Deborah Vankin wrote: “Wang says she has outgrown some lifestyle choices for which she’s known. Of fashion, once an obsession, she says, ‘Oh, it was a phase.’ ” Based on the long, purple slit dress she wore last night (see photo above), Wang clearly had her tongue in her cheek during the interview.

However, as usual, Wang playing was the real story. Although she has performed the Bartók concertos individually during this season, this will mark the first time she will play them in a cycle. Somewhat surprisingly, last night she used a score for the complex, percussive score (given the number of notes, I was glad I wasn’t turning pages). She tore through the music with the virtuosity for which she is well known, pausing along the way to let more delicate passages drip off of her fingers.

Dudamel, who also used a score — in fact, for the first time I can remember he used scores on all three of the evening’s pieces — and the Phil were on their rhythmic toes throughout the performance, for which all concerned received an especially lengthy standing ovation.

Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles was the last major work the composer wrote, five years before he died in 1971 (in what was probably a cut-and-past error, the printed program managed to bogey all of Stravinsky’s birth and death information).

Although scored for a massive orchestra, chorus and two soloists, Requiem Canticles is just 15 minutes long, uses only 24 lines of the Roman Catholic Requiem liturgy (Stravinsky termed it his “first mini- or pocket-requiem”), and never has the full orchestra playing — often just a few instruments cover the singers.

It remains a perplexing work for the hearer, full of the dissonances and serialism that Stravinsky was using at the time. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, which numbered 92 according to the printed program, sang with delicate precision, mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova delivered “Lacrimosa” lines with creamy, luxurious tones, and bass Stefan Kocan was properly stentorian in the “Tuba Mirum” section, aided expertly by Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten.

If Requiem Canticles is at the mini-end of the musical scale, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass stands at the opposite extreme. It was written in 1926 and revised in 1928, the same time frame as the first Bartók piano concerto. Janáček was age 73 at the time and his textual choice remains perplexing.

In his program notes: Herbert Glass wrote:

“ ‘The ageing composer [Janáček] had a positive aversion to organized religion, even to churches. He would not go into one even to get out of the rain,’ his niece wrote. ‘The church to me is the essence of death,’ Janáček observed, ‘graves under the flagstones, bones on the altars, all kinds of torture and death in the paintings. The rituals, the prayers, the chants – death and death again! I won’t have anything to do with it.

“Yet after the first performance of the Glagolitic Mass in Brno (in a church), in the composer’s native Moravia, in December of 1927, a Czech newspaper critic wrote: ‘The aged master, a deeply devout man, has composed this Mass out of passionate conviction that his life’s work would be incomplete without an artistic expression of his relation to God.’ Janáček was outraged and wrote in return a postcard with a four-word response: ‘Neither aged, nor devout.’ ”

Rather than religious, Janáček conceived the work as a pantheistic, patriotic work, using for the text — instead of Latin — Old Slavonic (whose written characters are in Glagolitic, thus the work’s title). The words were the same Missa Solemnis text used by Beethoven in his Op. 123 work written near the end of his life.

Like Requiem Canticles, the Glagolitic Mass is scored for giant-sized orchestra and full chorus, but unlike Stravinsky Janáček uses them in full-throated glory. Dudamel conducted the work with an irresistible swagger, the orchestra’s strings were notable for their lean sound, and the full brass section was glorious throughout. The Master Chorale sang the difficult text superbly. In addition to Kolosova and Kocan, soprano Angela Meade sang gloriously with full operatic fervor, while Ladislav Elgr’s clarion tenor voice soared over the orchestra and chorus with seeming ease.

The orchestral score includes a pipe organ and, after the final choral section, Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna put a virtuosic cap on the proceedings using the Disney Hall organ in the “Varhany” solo movement (the word means “organ” in Czech), which concludes with a pedal-solo flourish.

The 1928 version has Glagolitic Mass concluding with a short, dramatic orchestral movement, “Intrada,” which preconcert lecturer Eric Bromberger noted might be thought of as a recessional rather than an introit (the original 1926 version had the movement at the beginning). As an organ lover I might have opted for the earlier version.

• The two-week Bartok cycle concludes next week with the second piano concerto on June 1 and 2 and the third concerto on June 3 and 4. Both concertos are surrounded by Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Information: www.laphil.com
• The final concert of the Disney Hall season is a “Green Umbrella” performance of Lou Harrison’s opera Young Caesar on June 13, with the L.A. New Music Group conducted by Mark Lowenstein, and the production staged by Yuval Sharon in collaboration with his group, The Industry. This year marks the centennial of Harrison’s birth. Information: www.laphil.com

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

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FIVE SPOT: May 26-28, 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.

I’m sure someone will remind me of something I have missed but on this Memorial Day weekend I have only one set of concerts to note.

8 p.m. Friday; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
On the heels of its Schubert cycle, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic join with pianist Yuja Wang for all three Bartok piano concertos spread over two weekends. This weekend is the first concerto paired with Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. The latter two pieces feature the Los Angeles Master Chorale, soloists and organist Ivet Apkalana.

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.

Added note: Deborah Vankin has a cute story on Yuja Wang in today’s Los
Angeles Times
HERE. However, I imagine that Universal Studios will be having a conversation with the guy playing Donkey (as in Shrek) about line management :).

Information: www.laphil.com


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

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ON THE ROAD: Metro Board shelves 710 Freeway tunnel in favor of traffic improvements

At its monthly meeting today Metro’s Board of Directors voted to approve a motion from its Ad-Hoc Congestion, Highway and Roads Committee to adopt the Transit Systems Management/Transit Demand Management (TSM/TDM) option for closing the 710 Freeway gap between I-10 in Alhambra and East Los Angeles and I-210 in Pasadena. The vote was 12-0.

The motion apparently puts an end to a single-bore tunnel to close a more than 6-mile gap from where the 710 Freeway ends at Valley Blvd. near Alhambra and 1-210 in Pasadena. “I’ve thought the tunnel was the best approach, but I’ve also come to the realization that it’s un-fundable and if it happened it was many, many years away,” said Board Chair and Duarte Mayor Pro Tem John Fasana. Instead, according to The Source (a Metro communication vehicle), “many Board Members said they hoped to do something immediate rather than wait years for a freeway tunnel that may never have enough funding and/or political support to be built.”

Read my report following the committee meeting HERE.

Read the full story from The Source HERE.

Read the Los Angeles Times report HERE.

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil conclude Schubert symphony cycle elegantly

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

In his nine years as Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel has led several symphony cycles. The most famous was his “Mahler Project” in 2012, when Dudamel conducted the L.A. Phil and his Simón Bólivar Symphony Orchestra in all nine symphonies by Gustav Mahler (plus assorted other works). During his tenure, Dudamel has also led cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies.

However, when Dudamel programmed the entire symphonic output of Franz Schubert for this season, many were left scratching their collective heads. How many Schubert symphonies have you heard before this month? Two, of course — Nos. 8 and 9. No. 5, perhaps. Beyond that? In her preconcert lecture this afternoon, Dr. Lorraine Byrne Bodley, one of the world’s foremost Schubert experts, made a point of saying how impressed she was that Dudamel and the Phil would program all eight Schubert symphonies in a two-week stretch. “Some of the early works, in particular,” she noted, “are almost never played.”

The cycle concluded this afternoon at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the two most famous Schubert symphonies: No. 8 (“Unfinished”) and No. 9 (“The Great C-Major”). What made the day special was not just the orchestra’s superb playing nor Dudamel’s sensitive conducting. Instead, it was the fact that those who have been in attendance for the first three programs over a two-week period got to hear these last two within the context of what had come before.

In the space of just 11 years, beginning in 1813 when Schubert was age 16, he grew from teenage prodigy to the harbinger of the Romantic era to come, in particular the music of Brahms, Schumann and, yes, even Gustav Mahler whose song cycles Dudamel programmed in between each pair of Schubert’s works. Next season Dudamel tackles Robert Schmann’s symphonies, plus the composer’s concertos and a rarely performed stage work. It’s a fitting follow up to this cycle.

The gap between 1818, when Schubert completed his sixth symphony, and 1822, when No. 8 was “finished” was curiously wide, yet the maturity, complexity and brilliance of No. 8 stands worlds apart from his first six efforts (a seventh symphony was begun, but apparently never completed).

Yet, as the Phil’s cycle showed us, the eighth was, indeed, an outgrowth of his earlier works, albeit richer than the first six. The orchestral scoring for each symphony grew gradually and for the eighth symphony he added three trombones, which made for greater sonority. Moreover, in the Phil’s performances Principal Timpanist Joseph Periera eschewed the bright kettledrums he had used for the early symphonies in favor of the now-standard timpani used in the Mahler songs.

The eighth continues Schubert’s penchant of playing the winds against the strings. Dudamel — conducting without a score as he has done for all the symphonies — began the proceedings with a brisk tempo but relaxed as the measures spun out and highlighted that nearly constant dialogue between winds and strings. He received elegant playing from Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan and the entire cello section in the two principal themes. The second movement, particularly the horns, had a sonorous, rich feeling with Dudamel quietly urging the work forward to its ambiguous end.

Much continues to be made as to why Schubert left this work unfinished — if, indeed, he did. There are piano sketches of a third movement and many scholars believe that the intra-act music of the opera Rosamunde may have been originally intended as a fourth movement for this symphony. Some believe that Schubert simply laid the work aside to continue other compositions. Others postulate that his battle with the effects of syphilis caused him to lay aside the 8th.

Yet every time I hear a performance as loving and lovely as we heard today, I remain tantalized by the thought that for Schubert the work was finished. He must have realized how great piece it was, although it’s inconceivable that he could have dreamed that 100 years after its composition it would be his most famous work.

As was the case on Thursday and Friday, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was the soloist today, this time in four of Mahler’s songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. As was the case Thursday night she sang with a luxurious tone and she was more animated and even playful in the first song than had been the case Thursday. As has been the case with all four song cycles, the last movement — this time with limpid oboe and trumpet solos — held the audience spellbound.

Symphony No. 9, which was completed in 1826, three years after the eighth, was yet another quantum leap forward in Schubert’s symphonic style. Schubert’s first six symphonies, in large measure, look backwards to his great idols: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. His ninth, as I wrote earlier, looks forward, although Jeffrey Kahane made an impressive case last night for looking backwards, as well, when he led the Symphony No. 9 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LINK).

Partly due to the wonderful resonance of Disney Hall, the almost inaudible opening measures set the bar high for this superb performance. The Phil produced a deep luxuriant tone throughout the opening movement, aided immeasurably by burnished playing from horn player Amy Jo Rhine.

The second movement featured elegant solo work from Associate Principal Oboe Marion Arthur Kuszyk and the entire cello section.

The third movement was the one section in the entire cycle when Dudamel indulged his penchant for dancing on the podium, although as I have often noted he never makes a sway, swoop or gesture that doesn’t serve the music.

The final movement was taken at a majestic tempo. Dudamel built the performance inexorably to a grand conclusion that brought forth a fully justified standing ovation. He seemed particularly pleased with the playing today but really the smiles were for the entire two-week cycle.


• As if the Schubert cycle wasn’t enough, Dudamel and the Phil conclude their 2016-2017 indoor season with a cycle of the three Bartok piano concertos, with Yuja Wang as soloist.

The concerts this Friday, Saturday and Sunday include the first piano concerto, paired with Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. The latter two pieces feature the Los Angeles Master Chorale, soloists and organist Ivet Apkalana. Informatioon: www.laphil.com

The concerts on June 1 and 2 feature Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, while the programs on June 3 and 4 revolve around his Piano Concerto No. 3. Both programs include Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Information: www.laphil.com

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Kahane bids a fond farewell to LACO

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
Saturday at Alex Theatre; Glendale
Next performances: Tonight at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA
Information: www.laco.org

Jeffrey Kahane is conducting his final concerts after a 20-year reign as Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra music director. This image was the printed program cover; a framed copy, signed by the orchestra members, was presented to Kahane last night.

During the last eight days local classical music organizations have performed three farewell concerts. Last Saturday John Alexander bid goodbye to the Pacific Chorale after 45 years as its Music Director (REVIEW LINK). On Thursday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic honored Deborah Borda, who is stepping down as its President and CEO (REVIEW LINK)

This weekend, Jeffrey Kahane is bidding the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra adieu after 20 years as its Music Director, although he will remain as Conductor Laureate. Based on last night’s performance at the Alex Theatre in Gledane, he’s doing it with what might be called a quintessential Kahane program — a first and two lasts: a world premiere, Mozart’s final piano concerto, and concluding with a work that some might consider beyond the scope of a chamber orchestra: Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. It might also be thought of as two firsts and a last, since this weekend marks LACO’s initial performances of Schubert’s “Great C-Major” Symphony.

Originally the program called for Christopher Cerrone’s premiere and the concerto to be the first half with the Schubert as the sole post-intermission work. However, as is often the case with today’s young composers, Cerrone’s 12-minute work — Will There Be Singing — came loaded with percussion instruments, so Kahane elected to open with the concerto and save Cerrone’s new piece until the second half. The idea was to make for more seamless logistics, but it didn’t work; Kahane had to wait a few moments while the final percussion instruments were removed and the trombones came scurrying onstage.

The only real problem was that this decision unbalanced the program from a timing point of view. The concerto lasted just under 30 minutes while the second half, including 10 minutes of congratulatory speeches and a bubbly encore, Johann Strauss Jr.’s Overture to Die Fledermaus, ran three times that long.

At any rate, the concerto — No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595, the final piano concerto Mozart wrote and also the last one he played in public — proved to be the evening’s highlight, at least to this critic. Conducting from the keyboard, Kahane balanced his orchestral forces expertly and delivered a pristinely elegant performance of the solo part, reminding us all that he began his career as a prize-winning pianist and continues to play beyond that level.

Among Kahane’s many achievements Kahane has commissioned 30 new works, including 16 through LACO’s “Sound Investment” program. The 30th was Cerrone’s new piece, Will There Be Singing — in response to an email query as to why there was no question mark, he wrote: “I liked the slight ambiguity and rather don’t like punctuation in titles.”

It began with five minutes of ringing chords, continued with five minutes of minimalistic-style music that would have been appropriate for a movie sound track, and concluded with a couple of minutes that fused the two concepts together smartly. Kahane conducted the piece with vigor, the orchestra played it stylishly, and the audience gave the composer a warm reception when he came on stage.

During the past two weeks, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have led audiences through the first six Schubert symphonies (the last two are being played this weekend), showing how Schubert matured as a symphony composer even in just a few years.

Schubert’s early symphonies honor the music of Haydn, Mozart and, to a lesser extent, Beethoven, while Nos. 8 and 9 are more forward looking. In her program notes for last night’s concerts, Dr. Christine Lee Gengaro wrote of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9: “The grandeur of the [first] movement … prefigures the Symphony as it would be by later composers — Brahms, Bruckner and even Mahler.”

Kahane elected to emphasize Schubert’s looking-backward element last night, delivering a performance would have sounded perfect in a Viennese salon but which offered little (to these ears) that looked ahead to the Romantic-era composers spelled out by Gengaro. That’s a perfectly acceptable way of performing this work and, indeed, it seemed to accentuate appropriately the DNA of LACO’s 49-year existence.

Kahane was fully in command throughout last night — oddly enough, he used a score during the second and third movements but not in the first and fourth — delivering brisk tempos that brought the performance in at 48 minutes. The orchestra was at the top if its collective game, playing with elegant refinement that began with the wistful horn solos by Gabriel Kovach to open the work.

In the media release about this concert, Kahane said, “It is the hope of every music director to leave an orchestra in better shape than it was when he inherited it, and I believe that anyone who has known and loved LACO over the last few decades would resoundingly agree that this hope has come to fruition.”

It has, and we all have much for which to be grateful, not least is that Jeffrey will be staying in the area, maintaining ties with the ensemble and mentoring new artists as Professor of Keyboard Studies at the USC Thornton School of Music.

• This was the seventh LACO performance of Mozart’s K. 495 concerto. Others performances were led by Sir Neville Marriner in 1977, Gerard Schwarz in 1985, Christof Perick in 1989, Ignat Solzhenitsyn in 2007, and Kahane in 2008 as part of his cycle of all 27 concerti played during the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.
• The printed program noted that since he became music director on July 19, 1997 Kahane has conducted 519 distinct musical works (172 from the keyboard), led 430 individual concerts, and given 154 chamber-music performances. That’s a tough legacy for his successor to follow (the search is ongoing).
• In his first concert as Conductor Laureate next March, Kahane will lead the orchestra, leading the orchestra in a program that includes the West Coast premiere of Pierre Jalbert’s Violin Concerto, with Concertmaster Margaret Batjer as soloist. The concerto is a LACC co-commission. Information: www.laco.org

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

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