OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil open Disney Hall season with gala concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

dudamel2016Nearly every major American orchestra opens their season with some sort of gala concert in advance of their initial subscription programs. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is no different … except that it is.

Many of the L.A. patrons (most of whom have ponied up big bucks to attend the post-concert party on Grand Avenue) dress up in black tie or the female equivalent and amble up a red carpet. The concert is somewhat shorter than regular subscription programs, negated somewhat by the fact that most of the audience arrive very late (the downbeat last night was 21 minutes after the announced start time of 7 p.m.) The evening ends with mylar shards floating down from the Walt Disney Concert Hall ceiling.

What makes the Phil galas different is that LAPO Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) takes these programs very seriously. True, last night ended with a repertoire staple — Gershwin’s An American in Paris — but that piece was a natural finish to an evening that focused on “Gershwin and the Jazz Age.”

In addition to music by Gershwin, Dudamel added selections from two other giants of the jazz age — Cole Porter and Duke Ellington — and a work by a composer whose work was heavily influenced by jazz: Leonard Bernstein.

Not only did Dudamel take the program seriously but so did the orchestra, which played at top form throughout the evening, not an easy thing to do when shifting from one style to another, in this case from jaunty jazz to sweeping symphonic.

The evening opened with Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations, which featured diminutive 21-year-old pianist George Li as the saucy soloist.

The orchestra’s Principal Clarinet, Boris Allakhverdyan, also proved to be a formidable soloist in Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, which, according to John Henken’s informative music notes, was written originally on a commission by Woody Herman in 1949. However, Herman’s band broke up before he could perform the piece and it wasn’t until 1955 the the piece was actually performed, with Benny Goodman as soloist, for the television series, Omnibus.

For these ears, the highlight of the evening was the second movement, Stalking Monster, of Ellington’s 1955 work Night Creature, with the trombone section setting an atmospheric mood and Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour adding a winsome solo. This would be a great encore piece on the Phil’s upcoming West Coast tour.

In between those opening and closing orchestral sections, singers Megan Hilty and Brian Stokes Mitchell offered solos and duets by Cole Porter (Always True to You in My Fashion and So in Love) and Gershwin (Someone to Watch Over Me and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off).

The highlight was Mitchell’s hilarious rendition of It Ain’t Necessarily So from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, although it took awhile for the audience to get in the swing of things as the “echo” part.

Now age 35 and beginning his eight season at the Phil’s helm, Dudamel was relaxed and poised on the podium and even joked about the silver strands creeping into his curly hair. It was a promising beginning to the orchestra’s 98th season.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Although the official unveiling isn’t until Saturday, patrons entering Disney Hall from the parking garage got their first look at Nimbus, a series of cloud-like structures hanging from the ceiling accompanied by music played by the Phil’s musicians. Details are HERE.
• The orchestra’s 98th subscription season opens tomorrow night with Dudamel leading the Phil in Beethoven’s Corolian Overture, John Adams’ Strange Jest, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet as soloists, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The program repeats Friday and Sunday; KUSC will broadcast the Friday program. INFO
• The program officially kicks off the season-long 70th birthday celebration of Adams, who — in addition to being one of America’s most important composers — serves as the Phil’s Creative Chair.
• In addition to officially unveiling Nimbus, Saturday will be an eight-hour (noon to 8 p.m.) celebration of contemporary music, followed by the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Richard Strauss performed heroically by Harth-Bedoya and the L.A. Phil at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

With management and the musicians of his Ft. Worth Symphony locked an increasingly acrimonious labor dispute, Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s return last night to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl must have been especially sweet.

The 48-year-old Peruvian-born conductor — who has led the Ft. Worth ensemble since 2000 and is also Chief Conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra in Oslo — was the L.A. Phil’s assistant conductor and then associate conductor from 1998-2004. He returns periodically to lead our local band both at the Bowl and at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

He seemed particularly serene during moments of Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, which comprised the second half of the evening, and no wonder. Nearly all of the principal players were on hand for the performance and the ensemble — swelled by extra brass, horns and an additional harp — was the largest this summer. Even the cicadas seemed larger in number and volume. In addition to the high quality performance of the ensemble, the solo work by Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and Principal Horn Andrew Bain was breathtaking.

Of course, you couldn’t tell that by the obnoxiously restless audience. I’m always amazed when the Phil elects to program a long symphonic work at the Bowl how many people decide to leave part way through the piece, not to mention those who flee before the work even starts. You’d think their coaches were turning into pumpkins at 9:45 instead of midnight. Didn’t they know ahead of time that the work was 50 minutes long?

The capper for me was the woman with noisy clogs who clip-clopped down the concrete steps, intently gazing at her cell phone (as least she wasn’t talking on it and didn’t fall down the steps). Moments later she returned to her seat, seemingly oblivious to the orchestra’s playing. Oh, and I forgot to mention the foursome in the very front boxes who decided midway through the performance that it was okay to make their exit. Sheesh!

(Full disclosure: I inadvertently contributed to the obnoxiscity when, early on, I turned on my iPad to write a note and accidentally activated Siri — how embarrassing; mea culpa!)

There’s no denying that Ein Heldenleben is long. Most scholars consider the work to be autobiographical (the title translates as A Hero’s Life) and Strauss was a composer with plenty of ego, so one guess as to the Hero was. It’s also my favorite Strauss tone poem, so I confess to bias when I listen to it.

Some conductors like to wallow in the music’s excesses but Harth-Bedoya, thankfully, eschewed such a decision. Instead, he was content to let the music (and the magnificent orchestra) speak without excessive tempo extremes to over-emphasize Strauss’ intentions.

As I noted earlier, the performance by Chalifour of the themes representing Strauss’ wife was exemplary. This was his 49th Bowl solo appearance in his 20 years with the Phil and it was one of his best. In the first half of the evening, Chalifour brought his irresistibly sweet tone and superb musicality to seven short works by violinist Fritz Kreisler. The tone was especially noteworthy in Caprice vennois and when Chalifour was dancing on the E string during Tambourin chinois.

Preceding the music by the Vienna-born Kreisler were two works by that most Viennese of composers, Johann Strauss II: the Emperor Waltz and Thunder and Lightning Polka, both dispatched with panache by conductor and orchestra.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• The classical season wraps up beginning tomorrow, when Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot returns to the Bowl to lead a dance-themed program, with three L.A. dance companies accompanying the music. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring will conclude the evening. INFO
• Morlot also conducts the Sept. 13 program featuring French music. The final classical concert for the season, on Sept. 15, includes Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” not with a violin soloist as is customary but with Israeli-Moroccan mandolinist Avi Avital offering a different perspective on this familiar work. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: John Williams at Hollywood Bowl: the force continues to be with us

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

John-WilliamsIn the 55 years that I have attended Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts I cannot count the number of composers who have conducted the orchestra. However, only a few have carved major careers in both disciplines. Two of those were LAPO Music Directors: André Previn and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Two others in that multiple-category were Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez.

Over the weekend more than 50,000 people jammed Hollywood Bowl for three concerts conducted (in part) by another of those multiple-category icons: John Williams pictured above). He’s never held an official position, either conducting or composing, with the Phil but he long ago might as well have been named Principal Conductor of Movie Music Programs at the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre since, as he told the capacity crowd last night, this is his 38th year of conducting at the Bowl. David Newman — who is himself both a composer and conductor — told the audience early on that he believes Williams introduced the concept of leading an orchestra accompanying movie clips, and so he did last night.

At age 84, Williams was more than willing to share the podium with Newman, who — Williams told us — he met when Newman was a toddler and Williams was playing in the 20th Century Fox orchestra for the 1957 movie version of South Pacific (Newman’s father, Alfred, was the studio’s music director and a formidable composer in his own right).

Newman and the orchestra opened last night with a suite from Alan Silvestri’s score to Forest Gump, which accompanied a montage of clips saluting Paramount Pictures’ 114-year history.

Some of the remaining numbers — a suite from Franz Waxman’s score for Sunset Boulevard and Nino Rota’s score to The Godfather and Godfather II — were accompanied by montage clips from their respective films. Others — Williams’ theme from Sabrina and “The Wild Ride” from Bernard Hermann’s score for North by Northwest — were performed simply as music.

Newman’s commentary was intelligent but sounded somewhat frantic in delivery, especially considering that this was the third show of the weekend. It made me appreciate anew how good conductors such as Rachael Worby, John Mauceri and Bramwell Tovey are at this skill.

The formal first half (Newman and the orchestra encored with the Mission Impossible theme music) ended with the opening sequence from Star Trek: Into Darkness, with Newman leading the orchestra as it accompanied the action on screen.

During the intermission, I heard one teenager sum things up when he said, “The Star Trek was dorky but I thought North by Northwest was cool.” The kid’s got the makings of a critic!

Williams led his own music the second half of the concert. I was struck by how much more at ease and fluid he seems as a conductor from when I first remember seeing him on the podium. He still uses a score for everything but he was relaxed and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself, even adopting a few of Gustavo Dudamel’s sly mannerisms to keep things moving forward smartly.

About a quarter of the exuberant 17,000+ attendees came armed with light sabers, a phenomenon that Williams remarked is unique to the Bowl (my box mate brought a bottle of “Lord Vader” beer, instead).

After Williams and the orchestra teased the audience by playing “Flight to Neverland” from Williams’ score for Hook and a suite from The BFG, it was time for music from the Star Wars movies, starting with the latest incarnation, The Force Awakens, and continuing with music from the original trio of George Lucas-created films.

Film montages accompanied some — but not all — of the music, all of which the orchestra played with its customary panache. As he introduced various segments, Williams told the story of how, in 1977 while seeing rough cuts of the original Star Wars movie, he assumed that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia would eventually become lovers and so wrote the “Princess Leia” theme as sensuous love music, not realizing until later that they were, in fact, brother and sister. “Not exactly appropriate music,” he noted wryly.

The “Throne Room & Finale” from Star Wars: A New Hope had light sabers waving everywhere in time to the music, a truly amazing visual. Williams and the orchestra encored with the themes from Harry Potter and Superman and the “Flying Music” from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (heading home, many of us longed for those flying machines to leave the parking lots).

Although I saw and heard Bernstein conduct many times, rarely did he lead his own music. Ditto for Previn. With Salonen I’ve gotten to experience him conduct several of his own pieces. For 38 years John Williams conducting his movie music has been a part of our lives in Southern California and it never gets old.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Former LAPO Associate Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya returns to the bowl to lead the Phil Tuesday night in a program of music by waltzes by Johann Strauss II, Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and violin bon-bons by Fritz Kreisler, with the orchestra’s Principal Concertmaster, Martin Chalifour, as soloist. INFO
• Thursday night, Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot returns to the Bowl to lead a dance-themed program, with three L.A. dance companies accompanying the music. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring will conclude the evening. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEW: Pasadena Symphony extends contracts of Lockington and McGegan

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The Pasadena Symphony has extended the tenures of Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan through the 2018-2019 season. Lockington and McGegan were each appointed three years ago with three-year contracts and the contracts have been extended each year, in effect making them “evergreen” contracts.

Lockington will conduct four concerts during the upcoming season, beginning with the opening programs at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on October 8 at Ambassador Auditorium. McGegan will lead two concerts at Ambassador and the seventh event will be the now-annual holiday-music concert on Dec. 17 at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

The final Pasadena Pops concert of the summer season will be Sept. 10 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Pasadena.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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