REVIEW: Pianist Zee Zee shines in sparkling Pasadena Symphony program

By ROBERT D. THOMAS
Music Critic

Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor>
Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Next performance: Dec. 16 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
All Saints Church; Pasadena
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

My former wife, who died decades ago from Multiple Sclerosis, was a concert pianist. There are a handful of piano concertos that I consider “Jennifer concertos” (concertos she played), which means when they show up on a schedule I draw a big circle around the particular date.

One of those is the Saint-Saéns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, which was (for me, at any rate), the centerpiece — both literally and figuratively — of the Pasadena Symphony’s concert yesterday afternoon and evening in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium (I saw the afternoon performance).

The soloist was the young, award-winning Chinese-born pianist now known as Zee Zee, pictured at the top of this post (I assume she changed from Zhang Zuo because Zee Zee is easier to spell and pronounce). Unlike her compatriot, Yuja Wang, Zee Zee came on stage wearing a blue formal gown — she preferred to let the music and her music making speak for itself. And speak it did, wonderfully.

Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto was once a staple on concert programs but it has fallen into neglect these days. Zee Zee argued a persuasive case for its reintroduction. Her rendition of the lengthy solo fantasia that opens the work was both powerful and musical and those qualities permeated the balance of the concerto, as well. She sailed through the work’s numerous flying octaves with aplomb while at the same time playing trills and runs with effortless pearl-like delicacy. It was a tour de force in the best use of that phrase, and she is somebody the PSO should re-engage as soon as possible.

Music Director David Lockington elected to construct yesterday’s program in an old-fashioned manner: 18th century overture, followed by the concerto and then a Mozart symphony. In doing so, he reminded all in attendance why this format and this music has remained so popular for nearly two centuries.

Lockington opened the program with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, leading a striking performance that melded extraordinary precision with sensitive musicality. Those qualities were also evident in the concerto accompaniment and in the concluding Mozart symphony (No. 41, Jupiter). The Pasadena Symphony usually offers excellent programs — especially when you consider it plays just seven sets of concerts during the season — but yesterday they pushed their level of excellence up a notch or two with their performances.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Mauceri, New West Symphony and others offer full evening of Leonard Bernstein’s music

By ROBERT D. THOMAS
Music Critic

New West Symphony and others; John Mauceri, conductor>
Valley Performing Arts Center; Northridge
Next performances: Tonight (November 18) at 8 p.m., Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
November 19 at 2 p.m., Oxnard Performing Arts Center
Information: www.newwestsymphony.org

Is it possible to have too much of Leonard Bernstein’s music on a single program? A large crowd last night at Cal State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center — aka the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts or “the Soraya” for short — got a chance to consider that question when they heard a program entirely of Lenny’s music that was two years in the making by conductor John Mauceri and VPAC Executive Director Thor Steingraber.

Part way through the multi-year celebration of Bernstein’s birth centennial and several things have become apparent about how we are treating the composer-conductor-educator-raconteur-etc.

There have been plenty of duplication of some of Bernstein’s pieces but his three symphonies are not showing up on local programs (although next summer’s Hollywood Bowl programs, to be announced next February might change that).

However, no one — until this weekend — has programmed an entire concert of Bernstein’s music (technically the Los Angeles Philharmonic will also have an entire program of Bernstein when Gustavo Dudamel leads a performance of the composer’s Mass on Feb. 1, 2, 3 and 4).

However, last night’s program was unique — in brief pre-performance remarks Steingraber said he believed this was the only program in the world that would include music from all eight of Bernstein’s theatrical pieces.

The program was a natural for Mauceri to spearhead since Bernstein was one of his mentors and close friends. He is also someone whose skill set (minus composition) is remarkably similar to Bernstein, particularly in his winsome way of producing deft commentary about a program.

Mauceri enlisted the help of 130 musicians on stage: the New West Symphony, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Women of Areté Vocal Ensemble and California Lutheran University Choir, and a quarter of soloists. He also inserted recordings of Billie Holliday, Eileen Farrell and Bernstein himself — playing the piano and singing — into the beginning and encore pieces on the program.

The concert showed off Bernstein at his best and worst in terms of composition. Three of his works — On the Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story — were certifiable hits (and in the case of WSS, a mega-hit). Two — Trouble in Tahiti and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — were all-world flops and two — Candide and Mass — continue to have their adherents and detractors.

Nonetheless, even the least successful of Bernstein’s compositions have music that is worth hearing, even though it made for a lengthy program, running a shade over 2½ hours in length. It could have been longer. As Mauceri pointed out during one of his typically erudite comments, Bernstein’s duties as New York Philharmonic music director precluded him from writing any stage shows from West Side Story in 1956 to Mass in 1971 (he did find time to write his Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish), Chichester Psalms and other instrumental pieces).

Mauceri elected to perform selections from the eight theatrical pieces in chronological order, which meant that the post-intermission portion had three of Bernstein’s most-recognizable pieces, and placed Candide — which would have made a great conclusion — at the beginning of the second act (as it were).

However, programming the works in chronological order allowed patrons to experience how Bernstein’s compositional style evolved from his original piece, the music to a Jerome Robbins ballet entitled Fancy Free, to his final two shows, Mass and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bernstein’s writing often reflected the music of the era in which he wrote. Like most great composers, he borrowed liberally from his earlier works and wasn’t afraid to recycle pieces later on. Among other things, Mauceri noted that One Hand, One Heart was originally conceived for Candide but ended up in West Side Story (Bernstein wrote both at the same time).

Mauceri conducted the program expertly, although his tempos for Mambo from WSS seemed unusually pedestrian. The New West Symphony handled its parts of the program with stylish finesse (it’s not easy to perform a program made up of snippets from eight works). The choral ensembles delivered their parts mostly with panache (although being placed in the back of the stage gave the occasional impression that they were singing from downtown Los Angeles).

Each of the four soloists had their moment to shine. Baritone Davis Gaines was wistfully soulful in Lonely Town from On the Town and delivered Simple Song from Mass with a gentle style that belied the impossible range Bernstein used when he wrote the character of the Celebrant.

Tenor Casey Candebat and Soprano Célena Shafer soared through Tonight from WSS, and Shafer brought down the house with her rendition of Glitter and be Gay from Candide.

Mezzo-soprano Susanna Guzmán was hilarious in I Can Cook, Too from On the Town and What a Movie from Trouble in Tahiti.

The program repeats tonight in Thousand Oaks and Sunday afternoon in Oxnard on the New West Symphony’s subscription series.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Coinciding with the programs comes the release of Mauceri’s new book, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting, which is available in hardback and electronic editions.
• Information on the L.A. Phil performances of Mass is HERE.
• Overlapping the L.A. Phil performances, LA Opera is producing Candide January 27, Feb. 3, 8, 11 and 15. James Conlon conducts; Francesca Zambello directs. Details HERE.

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PREVIEW: Anne Akiko Meyers returns “home” to play free concert Sunday with YMF Debut Chamber Orchestra

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

One of the consequences of exceeding the Biblical “three score years and 10” is that I’m more and more writing about musicians with whom I have, in effect, grown up. One such is the violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, now in her 40s, who was born and grew up in Southern California and about whom I have written, or at least heard, since she began playing concerts at age 7.

Meyers returns “home” (she is an alumna of the Young Musicians Foundation) to play in a YMF Debut Chamber Orchestra concert on Sunday, Nov. 19, at 6 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Admission is free.

Meyers will be the soloist in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Fantasia and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending. Yuga Cohler, who is finishing his three-year term as YMF Music Director, will lead the program that will also include Poulenc’s Sinfonietta.

Rautavaara composed Fantasia for Meyers — it was his last completed major work. Meyers premiered the work earlier this year with the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern.

In December 2015, Rautavaara, then 87 years old, invited Meyers to his home in Helsinki to hear her play the yet unpublished work. She recalls, “After I played Fantasia, he looked at me and repeatedly said, ‘I wrote such beautiful music!’ We laughed and agreed… I was amazed that he made no changes to any notes or dynamics. Everything was in place, just the way he wrote it.”

Meyers will be playing the concert on her 1741 Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesu violin, which was given to her on lifetime loan several years ago. One of the most important violins ever made by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, it belonged to Belgian violinist, Henri Vieuxtemps during the 19th century.

Concert information: www.ymf.org

Photo By: Vanessa Briceño-Scherzer

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

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NEWS: L.A. Phil looks north for its new CEO, Simon Woods

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Simon Woods, president and CEO of the Seattle Symphony since 2011, has been named CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, effective January 2018. The 54-year-old London native replaces Deborah Borda, who left to head up the New York Philharmonic earlier this year, although he is not getting Borda’s ‘President’ title.

Gail Samuel, who has been serving as the L.A. Phil’s acting President and CEO since Borda left, will resume her former duties as L. A. Phil Executive Director when Woods comes on board, although with several executive positions in play around the country, she may not be with the Phil for much longer.

The Phil’s formal announcement is HERE.

Michael Cooper’s story in the New York Times is HERE.

Deborah Vankin’s story in the Los Angeles Times is HERE.

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

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NEWS (LATE): Michael Tilson Thomas to retire as San Francisco Symphony music director

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

By now you’ve probably heard the news that Michael Tilson Thomas will retire as music director of the San Francisco Symphony at the end of the 2019-2020 season. He will be age 75 at that point and will have served 25 years in the post (LINK).

Those of who have grown up in Los Angeles cannot think of M.T.T. without considering his strange stint as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981-1985 (Sir Simon Rattle held the same position at approximately the same time).

However, despite Thomas’ precocious and prodigious talent, Ernest Fleischmann, the Phil’s executive director, preferred Esa-Pekka Salonen to succeed André Previn as the orchestra’s music director and so Thomas moved on, first to head up the London Symphony Orchestra and then San Francisco.

It’s a case of what might have been, but things did seem to work out for all concerned.

Incidentally, one of the names being bandied about in the media as M.T.T.’s replace is Susanna Mäkki, the Finnish maestro who is now the Phil’s principal guest conductor.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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