NEWS: Pacific Symphony’s 2017-2018 season includes Carnegie Hall debut and more

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Sometimes the most intriguing parts of a season announcement are not what management thinks is the lead item but what’s buried inside the release. It may be a particularly interesting soloist, an up-and-coming guest conductor, or an unusual piece to be performed.

Case in point: the Pacific Symphony, which announced its 39th season with a lengthy release emailed to the media yesterday. The lead was obvious: the orchestra will make its Carnegie Hall debut on April 21, 2018, the final event in the iconic New York City hall’s yearlong celebration of Philip Glass’ 80th birthday.

However, buried among the season details are a couple of fascinating conducting debuts.

On Oct. 19, 20 and 21 André Previn makes his PS debut in a program beginning with the West Coast premiere of his own ZZZAlmost an Overture,ZXZ which will receive its premiere as the first piece of the inaugural season of the Newport Contemporary Music Festival this July. The now-87-year-old Previn will conclude the PS program with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, which he recorded decades ago when he was principal conductor of the London Symphony.

The backstory of Previn’s appearance, of course, is that it is not with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Previn became the Phil’s music director in 1985, succeeding Carlo Maria Giulini but resigned in 1989, reportedly after clashing with the Phil’s Executive VP and General Manager Ernest Fleischmann. It’s been decades since Previn has returned to conduct the Phil, although that may change when the LAPO releases its 2017-2018 season on Tuesday.

Another interesting PS conducting debut is Ben Gernon, who was a 2013-1014 Gustavo Dudamel Fellow with the LAPO and has just been named Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in England. Gernon will lead the PS concerts on May 31, June 1 and 2.

Carl St.Clair, who begins his 28th season as the Pacific Symphony’s Music Director, will lead eight of the 12 weeks on the subscription seasons, plus a one-time concert featuring Joshua Bell as soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. He will also conduct the Carnegie Hall concert.

Among the season’s soloists will be violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who will play Morten Lauridsen’s arrangement of his famous choral work, ZZZO Magnum Mysterium,ZXZ on the season’s final concerts on June 14, 15 and 16.

Read Paul Hodgins’ report in the Orange County Register HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony delivers strong performance before sold-out house

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Music Director David Lockington’s decision to pair Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for today’s Pasadena Symphony concerts proved to be boffo box office as both concerts at Ambassador Auditorium were virtually sold out. Moreover, based on this afternoon’s first-rate performance, most of those new to the PSO (as well as regular attenders) should have gone home pleased.

Using what he called the Beethovian philosophy of darkness to light, Lockington elected to open the concert with the symphony and leave the concerto and its upbeat ending for after intermission.

For whatever reason, the orchestra’s playing in the symphony’s first movement seemed almost understated and, prior to the second movement, there was a pause to seat latecomers. Some day an orchestra will have the courage to insist that people who arrive well after the starting time wait until the first piece — not just the first movement — has concluded. After that long pause, the entire mood changed: the strings had more weight and the entire performance seemed more energized.

In his preconcert lecture and remarks to everyone before he began the performance, Lockington said — with a tone of resignation — that even if people applauded after the thunderous conclusion to the third movement, he and the orchestra would, in fact, play the concluding movement. Many people (of course) did applaud, and the orchestra did resume, finishing with impressive intensity. In a nice touch, Lockington not only asked principals stand to acknowledge the applause, he asked each section to stand, as well.

After intermission Natasha Paremski (pictured left), a 29-year-old Moscow native who now lives in New York City, displayed impressive technical prowess in her performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. She also seemed occasionally to bring a hard edge to her tone, although this may have been more to do with the piano and wasn’t as apparent during her encore, one of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux.

In the preconcert lecture, Paremski said that in recent years she had gone back to scrutinize the score and from that examination had acquired a new interpretative slant to this familiar work. She and Lockington were not always in synch in the opening movement, as Paremski often seemed to leap slightly ahead of Lockington, but eventually they locked in together during the balance of the performance.

The second movement was the most impressive as Paremski delivered long, singing lines in the opening and closing parts of that section. Kudos, also, to Donald Foster, whose plaintive clarinet solos were a marvelous match for Paremski’s ruminations. Paremski then blazed through the final movement while Lockington and the orchestra hung on for dear life. Predictably — and deservedly — all forces earned a standing ovation.

Hemidemisemiquavers
• Prior to the concert, the Pasadena Symphony Women’s Association presented a check for $119,000 from its Holiday Look-in project to CEO Laura Unger.
• Paremski’s bio says she made her professional debut with the El Camino Youth Symphony in Palo Alto at the age of 8.
• Emulating Yuja Wang, Paremski was wearing bright red stiletto heels — I have no idea how she can pedal in them!
• Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will lead the next concerts on March 18, a program of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (“Scottish”) and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major (“Turkish”) with Rachel Barton Fine as soloist. INFORMATION
• Season-ticket holders got a first look at the 2017-2018 season, which begins on Oct. 14 and concludes on April 28. Lockington will lead five of the six concerts (McGegan leads the other one) and the season will feature two world premieres, including one by a composer yet to be named that is a co-commission with the Huntington Library. Among the soloists will be violinist Dylana Jensen, who is also Lockington’s wife. More on the season in a later post.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Salome” marks a revival of an historically important production

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tomas Tomasson as John the Baptist and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s historic production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which opens tomorrow night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera
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The story is legendary in the opera world; even those who weren’t in attendance (as I was) remember it. 1986 — the inaugural opening night for Los Angeles Opera: the curtain rising on the opening act of Verdi’s Otello pauses partway up before continuing its ascent a few seconds later. It was a “heart-in-the-throat” moment for those in attendance (particularly for those in company management, one suspects). It also provided a ready-made, humorous lead for critics (including me), leaning forward in anticipation.

That opening production was an exciting time for all concerned, but fewer people remember the third opera in that inaugural season.

Otello was followed by a very conventional presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring — somewhat implausibly — Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San.

However, it was the third offering — a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome — that in retrospect, put the company on the international opera map. It’s also the only production from that original season that remains in the LAO repertoire, 31 years later. The Met still has Franco Zeferelli’s iconic Madama Butterfly in its rep; Sir Peter Hall’s Salome is LAO’s equivalent.

Tomorrow night LAO revives that Salome production in the first of six performances, running through March 19. The big news has been that superstar American soprano Patricia Racette is portraying the title heroine; both Michelle Mills in our SCNG papers (LINK) and Catherine Womack in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) have focused on that story.

Yet, it’s not too big a stretch to say that without that 1986 production of Salome, there might be no LA Opera (as the company now calls itself). Thus the historical aspect of this opera deserves to be remembered.

That seems strange in retrospect because Salome wasn’t an easy sell in a city where opera was still working to establish a beachhead.

For one thing, LAO’s production of Salome was created by Sir Peter Hall, who was far better known for his work in the theatre than in the opera world, although, with conductor Georg Solti, he did direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1983 at Bayreuth for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Second, the opera (written by Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century using a libretto that he adapted from an infamous Oscar Wilde play) runs in a single act that lasts an hour and 40 minutes without intermission — although for those who don’t like long nights at the opera house, that’s a plus.

Another issue is that the character originates in synoptic Biblical gospels of Matthew and Mark, although in those accounts she is unnamed. Wilde’s and Strauss’ “scandalous” treatment of a Biblical character always caused ruffled feathers among conservative Christian folk.

A final (and related) problem was the opera’s most famous moment: Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she writhes before Herod in an erotic dance and where each of the veils are removed until she stands naked before the king. The scene so scandalized the performers and audiences that in earlier productions a dancer performed, and, later, singers used a body stocking for the dance. Even today the nude scene features prominently in almost any article, include those noted above.

Sir Peter would make no offering to modesty, in part because the Salome in that 1986 production — his wife, Maria Ewing — was good looking and was willing to end the dance naked. In addition, the production was notable because the performers were both compelling as singers and actors. It was, particularly, a hard role for Ewing, who was a mezzo-soprano rather than a sopranos, but she carried off the singing handsomely and her acting was riveting.

One other aspect of that LAO Salome premiere was the size of the orchestra: 92 players (much larger than either of the first two offerings), bulging the Pavilion pit and led by Henry Lewis. Hearing this luscious score played this by the now top-flight LAO Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon, should be one of the prizes of this year’s production.

Reports are that Sir Peter’s production has been refurbished for this run — not surprising given that it has been lent to companies around the world (a nice money-maker for the company). Sir Peter (who reportedly suffers from dementia) will not be on hand, although he continues to be listed for his production. Instead, David Paul makes his company debut as director and Duane Schuler will handle the crucial lighting details.

Like all productions of Salome, there’s a great deal of complexity and intrigue that will surround this revival. But there is also a great deal of history, which should not be forgotten. The L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Martin Bernheimer — not known for throwing around accolades lightly — wrote of that 1986 production: “This is what opera should be about.”

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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SAME-DAY REVIEW: “In America” — a stunning oratorio on Japanese-American WW II internment written by Van Nuys High School students and L.A. Master Chorale

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

“In America” — an oratorio written by Van Nuys High School students in conjunction with the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” artists-in-residency rogram
Sat., Feb. 18, 2 p.m.
Van Nuys High School
6535 Cedros Avenue
Van Nuys 91411
Free Admission
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Since September a group of 85 Van Nuys High School students have been learning about America’s Japanese internment camps during World War II. That’s not surprising given that Feb. 19 marks the 75th anniversary of the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the forced removal and incarceration of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the Pacific Coast. More than 60 percent of the internees were United States citizens.

What is surprising is what came out of this study at Van Nuys High School.

As part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 20-week-long “Voices Within” artists-in-residency program, the students — along with several LAMC members — have composed a stunning, emotionally powerful, 45-minute oratorio, In America, which will receive its first public performance in a free-admission concert on Saturday in the Van Nuys HS auditorium.

The work received its premiere this afternoon before a full auditorium of VNHS students. Brianne Arevalo, VNHS Choral Director, led the performance with conviction and skill.

The students — who range from ninth through 12th grades — will perform the work Saturday, along with eight LAMC members and other VNHS vocal ensemble members. They will be accompanied by seven instrumentalists: six students and, on piano, David O, the Master Chorale’s composer for the project.

Working with lyricist Doug Cooney, singer Alice Kirwan Miller and O, the students wrote the lyrics and the melodies to the nine movements of the work. As part of the project, the LAMC members mentored the students on how to use musical techniques to capture the voice of the characters they create, propel the momentum of the plot, and paint the mood of the scene. They succeeded wonderfully in all phases.

The students also wrote about half of the often-chromatic harmonies of the work. O filled in the balance of the harmonies and provided the orchestrations. Reflecting the work’s poignancy, much of the music was in minor keys.

The production uses slide images from Manzanar (along U.S. Highway 395 near Mammoth Mountain) and other internment camps to help illustrate the stories. The performance used supertitles although the students’ diction was so good as to often render the titles superfluous.

After the work was completed, students auditioned for the 15 solo roles, which included Shushanna Keymethlyan, who was particularly poignant in the “Exodus” movement. The other soloists were Morgan Hesen, Lucy White, Isaiah Yiga, May Ngyuen, Jamaia Concepcion, Rafael Gomez, Bianca Akibiyk, Aerein Gundayao, Sat Gasparyan, Olivia Rodrigues, Antonio Lewis, Nat Nario and Ian Foster.

As is evident from the names above, Van Nuys High School is a diverse multicultural, multiracial school. Many of the students are immigrants and are living the lyrics they were singing. The movement with the text, “We are citizens like you but suddenly we are not,” rang out with heartfelt conviction.

The oratorio did an excellent job of delving into many of the layers of the internment issue, beginning with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The scenes of people being sent to the camps and, later, from the camps back to a very uncertain future with only a bus ticket and $25 used the same musical motif and lyrics to great effect.

The clash between Issei (immigrants) and Nisei (U.S.-born Japanese Americans) was portrayed graphically, as were Questions 27 and 28 (the questions asked of those who volunteered to become soldiers in the U.S. Army, even as their families were interned). In addition, the angry back-and-forth section, “No-No, Yes-Yes” were gripping. (For more information on these two issues, click HERE).

Ultimately the oratorio poses the challenge, not just to those interned after WWII but to the U.S. today: “Where can I be an American if not in America? If I pledge to you, you must trust me.” One could only hope that one of those in attendance Saturday would be President Donald Trump. He needs to hear what these students have to say and the gripping immediacy with which the words are sung.

Background

Students from Van Nuys High School visiting the Japanese American National Museum as part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” project. (Photo by Gabriel Zuniga)

Now in it’s seventh year (and the first at VNHS), the LAMC “Voices Within” Project places teaching artists in the classrooms to work with students.

“A core value of the program is to encourage expression through collaboration,” said LAMC President & CEO Jean Davidson. “That this oratorio, In America, about the Japanese American incarceration camps can have so much contemporary relevance is somewhat of an accident of timing, but it speaks to the universality of music and how it can allow us to find our voice, while also illustrating that looking to the past can provide guidance for the present.”

To further enhance their understanding of the camps and the impact of Executive Order 9066 on the Japanese American community, the VNHS students visited the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles in November.

Many of the museum’s docents and their families were among those interned, providing valuable first-hand accounts of their experience. One of those in attendance today was a child in a camp and he watched the performance with tears in his eyes.

The museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Common Ground: The Heart of Community,” documents 130 years of Japanese American immigration and history and includes a barrack building from the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center near Cody, Wyoming. That camp was one of 10 on the U.S. mainland. Two of the camps, Manzanar and Tule Lake, were in California. Together, they held nearly 30,000 internees.

The museum will begin a new exhibition, “Instructions to All Persons: Reflection on Executive Order 9066” on Feb. 18. Information: www.janm.org A story in the Los Angeles Times on the exhibition 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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