AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Changes in SGV orchestral landscape

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

This article was first published today in the above papers.

 

To say that it’s been an eventful month for the orchestral
landscape in the San Gabriel Valley would be something of an understatement.

 

First, the Pasadena Symphony completed its 82nd season — and
its first in Ambassador Auditorium — on a high note, so to speak.

 

Then came word that the Los Angeles County Arboretum and
Botanic Garden would begin negotiations to bring the Pasadena Pops to the
Arcadia venue beginning in 2012, thus apparently ending the California
Philharmonic stay after a 15-year run.

 

Finally with a splashy announcement party at the historic
Castle Green, Rachael Worby — who elected not to renew her contract as the Pops’
music director after last summer — announced she would return to the SGV music
scene with a new ensemble, “Musi/que,” opening with a concert on July 30 on a
lawn next to Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium.

 

That’s a lot of balls in the air and it’s going to be some time
before we know where they all land. Moreover, despite all the offstage intrigue
both the Cal Phil and Pasadena Pops are busy preparing for their upcoming
summer seasons at the Arboretum and The Lawn Adjacent to the Rose Bowl,
respectively.

 

For both the Pops and Cal Phil, the news from the Arboretum,
announced April 27, was significant. In January, the Arboretum put out what’s
known in business circles as a RFP (Request for Proposal) to orchestras
interested in making the Arcadia their home base beginning in 2012. Only the
Cal Phil and Pasadena Pops responded.

 

The RFP, according to Arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof, asked
for information and ideas on more than two-dozen areas, ranging from future
programming visions to finances, marketing and management capabilities. The
proposal envisioned one orchestra being selected, not having two or more share
the space.

 

The ultimate goal, said Schulhof, is to generate additional
revenue for the Arboretum and to serve a wider range of audiences in upcoming
years. No one single element tipped the scales, said Schulhof; rather, it was
the Pops’ overall proposal that won out with the Arboretum’s board of
directors, which made the final decision.

 

Paul Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony and Pops, is
excited about the Pops’ 2012 venue. “We see this as an opportunity to partner
with the Arboretum in creating a multi-discipline summer series that will make
this a kind of ‘Hollywood Bowl East’,” says Zdunek. “We’re thinking not just of
our Pops series but also of programs like mariachi music, jazz and
family-oriented programs.”

 

Next year will mark the Pops third venue in four seasons.
After a lengthy run at Descanso Gardens in La Caada, the orchestra moved to
its Rose Bowl location last season and will continue there this summer.

 

“Descanso Gardens is a beautiful location but not very
practical for a concert series,” says Zdunek. “The Lawn Adjacent to the Rose
Bowl was much less expensive to set up and, with no trees in the way, energy
from the concert stage flowed over the entire audience. However, it’s a space
wide open to the public, which meant we couldn’t leave the infrastructure up.

 

“The Arboretum has the best of both of those facilities,” he
continues. “It has a large performing space where we can leave up the stage and
sound system but one that also has the trees and flowers that will create an
ambience. Moreover, with the increased cost of driving to and parking at the
Bowl, we think we can tap into an increasingly large market east of Pasadena,
which was something we identified two years ago in our recovery plan.”

 

It’s going to take a few years for all of this to shake out.
The Pasadena Pops has to determine whether its relationship with its new
principal conductor, Marvin Hamlisch, can develop and whether the ensemble can
grow into its dreams for the Arboretum.

 

The Cal Phil (which didn’t respond to two requests for an
interview) faces the task of reinventing itself in a new home (in addition to
the Arboretum, the Cal Phil performs in Walt Disney Concert Hall during summer months).

 

Will the Arboretum’s decision to go for a new tenant
ultimately be forward-looking or foolhardy?

 

“Musi/que” (as well as the other two entities) will seek to
determine whether there’s inancial backing in this area for three orchestras
and whether the new ensemble will be one of them.

 

Things won’t be dull, that’s for sure.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic’s “Casual Friday” concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Brahms: Academic
Festival Overture;
Symphony No. 3

Friday, March 4, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts:
Today at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. The program will be the third symphonies of
Polish composer Henryk Grecki and Brahms.

Info:
www.laphil.com

______________________

 

One of the joys of attending a live concert as opposed to
listening to a recording is spontaneity. A recording is a snapshot of one
performance, frozen in time; each time you listen it’s the same thing, however
excellent. When you attend live concerts, each hearing is unique, even if the
program contains the same works.

 

Consider last night’s “Casual Friday” concert by the Los
Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall as a prime example. Eight
times during the indoor season, the orchestra radically changes the concert
format. The musicians wear casual clothes, which range from chic to VERY
casual. The audience follows the “casual” dress motif but since this is
Southern California, there’s not a great difference between a “Casual Friday”
concert and “normal” performances.

 

By now, the program format has been established: an
orchestra member gives a brief talk about what he or she does, the orchestra
plays one or two pieces, and the evening concludes with a 15-minute
question-and-answer session with the featured orchestra speaker, the “Upbeat
Live” (i.e., formal preconcert lecture) speaker, and the conductor, followed by
drinks with orchestra members in the downstairs caf.

 

The target audience is people who don’t usually attend
concerts, although many who come are “veterans” who just like the format; the
concept’s popularity can be deduced from the fact that it has grown from four
concerts to eight (in two series) in a short span of years.

 

How well “Casual Friday” works depends, in large measure, on
the introductory speaker and the Q&A session. When Music Director Gustavo
Dudamel is the conductor, as was the case last night, well over half the
capacity crowd stays for the feedback session; last night we learned, among other
things, that this week marks the first time that the Venezuelan maestro has
conducted Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in performance.

 

The introducer last night was Mark Kashper, a
33-year-veteran of the second violin section, who used a wicked sense of humor
during his 10 minutes to impart a great deal of information about playing
second fiddle, while subtly twitting both Dudamel and the Phil’s management. If
Kashper ever gets tired of playing violin, he’s got a potential second career
in stand-up comedy.

 

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is the least played of the composer’s
four symphonies. It’s the shortest of the quartet but it packs a lot into 35
minutes and Dudamel and the orchestra gave us a lot to think about last night.

 

After his rapid-fire concept of the second symphony last
week, Dudamel returned to his expansive mood for the third, but the tempos –
while relaxed — never bogged down. He was in his “shape every phrase” mode,
playing off the orchestra’s sumptuous strings against the mellow woodwinds and
brass throughout the performance. Yet in the third-movement Scherzo, Dudamel
got the strings to play briefly with a leaner, tauter sound that provide a
highly effective contrast to the “Andante” second movement. The piece is framed
by a dramatic theme, which in the final movement concluded with a serene
majesty. I’ve never been as moved by a performance of this symphony as I was
last night.

 

Even for a “Casual Friday” concert, a 35-minute symphony is
too short to stand on its own. Last night was supposed to open with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. However,
as most everyone knows, the Phil’s “Brahms Unbound” festival has undergone
significant alterations since it was announced 15 months ago.

 

This week’s concerts were supposed to feature the world
premiere of Peter Lieberson’s Percussion Concerto, but the composer died before
completing it. The substituted piece for this weekend’s other concerts was
Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful
Songs)
by Polish composer Henryk Grecki, but because that work is 55
minutes long, the Haydn Variations
were jettisoned for last night.

 

Now, one might think that this would have been a good night
to bring back the Tragic Overture, which
was supposed to be played last week but was dropped due to the complicated
setup for last week’s performance of Glorious
Percussion.
Apparently not.

 

Thus, for the second consecutive “Casual Friday” concert and
the third time in four weeks (plus Cameron Carpenter’s organ transcription
earlier this month), patrons got yet another run-through of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The
performance was first-rate and, in the Q&A afterward, Dudamel skillfully danced
around the first question: why some in the audience were hearing the same
overture for the third time. Dudamel noted that, since the overture was written
in between the time when the second and third symphonies were composed, its
inclusion made musical sense. Perhaps, although I’m not sure the questioner was
appeased.

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

To at least two critics, Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) and Brian in Out West Arts (LINK), the performance of
Grecki’s Third was special. That’s not a surprise in the case of Mark, who has
been very positive in his reviews about the first three weeks of “Brahms
Unbound,” but Brian, who has been quite negative about Dudamel’s Brahms’ interpretations
up to this point, even liked Dudamel’s concept of the Brahms third.

If you’re coming tonight or tomorrow, be advised that the
order of the two pieces has been switched, wisely in my opinion.

The Brahms survey concludes next week with the Double
Concerto featuring soloists Renaud and Gautier Capuon and the fourth symphony. (LINK)

The June 5 concert is also the final segment of the Phil’s
inaugural “LA Phil LIVE” series; the concert will be telecast live to more than
450 theaters throughout the United States and Canada (LINK). No word to this
point whether the series will continue next season; owing to scheduling quirks,
there only a few Dudamel concerts that seem appropriate for this format and
three of them come in the first five weeks of the season. I wonder whether
Frank Gehry’s staging of Mozart’s Don
Giovanni
or the world premiere of John Adams’ new oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, will
be chosen; those would be gutsy calls for a still-new series.

It’s interesting to speculate on how Mark Kashper’s witty talk
from last night would translate to a TV audience. Well, I should imagine

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Santa Cecilia Orchestra honors composer Daniel Catn

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

______________________

 

Santa Cecilia
Orchestra. Sonia Marie de Len de Vega, conductor

Friday, May 22, 2011 Thorne Hall (Occidental College)

______________________

 

With thousands of musicians working in the entertainment
industry throughout Southern California, this region hosts an unusually large
number of quality orchestras, some of which have thriving niche markets. One of
those is the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, which for 18 years has used concerts and
educational programs to bring classical music to the Hispanic community (which
is no longer small enough to be called “niche”).

 

For the final concert of its 2010-2011 season yesterday at
Occidental Colllege’s Thorne Hall, Music Director Sonia Marie de Len de Vega
had planned to honor composer Daniel Catn, who was born in Mexico but lived in
South Pasadena for many years. Catn attended the orchestra’s concerts regularly;
his wife is the orchestra’s harpist, although she didn’t perform yesterday for
understandable reasons.

 

Catn died unexpectedly on April 8 at the age of 62 while
teaching and composing an opera in Austin, Tex. Thus, this concert became a
memorial celebration but there was no sadness to it. Although de Len de Vega
wrote a touching remembrance in the program, there were no speeches or pictures
about Catn … nothing, in fact, but three short pieces (they totaled less than
30 minutes) that touched on elements of Catn’s compositional life.

 

For many in audience, the piece with which Catn is
indelibly linked is his final opera, Il
Postino (The Postman),
which received its world premiere at Los Angeles
Opera last September to ecstatic audience reaction and critical reviews. It
later debuted in Vienna and will open at Le Thtre du Chtelet in Paris next
month.

 

The middle of the three pieces yesterday, an Intermezzo for Oboe d’amore from Il Postino, featured a limpid, plaintive
solo from the orchestra’s principal oboe, Sarah Beck, accompanied by well-known
guest harpist Paul Baker. De Len de Vega emphasized the lush orchestral music
that Catn wrote in this Puccini-esque opera as she and the orchestra discretely
accompanied the soloists.

 

The opening piece was a three-minute Overture that Catn
wrote for the Mexican “telenovela” (a.k.a. soap opera) El Vuelo del guila (The Flight of the Eagles) in the 1990s. Beginning
with Rachel Berry’s winsome French horn solo, de Len de Vega conducted the
waltz melodies in a straightforward fashion.

 

The first half concluded with Caribbean Airs, Catn’s 20-minute, three-movement homage to the
sort of Cuban music that he said in a program note were among his earliest
musical memories. Percussionists Jason Goodman, Brad Dutz and Bruce Carver were
the frolicking soloists, joined by several of the orchestra’s percussionists in
the jazzy two outer movements, which bracketed a meditative inner movement that
spotlighted the orchestra’s lush string sections.

 

After intermission, de Len de Vega and her ensemble,
augmented by 14 percussionists, gave a highly credible account of Silvestre
Revueltas’ La noche de los Mayas. Revueltas
(who was born literally on the cusp of the 20th century — Dec. 31,
1899) originally wrote this piece as film music in 1939, a year before he died,
but today most of us know it through a four-movement concert suite created in
1960 by Jos Limantour.

 

Apart from some smudgy horn work, the opening emphasized
mystery. The second movement danced with pulsating joy, the third movement
again spotlighted the ensemble’s lush string sections and the fourth movement –
with its percussion-section cadenza — finished in a blaze of colorful glory. As
is always the case, the audience went bonkers at the conclusion.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic and “Glorious Percussion” at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, Glorious
Percussion
ensemble

Gubaidulina: Glorious Percussion; Brahms’ Symphony
No. 2

Thursday, May 19, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performances: Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at
2 p.m.

(NOTE: Tonight is a “Casual Friday” concert. The concerto
will not be performed; the program will be Brahms: Academic Festival Overture and Symphony No. 2.)

Info: www.laphil.com

_______________________

 

When Gustavo Dudamel first encountered Russian composer
Sofia Gubaidulina’s concerto, Glorious Percussion, in
Sept. 2008 as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony, he surveyed the
humungous battery of percussion instruments surrounding the podium and thought
to himself, “Oh my God! This is going to be loud!” He was right — the concerto
was loud (in spots). It also lived up to its title.

 

For the U.S. premiere of this 35-minute piece, played by
Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night at Walt Disney Concert
Hall, the five soloists and their instruments sprawled over the front half of
the stage with the orchestra crammed behind them. Dudamel looked like he was
negotiating a maze finding his way to the podium — he was, in more ways than
one.

 

The nearly invisible maestro was surrounded by the
following: wood blocks, glass chimes, bamboo chimes, cabaza, hand drums,
darabuka, bass drums, crotales, xylophones, marimbas, flexatones, triangles,
suspended cymbals, drums, tambourine, agogo, and Javanese gongs. By my count,
that added up to seven keyboard-type instruments, nine different drums and more
than three dozen assorted gongs, cymbals and other instruments … and that
didn’t include the timpani, wood blocks, sleigh bells, drum, bass drum,
cymbals, suspended cymbal and tam-tam, played by members of the Phil at the
back of the orchestra.

 

Playing this dizzying array of instruments were three
Scandinavian percussionists — Andres Loquin, Anders Haag and Eirik Raude — plus
Mika Takehara from Japan and Robyn Schulkowsky, who was born in the U.S. and
now lives in Germany. They came together for the world premiere three years ago,
followed that up with several performances in Germany and Switzerland, and this
season are playing the work with the Netherlands and Helsinki Philharmonics.
They liked each other enough to coalesce as an ensemble and appropriate the
concerto’s title as their group’s name.

 

Just watching them move carefully but gracefully from one
instrument to another without either knocking anything over or stumbling was
fascinating. So was their playing: sometimes individually, sometimes all five
playing together on three or four of the keyboard-type instruments, and once in
a cadenza-like riff on the large drums on the very front of the stage. Their
virtuosity on whatever instruments they happened to be beating, plucking,
shaking, waving, rattling or bowing was stunning. This is one piece that you have
to be in the hall to appreciate.

 

All of this was, indeed, glorious percussion; whether it was
glorious music is a matter of taste. Gubaidulina’s — a youthful-looking 79 years of age — has a Tartar father and a Slavic mother
and her music reflects that Europe/Asia background. Many consider her one of
the great, albeit somewhat unknown, composers of her generation. What was most
fascinating (to me) about this score on a first hearing was how she managed to
connect sonically the various percussion instruments with the sections of the
orchestra; sometimes it was hard to hear where one began and the other took
over.

 

The orchestra — heavy on brass, light on woodwinds, with a
large complement of strings plus two harps and celesta — had moments of
lightness and others of ponderous gravity; I kept waiting for Bydlo (the oxcart
from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an
Exhibition)
to appear on stage. Three times the orchestra comes to a
complete halt and the soloists take over for short virtuosic cadenzas.

 

In his program note, John Henken wrote: “You do not have to
be able to parse the ‘agreement of the sounding intervals with their difference
tones’ to appreciate the distinctive spectral sheen on Gubaidulina’s chords, or
identify the difference between a darabuka (Middle Eastern goblet drum) and an
agogo (Yoruban single or double bells) to revel in the colors she produces from
the percussion array.” Right on, John, and a good thing, too. Glorious Percussion was a lot to absorb
in one hearing but the audience took it in stride and responded with a huge
ovation, both for the performers and for the composer who came onstage to
accept the plaudits.

 

After intermission, Dudamel and Co. tackled Brahms’ Symphony
No. 2. If you were one of those kvetching about “The Dude’s” luxuriant tempos
in the first symphony two weeks ago, then you had to be thrilled with his
brash, in-you-face concept of the second. Others may not have been quite so
enamored.

 

Last night sounded like an young man was in charge. Dudamel
enforced brisk tempos, particularly in the two outer movements — this was one
of the fastest performances of the second that I can remember — and he
continues to emphasize extremes in dynamics. The orchestra — perhaps still
recovering from the sonic onslaught of the concerto — seemed edgy at first with
a tone that was less mellow than one might have expected from this so-called “Pastoral
Symphony.” However, by the final movement, the players were locked into Dudamel
and their rhythmic precision — even at the breathless tempos — was impressive
to the max.

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

To a festival beset by several scheduling changes, add
another this week: the originally scheduled Tragic
Overture
was cancelled due to what the Phil says was “the stage setup
requirements for the percussion ensemble in Glorious Percussion.” In retrospect, the move made eminent sense although,
considering Dudamel’s previous experience with the concerto, one wonders why
the decision took until virtually the last minute to make.

The decision left a short-ish program for tonight’s “Casual
Friday” concert so Brahms’ Academic
Festival Overture
has been added to the Symphony No. 2 for this performance
only.

In his preconcert lecture, composer/conductor Russell
Steinberg said almost nothing about the concerto, apart from reading portions
of Henken’s program note. Steinberg admitted that he hadn’t heard the piece. You’d
think that, knowing his assignment, Steinberg might have made it to a
rehearsal. Instead, he focused on the Brahms. Perhaps Saturday and Sunday will
be different.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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STORY AND LINKS: Remembering Daniel Catn

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

 

Six weeks ago the opera world lost one of its finest
composers when Daniel Catn died unexpectedly at age 62. The South Pasadena
resident, who was a long-time instructor at College of the Canyons in Santa
Clarita, was best known for his most recent work, Il Postino (The Postman), which received its highly successful
debut last September at Los Angeles Opera.

 

In my review of the premiere (LINK), I called the work “a
stunning new opera … one of those all-too-rare nights when every individual
element melded marvelously… a performance that reminded us that opera — at its
best — can touch emotions and tell stories like no other medium.” Many other
critics were equally laudatory in their reviews. (LINK) Il Postino went on
to performances in Vienna and will be presented at the Theatre du Chtelet in
Paris beginning June 20.

 

Catn was much more than just one opera, however, and his
life and music will be honored in three quite different ways this weekend.

 

Sunday at 4 p.m. at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall,
Sonia Maria de Len de Vega will lead her Santa Cecilia Orchestra in the final
concert of the orchestra’s 18th season, “Mxico Sinfnico.” The concert was originally scheduled as
a celebration of music from south of the border, and specifically, of Catn,
but it will now do double duty. The 80-piece orchestra — which includes harpist
Andrea Puente Catn, the
composer’s wife –
will play four of Catn’s pieces along with
Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de Los
Mayas
, with an additional dozen or so percussionists on hand for that
swashbuckling piece. Info: www.scorchestra.org

Saturday morning at 10 a.m., KUSC (91.5-FM; www.kusc.org)
will begin its fifth season of “LA Opera on Air” with a broadcast of Il Postino recorded live at the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion. The production stars Plcido Domingo in the role of Chilean
poet Pablo Neruda and tenor Charles Castronovo in the role of Mario Ruppolo
(the Postman in the title). Grant Gershon, LAO’s associate conductor and music
director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale) conducts.

 

The online broadcast will have a live chat discussion
between Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera’s senior vice president/chief operating
officer, with Andrea Puente Ctan, widow of the composer.

 

Monday evening at 6, LAO will commemorate Catn’s life and
legacy with a free program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. No details have
been announced although a LAO spokesperson says there will be music.

 

BTW: other broadcasts in the LA Opera radio series will be
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (May
28), Wagner’s Lohengrin (June 4),
Rossini’s The Turk in Italy (June 18)
and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw
(June 25). All five broadcasts will be aired nationwide and internationally
through the WFMT Radio Network (times will vary).

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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