(Revised) OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Rachael Worby, Jessye Norman and “Musique” make stunning debut at Caltech

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

Since Rachael Worby began conducting New York Philharmonic Young
People’s Concerts decades ago in Carnegie Hall, she has envisioned what
occurred last night when her new ensemble, Muse-ique, made a stunning debut in
what proved to be an inspired location: a lawn south of Caltech’s Beckman
Auditorium known (because of its trees) The Olive Garden. Now comes the hard
part: making future programs meet the exalted standard from last night’s
inaugural concert.

 

Just about every aspect of the evening proved to be
inspired, beginning with the locale. The lawn — essentially an outdoor version
of the traditional concert hall “shoebox” design enclosed on three sides by
Caltech buildings including Beckman Auditorium behind the stage — proved to be
a great sound chamber. With at least three sets of sound engineers working
their dials and computers, this proved to be one of the finest acoustical
evenings I’ve ever heard outdoors in Southern California.

 

Two large banners (one with the “Muse-ique” name and the
other listing sponsors) were subtly lit with incandescent red hues. Four
flat-screen 50″ television monitors provided visual help for about 1,000
patrons, who were seated in round tables of six.

 

The event (don’t call it a concert, is a Worby mantra) was
quintessential Rachael, the sort of “out-of the box” programming style she tried,
with some success, to institute during her 11-year tenure as music director of
the Pasadena Pops. She describes the concept as a “mash up geared to the iPod
generation,” which (for those who don’t live with such devices) translates as
two dozen short selections, the longest of which may have been the eight-minute
opening arrangement of America the
Beautiful,
which began with a limpid oboe solo and concluded with a stylish
choral arrangement of the song’s first two verses sung sensitively by members of the Pasadena Master Chorale.

 

The 36-piece orchestra — which included many musicians who
had worked with Worby at the Pops — was in fine form throughout the evening.
The musicians were dressed somewhat casually (another hallmark of the Muse-ique
style) with the men in sport coats, some without ties, and most of the women in
simple black dresses. Unlike the normal symphony orchestra, the Muse-ique
musicians stood on risers atop a stage throughout the program, which lasted 1:48
without an intermission (longer than the 90 minutes originally forecast).

 

Nobody was complaining, or leaving because the soloist,
soprano Jessye Norman, was in superb form. Within six weeks of turning age 66,
Norman remains a force of nature; only Plcido Domingo, who is still going strong
at age 70, exceeds her combination of quality and longevity. Moreover, Norman
has reinvented herself in the 15 years, transitioning from opera diva (she no
longer performs opera onstage) to concert singer; she has performed American
songs not only in the U.S. but also throughout Europe and China to great
acclaim.

 

Last night, she made a diva-like entrance, emerging from the
olive trees while she sang Somewhere
from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story
with operatic power and emotion. She remain seated on stage for much of the
rest of her singing, which included selections by George Gershwin (including Summertime from Porgy and Bess) and Duke Ellington in the first half of the
evening.

 

Worby’s “mashup” programming concept had music ranging from
J.S. Bach to Theolonius Monk (featuring Donald Foster’s superb clarinet solos
in ‘Round Midnight), and on to Air and Simple Gifts, the work that John
Williams wrote for Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, performed last night
by Violinist Roger Wilkie, cellist Kim Scholes, Foster and pianist Alan
Steinberger (unlike what occurred in D.C., no lip-synching was required in the
balmy Southern California evening).

 

The program included world premieres by Ben Lear (Boxer) and Peter Knell (a splashy,
jazzy homage to Caltech entitled Charged
Particles)
along with a lush piece by Steinberger entitled The Land of Make Believe, which (so
Worby informed us) was inspired by a visit to George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch.
Included in the evening was Caltech professor and scientist Julia Greer, who
rapped (well, sort of) on her specialty of nanomechanics while playing Bach’s
Partita No. 2 on the piano.

 

Interwoven throughout the evening were several themes that
tied things together winsomely and Worby was, as usual, exemplary in her brief
but insightful repartee.

 

To conclude the evening, Worby called on Angela Bassett, who
read Maya Angelou’s poem, I Know Why the
Caged Bird Sings,
with high drama as a lead-in to Norman singing three a
cappella spirituals. Of course, no evening is complete for Worby without one final
surprise: last night, talk-show host Tavis Smiley came onstage to gush over
Norman, who then brought tears to many eyes as she encored with Amazing Grace to close out a memorable
evening.

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

The inventively printed program, a collection of thick pages
held together in one corner by a screw, included a cheeky take on the standard
request: “Please make sure to turn off your cell phone, or you will be forever
shunned by civilized society.”

The obnoxious helicopters that have plagued Hollywood Bowl
and the Pasadena Pops concerts this summer managed to find their way over
Caltech several times last night.

Muse-ique has scheduled three fall programs:

– a free 6 p.m. concert of American music on the steps
Pasadena’s Civic Hall on Sept. 11.

– On Oct. 3 at 6 p.m., Ellis Hall, a multi-instrumentalist
and former lead singer for the Tower of Power, will join Worby and an ensemble
in a program of music from Motown, Gershwin and Ellington.

– The final program, Nov. 7 at 6 p.m., will find the Doric
String Quartet performing a new work by Peter Knell while sitting on piles of
paper and a printing press at Pasadena’s Castle Press.

______________________

 

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Wondering as I Wander

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.

 

“I wonder as I wander …” John Jacob Niles’ poignant
Christmas carol is very much on my mind because by the time you read this
column my wife and I will be wandering around Northern California and wondering
about the following:

 

DOES PASADENA NEED
ANOTHER ORCHESTRA?

Obviously Rachael Worby and many of her supporters think so.
The ebullient maestra’s latest venture, Muse-ique, makes its debut Saturday
night at 7:30 p.m. on a lawn outside of Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. Soprano
Jessye Norman will be the soloist in a program of music by Gershwin, Ellington
and Bernstein. As at all Worby concerts, she’ll engage the audience with her
unique raconteur style and there will be some unpredictable moments, as well.

 

In many ways, Worby has been preparing for this moment all
her professional life, including the 10 years that she served as music director
of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra. When Worby arrived in Pasadena from West
Virginia, she introduced her idea of making each program an “event,” rather
than merely a concert. “We got a lot accomplished,” says Worby looking back on
that decade. “The difference is that Muse-ique is starting from the ground up.
That’s why the words ‘symphony,’ ‘philharmonic’ or even ‘orchestra’ aren’t in
our name. We’re not just trying to move outside the box; we’re out to smash the
box.”

 

So, expect something quite different from the standard pops
concert. For one thing, the program will run 90 minutes without an
intermission. And, while this first concert — er, event — will feature an
ensemble approximating the size of a standard orchestra, programs in the future
will be much different in terms of ensemble size and location. Will the “Muse-ique”
concept catch on? Only time will tell.

 

Information:
626/539-7085; muse-ique.com

 

IS THERE LIFE AFTER
THE PHILHARMONIC?

There certainly is for associate conductors, as the first
week of August at Hollywood Bowl will demonstrate. On Aug. 2, Lionel Bringuier
on mount the Bowl the podium for his final concert after a four-year stint as
the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s associate conductor. The 24-year-old French
maestro will lead a somewhat ironic program of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto
No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. The irony? It was with Tchaikovsky’s
fifth that Gustavo Dudamel made his LAPO debut in 2005 at the Bowl. Yuja Wang,
a 24-year-old Chinese firebrand, will be the soloist in the famous “Rach 3.”

 

Information:
www.hollywoodbowl.com

 

Two nights later, Joana Carneiro — who preceded Bringuier as
the Phil’s associate conductor — will lead her former orchestra in a program
that concludes with two clarinet concertos and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. Kari Krikku will be the soloist in the
Clarinet Concerto by his fellow Finn, Magnus Lindberg, Paul Meyer will take
solo honors for Copland’s better-known work in the genre. Since 2009, Carneiro
has been music director of the Berkeley (CA) Symphony, where she replaced Kent
Nagano.

 

Information: 323/850-2000;
www.hollywoodbowl.com

 

DOES OPERA HAVE TO BE
GIGANTIC (AND EXPENSIVE)?

Not if you are Intimate Opera Pasadena, which concludes a
three-week summer workshop series by presenting Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Pasadena’s
First Baptist Church.

 

Emerging artists from several local universities have been
working with IOP Artistic Director Stephanie Vlahos on both productions.
Tickets for the evening performances are $20 (cash or check only; no credit
cards).

 

There are also matinee performances of Trial by Jury on Saturday at noon and 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 each
with children ages 12 and younger getting in free, thanks to a subsidy from the
Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts.

 

Information: 909/240-2230;
www.intimateopera.net

_______________________

 

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

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on July 21, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

There are many significant classical music events happening
this weekend throughout the Southland.

______________________

 

Tonight at 8 p.m.
at Hollywood Bowl

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Dudamel concludes his two-week stint at the Bowl with an
unusual program: music by Johann Strauss, Jr. bookending works by Enescu, Liszt
and Bruch. Pinchas Zukerman is the soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.
The program has changed from what was originally announced, with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 replacing dances
by Richard and Johann Strauss.

Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com

 

Saturday at 7:30
p.m. on The Lawn Adjacent to the Rose Bowl

Pasadena Pops
Orchestra; Marvin Hamlisch, conductor

Hamlisch begins his tenure with a program entitled,
appropriately enough, “Marvin Does Marvin,” which will feature music from his
award-winning scores. The 67-year-old Hamlisch is one of just 12 people to have
won Oscars (three of them, in fact), Emmys (four), Grammys (four) and a Tony
Award and is one of just two to have swept those four categories plus earned a
Pulitzer Prize (the other is Richard Rodgers). Click HERE for my column in last
Sunday’s papers.

Info:
www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at Los Angeles County Arboretum

Sunday at 2 p.m. at
Walt Disney Concert Hall

California
Philharmonic; Victor Vener, conductor

Using the theme “Dancing Under the Stars,” Vener mixes music
from West Side Story and dances from
Glenn Miller and Queen with Ravel’s Bolero
and Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2.

Info: www.calphil.org

 

Saturday and Sunday
at 7:30 p.m. at The Huntington Library

Southwest Chamber
Music

The Pasadena-based ensemble continues its survey of Mozart’s
Quintets with the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 518, and String Quintet
No. 3, K. 516. Music by Lei Liang and Yu Nhat Tan complete the bill.

Info: www.swmusic.org

 

Tuesday at 8 p.m.
at Hollywood Bowl

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Vasily Peterenko, conductor

The 35-year-old Russian conductor leads the Phil in Dvorak’s
Carnival Overture and Sibelius’
Symphony No. 2. Alexander Gavrylyuk, a 27-year-old Ukranian pianist who won the
3rd Horowitz competition at the age of 16, returns to the Bowl to
solo in a Horowitz specialty: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com

_______________________

 

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

 

 

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Puccini’s “Turandot” at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Puccini: Turandot

Sunday, July 17, 2011 Hollywood Bowl

Next concert: Tuesday, July 19; Dudamel and LAPO: All Mozart

Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com

______________________

 

Throughout the first half of its 90-year-history, Hollywood
Bowl regularly produced a number of significant opera evenings and in the past
two years, Gustavo Dudamel has done his best to revive that tradition. Last
season it was with Bizet’s Carmen (my
review is HERE). Last night it was Puccini’s final opera, Turandot.

Whenever an opera company stages Turnadot, the tendency is to mount a grandiose affair with massive
sets and lavish costumes (for a prime example, Google “Met Turandot” and take a
gander at the photos from Franco Zeffirelli’s over-the-top production).

 

None of that was possible — nor, as it turned out, necessary
– at the Bowl last night. The “set” was a platform behind and above the Los
Angeles Master Chorale. There were no costumes; the women wore long gowns and
the men donned white dinner jackets (which had a disastrous effect on the
supertitles — see Hemidemisemiquavers below
for details) — with one notable exception: Dudamel wore a black dress shirt
with black pants.

 

The most impressive part of the staging was the effective atmospheric
lighting, although the red and blue combination shining on the Bowl’s iconic
curves did remind me somewhat of the the Looney
Tunes
cartoon titles. The blue backdrop with the moon projected on the back
wall made for highly effective visuals on the big screens once the sky darkened
at about the second act.

 

All of this served to put the evening’s focus on the music
and the musicians, which in this opera is right where it belongs. What the Bowl
could offer was a full-size orchestra on stage stage (including a “banda”
positioned stage left), not in an orchestra pit, two major choruses (also in
full view) and a first-rate cast.

 

For starters, The Los Angeles Philharmonic played
splendidly; this early in the season the musicians are in top-notch form.
Dudamel conducted a sweeping, galvanizing performance of Puccini’s final opera,
once again seeming to revel in the great outdoors.

 

The stars, however, were the singers and, in particular, the
Los Angeles Master Chorale (which listed 79 singers in the program) and 38
singers from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The latter produced creamy,
elegant sounds and crisp diction in its moments in the spotlight. The Master
Chorale — especially the men — sang magnificently both in the mightiest
sections and during introspective moments, as well. With 200 musicians on
stage, the finales to all three acts were spine tingling.

 

Ironically, given that Princess Turandot is the opera’s
protagonist, she doesn’t have the lion’s share of the singing, but soprano
Christine Brewer (the only soloist to use a score) made the most of her
opportunities. She was also the one soloist not dressed in white, at least in
the second act when wore a black dress with red wrap as she dueled with Calaf
in the riddle contest that is at the heart of the story.

 

In that second act, Brewer was positioned on that platform
behind the chorus (along with her father, the Emperor — sung by L.A. Opera
veteran Greg Fedderly). With tenor Frank Porretta as Calaf in front of the
orchestra, the spatial separation made for interesting theater although
Porretta had to swivel around to look at and listen to Brewer, then turn around
to sing; the effect was somewhat odd but not, in the end, disastrously
distracting.

 

Whether it was the amplification (which was exemplary
throughout the evening) or that she wasn’t warmed up, Brewer seemed tight,
almost harsh during several moments in the second-act riddle contest. However
during the third act, when she was downstage with Porretta (and wearing a white
dress with silver cape), her voice seemed much warmer yet ironically, also in
full, glorious bloom in her highest notes.

 

Porretta (a late substitution for Francesco Hong, who had to
bow out with laryngitis) has sung the role of Calaf many times in his young
career. He also took time to either warm up or adjust to singing in the
cavernous Bowl spaces, but he sang with increasingly ringing tones as the
evening progressed and delivered his famous third-act aria, Nessum dorma, with great fervor.

 

In some ways, the vocal star of the evening was
Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as the slave girl, Li. In both her
first-act aria, Non piangere, Li, and
her final aria, Tu, che di gel sei cinta,
Hong’s voice soared gloriously and she sang with great emotion, although final
scene was the one significant staging gaffe; instead of killing herself with a
dagger (as called for in the libretto), she and Timur (Alexander Vinogradov) slowly
walked off the stage.

 

Daniel Montenegro, Beau Gibson and, especially, Timothy Mix
blended well as Pang, Pong and Ping. Craig Verm sang the role of the Mandarin.

 

Not every opera works in what is basically a concert setting
but last year’s Carmen and this Turandot argued persuasively for this
long-standing Bowl tradition. One reason that Turandot works in the Bowl is that it really has very little
action. The same is true for large portions of Wagner’s Ring cycle; given a stellar cast, one could easily envision the
third act of Die Walkure, for
example, being performed in the Bowl on a pleasant summer evening with Dudamel
conducting and Brewer singing the role of Brnnhilde. Ah, to dream …

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

About the supertitles: not too many years ago if you
wanted to project supertitles, you put the type (usually white) in a black box
or at least one with a solid-color background (you might have a shade of the
color but it was solid). Then along came programs like Adobe Photoshop and
Quark Xpress that allowed designers to introduce opacity into boxes so that you
could see through the box to what was behind. And did designers ever fall in
love with that concept! (I published a magazine for 26 years and plead guilty
to opacity overkill.).  The problem
is that you always have to think about what’s actually behind the box;
when it’s a white dinner jacket, the type absolutely disappears. I’ll cut the
graphic folks a little slack since they probably never got a chance to rehearse
this at night but I hope someone puts a big red note in the files for the next
time a similar scenario occurs.

Last night’s attendance was 9,254. Whether that was a
result of “carmaggedon” fears (ironic, since the 405 freeway reopened nearly
eight hours before the concert began), the crowd was 25% below the 12,831 who
came to Carmen last season.

Downbeat was at 7:32 p.m. (for a 7:30 announced start
time). Although it was undoubtedly an attempt to minimize union overtime,
starting on time is a policy I wish all arts organizations would more
vigorously enforce.

_______________________

 

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

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on July 14, 2011

 

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

With all three major San Gabriel Valley groups on hiatus
this week and with the closure of the 405 Freeway (aka "Carmageddon") making
trips to the west side of L.A. seem like suicide, the spotlight focuses on
Hollywood Bowl this weekend, not least because you can get there relatively
easily via Metro's Red Line subway.

 

However -- especially if you're not used to using this option
-- allow extra time to make the shuttle transfer due to traffic around the Bowl.
Also, be advised that there's a new shuttle location at the Hollywood/Highland
stop. From the station, make a right into the Hollywood/Highland complex and
follow the signs -- the new stop is down a corridor from Lids on the second
floor. You can also get off at the Universal City station and walk south under
the 101 freeway bridge and west on Ventura Blvd. to reach the Park and Ride
lot.

 

Onward ...

______________________

 

Tonight at 8 p.m.,
Saturday at Hollywood Bowl

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Lang Lang, pianist

This concert duplicates last Tuesday's program (Borodin: Polovtsian Dances, Prokofiev: Piano
Concerto No. 3, Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures
at an Exhibition);
one hopes the sound system and video-camera work will be
better. (My review is HERE). Lang Lang's ability to fly through the Prokofiev's
pyrotechnical sections is, in a word, amazing, and -- as noted in the review --
Dudamel and the Phil are in top form. Info:
www.hollywoodbowl.com

Friday and Saturday
at 8:30 p.m. at Hollywood Bowl

Hollywood Bowl;
Thomas Wilkins, conductor, Sarah McLachian, vocalist

The Canadian Grammy Award-winning vocalist makes her Bowl
debut in this weekend's concerts, which will feature songs from her new album, Laws of Illusion. Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com

 

Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
at Hollywood Bowl (note earlier start time)

Puccini's Turandot; Los Angeles Philharmonic;
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Soprano Christine Brewer sings the title role in Puccini's
final opera. Dudamel's work with Bizet's Carmen
last summer was exciting, which gives hope for the opening event in the "Sunday
Sunset Concert" series. Note the 7:30 p.m. start time and be sure to allow
plenty of time to get to your seat. Info:
www.hollywoodbowl.com

 

Tuesday at 8 p.m.
at Hollywood Bowl

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Gil Shaham, violinist

Dudamel's second week at the bowl is an all-Mozart program,
opening with the overture to The
Abduction from the Seraglio
and concluding with the Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter). Shaham continues the
overture's Turkish theme as soloist in the Violin Concerto No. 5 (often called Turkish). Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com

_______________________

 

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

 

 

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