By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
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
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
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
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
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.