PREVIEW AND LINK: A second look at conductor Mei-Ann Chen

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

My Pasadena Scene profile
on conductor Mei-Ann Chen — who is leading the Pasadena Symphony’s opening
concerts on Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium — was posted a couple of weeks
ago. If you missed it, here’s a LINK. She’s a fast-rising star in conductor
circles and it’s quite a coup for the PSO to have her, so I believe it’s
worthwhile to publish the link again.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Phil, Johannes Moser and his “e-cello” at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Johannes Moser, electric cello

Adams: Short Ride on a
Fast Machine;
Chapela: Magnetar,
Concerto for Electric Cello

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major

Friday, March 4, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: October 28 and 29 at 8 p.m.; Oct. 30 at 2
p.m. (Mozart and Richard Strauss)

Information: www.laphil.com

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The last few years have seen a spate of classical music compositions
for electronically amplified instruments. I suppose it began in 2003 with John
Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, which
featured an amplified violin and was one of the works that help open Walt
Disney Concert Hall. Earlier this fall came Derek Bermel’s Ritornello (for electric guitar and orchestra), which opened the
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 2011-2012 season (LINK).

This weekend, the Phil got back in the game with the world
premiere of Magnetar, Concerto for
Electric Cello
by 37-year-old Mexican composer-guitarist Enrico Chapela, a
considerably heftier work (at 25 minutes) than Bermel’s 14-minute baroque-like
ditty.

 

What is an electronic cello (e-cello, for short)? The
instrument looks like the shell of a cello — there’s a standard bridge,
fingerboard and tail and the framework is shaped like a cello — but there’s no
wood on the front or back to provide resonance (as he introduced the piece last
night, Gustavo Dudamel called it a “ghost cello”). The sounds are created
through two pickups (one is under the bridge) hooked up to a computer system that
pours the sound out through two large amplifiers surrounding the soloist.

 

As Johannes Moser noted in last night’s preconcert lecture,
he’s playing the instrument but the sounds are totally generated by the sound
system (the computer is controlled by Esteban Chapela, the composer’s nephew). “After
spending 20 years producing the sound from next to my belly,” said Moser, “it
was really hard getting used to ‘outsourcing’ the sound.” Aside from bowing and
fingering, Moser also uses two foot pedals to control volume and the “waa-waa”
sounds that often show up during the piece. “I feel like an organist using both
my hands and feet,” said Moser. “That took some getting used to.”

 

The concerto has three movement, which the composer terms “fast,”
“slow” and “brutal.” The title of the work refers to a rare type of pulsars in
space, which have gigantic magnetic fields that explode out of cosmic noise
(represented at the beginning and end of the first movement by the orchestra
players rubbing their hands together and later stomping their feet rapidly).

 

Throughout the piece, Chapela provides massive, periodic bursts
of sound to further illustrate the theme. A lot of that sounds comes from a
massive percussion section that included crotales, tubular bells, vibratone,
suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tom-toms, bass drum, vibraphone, spring drum,
tambourine, snare drums and timpani.

 

There were moments when the “e-cello” sounded simply like an
amplified guitar, but there were also times, including in a cadenza that
separated the first and second movement, when it produced lots of squeaks,
scratches, other assorted sounds and noise, although I’m not sure you could
call it music.

 

Fortunately, the second movement featured a haunting, bluesy
jazz motif and dueling “waa-waas” between the ecello and various instruments (including
trumpet and timpani) that, for me at any rate, became the highlight of the
piece.

 

The “brutal” third movement was just that in terms of its
speed and complexity, both for the orchestra and the soloist. Moser and the
percussion led the way to a splashy conclusion that brought forth a big ovation
for all concerned, including the composer. Dudamel bobbed, weaved and danced
his way through the accompaniment and — especially considering how little time
it ad to prepare the piece — the orchestra was remarkably precise and
expressive in its playing.

 

Prior to the performance, Moser introduced Magnetar by saying, “Chapela writes
music for now; he doesn’t care what it might sound like 50 years from now.”
Judging the reaction from the large number of younger people (as well as older ones) in the audience,
what he wrote for the “now” was exceedingly popular. Both the composer and his
father, who was one of the dedicatees, were in the audience.

 

The entire night was a showcase for percussion beginning
with John Adams’ four-minute 1986 fanfare, Short
Ride in a Fast Machine.
To no one’s great surprise, the orchestra played it
with exuberance and impeccable rhythmic precision. However, what struck me the
most was how Adams has grown in his compositional style since those minimalist
days of 25 years ago. It would have been instructive to hear Short Ride paired with, for example, City Noir, the work with which Dudamel
opened his Disney Hall tenure as LAPO music director three years ago, if for no
other reason than to hear the stylistic differences.

 

The evening concluded with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, which
like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad),
was composed in the crucible of World War II. However, unlike
Shostakovich’s work — which was written about and during the siege of what is
now known as St. Petersburg — Prokofiev’s 5th was composed in the
summer of 1944, shortly after the D-Day landings, and by the time it was premiered
in January 1945, the conflict’s end was in sight.

 

While it’s the most popular of Prokofiev’s symphonies, the
fifth isn’t really a mainstream work, although Dudamel and the orchestra did
their best to argue a persuasive case for its inclusion. Dudamel reverted to
having all the violins seated to his left with the violas outside on the right
and the string basses next to the violas stretching to the rear of the ensemble,
which helped to accentuate the rich, resonant string tones that poured out all
night, beginning with the first movement, which Dudamel took at a magisterial
pace.

 

The scherzo leaned
heavily on the sardonic tune that bounces from section to section. The brooding
adagio, which was highlighted by
sparkling solo work from Principal Clarinet Lorin Levee, led without pause to
the finale, which concludes with the sort of whiz-bang finish guaranteed to
send the crowd home happy. However, since this program is being played Sunday
at Davies Hall in San Francisco, Dudamel and Co. offered a gentle rendition of
Prokofiev’s Gavotte from his Classical Symphony as an encore.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

The Phil’s two-day appearance up north is part of the San
Francisco Symphony’s centennial celebration; the Phil is the first of several visiting
American orchestras that will be appearing during upcoming months. Monday’s
concert is a repeat of the season-opening Disney Hall concert earlier this
month: Adams’ Tromba Iontana, Esteban
Benzecry’s Rtuales Amerindios, and
Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique (Review
LINK)

If you’re interested in reading more about Magnetar and the electric cello (the instrument was created by Yamaha), the
program notes are HERE.

Tao Ni was principal cellist for last night’s concert
(he’ll also play Sunday night in San Francisco). According to a LAPO
spokesperson, he is taking part in an audition for the orchestra’s vacant
associate principal position.

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(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 October 20, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Each Thursday morning, I list five events that peak my
interest, including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at a
minimum, inexpensive tickets. This week I actually have three such events — to
make up for last week when I had none.

 

Here’s today’s grouping:

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Today and Tomorrow
at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

In advance of the Phil’s trip to San Francisco next week,
Dudamel conducts John Adams’ Short Ride
in a Fast Machine
and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. Johannes Moser will be
the soloist in the world premiere of Magnetar,
Concerto for Electric Cello,
by Mexican composer-guitarist Enrico Chapela. “What,”
you ask, “is an electric cello?” Yamaha, creator of the instrument, provides
details in the following link.

Electric cello release.doc

Concert info: www.laphil.com

 

Saturday at 8 p.m.
at the Greek Theatre

Pasadena Pops; Marvin
Hamlisch, conductor. Idina Menzel, vocalist

If you still need a Pops fix, Marvin Hamlisch and the Pops
play back up for Menzel, who won a Tony Award in 2005 for her role as Elphaba
in Wicked on Broadway. The program
will reportedly include selections from pop, musical theater favorites
(including Wicked and Rent), as well as selections from her
album of original songs, I Stand.
Info: www.greektheatrela.com

 

And the weekend’s “free admission” programs …

 

Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Cappella Gloriana

This San Diego professional chorale opens the church’s “Friends
of Music” series of nine free concerts performing music by its founder and
director, Stephen Sturk, with organist Martin Green and the San Diego Harmony
Ringers Handbell Choir. Info: www.ppc.net

 

Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Ambassador Auditorium

The Colburn
Orchestra. Yehuda Gilad, conductor

Gilad will conduct Shostakovich’s Festival Overture and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. Colburn student
Estelle Choi will be the soloist in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.
There’s a wait list available for the free tickets. Info: www.colburnschool.edu

 

Sunday at 6 p.m. at
Royce Hall, UCLA

American Youth
Symphony. Alexander Treger, conductor; Rod Gilfry, baritone

Treger leads another of the region’s top-notch training
orchestras in Bernstein’s Candide Overture
and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Rod
Gilfry will be the soloist in selections from CarouselTrouble
in Tahiti
Sweeney Todd
and The Most Happy Fella. For my profile on this concert,
click HERE. The concert is free (although a $10 donation is suggested); make
reservations through the orchestra’s Web site. Info: aysmphony.org

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

 

 

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PREVIEW AND LINK: San Gabriel Valley native Rod Gilfry to appear with American Youth Symphony Sunday

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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American Youth
Symphony. Alexandre Treger, conductor; Rod Gilfry, baritone

Sunday, October 23, 2011, 6 p.m. Royce Hall (UCLA)

Free admission ($10 donation suggested)

Info: aysymphony.org

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56122-Gilfry portrait 4-Web.jpg

If ever a musical were aptly named for a singer, it would be
The Most Happy Fella for baritone Rod
Gilfry (right), the West Covina native who grew up in Claremont and now lives a
most happy — and busy — life juggling several different roles.

 

His latest performance comes Sunday when he will appear as
soloist in the opening concert of the American Youth Symphony Orchestra season
at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Gilfry will sing selections from Carousel, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd and A Most Happy Fella. AYS Music Director Alexander Treger will also
lead his ensemble of youthful musicians (who range in age from 15-27) in
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture
and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

 

In addition to his many performing gigs, Gilfry holds the
Steven Crocker Chair at the USC Thornton School of Music, where he is an
associate professor of vocal arts and operea. “Because it’s an endowed chair,
the position allows me to perform quite a bit and work my teaching schedule
around my performances,” says Gilfry. “The school encourages me because performing
has great teaching value for my students.”

 

In fact, says Gilfry, the school agreed for him to spend the
first six months of 2010 appearing in the national tour of the highly
successful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a schedule that included a major stop at the
Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center for which Gilfry won a Garland Award.
Earlier this year Gilfry also made 14 performances playing the title role in Sweeney Todd at the Thtre du Chtelet in
Paris and appeared 13 times this summer as Frank Butler in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun at the Glimmerglass
Festival in Cooperstown, NY.

 

It hasn’t all been musical theater, however. “I enjoy both,”
says Gilfry, “but I don’t want people to get the impression that all I do is
musical theater. I still consider myself to be principally an opera singer.” Last
fall, he created the title role in the world premiere of Marc-Andr Dalbavie’s
opera Geusaldo at the Zurich Opera
and next March he will appear as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte for the New York City Opera.

 

He’s also had plenty of concert opportunities during the
past few years. Gilfry recently sang the role of Lyndon Johnson in Steven Stucky’s
August 4, 1964 with the Dallas
Symphony in Dallas and at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, the title role in
Mendelssohn’s Elijah in San
Francisco, and gave the world premiere of a work by Jeremy Cavaterra at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art in September.

 

Ironically, it was in the role of Joe a decade ago in The Most Happy Fella, the 1956 Frank
Loesser work, that Gilfry first began to add musical theatre back into to his
repertoire. Of course, that wasn’t Gilfry’s first exposure to the genre. He appeared
in five productions at Claremont High School and even more at Claremont United
Methodist Church as he was growing up.

 

Nor is Gilfry the first singer to make this transition. Italian
Opera star Enzio Pinza, to cite just one example, gained even wider fame when
he created the role of Emile DeBecque in the Broadway version of South Pacific. In recent years, such
opera luminaries as Deborah Voigt have followed suit.

 

The juggling act for Gilfry is hectic, but still satisfying.
“It’s challenging and a lot of hard work,” he agrees, “but I guess you could
say I’m a most happy fella.”

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra at Valley Performing Arts Center

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra. Valery Gergiev, conductor; Alexander Toradze, pianist

Stravinsky: Firebird
Suite
(1919); Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 Valley Performing Arts Center

56099-VPAC Interior 4:Web.jpg

 The Valley Performing Arts Center on the Cal State
Northridge campus fills a major cultural hole in the San Fernando Valley. It
hosted the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of Russia last night.

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With about 1.75 million residents, the San Fernando Valley –
were it to be a city — would be the fifth-largest municipality in the United
States (can you name the other four? See the answer at the bottom of this post)
and the only one of the top five without a major concert hall … until this year,
when the Valley Performing Arts Center opened on the Cal State Northridge
campus.

 

Apparently not everyone in the Valley has gotten the word of
the new hall’s opening; last might’s concert by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
of Russia — one of the world’s great ensembles — didn’t fill all 1,700 seats in
what is known as the Great Hall.

 

Last night wasn’t the first orchestral concert at VPAC (the
China Philharmonic appeared last spring) but it certainly was a major test of
the auditorium’s acoustics, one that the Great Hall (as the main room is
called) passed with flying colors to these ears. Moreover, the hall is visually
striking inside and out (more on the hall later in this post).

 

The Mariinsky Orchestra and its music director, Valery
Gergiev, are in the midst of a grueling 17-concerts-in-20 days, coast-to-coast-to
coast trip that began October 4 in New Jersey, continued with three concerts to
open the season at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, then dropped down to Fairfax,
Virginia, before heading to California. In our state, they played Thursday in
Costa Mesa, last weekend (twice) in Berkeley, Monday back in Costa Mesa and
last night at VPAC. From here it’s on to Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal
and Ottawa in Canada before they return home (if they haven’t dropped dead from
exhaustion). Oh, and by the way, from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, the group was in
Bejing.

 

Most of the tour stops are getting some combination of the
six Tchaikovsky symphonies, but last night’s concert eschewed the popular
Russian composer; instead, it played all 20th century Russian fare,
opening with Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his ballet The Firebird.

 

Many people believe that the Mariinsky Orchestra (during the
Communist era it was known as the Kirov) is one of the last orchestras in the
world to retain some sort of nationalistic flavor in its playing. If that means
deep, resonant low strings and brass that manage to meld an interesting combination
of bite and mellowness, then they’re right. Last night’s performance wasn’t
always tidy but the sound was rich, the orchestra sounded better overall than I
remember from hearing it five years ago in Costa Mesa, and 2/3 of the concert
was top-notch.

 

One reason for the occasional untidiness is that Gergiev has
one of the most unusual conducting styles of anyone plying their craft these
days. He uses neither a podium nor a baton (but did use a score for all three
works last night). He stands on the floor and his hands are almost constantly
fluttering, so much so that it almost seems as if he’s afflicted with a tremor.
In many ways, he’s a minimalist with his gestures; there were times (e.g., in
the transition to the Infernal Dance in
The Firebird) when a more violent
gesture might have gotten a bit more bite from of his players.

 

Gergiev also likes to luxuriate in his orchestra’s rich
sound and his tempos can turn glacial, occasionally. That, of course, gives his
section leaders chances to spread their wings (so to speak) in The Firebird, with kudos going to the
oboe, cello, clarinet and, in particular, to the horn solo at the opening of
the Finale (the program lists individuals
by names in sections but doesn’t identify the winds, brass or percussion
section principals).

 

What was most impressive about The Firebird was how mellow everyone — but particularly the brass
sections — sounded in the majestic conclusion, even from a fifth-row orchestra
seat when one might have expected to be blown away. Nothing of the sort
occurred; an acid test for the hall, from my perspective.

 

After intermission, Gergiev and Co. closed with
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, which is a pretty gutsy (or foolhardy) choice
for a tour program.

 

Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1925 when he was 19 years
old as a graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory. Even for a world that
had been turned on its ear sonically by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring 12 years earlier, one wonders what faculty
members judging this precocious, 35-minute, four-movement must have thought.

 

From the perspective of time, we can see evidences of what
was to come from the composer, especially the first piano concerto (the piano
plays a prominent role in the symphony’s second movement). An occasional rough
patch notwithstanding, Gergiev and the orchestra played the symphony boldly and
brought out its occasionally sardonic, occasionally cheeky humor with panache.

 

Prior to intermission, Alexander Toradze was the soloist in
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The program bio lauds Toradze’s “unorthodox
interpretations, deeply poetic lyricism and intense emotional excitement.” To
my ears (a decidedly minority opinion, judging by the audience reaction), Toradze
bludgeoned the outer movements, displayed little, if any, poetic lyricism, and
his “intense emotional excitement” consisted of flexing his muscles before
launching into each of the many pyrotechnic sections and bouncing off of the
piano stool when he ended said portions. He made Lang Lang’s rendition in
Hollywood Bowl last summer seem positively elegant by comparison.

 

The orchestra’s accompaniment was the highlight of the piece
for me, although there were a couple of times when things slowed down so much
that the high strings turned squeaky in ultra-soft moments.

 

As noted, the audience was euphoric over the Prokofiev and The Firebird. It seemed less sure about
the Shostakovich but eventually brought forth enough enthusiasm so that Gergiev
and Co. offered a witty encore: Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba Yaga.

 

More on the VPAC:

56100-VPAC Exterior 4-Web.jpg

Set on the south side of the CSUN campus, the Valley
Performing Arts Center is a striking stainless steel and glass, four-story
structure surrounded on two sides by a fountain and a park in which 173 new
trees were planted (to go with 14 already in place). The outside concrete plaza
has lighted strips embedded and metal benches; the entire facility has an open,
pleasant feel especially on a balmy evening (as we had last night). The VPAC
cost $125 million and contains 166,000 square feet of space.

 

The inside lobbies use 6 million light beige floor tiles
that create a light, airy feel (although each of the four levels could use a
few more benches for seats). In addition to the multi-purpose main hall, the
facility has a 178-seat black box theater, 230-seat lecture hall and new
broadcast space for KCSN, the university’s public radio station.

 

The light feeling continues inside the Great Hall, which is
essentially a rectangle but the wooden sides gave me the feeling of sitting
inside of a Longaberger Basket — not unpleasant, just interesting. Since the
facility was built to handle all sorts of performances (upcoming events include
the New York City Ballet, CSUN Opera’s Cosi
Fan Tutte,
and The King’s Singers — links to all three HERE), the stage has
side and back walls and no rear seats, such as you find at Walt Disney Concert
Hall.

 

The whole facility is a great addition to the Valley scene.
One hopes more people — including students — will learn about it in the months
to come.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Quiz answer: the top five cities by population are New
York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston (which are larger than the San Fernando
Valley) and Philadelphia — No. 5 on the list — which is smaller than the SFV.
If the Valley were subtracted from Los Angeles, L.A. would drop to third, just
above Houston.

The printed program included not a word about the new
facility.

Last night marked the third of at least four performances
of the Prokofiev third concerto that we will have heard or will be hearing
locally within a four-month period, beginning with Lang Lang to open the Bowl’s
classical season in July. Xiayin Wang played the piece with the St. Petersburg
Symphony earlier this month at the new Soka Performing Arts in Orange County
and Yuja Wang will be the soloist when James Conlon and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic perform the concerto at Walt Disney Concert Hall Nov. 4, 5 and 6
(LINK).

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

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