OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Master Chorale 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 Master
Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor

Sunday, October 16, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concert:
Nov. 13, 2011 at 7 p.m. Gershon conducts David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, the U.S. premiere of James Newton’s Mass and two motes by J.S. Bach (INFO)

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56070-Gershon10-16-11.jpg

Grant Gershon (left), music director of the Los Angeles Master
Chorale, LOVES program titles. When he designed last night’s concert — the
opening event in the ensemble’s 48th season — he originally called
it “From Here to Eternity.” Other marketing mavens intervened, however, and the
title ended up as “Lux Aeterna,” in honor of Morten Lauridsen’s famous choral
work that concluded the program at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

 

Smart move; the house was packed last night, which isn’t a
surprise. Since the Master Chorale commissioned the work from Lauridsen in
1997, no other piece has more defined the ensemble. And it’s not just the
Master Chorale that loves it. Since it was premiered and then recorded by the ensemble
and its former music director, Paul Salumunovich, Lux Aeterna has become one of the most popular choral pieces written
in recent years. In last night’s preconcert “Listen Up!” program, KUSC radio
host Alan Chapman remarked that whenever Lux
Aeterna
is played during one of his station’s innumerable pledge drives, phones
ring off the hook with donations.

 

However, the piece performed last night was quite a ways
removed from the orchestral version that most people know. Gershon chose instead
to accompany the 30-minute work with Paul Meier (associate organist at St.
James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Blvd.) playing the 6,100-pipe Disney Hall
organ. (Lauridsen — obviously a canny businessman — wrote both versions of Lux Aeterna simultaneously, knowing that
far more choruses and church choirs would be able to perform it with an organ
accompanying instead of hiring an orchestra).

 

Thus, last night’s Lux
Aeterna
had quite a different sound and feel to it, but that wasn’t all due
to Meier. Gershon himself put his own distinctive stamp on last night’s
performance, as well. The 115-member Chorale was much more expressive and
subtle than on the recording, employing impeccable diction and bringing great
feeling to the Latin texts in the five connected movements, including its most
famous section, O Nata Lux.

 

I wasn’t totally sold on all of Meier’s registrations and
the balance between choir and organ wasn’t always perfect but the opening notes,
beginning with a single note from one of Frank Gehry’s 32-foot wooden organ
pipes, and the transition from O Nata Lux
to Veni, Sancte Spiritus were particularly
effective. The audience was mesmerized; there were at least 10 seconds of
silence after the final Amen before
the hall erupted in a standing ovation for Gershon, the Chorale and, in
particular, Lauridsen, who was in the audience.

 

The opening half of the program consisted of totally a
cappella works, all written by still-living composers. The earliest work on the
program dated from 1990: the U.S. premiere of Music for a big church; for tranquility by Swedish composer Thomas
Jennefelt, a 10-minute vocalize exercise with the male voices setting a
polyphonic chordal foundation while the women swirled above and below them.

 

The rest of the first-half pieces were notable for, among
other things, the composers’ ability to fit their music expertly to poetic
texts, beginning with Eric Whitacre’s 2002 anthem, Her Sacred Spirit Soars, which employs rising scales from a 10-part
double chorus to accentuate a text by Charles Anthony Silvestri. The Chorale’s
fortissimo ending raised the proverbial Disney Hall roof.

 

English composer Tarik O’Regan (whose first opera, Heart of Darkness, will be premiered
next month at Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in London) used mostly homophonic
writing that allowed the Chorale to declaim grim words by Chilean poet Pablo
Neruda with great feeling. Leslie Leighton, the Chorale’s associate conductor,
conducted but the Chorale couldn’t quite achieve the precision it demonstrated
under Gershon in the rest of the program.

 

The upbeat strains of Heavenly
Home,
a “bluegrass triptych” of 19th century American folk hymns
arranged by chorus member Shawn Kirchner, concluded the opening half. Premiered
by the Chorale last year, the three arrangements proved to be a perfect
antidote to Neruda’s tragic depiction of a battle, even if Kirchner’s subject
matter did deal with the trip from this life to the next. As far as Kirchner
and the text writers are concerned, the trip (and its destination) will be
joyous. Jaunty arrangements of Unclouded
Day
and Hallelujah bracketed the
winsome Angel Band, in which Kirchner
gave his fellow tenors soaring melodic lines in the middle verse.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Among the more interesting tidbits from the preconcert
lecture was the revelation that Lauridsen (who has been a professor at the USC
Thornton School of Music for more than 30 years) reads poetry every day and
begins every class with a poem

Photo caption: Grant Gershon conducted the Los Angeles Master Chorale last night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, the opening concert of the Chorale’s 48th season. Photo credit: Alex Berliner for Los Angeles Master Chorale.

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

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and soprano Karina Gauvin at Alex Theater

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor; Karina Gauvin, soprano

Dvorak: Nocture in B
Major;
Britten: Les Illuminations,
Now sleeps the crimson petal

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)

Saturday, October 15, 2011 at Alex Theater

Next concert: Tonight at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA

Information: www.laco.org

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Last night’s concert by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
was not only illuminating and well played, it also proved to be a
quintessential example of the rich diversity of orchestral music that regularly
pops up in Southern California.

 

Friday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic — with 90 or so
musicians on stage — began with the swirling mists of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2 and ended
with the smashing chords of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Last night, LACO –
with two-dozen string players on the Alex Theater stage — began with a single
cello line (played elegantly by Andrew Shulman), the opening notes of Dvorak’s Nocture in B Major. We knew immediately
that we weren’t in Russia anymore (or in Walt Disney Concert Hall, either).

 

Such diversity is, of course, one of the great strengths of
LACO, which for 43 years — and particularly in the last 15 with Jeffrey Kahane
as music director — has carved out a distinct niche in the local (and national)
landscape with innovative programs beautifully played. Last night was a prime
example of both qualities.

 

After Dvorak’s meanderings set a quiet, shimmering prologue,
French-Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin came onstage as the ravishing soloist in
Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. This
work, which LACO was playing for the fifth time, is the English composer’s 1939
setting of nine of 42 poems written by French poet Arthur Rambaud who Kahane,
in his preconcert lecture, called the “Father of Modernism” (as Christine Lee
Gengaro noted in her program-book essay, Rimbaud influenced such disparate 20th
century artists as Pablo Picasso, Allen Ginsburg, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and
Jim Morrison).

 

Gauvin, a tall, statuesque blond, sang the poems with a rich
middle register and gleaming top. She also invested the set with great emotion,
especially in Royaut and Parade. The final poem, Dpart, which comes immediately after Parade, was hauntingly beautiful as
Gauvin intoned the lines “Seen enough … Had enough … Known enough … Leaving for
new affection and noise” with poignant reflection.

 

After Les
Illuminations,
Gauvin returned for what amounted to a planned encore:
Britten’s setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Now sleeps the crimson petal. Gauvin (who had sung Les Illuminations from memory but used a
score for the Tennyson poem) was equally impressive in this five-minute work,
which was being performed by LACO for the first time. In both pieces, Kahane
and the strings offered delicate, evocative accompaniment for Gauvin, aided in Now sleeps the crimson petal by David
Everson on French horn (Britten originally wrote the piece to be part of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings but
it was ultimately not included in that work).

 

After intermission, Kahane and Co. turned to Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). This was
part of Kahane’s inaugural concert as LACO in music director in 1997 as the
curly haired conductor was determined to send LACO beyond the “traditional”
chamber orchestra repertoire of baroque and early classical period music.
Actually, as Kahane noted in his preconcert lecture, the 39 musicians on stage
last night represented about the size of orchestra that Beethoven would have
used in the first performances of this landmark symphony, which was completed
in 1804.

 

Although the smaller-sized ensemble means a reduction in the
kind of weight and heft we normally associate with contemporary performances of
the Eroica, the ultra-brisk tempos
that Kahane prefers for his Beethoven performances sound better with reduced
forces anyway. The first movement emphasized the brio in the Allegro con brio tempo
marking and the third movement was ultra-vivace.
Even the second movement was more of a brisk jog rather than a funeral march. In the final movement,
things broadened out just a touch and the entire performance finished with a fine
sense of majesty. The orchestra seemed to take all of this calmly in stride,
bringing a sense of crisp lan to the entire performance, which elicited a
thunderous ovation from the audience.

_______________________

 

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

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Classical music schedule — overload or overjoy?

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

A shorter version of this
article will be published tomorrow in the above papers.

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In every classical-music season there are one or two weeks
where the operating word is “overload.” The upcoming fortnight counts as one of
those blocks, especially as it comes on the heels of an extremely busy weekend.
Chronologically, here are some of the major upcoming events (check my Blog for
additions, updates, more details and reviews):

 

Tonight (Saturday)
at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theater, Glendale; tomorrow (Sunday) at 7 p.m. at Royce
Hall, UCLA

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane leads his ensemble in
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).
Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin will be the soloist in Britten’s Les illuminations and Now sleeps the crimson petal. Info: 213/622-7001; www.laco.org

 

Tomorrow (Sunday)
at 7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Los Angeles Master
Chorale

Music Director Grant Gershon leads the Chorale in the
opening concert of its 48th season with the U.S. premiere of Music for a big church; for tranquility
by Swedish composer Thomas Jennefelt and Morton Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, one of the most popular
compositions of the last quarter century. Paul Meier accompanies on the Disney
Hall organ. Info: 213/972-7282; www.lamc.org

 

Tuesday at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge

Mariinsky Theater
Orchestra

Valery Gergiev leads this famed Russian orchestra (formerly
known as the Kirov) in a program of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Alexander
Toradze will be the soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Info: 818) 677-3000; www.valleyperformingartscenter.org

 

Thursday and Friday
at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic

Music Director Gustavo Dudamel conducts music by John Adams
and Prokofiev. 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?” Read all about it and the piece in the words of the composer HERE. Info: 323/850-2000; www.laphil.com

 

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: 626/793-2191; www.ppc.net

 

Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Ambassador Auditorium

The Colburn Orchestra

Music Director Yehuda Gilad leads his excellent ensemble in
Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and Shostakovich’s Festive
Overture
and Cello Concerto No. 1. Colburn student Estelle Choi will be the
soloist in the concerto. The concert is free but tickets must be downloaded
through the school’s Web site. Info: www.colburnschool.edu

 

October 23 at 6
p.m. at Royce Hall (UCLA)

American Youth
Symphony

Music Director Alexander 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 CarouselWest Side StorySweeney Todd and The Most Happy Fella. The concert is free (although a
$10 donation is suggested); make reservations through the orchestra’s Web site.
Info: aysmphony.org

 

October 28 and 29
at 8:30 p.m. and 30 at 7 p.m. at REDCAT (Walt Disney Concert Hall)

Southwest Chamber
Music

The Golden Quartet helps SWCM open its 25th season
with Wadada Lee Smith’s Ten Freedom
Summers,
which takes three evenings to perform and is inspired by the
1954-64 years of the Civil Rights Movement. Get details on the composition HERE.
Concert and ticket info: www.swmusic.org

 

Oct. 29 at 2 p.m.
and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena

Pasadena Symphony

Rising conducting star Mei-Ann Chen leads the PSO in its
opening concerts with a program that concludes with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.
5. James Ehnes will be the soloist in Korngold’s Violin Concerto. My profile of
Chen is HERE. Info: 626/793-7172;
www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

Oct. 29 at 4 p.m.
at Downey Civic Theatre

Chorale Bel Canto and
Opera a la Carte

The Whittier-based chorus opens its 30th season
by joining with Opera a la Carte in an unusual program (for CBC, that is):
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of
Penzance
. Richard Sheldon, who founded Opera a la Carte in 1970, stars as
the Modern Major General. Info:
562/861-8211; www.choralebelcanto.org

_____________________

 

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

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall — Sonic Splendor

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

Ravel: Daphnis and
Chloe, Suite No. 2,
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Friday, October 14, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concert: Tonight at 8 p.m. (includes Claude Vivier’s Orion).

Information: www.laphil.com

______________________

 

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic learned Wednesday that Yefim
Bronfman had fractured his finger during a recital the evening before in
Berkeley, the Phil was in a pickle less than 36 hours before the first of Bronfman’s
three scheduled performances as soloist in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Unlike, for example, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto or Beethoven’s Emperor, there aren’t a lot of pianists
who have the Bartok ready to jump into a performance at almost-literally a
moment’s notice.

 

Instead, the orchestra turned to a tried-and-true favorite:
Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2, which
it had performed less than two months before at Hollywood Bowl. The choice was
also logical because Dudamel will be conducting the suite in Zurich, Milan and
Rome during a tour next month with his Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of
Venezuela.

 

Familiar or not, it was an impressive feat for the Phil
musicians to knock the rust off the Ravel in time for this weekend’s
performances. As Anne Marie Gabriele, the orchestra’s second oboist who
introduced last night’s “Casual Friday” concert, noted wryly, “It’s been quite
a week.” When the Phil introduced the “Casual Friday” concept, the playing was
occasionally as casual as the attire; no longer. Combined with the previously
scheduled Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, last night was an evening of sonic
splendor, splendidly rendered.

 

While the lush music from Daphis and Chloe has been an orchestral favorite from the
beginning, the ballet for which it was written has never achieved the score’s
success. Ravel had been commissioned by Serge Diaghilev to write a work for his
newly formed Ballets Russes but,
according to Herbert Glass’ program note, Ravel and choreographer Michel
Folkine clashed repeatedly during the ballet’s gestation.

 

“Ravel first mentioned Daphnis
in a letter to his friend Madame de Saint-Marceaux in June of 1909,” writes
Glass: “I must tell you that I’ve had a really insane week: preparation of a
ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3
a.m. What particularly complicates matters is that Fokine doesn’t know a word
of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. Even with interpreters
around you can imagine how chaotic our meetings are.”

 

As things turned out, the ballet’s premiere came in 1912
(delayed many times due to the wrangling). It was interjected into the stream
of Stravinsky’s three landmark ballets: The
Firebird
in 1910, Petrushka (1911)
and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913). (Ironically,
the 1919 Firebird suite is on the
agenda for the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s performance Tuesday night at the
Valley Performing Arts Center — LINK).

 

Dudamel conducted the complete Daphnis and Chloe score in 2008 before he officially became the
Phil’s music director. To my ears, the complete suite is too much and the
suites are preferable (others disagree, as is their right). What we got last
night was 15 minutes of sumptuous sound, spun out in an unhurried manner in the
first two movements before Dudamel let loose in the finale.

The entire night
turned the spotlights on the Phil’s wind section, with Principal Flutist David
Buck shining brightest in his second movement solo in the Ravel. Despite its accelerated
tempos, the final movement was fully in control, with Ravel’s saucy flourishes blaring
out like an organist stepping on a swell pedal. Considering the minimal
rehearsal time, the orchestra’s rhythmic precision was truly impressive.

 

While the Ravel was a last-minute change, the work with
which it was paired — Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 — was always designed as the
evening’s conclusion, despite the fact that it had also been performed in
August at the Bowl. Of course when the Phil slated the 5th, it had
no idea that the piece would be played four times within a two-week period in
Southern California but that’s the way things have turned out (LINK).

 

What makes these performances special for Dudamel and the
Phil is that it was with this symphony that the then-24-year-old Dudamel made
his American debut at Hollywood Bowl in 2005 (LINK). I wasn’t on hand then and didn’t attend Thursday night’s
performance by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in Costa Mesa, so I came to last
night’s performance with no preconceptions or comparisons to make. None were
necessary — this was a magnificently played performance that in Dudamel’s hands
proved to be revelatory.

 

While many conductors emphasize the deeply brooding nature
of this work, Dudamel scrubbed the surfaces clean, like an old master painting
restored. Unlike his somewhat off-the-wall concept of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony
No. 6 that caused such a snit with some East Coast critics in 2010, last night
was a mainstream reading when it came to tempos.

 

That doesn’t mean it was ordinary; far from it. Conducting
without a score (as was the case with the Ravel), Dudamel lovingly shaped every
phrase — indeed, seemingly every note — from first measure to last. As he often
does to begin 19th century romantic pieces, Dudamel took the first
movement luxuriantly. The second was sensual, the waltz-like third movment elegant
(predictably, Dudamel danced his way through it), and the finale marched forward
briskly, then finished in a presto blaze of glory.

 

However, what really set this performance apart was the way
Dudamel emphasized the wind sections. When most people think of Tchaikovsky’s
fifth, they remember the brass and strings and both sections were in top form
last night: the brass gleaming and the strings delivering a bright tone.
However, to Dudamel’s ears, this piece’s focal point is the winds; of course,
it helps when the orchestra’s winds can rise fully to the occasion as did the
Phil musicians last night, beginning with the lovely, elegiac clarinet solos
from Michelle Zukovsky and Lorin Levee that opened the performance.

 

Among many moments, what remains etched in my memory was
that point in the second movement when, after the horn solo (played with loving
tenderness by the orchestra’s new principal horn, Andrew Bain), the tune is
passed subtly, almost imperceptibly to Zukovsky, Principal Oboist Ariana Ghez
and Principal Bassoon Whitney Crockett. That plus the movement’s final wistful
notes were pure magic and yet another example of Disney Hall’s wonderful
acoustics.

 

Unless you have an absolutely pressing engagement, grab
yourself a ticket for tonight’s final performance. As a bonus, you’ll get to
hear Orion by French-Canadian
composer Claude Vivier, which wasn’t played last night (my colleague Mark Swed
heard it in dress rehearsal and said he was sorry we were missing it).

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

In his preconcert lecture, Eric Bromberger called Thursday
night’s concert “the finest performance of Tchaikovsky’s fifth I’ve ever heard …
and I’ve heard plenty!” Among other talents, Bromberger is a violinist who has
played with the La Jolla Symphony since 1980.

As he did last week with Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, Dudamel barely paused
between the first and second and the third and fourth movements of the symphony
last night. He also avoided what Bromberger called the Tchaikovsky “Trap” –
that break before the coda — by making the pause so slight as to prevent any
premature applause. If he were sure of his audience, he might have allowed more
space, but in this case (one reason for “Casual Friday” concerts is to
introduce newcomers to classical music), the brevity made eminent sense.

If you haven’t had your fill of the Daphnis and Chloe suite, the Boston Symphony is scheduled to
perform it on Dec. 10 at Disney Hall (LINK).

_______________________

 

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

NEWS AND LINKS: Bronfman withdraws from this weekend’s L.A. Philharmonic performances

Yefim Bronfman, who was supposed to be the soloist in
Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has withdrawn
after breaking a finger. The concerto will be replaced by Ravel’s Daphis and Chloe, Suite No. 2, with
Gustavo Dudamel conducting. The
balance of the program, including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, remains the
same. Info: www.laphil.com

 

For more information on this weekend’s programs, see my “Five
Spot” POST below.

_______________________

 

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

Five-Spot: What caught my eye on October 13, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

With the classical music season back in full swing, it’s
time to revive my “Five Spot” column. Each Thursday morning, I list five events
that peak my interest, Usually there’s at least one with free admission (or, at
a minimum, inexpensive tickets) but this week’s listing omits the free event
because (a) nothing in that category jumped out at me today and (b) of the
large number of important ticketed concerts. I’ll have a couple of
free-admission events next week.

 

Here is today’s grouping:

______________________

 

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

Los Angeles
Philharmonic: Dudamel and and Bronfman

Life comes full circle, in a sense, for Gustavo Dudamel, who
made his American debut in 2005 conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at
Hollywood Bowl. That famous work concludes this weekend’s Phil concerts and is
one of several performances of this work being done locally within the next
fortnight (LINK).

 

Tonight, Saturday and Sunday, the program opens with
<EM>Orion </EM> by French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier and
includes Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2. The program was supposed to feature
Yefim Bronfman soloing in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 but he withdrew after
breaking a finger (presumably not when practicing the concerto, although it
would not be surprising if that were the case, since this a concerto often
described as “finger-busting”).

The choice of the Ravel is interesting; perhaps Gustavo will
explain it tomorrow, which is one of the highly popular “Casual Friday”
programs, The Orion gets deep-sixed in favor of a preconcert talk, usually by
an orchestra member, and an after-concert Q&A session that normally
features Dudamel and the preconcert lecture host, in this case, violinist Eric
Bromberger. Info: www.laphil.com

 

Tonight and Monday
night at 8 p.m. at Rene and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor

As part of a cross-country tour, one of Russia’s finest
ensembles (which used to be called the Kirov) makes appearances with two
different all-Tchaikovsky programs in Costa Mesa under the auspices of the
Orange County Philharmonic Society. Tonight is Symphonies Nos. 2 (Little Russian) and 5. Monday night
brings the third and fourth symphonies. Performances conducted by Gergiev can
be “wild and wooly” on occasion but they’re also full of electricity. See also
my Tuesday listing below for another Mariinsky concert. Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

 

Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Alex Theater, Glendale; Sunday at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor

Kahane leads his band in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). This was one of the first
symphonies Kahane conducted with LACO which demonstrated that a chamber
orchestra could think outside the box (i.e., beyond music from the baroque and
early classical eras) when it comes to programming. The evening opens with
Dvorak’s Nocture in B Major, Op. 40
and includes Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin singing Britten’s Les Illuminations and Now sleeps the crimson petal. Info: www.laco.org

 

Sunday at 7 p.m. at
Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles Master
Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor

In the opening concert of the Chorale’s 48th season, Gershon
leads 115 singers and organist Paul Meier in a program that includes the U.S.
premiere of Music for a big church; for
tranquility
by Swedish composer Thomas Jennefelt; Heavenly Home, a “bluegrass triptych” by Chorale member Shawn
Kirchner; and one of the landmark choral works of the last quarter century,
Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Info: www.lamc.org

 

Tuesday at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge

Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor

Gergiev and his busy band journey to Cal State Northridge
where the new VPAC will get its biggest acoustic test to date from the Russian
musicians in a program that includes Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite; Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1; and Prokofiev’s
Piano Concerto No. 3, with Alexander Toradze as soloist. Info: www.valleyperformingartscenter.org

_______________________

 

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

 

 

STORY AND LINKS: Rising-star conductor Mei-Ann Chen to lead Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

A shorter version of
this article was first published today in Pasadena Scene magazine.

______________________

 

Pasadena Symphony
Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor; James Ehnes, violin

Sat., Oct. 29, 2011; 2 and 8 p.m.

Huang: Saibei Dance; Korngold:
Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena

Tickets: $25-$100. Senior rush tickets ($15) for 2 p.m.
concert only. Student rush tickets and “Sound Check” cards also available.

Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

55970-Chen photo 4 Web.jpg

Rising star Mei-Ann Chen will conduct the Pasadena Symphony
on Oct. 29, the opening program in the PSO’s season at Ambassador Auditorium.

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Now into its second season without a music director, the
Pasadena Symphony will once again be led in four of its five concerts by a
parade of relatively unknown guest conductors. Consequently, audiences and
musicians have learned to approach each program with a spirit of investigative
adventure, wondering what sort of magic might come from each guest conductor.

 

Naturally in the back of many people’s minds is an unvoiced
thought: “Will this guest be the PSO’s next music director?” (For the record,
management continues to maintain that the orchestra is happy with the current
plan of using guest conductors and is not actively seeking anyone to replace
Jorge Mester as its next music director. James DePreist continues to act as
music advisor and will lead the final concert this season).

 

However, the opening concerts for the PSO’s 2011-2012 season
on Oct. 29 may turn out to be one of those events that people will one day look
back and remember, “I was there.” That’s because the guest conductor will be
Mei-Ann Chen, a 38-year-old, Taiwan-born dynamo who is one of the
fastest-rising stars in the international conducting firmament.

 

That ascension was a long time getting off the launching
pad. Although Chen is considerably older than wunderkind maestros such as Gustavo Dudamel, she considers herself
a “baby” in the conducting world. She can still remember a time when, after
receiving her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from the University
of Michigan she “received more rejection letters from orchestras than the
number of notes I had conducted professionally,” as she notes wryly.

 

Even after Chen in 2005 became the first woman to win
Denmark’s prestigious Malko conducting competition, opportunities were
initially scarce. Eventually, however, doors started to crack open. Thanks to a
fellowship from the League of American Orchestras, Chen (she has lived in the
U.S. since 1989) completed successful assistant conductor stints with the
Oregon, Atlanta and Baltimore symphonies. Those led to her first major
appointment last year, when she became music director of the Memphis Symphony.

 

This year she also took the reins at the Chicago Sinfonietta,
an orchestra similar to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in size and its need
to define itself outside the orbit of one of the world’s great orchestras, the
Chicago Symphony. Chen’s first concerts with her Chicago ensemble elicited rave
reviews from music critics at the city’s two largest papers, John von Rein
(LINK) and Andrew Patner (LINK).

 

In addition to these two significant leadership positions
(she spends four weeks in Chicago and 12 in Memphis) Chen now has numerous guest-conducting
requests beginning to flood in to her. She accepts about 20 each year.

 

“I feel very fortunate because I’m at a point where I have
to pick and choose concerts to conduct,” says Chen. “The bad side is that
unfortunately I have to turn down some requests for return appearances, which I
hate to do because I don’t like disappointing an orchestra that gave me a
chance and I like to maintain relationships with orchestras and their
musicians.”

 

One of the invites she did choose was from the Pasadena
Symphony. “They were interested early on,” remembers Chen, “and came to see and
hear me conduct with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County last June,” a
concert that earned a stellar review from Orange County Register Music Critic
Timothy Mangan (HERE).

 

However, what really sold Chen on making the trip to the
Crown City was the program, which she had a hand in creating.

 

The evening will open with the Saibei Dance (from Saibei
Dance Suite No. 2)
by An-Lun Huang, who was born in China but lives in
Toronto. “He wrote during China’s Cultural Revolution [1966-1976],” explains
Chen, “and, like thousands of people, was — because he was an artist — exiled
to a farm/labor camp north of the Great Wall [Saibei means North]. One
day each year, the residents in the community would put aside their struggles
to celebrate the harvest, which in the midst of privation at leave gave them
food. This piece celebrates that day.

 

“You’d think that being born in Taiwan that I’d know this
piece,” continues Chen, “but it wasn’t until the Alabama Symphony decided to do
a multicultural festival last year that I first conducted it. More importantly,
it was also the first piece that I ever conducted with the Chicago Sinfonietta
and it literally changed the entire search process there. Within five minutes,
the musicians and I had fallen in love with each other and, even though I was a
real long shot to replace Paul Freeman, [the Sinfonietta's founding music
director, who was retiring after 24 years], I was chosen. I think those first
few minutes with this piece played a huge role in that decision and in my life.”
Later in the year, she also conducted the piece during her Austria debut.

 

55971-James Ehnes w-violin 4 Web.jpg

The middle work on the PSO program will be Erich Wolfgang
Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with James Ehnes (right) as the soloist. “Korngold’s
granddaughter, Katy Korngold Hubbard, got me into his music,” recalls Chen. “Korngold
was sort of a genius but was one of those who got caught up in the Nazi Germany
era. There were people in Europe at the time who believed that Korngold would
become the next Mahler or Mozart.”

 

Korngold eventually fled to California where he gained fame
for his motion picture scores; he won an Oscar for the score to The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. He
also wrote the 1936 score for Anthony
Adverse
that also won the Oscar, although in those days the Academy
presented the award to the music department head of the studio that produced
the movie, not the composer. Korngold was also nominated for two other Oscars.
Equally important, Korngold’s lush, romantic writing style paved the way for
composers such as John Williams.

 

Korngold vowed never to write symphonic music until Hitler
was defeated. With the end of World War II, he once again concentrated on music
for the concert stage and the Violin Concerto, written in 1945, was his first
effort in this “new life.” Jascha Heifetz premiered the concerto in 1947 with
the St. Louis Symphony, but although Heifetz championed the piece but for
decades, Korngold’s association with film music clouded his “classical”
reputation with “purists.”

 

In recent years, Ehnes has become the new champion of the
concerto. His recording (LINK) of the Korngold, Walton and Barber violin
concertos, with Bramwell Tovey conducting the Vancouver Symphony, won the 2008
Grammy and Juno awards.

 

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the concluding work on the PSO
program, has a special place in Chen’s heart because it was the symphony she
conducted when she won the Malko Competition. “There were 242 competitors from
40 countries,” remembers Chen, “and I had to be the longest of long shots. Some
conductors had lots of experience conducting in Europe — one was a protg of
Valery Gergiev — and here I was, music director of a youth orchestra in a city
(Portland, Ore.) that many people didn’t even know existed.”

 

Winning Malko eventually changed Chen’s life but the passion
to conduct has been her goal since she was age 10. “I grew up in Taiwan as a
very shy child,” she recounts. “At age 10, I became a violinist in an orchestra
and saw my first conductor on the podium. I was hooked; I knew right then
that’s what I wanted to do with my life. There’s a tremendous sense of power
when you’re conducting because you’re trying to galvanize all of the separate
energies on stage into one energy that can burst forth through the music.”

 

That sense of energy bursting forth is a recurrent theme in
audience and critics’ reaction to her concerts. Andrew Patner in the Chicago Sun-Times called her “a rare
talent.” Reviewing her inaugural concert as the Chicago Sinfonietta’s
music director last month, John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “Chen … is a musician for whom ‘dynamic’ and
‘electric’ seem altogether too limiting. Her entire body is a bundle of podium
energy; her keen ear and sharp eyes miss nothing. Thanks to her clear beat and
articulate gestures, orchestral musicians pick up at once on her interpretive
ideas, sending them out to the listener with much the same immediacy of effect.”

Now that Chen has gained a firm foothold in the conducting
fraternity (which still includes very few women — JoAnn Falletta, music
director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginla Symphony, and Marin
Alsop, who heads the Baltimore Symphony, are the two most prominent), she’s eager
to pave the way for future conductors, both female and male.

 

One way she did that came earlier this year. Last January a
guest conductor with the Memphis Symphony cancelled an October concert. “Rather
than just find a substitute, I said to the orchestra and the musicians, ‘let’s
do something really radical — let’s hold a conducting competition, instead.’ ”
she explains.

 

The result was a whirlwind: decision in January, brochures
distributed in February, entries in by March, preliminary rounds in April,
finals in May. Despite the short notice, 236 people from 30 countries entered,
in part because the jury included some significant people both in terms of
musicianship and potential career-building opportunities. Robert Spano, music
director of the Atlanta Symphony and newly named head of the Aspen Music
Festival, headed the jury, which included Anthony Fogg, artistic administrator
of the Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood Festival, and Aaron Jay Kernis,
Pulitzer-prize winning composer and professor at the Yale School of Music.

 

There was no age limit (nearly all competitions have either
an upper or lower age limit, or both) and the first-prize winner was
40-year-old Ken Lam, who set aside a law career to pursue his love of music and
conducting. Lam and the other two prize winners will conduct a Memphis Symphony
concert in October while Chen is in Pasadena.

 

“I’ve had so many people who have helped me during the past
few years, ” says Chen. “As I grow more successful and come more into a
position of power, I cannot but help others who are coming after me. It’s my
time to turn the tables around.”

_______________________

 

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

Story and link: The Good, The Bad and the Intriguing at The Met

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

In an article published today in the New York Times (HERE), Daniel J. Wakin offers some wide-ranging and
interesting (to me, at any rate) information about the Metropolitan Opera,
based on figures released by the opera company.

The good:

The Met took in $182 million in donations last season, 50
percent higher than the year before; both numbers are astounding given how the
economy has affect arts contributions throughout the nation.

Thanks in part to $11 million in profits from last year’s
high-definition telecasts to movie theaters, the company balanced its budget
for the fiscal year (more on the HD program below).

 

The bad:

The Met continues to carry about $41 million in debt, its
endowment has dropped 25 percent since 2007 because of the stock-market
debacle, and the company is taking aggressively high draws from the endowment.

According to Wakin’s article, box-office revenue has been “largely
flat” since 2008 (whether this is bad is, of course, debatable; most companies
have seen their ticket sales affected negatively because of the recession). “In
fact,” writes Wakin about the Met, “ticket sales as a percentage of total
dollar capacity — the measure used by the Met — dropped to 79.2 percent from
83.2 percent the year before, itself a decline from 2009′s 88 percent. The 2011
box office proceeds include a $4.9 million donation to subsidize inexpensive
seats.” Again, I’m not sure that last line counts in the “bad” category — kudos
to the Met for reaching out to people who cannot afford its ticket prices.

The Met’s operating budget has increased to $325 million,
up 38 percent from 2005. Wakin has much to say in his article about reasons for
this increase.

 

The intriguing:

To me, the most intriguing aspect of the article is
something many of us have wondered since the Met began beaming performances
into theaters around the world six seasons ago: would they cut into ticket
sales at the Met itself? Met telecasts are now shown in 1,600 theaters in 54
countries. The theater audience is nearly 3 million a season, compared with
800,000 at the opera house (according to Wakin’s article).

 

Apparently the answer to the “ticket sales effect” question
is “yes”, but there’s a major caveat. Of the HD telecasts Wakin writes, “[Peter
Gelb, the Met’s general manager) acknowledged for the first time that
competition from the HD transmissions may have cannibalized box office sales,
particularly from people in nearby cities like Boston, who might have traveled
to New York before. But the financial loss was offset, he argued, by donor
contributions from across the country that were generated by the excitement
surrounding the broadcasts.”

 

The 2011-2012 Met “Live in HD” season begins Saturday at 9:55
a.m. (PDT) with a telecast of a new production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, with Anna Netrebko in the
title role. Two weeks later comes another new production — Mozart’s Don Giovanni — and Wagner’s Siegfried — the third segment in the
Met’s new, controversial staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle — will be telecast on Nov. 5 beginning at 9 a.m. PDT.
(DETAILS).

_______________________

 

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

SAME-DAY REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic — notes from a movie theater

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Janine Jansen, violin

Mendelssohn: Hebrides
Overture;
Violin Concerto; Symphony
No. 3 (Scottish)

Sunday, October 9, 2011 Alhambra Renaissance 14 Movie
Theater

Next telecast:
Feb. 18, 2 p.m. (PST) from Caracas, Venezuela: Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) with Dudamel
conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of
Venezuela, plus soloists and choruses

Information: www.laphil.com

______________________

 

Today was the first installment in the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s “LA Phil LIVE” second year of telecasts to 450+ movie theaters
in the U.S. and Canada (and possibly overseas; one of the intermission
questions came from Madrid). Here are my thoughts on the telecast:

 

The crowd in my
theater was considerably smaller than last year’s final two telecasts
(I
didn’t see the first one), which might be the result of (a) the lack of pizzazz
for an all-Mendelssohn program; (b) the fact that the telecast was bucking the
NFL and baseball playoffs, which — as professional golf can attest — is a
losing proposition; (c) and it was a beautifully day outside with temperatures
in the mid-80s. Or, it may say something about Philharmonic ticket sales; this
week brought in my snail mail box a fancy four-color brochure on the “Mahler
Project” next January, which would seem to indicate that ticket sales for that
major endeavor are somewhat lackluster.

 

No, Gustavo (who
was serving both as host and conductor) didn’t interview himself
(LINK). He introduced the first half of the program with the sort of
brief comments that he gave last year without someone asking him useless
questions. There was also some nice rehearsal footage with Dudamel and
violinist Janine Jansen preparing the Violin Concerto. In between the overture
and concerto, there was no commentary, only a Dudamel quip prior to going back
onstage.

At intermission, LAPO President Deborah President handled
the interview questions quite well and, presumably, at far less cost than
importing a “name” host. Jansen also got a chance to tell the telecast viewers
the name of her encore (Bach’s Sarabande
from the Partita No. 2) and explain why she chose it (she liked the piece’s
calm feeling after the concerto’s intensity).

 

After intermission, Dudamel gave a nice summary of how he
views the Scottish Symphony and there
was some excellent rehearsal footage with much laughter and good interaction
between orchestra members and the maestro. These sorts of snippets are the
major benefit to seeing the concert in the movie theaters as opposed to the
concert hall, particularly for anyone who has played in an orchestra or sung in
a choir. Dudamel’s asking for a horizontal line from his musicians, as opposed
to just a series of notes (he used the example of a giant funeral processing
moving forward slowly carrying a coffin) was priceless.

 

On the other hand,
the telecast also spotlighted some of the issues of theaters vs. being in the
concert hall.
There were two technical glitches, neither of which,
fortunately, was catastrophic. In fact, the one in the concerto was somewhat
humorous. Jansen had made the point in the preconcert clip about how important
silences are in the concerto and that’s when the video feed froze. Just when we
thought it was an extra-long pause, the sound kicked back in and the video feed
switched to a different camera a second later. The glitch in the symphony also
wasn’t major — probably the satellite hiccupped — but that doesn’t happen when
you’re in the concert hall.

 

* The issue of sound
was clearly delineated — perhaps too clearly.
Unlike hearing the
performances in the concert hall when sounds can blend together gloriously, the
sound in the movie theater continues to be in your face. It’s the difference
between seeing an oil painting in a museum from several feet away as opposed to
close-up: different looks, different feels about a masterpiece. From my
perspective, the difference was more noticeable in the concerto as opposed the
other two pieces.

 

The camera work
seemed much smoother than in last year’s telecasts,
although there are
undoubtedly some who don’t like the frequent switching between instruments. I
thought the shots of Dudamel were more carefully thought out (several from
farther back than extreme close-up range). The one really bad shot was the
opening beat of the symphony’s fourth movement, which was way too close to
Dudamel to get the full effect of his flamboyant gesture.

 

I got to the
theater about 30 minutes ahead of the concert.
There was a series of
questions/answers on the screen that people found interesting; several said, “I
didn’t know that” to several of the answers. One question was, “Why is Disney
Hall’s seating considered a ‘vineyard’ shape?” The answer was that European
vineyards are built on hills and terraces, similar to the seating configuration
in the hall. One of the questions related to the violin that Jansen played
(it’s a 1727 Strad nicknamed “Barrere”). Someone in the theater wondered why it
was named “Barrere.” The answer wasn’t on the screen and it isn’t clear except
that two people of that name have owned it.

 

There were also about five minutes of ads from Fathom
Events, which is a Phil partner in the telecasts, and a three-minute
infomercial from the League of American Orchestras urging people to attend
their local orchestras’ concerts (Borda made a similar plea during the
telecast). Unfortunately the timing of the next concert (Feb. 18) isn’t
particularly conducive to our local orchestras. The Pasadena Symphony and La
Mirada Symphony both have concerts scheduled that evening (the PSO actually has
an afternoon concert scheduled at the same time) and the Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra’s next concert beyond that date isn’t until March 24-25.

NOTE: My review from Friday’s concert heard in Walt Disney
Concert Hall is HERE.

_______________________

 

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

STORY AND LINKS: Taking the “Fifth” — six times

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Mei-Ann Chen will lead
the Pasadena Symphony in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 on Oct.
29, one of four performances of this familiar work during the next three weeks.

_______________________

Each season, one “warhorse” piece seems to pop up on
multiple orchestra concerts. Last fall Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 was played four
times by different orchestras within a one-month span (plus the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s concerts during last May’s “Brahms Unbound” festival). This year
the early winner in this dubious category of programmatic clash is
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which will be played four times within a
fortnight by orchestras throughout Southern California, plus at least twice
more later in the season.

 

In chronological order:

 

Oct. 13 at the Rene
and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa

Marinsky Theatre
Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor

This world-class ensemble, known in the Communist era as the
Kirov, makes its first appearance in five years at Segerstrom Concert hall. The
first of two concerts pairs the fifth and second symphonies; the second
performance, on Oct. 17, is Tchaikovsky’s third and fourth symphonies. These
are the concert pairings that Gergiev and the orchestra are playing tonight and
tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

 

Oct. 13, 14 and 15
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

The Venezuelan maestro, who made his local debut in 2005 at
Hollywood Bowl conducting Tchaikovsky’s fifth (LINK), leads it for the first
time in Disney Hall. The weekend’s programs also include Bartok’s Piano Concerto
No. 3, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The Thursday and Saturday programs open
with Orion by Montreal native Claude
Vivier (the “Casual Friday” program omits the Canadian work). Information: www.laphil.org

Oct. 23 at Royce
Hall (UCLA)

American Youth
Symphony; Alexander Treger, conductor

One of the region’s top youth orchestras, the AYS opens its
2011-2012 season with a free concert that concludes with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony
No. 5. It also includes Rod Gilfry singing songs from Carousel, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd and The Most Happy Fella. Information:
www.aysymphony.org

 

Oct. 29 at
Ambassador Auditorium

Pasadena Symphony;
Mei-Ann Chen, conductor

The Pasadena Symphony’s opening concerts (performances at 2
and 8 p.m.) finishes with Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. Earlier, Taiwanese-born
Mei-Ann Chen (music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and Memphis Symphony,
and a rising star in conducting circles) leads Saibei Dance (from Sabei
Dance Suite No. 2)
by An-Lun Huang, and Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with
James Ehnes as soloist. NOTE: my article on Mei-Ann Chen will be posted later
this week and will also appear in Pasadena
Scene
magazine. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

And, if that wasn’t enough, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5
pops up twice in January, as well. Charles Dutoit leads the Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra of London playing the piece on Jan. 25 on tour at Copley Hall in San
Diego (curiously, the orchestra wasn’t booked at any other Southland hall).

 

Meanwhile, Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony play the
piece Jan. 12-15 at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The program for the
first three nights will include Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus, was played last month by
Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LINK).

_______________________

 

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