NEWS AND LINKS: Esa-Pekka Salonen wins 2012 Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

56886-SalonenImage.jpg

When Esa-Pekka Salonen stepped down as music director of the
Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, it ostensibly was to devote more time to
composing. His output has been pretty meager in the last two years (just two
short pieces) but Salonen has won the 2012 University of Louisville Grawemeyer
Award for Music Composition for his Violin Concerto, which was premiered during
Salonen’s final weeks as LAPO music director that spring. The award, which
includes a $100,000 cash prize, is one of the most prestigious in classical
music.

 

The official release from the university is HERE. Mark Swed has an article on the Los Angeles Times Web site HERE. Among other things, Swed notes
that the L.A. Phil becomes the only orchestra to have commissioned and
premiered two Grawemeyer Award compositions (Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs in 2005 was the other) and
Salonen is the only conductor to have led the first performances of two winning
scores (Neruda Songs and his own
concerto, which featured Leila Josefowicz as soloist).

 

When the Violin Concerto was premiered in April 2009, I wrote
that it was  “a stunning violin
concerto, brilliant played by 31-year-old Leila Josefowicz, who was born in
Toronto but grew up in Los Angeles and studied with Ronald Lipsett at The
Colburn School.” (My entire review is HERE).

 

For what it’s worth I actually thought Salonen’s Piano
Concerto, written in 2007, was a better piece but both are terrific. They
joined a list of notable Salonen compositions that included L.A Variations (written in 1996) and Wing on Wing, which was composed for the
opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2004.

_______________________

 

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

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Orchestras in the holiday season

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

A shorter version of
this column published today in the above papers.

______________________

 

Because the holiday season is dominated by choral music,
orchestras have, in the past, tended to shy away from programs in December
unless they were holiday-theme oriented (e.g., Handel’s Messiah). This year, things are different.

 

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who music director of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic for 17 years, is in town for two weeks of concerts with his old
band (his L.A. Phil title is now Conductor Laureate). Today he’s leading
Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 2, with an old
friend, Emmanuel Ax, soloing in the concerto (which, despite its number, was
actually the first piano concerto that Beethoven wrote).

 

The second half of the program is Sirens by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Soprano Hila Plitmann
and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter join the orchestra and Los Angeles
Master Chorale in the work, which is based on The Siren Song from Homer’s The
Odyssey
and is receiving its world premiere this weekend. (Read my review
of Friday’s performance HERE.)

 

Salonen is leading another world premiere Friday, Saturday
and next Sunday: the Prologue to Shostakovich’s Orango, an unfinished satirical opera that the composer sketched in
1932 while he was writing his opera Lady
Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
. Only the 40-minute Prologue was
completed in piano vocal score, which was discovered in 2006. The Phil, a large
group of soloists, and the Master Chorale will present the work, orchestrated
by English composer Gerard McBurney and staged by Peter Sellars. The program
concludes with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4.  I have more on this concert at the bottom of the review
posted above and I’ll add more details on my “Five-Spot” post on Thursday.

 

On Dec. 8, 9 and 10, Thomas Wilkins — principal conductor of
the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra — leads the Phil in a program of movie music as
the orchestra’s contribution to the “Pacific Standard Time” series under the
auspices of the Getty Museum. Information: www.laphil.com

 

Elsewhere on the orchestral front:

The Pasadena
Symphony
will get into the holiday spirit with a candlelight program
Saturday at 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper, artistic
director and conductor of the West Virginia Symphony, will conduct the PSO,
vocalist Lisa Vroman, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Donald Brinegar
Singers and L.A. Bronze (a handbell ensemble) in an eclectic program of holiday
music. Information:
www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

The Colburn
Orchestra
continues its season next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Ambassador
Auditorium as guest conductor Gerard Schwarz leads the ensemble in Mahler’s
Symphony No. 5 and Takemitsu’s From Me
Flows What You Call Time,
with a local percussion ensemble, Smoke and
Mirrors, as soloists in the Takemitsu piece. For Schwarz, it’s something of a
homecoming. Prior to becoming music director of the Seattle Symphony, Schwarz
held a similar position with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which used to
perform in Ambassador. Information: www.colburnschool.edu

 

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will lead his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Dec.
10 at the Alex Theater in Glendale and 11 at Royce Hall, UCLA. Cellist Ralph
Kirshbaum will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra. The program
also includes music by Ravel, Respighi and Thomas Ads. Information: www.laco.org

_______________________

 

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

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere Hillborg’s “Sirens” at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 2 (Emmanuel
Ax, soloist)

Hillborg: Sirens (Hila
Plitmann and Anne Sofie von Otter, soloists; Los Angeles Master Chorale)

Friday, November 25, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Info: www.laphil.com

______________________

 

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s
music director from 1992-2009 and is now its conductor laureate, returned home
to Walt Disney Concert Hall (which he was instrumental in getting built) for
the first of two programs this season. During both weeks, he’s leading a world
premiere — last night it was Sirens, a
33-minute piece by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Next week it’s the
recently discovered prologue to an unfinished Shostakovich opera (more in Hemidemisemiquavers below).

 

Sirens is based on
a section of Homer’s The Odyssey, although
in the preconcert lecture Hillborg revealed that he composed some of the music
first and then found a text that seemed to fit what he had written. As the
composer explained in the program magazine: “In Greek mythology, the Sirens
were dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses who lured sailors with
their enchanting music and voices to come to the rocky coast of their island,
where they would kill them. In Homer’s tale, Ulysses — curious as to what the
Sirens sound like — orders his crew to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him
to the mast, not to release him no matter how much he begs, while their boat is
passing the island of the Sirens. In this way he will be able to hear their
deadly singing, which no man has heard and survived.”

 

Hillborg uses soprano Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Anne
Sofie von Otter and the Los Angeles Master Chorale to portray the Sirens, who
flatter Ulysses’ ego, appeal to his mind and soul, and sing seductively
(Hillborg uses English translations of The
Sirens Song
from The Odyssey, along
with additional text that he wrote; the words were projected as supertitles).

 

Underneath all of this, the orchestra delivers wave after
wave of sound, sometimes melodic, occasionally dissonant, with percussion and
piano interjecting sharp spikes into the tonal wash. The Master Chorale singers
also whistle, whisper and produce other sound effects.

 

Overall the effect was hypnotic; in the warm hall there were
undoubtedly a few people lulled to sleep. Von Otter (who used a score) and
Plitmann (who didn’t) were positioned on either side of Salonen conducted with
a score, as is almost always the case, but didn’t use a baton for the Hillborg
piece. The percussion section (not large by the standard of Hillborg’s
contemporaries) was notable for not including timpani. Lighting changes and
even a tinkling cell phone at the end added to the effect.

 

Plitmann’s radiant soprano voice blended well with von
Otter’s creamy mezzo; the two often sang extremely close, intertwined
harmonies. Overall, I found Sirens to
be an interesting — if not fully compelling — rendition of the Sirens story. After the performance,
Hillborg came onstage to bask in the sustained applause, which was extended to
all concerned.

 

The audience noticeably thinned out for Sirens as opposed to the all-Beethoven first half of the program,
which began with Salonen leading a dramatic reading of the second Leonore Overture (one of four overtures
that Beethoven composed for his only opera, Fidelio).
Salonen made effective use of the work’s silences, particularly in the
opening measures (when Disney Hall is silent, the effect can be magical) and
Chris Still was the offstage trumpeter.

 

To these ears, at least, the highlight of the evening was
Emmanuel Ax’s work as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (which,
despite its number, was really the first of the five piano concerti that
Beethoven wrote). Ax’s crystalline tone was perfect for his concept of this
piece, which alludes firmly to both Mozart and Haydn. Every phrase — indeed,
every note — was carefully thought out and lovingly sculpted — the entire
performance was a study in lyrical elegance.

 

Salonen enforced brisk tempos throughout and the orchestra
accompanied Ax sensitively. After sustained applause, Ax delivered a gentle,
lyrical encore: Schumann’s Fantasiestcke,
Op. 12, No. 1

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

Lucinda Carver’s preconcert lecture was longer than usual
(45 minutes), partly because Hillborg showed up unexpectedly to join in. Among
his musical influences, Hillborg listed Steve Reich and Brian Wilson (of the
Beach Boys).

Sirens was the
fourth Hillborg piece to be played by the L.A. Phil. One of those was Eleven Gates, which Salonen and the Phil
premiered in 2006. That, said Hillborg, was when he met Betty Freeman, the
local philanthropist who commissioned more than 400 new works over the last 40
years of her life. Hillborg dedicated Sirens
to both Salonen and Freeman.

When Salonen retired as the Phil’s music director, one of
the stated reasons was to allow him to devote more time to composing. So far,
he’s delivered just a couple of pieces: Dona
Nobis Pacem,
a five-minute unaccompanied work for female voices that the
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang earlier this year in a tribute concert to
Ernest Fleischmann, and Nyx, a
17-minute work for orchestra that was premiered last February in Paris and in
October by the Atlanta Symphony.

Next week’s concerts (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) will
feature the world premiere of the Prologue to Orango by Shostakovich. The Phil describes this work thusly: “Orango is an unfinished satirical opera
by Shostakovich, sketched [in 1932] while he was writing Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
He and his librettists conceived ‘a political lampoon against the bourgeois
press,’ concerning a human-ape hybrid. Of the projected Prologue and three
acts, only the 40-minute Prologue was completed, in piano vocal score, which
was just discovered in 2006.”  Read
the complete program note HERE.

 

The Prologue includes parts for 10 soloists and the Los
Angeles Master Chorale. It is being staged by Peter Sellars with lighting by
Ben Zamora. Gerald McBurney, who orchestrated the prologue, will offer a
preconcert lecture an hour before each program. 

 

A Los Angeles Times article
on the piece is HERE.

 

The second half of the program will be Shostakovich’s
Symphony No. 4, which was composed just a few years after Orango. This was the symphony that was not played for 25 years
after it was written, a consequence of the composer’s run-in with Soviet
authorities over Lady Macbeth of the
Mtsensk District.
Laurel E. Fay’s program note says that one of the two
conductors who were eager to conduct the symphony was Otto Klemperer, who at
the time was the L.A. Phil’s music director. Whether the symphony would have
been played in L.A. isn’t spelled out; ultimately the LAPO premiere would not
take place until 1989 under the baton of Andr Previn. (Read the full program note
HERE).

 

Expect next week’s program to last a bit longer than a
normal concert. The Prologue to Orango
is 40 minutes long and the symphony, one of Shostakovich’s longest, takes an
hour. The orchestration for the symphony (2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (4th =
English horn), 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 8 horns, 4
trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets,
cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps,
celesta, and strings) is the largest of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies.

_______________________

 

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

Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 24, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Normally 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). However, because of the Thanksgiving holidays, I’ve only
found two events — admittedly important ones — for this week’s listing.
However, there are also some upcoming events that are worth adding to your
calendars.

______________________

 

Tomorrow and
Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic: Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to the Phil

 

56842-Salonen.jpg

Whether it’s a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”
or the fact that the L.A. Phil always seems to play with extra fervor under the
baton of its former music director, whenever Esa-Pekka Salonen (pictured right) comes “home” to conduct
the LAPO it’s a special occasion. For those new in town or to classical music,
the now-53-year-old Finnish-born Salonen was the Phil’s music director for 17
seasons (1992-2009), the longest tenure among the 11 people to hold the
position.

 

This weekend is the first of two consecutive Salonen
programs: Beethoven’s Lenore Overture, No.
2 and Piano Concerto No. 2, along with the world premiere of Sirens by Swedish composer Anders
Hilborg.

 

Sirens is scored
for large orchestra, mixed chorus (the Los Angeles Master Chorale), and two
soloists: soprano Hila Plitmann and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. The 30+
minute piece was commissioned by the late Betty Freeman and dedicated both to
her and to the conductor. Salonen has a three-minute video on his Web site
(LINK) where he discusses the work’s genesis and speaks lovingly of Freeman,
who he described as “sorely missed and a great supporter of new music.”

 

Hilborg writes of the piece: “In Greek mythology, the Sirens were murderous bird-women who used
their voices to lure sailors to their island. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Ulysses orders his crew to
plug their ears and tie him to the mast so he will be able to hear, and
survive, the deadly singing.

The calm sea starts stirring, ghostlike whispers emerge
from the depths, strange fragmented voices agitate the surface. The scene
suddenly clears and the Sirens appear.

The Sirens try to lure Ulysses in numerous ways: they
flatter his ego; they appeal to his mind and soul, promising him they’ll
disclose all the secrets of the world; and they sing seductively, arousing him.

Then the Sirens’ true monstrous identity is revealed, as
their powerful singing transforms into horrendous screaming. The hallucination
dissolves and all reverts back to calm sea, as Ulysses’ vessel sails out of danger.”

 

Read the complete program note HERE.

 

Emanuel Ax, a long-time collaborator with both Salonen and
the Phil, will be the soloist in the concerto, which (despite its number) was
actually the first piano concerto that Beethoven composed. Well-known
harpsichordist and conductor Lucinda Carver will deliver a lecture an hour
before each concert.

 

Concert information: www.laphil.org

 

Friday at 9 p.m. on
PBSSoCal TV (aka KOCE)

Los Angeles Opera’s
production of Daniel Catn’s Il Postino

56843-Domingo-Castro.jpg

The PBS series Great
Performances
taped the world premiere of Il Postino (The Postman) by Southern California composer Daniel
Catn. Plcido Domingo stars as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Charles Castronovo
sings the title role, and Grant Gerson conducts.

 

The opera was based on Ardiente
Pacienca (Burning Patience),
a 1985 novella by Antonio Skrmeta,
and the award-winning (and beloved by many) 1994 film, Il Postino, by Michael Radford, but
Catn turned it into his own very special and, as it turned out, final work
(the composer died unexpectedly last April). A link to the laudatory reviews,
including mine, is HERE.

 

Information (including
a video preview clip): www.pbsssocal.org

_______________________________

 

For the “futures” section of your calendar:

 

The Metropolitan Opera had originally scheduled two “Live in
HD” telecasts for December: Handel’s Rodelinda,
starring Rene Fleming with Harry Bicket conducting, on Dec. 3; and
Gounod’s Faust, with Jonas Kaufman in
the title role and Yannick Nzet-Sguin conducting a new production, on Dec.
10.

 

The company has added two “encore” presentations (i.e.,
previously recorded telecasts), both of which are worth attending: Mozart’s The Magic Flute on Wed., Dec. 21 at 6:30
p.m. and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel
the following evening. There are several things that make these productions
noteworthy:

They’re short (Magic
Flute
clocks in at 110 minutes and Hansel
and Gretel
runs 123 minutes) as opposed to Rodelinda and Faust, both
of which are more than four hours in length.

They’re both sung in English.

They’re both labeled as “family friendly.” The Magic Flute was staged by Julie Taymor
with the same sort of puppet and fantasy magic that characterized her
production of The Lion King. The
fairy tale setting of Hansel and Gretel is
equally enchanting. Both are great for adults and kids alike.

 

A couple of added bonuses:

Hansel and Gretel
was one of the last roles (The Witch) for the great English tenor, Philip
Landridge, who died on March 5, 2010 just a few months after this production
aired.

The Magic Flute
was conducted by James Levine and it’s no telling how long it will be before we
see the Met’s music director back in the pit (he’s recovering from back
surgery).

 

One downside: you’re going to have a hard time finding a
theater locally for Hansel and Gretel, at
least as of this writing. While The Magic
Flute
will be shown at the Alhambra Renaissance 14, Covina 17 and Puente
Hills 20, the closest theater (to me) for Hansel
and Gretel
is the Cinemark 14 in Long Beach, which does have the advantage
of being within walking distance of the Metro Blue Line stations at 1st
St. and the Long Beach Transit Mall.

 

Information: www.metoperafamily.org

_______________________

 

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

NEWS: Former L.A. Phil Associate Concermaster Irving Geller dies at age 85

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

Irving Geller, who served as associate concertmaster of the
Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly 25 years in a career that spanned nearly a
half-century with the orchestra, died on Nov. 16 at the age of 85. Following is
the Phil’s media release:

 

Irving Geller, Associate Concertmaster and first violinist
with the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1951-1999, passed away peacefully on
November 16, surrounded by friends and family. Mr. Geller, born January 10,
1926, is survived by his wife, actress Helen Geller, his children Paul and
Valerie, and grandchildren Juliana, Aaron, James and Greyson.

 

Irving Geller was born in Warsaw, Poland, and began his
musical studies at the age of five. He made his solo debut at age ten, playing
the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Hull House Symphony Orchestra in
Chicago. Performances as a recitalist and orchestra soloist brought the young
violinist many awards and critical praise.

 

While still in his early teens, he and his family moved to
Los Angeles, where his music studies continued and he appeared as soloist with
various orchestras and on radio.

 

Geller then became Assistant Concertmaster of the San
Antonio Symphony Orchestra; following his three years in Texas he joined the
Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1951, becoming one of its youngest members. He has
served as Concertmaster of the California Chamber Symphony, the Los Angeles
Chamber Society (comprised of Los Angeles Philharmonic members), and other
musical organizations in the Los Angeles area.

 

For nearly 25 years, he was the Philharmonic’s Associate
Concertmaster.

 

Drafted as a machine gunner in the infantry of the U.S.
Army, Geller received the Purple Heart after being injured at the “Battle of
the Bulge” (1944-45).

 

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, November 20, at
Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary located at 6001 W. Centinela Avenue, Los
Angeles, CA 90045 at 3pm. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations
be made in Irving’s name to the Jewish National Fund, Trees for Israel or the
American Cancer Society.

_______________________

 

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

Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 17, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

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). Today’s grouping covers a wide geographical area:

______________________

 

Thursday through
Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rene and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

Pacific Symphony;
Carl St.Clair, conductor — Music Unbound: Mahler’s Symphony No. 9

The latest installment of the orchestra’s Music Unbound series focuses on Mahler’s
Symphony No. 9. Although the concert begins at 8 p.m., the preconcert program
at 7, created by Joseph Horowitz, features actors Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett
performing in “I Beg You to be Truthful”
– The Marriage of Gustav and Anna Mahler: A Self-Portrait in Letters.
The
30-minute presentation is based on Gustav Mahler: Letters to his Wife, edited by Henry-Louis de La
Grange and Gnther Weiss in collaboration with Knud Martner. There will also be
a display of the Mahlers’ letters in the lobby. Info: www.pacificsymphony.org

 

Saturday at 8 p.m.
and Sunday at 6 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica

Jacaranda’s tribute
to Henryk Gorecki

Jacaranda is one of the area’s most impassioned (and
excellent) advocates of new music. This program will pay tribute to the Polish
composer who died Nov. 12, 2010. Pianist Mark Robson will perform Gorecki’s
first published work (Four Preludes, Op.
1)
and the Calder Quartet and Lyris Quartet will join Jacaranda’s chamber
orchestra in other Gorecki works. Info: www.jacarandamusic.org

 

Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
at Sexson Auditorim, Pasadena City College

Pasadena Young
Musicians Orchestra; Jo Stoup, conductor

This program could have fit in the “free or nearly free”
category below because tickets are just $7 for adults and $5 for students and
seniors. In a program entitled “The French Connection,” Stoup leads her young
musicians in Gershwin’s An American in
Paris,
Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espaol
and other non-French works. Info: www.pymo.org

 

Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Lszl Fassang,
organist

This is a good weekend for organ lovers (see Timothy
Howard’s program listed below). At Disney Hall, Bach and Liszt will dominate Hungarian
organist Lszl Fassang’s program as he plays music by J.S. Bach (Toccata and
Fugue in F Major), Robert Schumann (Four Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op. 60), Max Reger
(Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46) and Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos salutaren undam) and finishes the
evening with his own improvisations on Bach and Liszt themes. Info: www.laphil.com

 

And the weekend’s “free admission” program …

 

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

Timothy Howard,
organist

Improvising is pretty much of a lost art with the notable
exception of organists, who — because of proclivity or church job requirements
– relish the opportunity (see Fassang above). One of the best at improvising is
Timothy Howard, whose weekly worship service efforts often include a postlude
improvisation on the final hymn (full disclosure: PPC is my home church and I
sing with Tim, so — as the late, great columnist Molly Ivins often wrote — you
can take this strong recommendation with a grain of salt or a pound of salt).

 

In addition to two of his own hymn improvs, Howard’s program
– music by Csar Franck, Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Tournemire, Herbert
Howells and Marcel Dupr — will feature pieces originally improvised and later
written down. A bonus is hearing the music played on the church’s 112-rank
Aeolian-Skinner organ, one of the largest and most important instruments in
Southern California. Info: www.ppc.net

_______________________

 

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

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: LA Opera’s “Romo et Juliette” at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

LA Opera: Gounod’s Romo et Juliette

Saturday, November 12, 2011 Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Next performances: November 17 at 7:30 p.m. November 19 and
20 at 2 p.m.

Information: www.laopera.com

 

56623-Romeo image.jpg

Nino Machaidze and Vittorio Grigolo play the lead roles in
LA Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romo
et Juliette,
now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

______________________

 

I’m not sure exactly when it hit me — probably somewhere
near the end of the balcony scene of Gounod’s Romo et Juiette last night — but it sort of crept up on me that
it’s been several years since LA Opera mounted a really bad production. If
you liked the company’s presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (which I emphatically did), then the
weakest evening in quite some time was last season’s presentation of Lohengrin and even if you didn’t think
much of the production concept (which I didn’t), that performance had much to
recommend it.

 

Last season began with the scintillating production of
Daniel Catn’s Il Postino and also
included The Marriage of Figaro,
Rigoletto, Il Turco in Italia
and The
Turn of the Screw —
all top-notch presentation. This season opened with Eugene
Onegin
and Cosi Fan Tutte, the former
(as I wrote) often riveting, the latter one of the best things that LAO has
ever done. That’s quite an impressive run and Romo et Juliette, a revival of LA Opera’s 2005 production, certainly
adds to that list.

 

At least some of the reason for the success has been the
company’s ability to cast imaginatively with singers who have either been
relatively unknown (e.g., Charles Castronovo in Il Postino) or taking on a role for the first time (e.g., Patricia
Racette in The Turn of the Screw). Tonight
was yet another chapter in that ongoing story.

 

Gounod’s retelling of the famous Shakespeare tale isn’t a
great opera (although it isn’t as bad as some critics think). Considering that
(as Michael Hackett noted in his preconcert lecture) Gounod and his librettists,
Jules Barbier and Michael Carre, were translating Shakespeare’s 16th
century English play about a story set in 15th century Verona into a
in 19th century opera in France that we’re viewing in the 21st
century, it’s a wonder that it works as well as it does.

 

However, there’s no real reason to mount this opera unless
you have two special singer-actors in the starring roles. In 2005, LAO led with
Rolando Villazn and Anna Netrebko who were just emerging as the hottest couple
in the operatic firmament.

 

In his program-book letter, LAO General Director Plcido
Domingo wrote, “Although I have been eager to revive Romo, I was willing to wait until I could find the perfect duo for
the title roles.” The wait was worth it, and if you haven’t seen Vittorio
Grigolo and Nino Machaidze as the star-crossed lovers, you should certainly get
yourself to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for one of the last three
performances because they are special. Although it’s always risky to make these
sort of predictions, you may one day look back and say, “I was there.”

 

In view of the fact that the lead characters are supposed to
be adolescents who can pour out miles of mature adult singing, Gounod was
seeking the impossible, roughly equivalent to Wagner’s troubles in casting the
title role of Siegfried (the two
operas were written at about the same time; Romo
et Juliette
premiered in 1867, nine years before Siegfried).

 

However, the 34-year-old Grigolo and the 28-year-old
Machaidze are about as close to the ideal as we’re going to get and that’s a
good thing on several fronts. For one thing, John Gunther’s imaginative sets –
sort of a cross between an erector set and Disneyland’s New Orleans Square –
require Grigolo to scamper up and down metal ladders, often while singing his
heart out. For another, the two genuinely seem inflamed with each other, always
a good thing when portraying these most famous lovers — in fact, they couldn’t
seem to keep their hands off each other once they first met (well, don’t you
remember what it was like to be a teenager with hormones raging?).

 

More importantly, Grigolo and Machaidze sing gorgeously –
boy, do they ever. Gounod gives them five love duets and plenty of other opportunities
and they take full advantage. Grigolo — who is making his LAO debut with this
role — exudes power with virtually every note; in fact, one wished for an
occasional lighter touch just as a change of pace but that’s a very minor kvetch. Machaidze, who we’ve seen twice
before with LAO, was more nuanced in her singing. However, she could match
Grigolo note for note in volume and was even more smoldering than he was.

 

The other parts are far less fulfilling — blame Gounod. The
most impressive last night were Vitalij Kowalijow (Wotan in LAO’s Ring) as a noble Friar Laurence and Rene
Rapier, a University of Iowa grad who had a saucy, scene-stealing turn as
Stephano. Rapier is part of the company’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artists
Program, one of six current or former DTYAP members in the cast.

 

Ian Judge, who directed the original production in 2005,
came back for the revival. Gunther’s set slid, turned and revolved enough to
allow Gounod’s five acts to be played as just two (the evening clocked in at
about 3:15). The fight choreography by Ed Douglas and the lighting design by
Nigel Levings were particularly effective.

 

Domingo accompanied his singers sensitively, although his
overall concept could have done with a bit more Gallic flare and nuance. James
Conlon he isn’t but this was a solid performance and, frankly, nobody comes to
this opera solely to hear the orchestra, which continues to be one of the
company’s strong points. The LAO chorus sang strongly thoroughly the evening.

 

Ultimately, as noted earlier, this was another in a string
of strong LAO productions over the past three seasons. As the company moves
into its second quarter-century, that’s healthy sign and one that bodes well
for the future.

_______________________

 

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

Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 10, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Each Thursday morning, I list five events (six this week) that
peak my interest, including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at
a minimum, inexpensive tickets). Here’s today’s grouping:

______________________

 

Tomorrow and
Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Semyon Bychkov and the Labques

Bychkov, one of the hottest guest conductors around these
days, conducts Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic
Dances
to conclude the program. In the first half, the classical world’s
most popular piano duo, Katia and Marielle Labque, will play an arrangement of
Ravel’s Rapodie Espagnole for two
solo pianos and then join the Phil for the world premiere of Concerto for two pianos and double orchestra
“Battlefield”
by Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon. This will mark
the first concert appearance at Walt Disney Concert Hall of Marielle with Bychkov, who is her husband. Information: www.laphil.com

 

Saturday at 7:30
p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. at The Women’s Club of South Pasadena

Celestial Opera: Purcell’s
Dido and Aeneas and Mozart’s The Impresario

The intrepid local opera company offers two one-act operas
sung in English with English supertitles, with sets and costumes, accompanied
by a string quartet and harpsichord (for the Purcell) and piano (for the
Mozart). I’ll have a preview story posted tomorrow on this Blog and in the
Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News. Information: www.celestialopera.org

 

Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Neighborhood Church, Pasadena

Musica Angelica
salutes its founders

Lutenist and guitarist John Schneidermann will join Hideki
Yamaya, guitar and lute, violinists Janet Strauss and Susan Feldman, cellist
William Skeen, tenor Daniel Plaster and Denise Bries on viola da gamba in a
program that honors Michael Eagan and Mark Chatfield, who founded Musica
Angelica in 1993. Eagan, a lute player, died in 2004, while Chatfield, a
cellist, passed away in 1998. The duo formed the ensemble that has become one
of the world’s Baroque music groups. The concert repeats Nov. 13 in Santa
Monica. Information: www.musicaangelica.org

 

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

Los Angeles Master
Chorale: The Little Match Girl Passion

Grant Gershon conducts 32 members of the Chorale and solo
instrumentalists in The Little Match Girl
Passion,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning work by David Lang, which is based on
the Hans Christian Andersen story and influenced by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This will be an
expanded version of the piece that was premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York
City. The program also includes the U.S. premiere of James Newton’s Mass and two Bach motets. Information: www.lamc.org

 

Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
and 8:30 p.m. at the Show at Barre Theatre, Los Angeles

Susan Egan and
Georgia Stitt: The Secret of Happiness LIVE

Susan Egan originated the role of Belle in Disney’s Beauty and Beast musical on Broadway.
Georgia Stitt is an award-winning Broadway composer and arranger. Together,
they make a powerhouse team and this program features selections from their new
upcoming album. If you’re interested and/or intrigued, read the attendance
details carefully — this is a small theater. Information: showatbarre.inticketing.com

 

And the weekend’s “free admission” program …

 

Saturday at 2 p.m.
at Pasadena Christian Church

Sunday at 2 p.m. at First
Baptist Church of Pasadena

Crown City Symphony;
Marvin Neumann, conductor

Lawrence Sonderling, a member of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s violin section, will be the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin
Concerto. The program also includes Rossini’s Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers and Mozart’s Symphony No. 25. Information: www.crowncitysymphony.org

_______________________

 

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

SAME-DAY REVIEW: Met’s “Siegfried” live in HD in theaters

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Metropolitan Opera:
Live in HD — Richard Wagner: Siegfried

Saturday, November 5, 2011 Alhambra Renaissance 14 Theater

Encore performance: TBD

Next segment: Gotterdmerng,
telecast on Feb. 11 beginning at 9 a.m. (PST)

Information: www.metopera.org

______________________

 

For reasons not explained (at least not that I have seen),
the encore performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” telecast of
Wagner’s Siegfried is listed as TBD.
Part of the issue may be finding a time slot in theaters for a 5-hour-plus-long
telecast. But whenever it is, you don’t want to miss it, especially if you’re a
Wagner fan, so keep checking the Met’s Web site (above).

 

As most opera lovers know, the Met has been unveiling
segments of its new production of Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, over the past
year so, leading to three productions of the entire cycle beginning April 7,
2012 (see the Hemidemisemiquaver
below).

 

The new production, which replaced a 20-year-old version,
was designed by Canadian Robert LePage and is dominated by an extremely large,
heavy (45 tons, so heavy that the Met had to install three 65-fooot steel
girders to reinforce its stage), complicated and expensive apparatus known by
some as “The Machine,” which uses 24 Fafner-sized metal planks that rotate,
pivot, move up and down, etc. to create sets for the four operas.

 

As was the case with LA Opera’s Ring cycle a few years ago, things seem to be improving
significantly for the Met’s Ring as
it moves forward, at least based on what I saw at my local movie theater today.
Part of that is due to improvements in the technology, including the addition of
some striking video projections and 3D animation effects. However, those took a
back seat to the music: the Met Orchestra, led by the company’s Principal
Conductor, Fabio Luisi, and the cast, headed by what amounts to a Peggy Sawyer
story (think of the 42nd St. movie)
for American tenor Jay Hunter Morris.

 

Morris, who hails from Paris, Texas and speaks with a
distinctive drawl (that doesn’t show up when he sings German), replaced Gary
Lehman in the title role eight days before opening night when the latter came
down with an undisclosed illness. Morris wasn’t exactly Sawyer (who stepped
onstage as literally an overnight replacement) and this wasn’t exactly new; he
actually made the same sort of rescue earlier in the year when he replaced Ian
Storey in the same role for San Francisco Opera’s Ring.

 

Nonetheless, Morris had to get up to speed on a complicated
production, mesh with cast members who were already deep into rehearsal, and
get ready to sing at the Met for the first time (the opening of the telecast showed
him getting lost trying to find the Met cafeteria and exclaiming at the view of
the empty opera house from the orchestra pit).

 

The first thing to say is that Morris’ youthful good looks
mean that he comes as close to what Wagner imagined for the youthful Siegfried
as probably anyone. In truth, Wagner asked for the impossible; he wanted a
teenager who could sing like an adult heldentenor
for five or so hours, finishing with a duet with a soprano who has been
resting until those climactic moments. You can get one or the other but not
both, but Morris comes pretty darned close to the ideal. His voice doesn’t
quite have that heldentenor ring yet
but it is bright and gleaming. He held his own with Deborah Voigt as Brnnhilde
and sang with lyrical grace whenever possible. Moreover, Morris acted the role
with real sensitivity (as did Voigt) — more on that in a moment.

 

Perhaps more than anything, today’s telecast was another
potent argument for the validity — and indeed, in some ways, the superiority –
of seeing an opera in the movie theaters. I don’t want to debate the merits of
seeing a production live as opposed to telecast from a sound point of view or
the electricity that can leap between performer and audience in a live house on
the best of days. Nonetheless, those in the theaters enjoyed some visuals that
can’t possibly have been seen from most of the seats in the opera house.

 

Two examples: When Morris and Voigt were singing their final
35-minute duet, there was a moment when Voigt was lamenting her fate and Morris
gave her a swift — almost infinitesimal — side glance of sympathy (mirth?
pathos?). I doubt anyone in the Met could have seen it. Moreover, I wonder how
many people in the opera house could have seen how the woodbird was “singing”
in synch with soprano Modjca Erdmann (sort of a reverse Milli Vanilli); an
intermission interview revealed that the singer was actually controlling the
animation effect through her voice. Those were just two of many such episodes.

 

As usual, the intermission features were fascinating,
beginning with the exhilaration being felt by the singers as the came offstage
at the end of each act. A segment on Morris showed him collapsing on a couch in
his dressing room at the end of Act II in dress rehearsal, pulling off the infamous
ring and saying, “Here, take it!” He did the same thing, playfully, to Rene
Fleming, who was the performance hostess, at the end of Act II today. A lengthy
feature on Morris’ rise to this point in his career displayed a great deal of
humanity from the singer — he’s still somewhat in the “don’t pinch me in case I
wake up” mode.

 

In addition to Morris, the balance of the cast was
excellent. Voigt has gotten snipes in reviews for her singing but I thought she
sounded lustrous today and brought real pathos to the role of the woman who
goes to sleep as a goddess 18 years earlier (as she joked in an interview –
there was an 18-year-gap between when Wagner completed Act II and began Act
III) and wakes up as a mortal. Moreover, she and Morris genuinely seemed
smitten with each other by the final curtain (it doesn’t always happen).

 

Bryn Terfel sang with impressive majesty as the Wanderer;
he’s clearly a worthy successor to Thomas Stewart and James Morris in the Met’s
Wotan/Wanderer legacy, and if he isn’t then Eric Owens, whose dark bass voice
was perfect for the malevolent Alberich, could be next in line.

 

Another star was Gerhard Siegel as Mime; he’s sung the role
of Siegfried many times and he has that sort of voice, which was on full
display as he portrayed the scheming dward. Siegel also related in an
intermission that when he was singing in the Met’s 2009 presentation of the Ring, he suffered a heart attack (“The
Met saved my life,” he exclaimed fervently). Hans-Peter Knig boomed darkly as
Fafner.

 

The Met Orchestra remains one of the marvels of the musical
world; it hasn’t lost a beat under Luisi’s ministrations. The Italian maestro
moved things along briskly — the performance lasted far less than the six hours
that the Met’s Web site had forecast. Luisi also showed a great deal of
sensitivity in accompanying his cast and really let Wagner’s music speak for
itself.

 

Speaking of Fafner, the Met follows in a long tradition of
being unable to come up with a convincing dragon. You’d think with the amount
of money being spent on this production that someone could have created
something more convincing than a head with sharp teeth and a long neck. As I
said, others have failed, as well. The performance did have a bear that made a
brief appearance in Act I, although he looked more cuddly than ferocious.

 

The video projections on the 24 giant planks were striking
and, in most cases, added to the drama. The video wizards managed to create an
effective stream that, inexplicably, seemed to run through Mimi’s hut/cave and
also added reflections in the water that showed up when Siegfried is wondering
how he can be related to Mime. The projections also created a realistic forest
for Act II, although Fafner’s cave was somewhat indistinguishable.

 

The real oddities came in Act III. The pulsating prelude was
accompanied by Wotan/Wanderer stirring a lake that eventually dissolved into a
glacier (ask not why). After Siegfried got through the fire surrounding the
rock where Brnnhilde lay asleep (highly effective) he seemed to have trouble
discerning someone lying on the rock; it was difficult to see it in the movie
theater and I suspect might have been even more incomprehensible inside the
Met.

 

All of these are minor quibbles in the grand (5-hour-plus)
scheme of things. As I said, things seem to be looking up for the cycle and, as
was the case in Los Angeles, I suspect that the totality of the Met’s cycle
will be much greater than its individual parts that we’ve seen so far. If
anyone has a few thousand dollars and wants to sponsor me, I’d love to go.

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

When the Met announced it would begin telecasting operas
into movie theaters, those of us on the West Coast joked that people might come
in their pajamas. That certainly was possible today with a 9 a.m. start time
but a good-sized crowd showed up at the Alhambra Renaissance 14 Theater.

Considering the kvetching that occurred when LA Opera ran
its cycles over a nine-day cycle (the traditional cycle — i.e., Bayreuth –
usually takes six days), it’s interesting to note that the first of the Met’s
cycles begins April 7 and ends April 24, while the second and third cycles
stretch over eight days each.

Although James Levine is currently listed as the conductor
for 2012 Ring cycles, Fabio Luisi
will be conducting the performances of Gotterdmerng,
which begin January 27 (the theater telecast is slated for Feb. 11) while
Levine continues to recuperate from back surgery. Stories printed yesterday
said that a decision on whether Levine would conduct the cycles would be made
within the next two months.

Casts announced for the cycles also involve some
interesting changes. Gary Lehman, who was replaced by Jay Hunter Morris for
this Siegfried and the
January-February Gotterdmerng, is
currently slated to sing the roles in the cycles. Seems a little unfair for
Morris. Meanwhile, Deborah Voigt will be alternating roles with Swedish
Katarina Dalayman in the three cycles.

Morris was replacing Lehman who replaced Ben Heffner, who
pulled out in February. That eventually set off a set of musical chairs that
involves San Diego Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. Read about it HERE.

_______________________

 

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

SAME-DAY REVIEW: James Conlon, Yuja Wang and L.A. Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; James Conlon, conductor, Yuja Wang, pianist

Britten: Sinfonia da
Requiem;
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3; Dvorak: Symphony No. 7

Friday, November 4, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m.

Info: www.laphil.com

______________________

 

With Music Director Gustavo Dudamel away from Los Angeles
for the balance of 2011 (he will be leading his Simn Bolivr Symphony
Orchestra of Venezuela on a European tour later this month, then heading to Tel
Aviv to conduct the Israel Philharmonic), the Los Angeles Philharmonic this
morning began a series of concerts led by guest conductors with Los Angeles
Opera Music Director James Conlon on the podium. As is usually the case for midday
concerts, a large crowd showed up at Walt Disney Concert Hall, braving drizzle
(which had turned to steady rain by the time the concert let out) and cool
temperatures.

 

Hearing and seeing Conlon outside the opera pit is always
welcome and this morning was no exception. Now age 61, he’s an experienced hand
in symphonic repertoire (earlier in his career he was music director of the
Rotterdam Philharmonic and later of Cologne’s symphony orchestra) and one has
only to read laudatory reviews from cities such as San Francisco and Chicago to
know he hasn’t lost his touch. Too bad Phil management hasn’t been able to
snare him for a longer stretch of engagements (can anyone spell Principal Guest
Conductor?), but don’t miss out on the remaining concerts this weekend.

 

Conlon began with a mid-20th century piece –
Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem — and
worked backwards in time to Prokofiev’s third piano concerto and Dvorak’s
seventh symphony. The two symphonies, as Conlon noted in a brief preconcert
chat, are in the key of D — major for the Britten and minor for the Dvorak. Each
was written during a period of national struggle.

 

It’s no surprise that Conlon elected to open with a Britten
piece. Few conductors working today revere the British conductor more than
Conlon, who is in the midst of a three-year-cycle of programming the English
composer’s works leading up to the centenary of his birth in 2013.

 

L.A. Opera performed Britten’s The Turn of the Screw last season and will tackle Albert Herring next spring. One assumes
that one of the big Britten operas (e.g., Peter
Grimes or Billy Budd)
will show up on next year’s LAO schedule (2013 also
happens to be the bicentennial of the births of Verdi and Wagner, so opera
companies will be awash in anniversary celebrations for the next couple of
years).

 

Although the LAPO didn’t first perform Sinfonia da Requiem until 1971, the work is by now a well-established repertoire piece (all things are
relative — this is Britten, after all). The back-story of the work is quite
interesting (see some history details below in Hemidemisemiquavers).

 

Conlon led a compelling performance of the 20-minute work,
which contains three connected movements. He sustained the gripping tension in
the outer sections masterfully and kept the Dies
Irae
movement (with its Verdi Requiem allusions) moving along snappily. The
large orchestra (the piece includes some major percussion moments) responded
powerfully.

 

Given Conlon’s obvious affinity for Britten, I hope the Phil
will sign him to conduct the composer’s War
Requiem
during the 2012-2013 season. Another reason would be that the 50th
anniversary of that landmark piece is May 30, 2012. I could easily imagine soloists
in different parts of Disney Hall, children’s chorus and chamber orchestra in
the balconies, the Disney Hall organ booming, etc. Would be quite something in
Disney’s acoustics, I suspect.

 

Yuja Wang, the 24-year-old Chinese pianist who created quite
a stir at Hollywood Bowl last summer for her “little orange dress,” was the
soloist in Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. To get the obvious out of the way,
she was dressed this morning in a long, elegant floor-length black gown, which
meant that all attention could be focused on her playing where it belongs.

 

Wang is a very special talent as she proved again this
morning. That isn’t due to merely to her ability to race through the bravura
sections of this concerto, although race she did, with hands flying up and down
the keyboard through octaves, runs and glissandos. What sets her apart from
other performers (and there have been several run-throughs of this concerto recently)
was the sublime sense of musicality that permeated her entire performance. Even
at breakneck speed, she took time to shape the whiz-bang sections and her
meditative variations in the second movement were played with elegant, pearly
tones. As one audience member said at intermission, “She’s more than a dress.”
That she is!

 

Conlon took extreme care to collaborate as smoothly as
possible with Wang and the orchestra, which played wonderfully and earns extra
plaudits for being locked into Conlon’s tempo shifts that were necessary to
accommodate the soloist. Lorin Levee’s wistful clarinet solo got things off to
a scintillating start.

 

After intermission, Conlon and Co. gave an unhurried,
majestic reading of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Conlon conducted without a score
and connected the last three movements without pause. Under his steady hand,
the performance that seemed to unfold naturally without any attempt to make the
work more than it is. The orchestra, which had several principal players on
vacation, delivered a first-rate performance, although there were a few moments
where the ensemble’s customary rhythmic precision seemed to be lacking (those
will probably evaporate in the next two concerts). Nonetheless, overall it
proved to be a satisfying conclusion to an excellent program.

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

Sinfonia da Requiem
has quite a history, as Herbert Glass relates in his program notes (LINK). For
reasons that no one seems to be able to explain, the Japanese commissioned
Britten in 1940 to write a symphony for ceremonies celebrating the 2,600th
anniversary of the emperor of Japan. What made this request unique (foolish?)
was that Britten was an avowed pacifist while Japan was by then three years
into a bloody war with China and was becoming an axis partner with Nazi
Germany.

 

Britten wrote what amounts to a lament, with titles — Lacrymosa, Dies Irae and Requiem aeterna — (pre-approved, inexplicably,
by the Japanese government) taken from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, although
the work has no obvious religious overtones. Nearly a quarter-century later,
Britten would merge the Mass texts with words from poet Wilfred Owen to create
his “magnum opus,” War Requiem, as
part of the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.

 

When Japan received the Sinfonia
da Requiem
commission, it was not pleased and an acrimonious exchange
between embassies (i.e., not directly with Britten) ensued. Eventually the
Japanese rejected the symphony as unsuitable for a celebration and John
Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic ended up premiering the work on March
29, 1941 by at Carnegie Hall. Ironically, Britten eventually conducted the
first Japanese of the piece in 1956.

 

One other interesting note (as Glass relates): the Japanese
did not request that Britten return its commissioning fee. He used it to buy
his first automobile — a vintage Ford.

 

Prokofiev was the soloist when the L.A. Phil first played his
Piano Concerto No. 3 on February 13, 1930 with Artur Rodzinski conducting, nine
years after its premiere in Chicago.

 

Nathan Cole, the Phil’s first associate concertmaster who
was in the first chair today, appeared to remind Conlon of the orchestra’s
tradition of bowing to those seated behind the ensemble. Good catch — it’s
always a nice touch.

_______________________

 

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