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.

Twitter Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

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.

Twitter Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

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.

Twitter Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

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.

Twitter Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

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.

Twitter Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email