AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: A love interest sparks LA Opera’s “La Boheme”

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

This article was first
published today in the above papers.

 

Los Angeles Opera’s
production of Puccini’s La Boheme

May 12, 23, 26 and 31 at 7:30 p.m. May 20 and June 2 at 2 p.m.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

Tickets: $20-$270

Information: 213/972-8001; www.laopera.com

(Below: The
husband-and-wife team of Stephen Costello and Ailyn Prez will perform the lead
roles in Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its production of Puccini’s La Boheme,
which opens May 12 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.)

 

59972-Costello-Perez.jpg

If you’re one of those who rolled their eyes and muttered
“Oh, no, not another La Boheme,” when
Los Angeles Opera announced that the Puccini potboiler would be the final opera
in the 2011-2012 season, you might want to re-assess your reaction.

 

True, Puccini’s timeless tragic love story of young Parisian
artists is one of the most performed works in the repertoire, a fact that
presents plusses and minuses. It’s a perfect introduction for those who have
never seen an opera and LAO’s revival of this Herbert Ross production has
several intriguing factors to recommend it even for opera regulars.

 

Chief among the virtues are the cast members, all of whom
are young enough to actually look the part (not as easy as it sounds, says
director Greg Fortner). Moreover, given that opera casts are assembled years
ahead of time, LAO has managed to strike gold in that two of the leading
characters have won major competitions in the past few months.

 

Ailyn Prez, who portrays Mimi, was named winner of the 2012
Richard Tucker Award and Janai Brugger, Musetta in the first three LAO
performances, was one of the five winners of the recent Metropolitan Opera
National Council Auditions held in New York City last month. In a sign of LAO
vitality, Brugger, Valentina Fleer (who will sing Musetta in the final three
performances) and Museop Kim (Schunard) are all members in this year’s LAO
Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program.

 

Another intriguing aspect to the casting is that Prez will
be partnered by her husband, Stephen Costello, as Mimi’s lover, Rodolfo.  Costello (who won the Tucker Award in
2009) and Prez met in 2003 at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, starred
together in a 2005 AVA production of “La Boheme,” fell in love and eventually
were married in 2008.  Prez is the
first Hispanic to win the Tucker Award.

 

Fortner, who is a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s
directing team and has credits at many other companies, will be directing Boheme for the first time. “I realize
that many people will have seen Boheme before
and some will come with preconceptions about how the piece should look and
play,” says Fortner. “One of the first things we did as a cast was sit down and
talk through our thoughts and preconceptions and find a way to make this
production uniquely ours.”

 

They will be aided by the veteran hand of conductor Patrick
Summers, artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera and principal guest
conductor of San Francisco Opera. The production — originally created by film
director Herbert Ross — is familiar to LAO “veteran” patrons; this will be the
sixth time that this “Boheme” has been presented in the company’s 26-year
history, a total of 43 performances. The story — and the opera — never grow
old.

 

For another look at the cast, read David Mermelstein’s story
in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW, Christine Brewer in Pasadena Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

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Christine Brewer was the soloist in Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in yesterday’s Pasadena
Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium with Michael Stern conducting. Photo
by Ivan Schustak for the Pasadena Symphony.

_________________________

 

Normally when you hear that Christine Brewer is going to
appear with an orchestra in Southern California, you’d expect that the ensemble
would be the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not this year. For the final concert of
its 2011-2012 season, the Pasadena Symphony engaged the well-known American
soprano and had the good sense to ask her to sing one of her signature pieces:
Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in
two concerts yesterday at Ambassador Auditorium.

 

Actually, Brewer is better known for her Wagnerian roles
(she was a stellar Isolde in the L.A. Phil’s “Tristan Project” under Esa-Pekka
Salonen several years ago) but these were the 81st and 82nd
times she has performed Strauss’ magnificent look back on his 84 years of
living. She sang them sumptuously yesterday afternoon.

 

When Strauss wrote the songs, he was looking back to a
musical era — 19th century Romanticism — that had vanished amid the
wreckage of what World War II had done to Germany and, in particular, its
artistic life. Although there’s no evidence that Strauss intended to group the
songs (that was done after his death by his publisher), Strauss used a poem by
Joseph von Eichendorff and three by Hermann Hesse for his evocative texts.

 

Brewer’s lustrous voice swept over the four songs like a
soothing balm. The opener, Spring, was
bright and the second, September, was
wistful. In Going to Sleep,
Concertmaster Aimee Kreston’s rich solo line was a perfect complement to
Brewer’s singing, and the final song, In
the Twilight,
was full of aching melancholy.

 

The orchestra, under the sure hand of guest conductor
Michael Stern (music director of the Kansas City Symphony), delivered rich,
sumptuous accompaniment for Brewer. Together, it was a memorable performance.

 

Stern (who by the way, is the son of legendary violinist
Isaac Stern) was subbing for the PSO’s music advisor, James DePreist, who is
recovering from recent heart bypass surgery. Stern kept the original program,
which began with Dawn and Siegfried’s
Rhine Journey
from Wagner’s Gtterdmerung,
the sort of music for which Strauss was longing in his Four Last Songs. Stern led a brisk rendition of Engelbert
Humperdinck’s concert version of Wagner’s music, highlighted by James
Thatcher’s horn solos.

 

After intermission, Stern concluded the program with
Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Stern obviously knows this piece well (he conducted
without a score) and offered a distinctive reading of this four-movement work
that Stern, in his preconcert discussion, characterized as another of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. You might not have
fully agreed with Stern’s push-and-pull tempos but the orchestra played
gorgeously and he made me think about what was being played — altogether, not a
bad combination for a very familiar work.

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

Although the classical season officially ended yesterday,
two free concerts have been added next Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium. At 2
p.m., Jack Taylor will lead his Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra in music by
Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland and others that will be a preview of the
ensemble’s upcoming European tour. At 7:30 p.m., Donald Brinegar will lead a
new chorus that has been formed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory along with the
Pasadena City College Chamber Singers in music by Britten, John Lennon and Paul
McCartney, Faur and others. Information:
www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

The Pasadena Pops opens at its new home, the Los Angeles
County Arboretum, on June 16 when Marvin Hamlisch leads a concert version of
his own musical, They’re Playing Our
Song,
with Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein as soloists. The evening will also
include a tribute to Arnaz’s parents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony to conclude 2011-2012 season tomorrow

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Pasadena Symphony;
Michael Stern, conductor

Wagner: Dawn and
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey
from Gtterdmerung

Richard Strauss: Four
Last Songs
(Christine Brewer, soprano)

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8

Tomorrow (Sat., April 28) at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Ambassador
Auditorium

Tickets: $35-$100 (student and senior rush tickets
available)

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

______________________

 

59927-Michael_Stern.jpg

When the Pasadena Symphony announced its 2011-2012 season,
the centerpiece of the final concerts (which takes place tomorrow) was soprano
Christine Brewer, internationally renowned particularly for her work in Wagner
and Strauss. Brewer will, indeed, be performing Richard Strauss’ achingly
beautiful Four Last Songs at the 2
p.m. and 8 p.m. concerts, but the day’s intrigue will be conductor Michael
Stern (pictured right), who is
replacing PSO Music Advisor James DePreist, who is recovering from recent, unexpected
heart surgery.

 

Stern — who was born in 1959 and is the son of legendary
violinist Isaac Stern — is now in his seventh season as music director of the
Kansas City Symphony and founded the IRIS Orchestra in Germantown, Tenn. He’s
also building an impressive conducting resume in Europe. Locally, he made his
professional conducting debut with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra 2010 to
critical acclaim.

 

He’s also the 10th guest conductor to lead the
Pasadena Symphony since Jorge Mester’s 25-year tenure as PSO music director
ended in 2010.  It’s a tribute to
the quality of the PSO’s musicians that each of the 10 visiting maestros (or
maestra, in the case of Mei-Ann Chen) has been able to lead interesting, well-played
programs, even with limited rehearsal time. There are things an orchestra
misses without a music director (e.g., continuity, a galvanizing community
presence) but, at least judging by the PSO, performance quality isn’t one of
them.

 

Tomorrow’s concerts are, as is often the case with the PSO,
centered on mainstream, 19th century Romantic music (even the
Strauss songs, which were written in 1948, a year before the composer died at
age 85, hearken back to Romantic era). Like works of many composers (e.g.,
Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand), the
title, Four Last Songs, didn’t come
from the composer; it was appended by Ernst Roth, chief editor of Boosey &
Hawkes, who combined Im Abendrot (a
poem by Joseph von Eichendorff) with three poems by Herman Hesse (Frhling, September, and Beim
Schlafengehen)
to create the set.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Angeles Chorale to celebrate Morten Lauridsen Sunday

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

59647-Lauridsen.jpg

For choral singers and choral music fans, few — if any –
people have been more significant in the past quarter-century than Morten
Lauridsen. Angeles Chorale will pay tribute to the Los Angeles-based composer
Sunday evening at 5 p.m. with a reception, dinner and concert at Town and Gown
on the campus of the University of Southern California.

 

Members of the Pasadena-based Chorale will sing Lauridsen’s
music and there will be a screening of the first two chapters of Shining Night, a documentary by Michael
Stillwater released earlier this year about the man who received the National
Medal of the Arts in 2007 “for his composition of radiant choral works
combining musical beauty, power and spiritual depth that have thrilled
audiences worldwide.” KUSC’s Kimberlea Daggy will emcee the event.

 

The location is appropriate because Lauridsen, now age 69,
is a USC graduate and for more than 30 years has been on the faculty of the USC
Thornton School of Music, where he chaired the composition department from
1990-2002 and is now Distinguished Professor of Composition.

 

Lauridsen was born in Washington and raised in Portland,
Ore. After attending Whitworth College for two years, he came to USC in 1963
(his classmates included Michael Tilson Thomas, now music director of the San
Francisco Symphony).

 

Although Lauridsen grew up loving the music of Jerome Kern,
Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, he didn’t begin composing
until he came to USC. “I came down here with a clean slate,” he recalls. “I had
never written a note of music but Halsey Stevens let me in to a class by
saying, ‘Let’s try it for a semester and see what you can do.’ He gave me a
great opportunity and I ran with it.” Lauridsen later repaid that favor by
editing several of Stevens’ pieces when Stevens, by then stricken with
Parkinson’s Disease, was too ill to finish the works.

 

Among Lauridsen’s first jobs was teaching theory to the
master classes of violinist Jascha Heifetz. He sang in the USC Concert Choir
under James Vail, who took his first piece, Psalm
150,
on tour with Lauridsen conducting it. After Lauridsen finished his
Master’s degree, he stayed on to teach. “At one time, I was the youngest faculty
member,” he says with a chuckle. “Now I’m among the oldest.”

 

However, for most singers it’s the music that they remember
whenever the name “Morten Lauridsen” is mentioned. His output includes seven
song cycles, the motet O Magnum Mysterium
and, in particular, Lux Aeterna,
which Lauridsen wrote when he was composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles
Master Chorale (a position he held from 1994-2001). Noted local musicologist
and conductor Nick Strimple calls Lauridsen “the only American composer in
history who can be called a mystic.”

 

Poetry plays a huge part in Lauridsen’s life. He begins
every class at USC with a poem and many of his works are based on texts of
poets including James Agee, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert
Graves and Federico Garcia Lorca.

 

One work not based on poetry was Lux Aeterna, which was premiered 15 years ago tomorrow. The
Requiem-like piece touched a wellspring in listeners throughout the world from
the time it appeared and its popularity hasn’t diminished.

 

“This is a very personal piece,” says Lauridsen, “and there
were two strong impulses to my writing the work. My mother was on her deathbed
at the time, and I was writing the piece as a meditation on light triumphing
over darkness. That’s why I wrote an ‘alleluia’ at the end. This isn’t a dark
piece. It’s a celebration.”

 

The second reason was the commission from the Los Angeles
Master Chorale. “I wrote Lux Aeterna
specifically for Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale,” relates
Lauridsen. The work’s ancient lyrics and Gregorian chant-inspired music were a
perfect fit for Salamunovich (an internationally recognized authority on
Gregorian chant) and the Master Chorale. “I told Paul, ‘You’re in every note of
that piece of music,’” remembers Lauridsen. “I had in my mind, especially, the
Chorale’s marvelous alto section and the wonderful sound that Paul got from his
men.”

 

From its premiere, the work has remained extraordinarily
popular throughout the world. “I gave Paul a pitch right down the middle,” says
Lauridsen with a chuckle, “and he belted it out of the park.”

 

The entire piece and one section in particular, O Nata Lux, have sold millions of
copies. “My publisher told me that there were about three dozen sets orchestral
parts of Lux Aeterna being used
throughout the world during Holy Week this year,” says Lauridsen, and that
doesn’t count the number of performances being sung with organ accompaniment.
Lauridsen wrote the piece with both accompaniments to broaden its
accessibility.

 

Thousands of people have written Lauridsen to tell him how
much the music has touched their hearts, either through performances or via the
two CDs that have been made. Many of those letters came after the 9-11
bombings.

 

That popularity will continue, believes Dana Gioia, who
headed the National Endowment for the Arts when Lauridsen received his National
Medal of the Arts. “He is one of the few composers,” says Gioia, “who I have
conviction will be performed a hundred, two hundred years from now.”

 

For information about Sunday’s event, call 818/591-1735.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: John Rutter Requiem — x 3

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

Two of the most popular choral works of the past
quarter-century are Morten Lauridsen’s transcendant Lux Aeterna and John Rutter’s elegant Requiem. Each deals profoundly with the subjects of death and
eternal life.

 

Although neither is easy to sing, both were written so
choral groups with a wide range of skill levels (and budgets) could sing them. Both
were designed to be sung in concert but they can also be adapted to worship
service formats (indeed, when Pasadena Presbyterian’s Kirk Choir sang the West
Coast premiere of the complete Rutter Requiem in 1986, it did so within the
context of Sunday worship).

 

I’ll have a lot more to say about Morten Lauridsen next week
but the Rutter Requiem is very much on the calendars this season with at least
three churches presenting the work within the next few weeks.

 

Rutter’s Requiem will be the centerpiece of Pasadena
Presbyterian Church’s 15th annual Good Friday concert at 7:30 p.m.
Friday. Timothy Howard will lead his 50-voice choir, about two dozen community
singers who have rehearsed specifically for this concert, soloists and
orchestra. The free-admission program also includes O Vos Omnes by Pablo Casals, Bob Chicott’s God So Loved the World and John Tavener’s Song of Athene.

 

Since I’ll be singing in the choir and giving a preconcert
lecture at 7 p.m., you can view this post with whatever level of skepticism you
care to muster. Assuming the technology gods work adequately, my lecture will
include video clips of Rutter discussing why he wrote the piece, its liturgical
context and form.

 

The concert and the lecture are free; free parking is
available and the church sanctuary is handicap accessible. Information: www.ppc.net

 

On the same day and hour, First Presbyterian Church Monrovia
will sing the Rutter Requiem as part of what the church’s Web site describes as
a “Good Friday Service.” Information:
www.fpcmonrovia.org

 

Finally, on May 6 Calvary Presbyterian Church in South
Pasadena will perform the Rutter Requiem in a 4 p.m. concert. Michael Wilson
will lead his Chancel Choir and community singers (rehearsals are on Saturday mornings
from 9-11 a.m. for those interested in singing). “This is an expansion of our
“Messiah Sing-a-long,” says Wilson. “We call it Calvary’s ‘gift to the
community.’ Last spring’s work was Brahms’ Ein
Deutsches Requiem.
Information:
www.calvarypressopas.net

 

Virtually every choir member knows the name John Rutter; in
addition to writing hundreds of works, he has co-edited four volumes of the
Oxford “Carols for Choirs” series, which are staples in most choir libraries.

 

What makes the Rutter Requiem so popular? At least one
reason stems from the 66-year-old English composer’s inspiration: his father had
died in 1983. “My father loved music,” explains Rutter. “He had a good ear but
he never had any musical training. [The kind of piece that I wanted to write]
was one he would have appreciated if he had been sitting in the front row.”

 

During the 1980s, Rutter was doing research on Gabriel
Faur’s Requiem. “When the manuscripts were handed to me and I touched them,”
recalls Rutter, “I think that was the moment when I realized I wanted to write
a ‘Requiem’ myself.”

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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