(Revised) OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Cal Phil presents Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gershwin at Santa Anita Racetrack

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
The changes are the principal trumpet and the fact that Mr. Pezzone’s “Rhapsody in Blue” cadenzas were an addition to, not a substitute for Gershwin’s cadenzas, as originally stated.
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California Philharmonic; Victor Vener, conductor
“Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gershwin”
Saturday, August 11 • Santa Anita Racetrack, Arcadia
Next performances: today at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.calphil.org
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Rodgers and Hammerstein and George Gershwin wrote some of history’s greatest music and combining the two always guarantees boffo box office, so it’s no surprise that a good-sized crowd came to Santa Anita Racetrack’s performance area on a balmy evening last night to hear Victor Vener, the California Philharmonic and three soloists perform some of the best-loved tunes from these three 20th century musical giants.

Unlike most Cal Phil concerts, Vener limited his commentary particularly in the post-intermission portion of the concert, and left the wandering spotlights on singers Kim Huber and James Barbour, each of whom displayed rich, powerful voices as they sang “greatest hits” from The King and I, South Pacific, Carousel, The Sound of Music, and Oklahoma.

The singing was almost all loud and — except for the last line of People Will Say We’re in Love and the encore, the title song from Oklahoma, Barbour and Huber sang independently; it would have been nice to have them sing another duet or two. Barbour’s rendition of the Soliloquy from Carousel and Huber’s My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music were among the evening highlights. Vener and the Cal Phil accompanied everything with gusto.

Prior to intermission, Vener and the orchestra opened with The Carousel Waltz and then offered a straightforward performance of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, both of which were marred by smudgy openings and a couple of rough transitions.

They were then joined by pianist Bryan Pezzone for a somewhat overwrought performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was notable for two cadenzas that Pezzone added to Gershwin’s own work. This seems to have become prevalent in recent performances that I’ve heard of this well-worn piece. I’m not sure it’s a positive trend, but Pezzone’s cadenzas were mildly interesting and not overly long (the second used strains of Summertime). His playing of Gershwin’s actual music had several rough passages but overall caught the piece’s jazzy nature. Principal Clarinet Michael Arnold got the performance off to a great start with his bluesy opening measures.

Vener did a good job introducing both pieces. His analysis of An American in Paris as a “symphony” with four connected movements, with demonstrations from the orchestra (in particular, Principal Trumpet Bob Feller), was an excellent way to get people to listen to the work with new ears.
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Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Blessedly there were no announcements at the concert’s opening and Vener opened with God Bless America instead of The Star Spangled Banner. Except for the somewhat lethargic tempo of God Bless America, this seemed to be a popular decision.
• Pezzone improved on themes by Led Zepplin and Gershwin (I Got Rhythm) as an encore to Rhapsody in Blue. Judging by the tepid applause, it was unnecessary.
• The sound system was quite good; from my table it was loud but that’s necessary to carry to the back sections of the 4,000 or so who attended.
• On the other hand, the camera work was atrocious and the flittering geometric images on the inside of the shell (some of which may have represented birds) and the other light effects were distracting and often silly in their implementation. The changing shell lights also played havoc with the camera skin tones.
• In between People Will Say We’re in Love and the title song from Oklahoma, Vener inserted a march tune as an encore. Ask not why on an evening devoted to R&H&G.
• My wife loved the racetrack’s permanent bathrooms (as opposed to porta-potties).]

Not so hemi-demi-semi:
Having concerts at both Santa Anita Racetrack and the Los Angeles County Arboretum (the Pasadena Pops) makes for traffic jams exiting both events. Moreover, the City of Arcadia won’t be nominated for the “Best Welcoming City” award for their lack of traffic control around the area. The Arcadia PD did have someone directing traffic for those exiting the Cal Phil concert but certainly could have used some help at the point where the Cal Phil folks get onto Baldwin Ave. prior to heading to the freeway. The signage ranges from poor to non-existent and, considering that you get onto Baldwin Ave. in a different location than you got off, anyone unfamiliar with the setup can easily get disoriented. The PD did have have a car with an officer who flagged down a motorist who got confused figuring out the lanes for east and west leading to the 210. That, I suppose, makes money for the PD but surely left a bad taste in the mouth of one concertgoer. I left thinking, “I wish that officer had been directing traffic instead.”
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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