PREVIEW: Prize-winning cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan returns to Southern California at VPAC concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Estonian National Symphony; Neeme Järvi, conductor
Friday at 8 p.m. • Valley Performing Arts Center (Cal State Northridge)
Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B; Narek Hakhnazaryan, soloist.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Remaining tickets: $62-$77.50

narek-hakhnazaryanNearly three years ago — on Jan. 22, 2011 — the Pasadena Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium featured a virtually unknown (locally, at least) Armenian-born cellist named Narek Hakhnazaryan, who would go on to win the gold medal in the 14th Tchaikovsky International Competition the following June. (A link to my story about his win is HERE).

Hakhnazaryan, now age 24, returns to the Southland not via any of our local ensembles but with the Estonian National Symphony, which appears Friday night at CSUN’s Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. His vehicle will be the same as he played in Pasadena — Dvorak’s Cello Concerto — so it will be interesting to see how three intervening has changed his interpretation of the most famous piece written for cello and orchestra.

The ENSO’s performance at VPAC is the second stop on a nationwide tour of 15 concerts over 18 days; just the California portion seems arduous: Thursday in Santa Barbara, Friday at VPAC, Saturday at Stanford University, Sunday in Aliso Viejo, with a day off before appearing in Ames, Iowa on Nov. 5. Later tour stops are in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Georgia and New York, including concerts at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The California stops will include three of the state’s newest — and highly rated — concert halls: VPAC, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford and the Sokia Performing Arts in Aliso Viejo.

Estonian native Neeme Järvi, the orchestra’s artistic director and patriarch of a well-known conducting line (LINK), is leading the initial portion of the tour.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers isn’t just fiddlin’ around at the Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
MyersWebMuch of the buzz for Saturday’s concerts by the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium surrounds David Lockington’s first concerts as the orchestra’s fifth music director. However, the soloist, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, has quite a story to tell, as well.

When Meyers (left) played the Barber Violin Concerto to open the Pasadena Symphony’s 2010-2011 season, it was the first time she had played in a concert with her new violin, the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon,” a Stradivarius dated 1697, which she purchased for a then-world-record price of $3.6 million (the “Lady Blunt” Strad was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million). In a review of that concert, I wrote that she “produced a rich, creamy tone throughout a vibrant performance and set off fireworks in the third movement with her prodigious technique.”

However, when she returns to open the PSO’s 86th season Saturday, she will be playing not her Strad but the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, an instrument Myers calls “one of the most iconic violins ever made.” Earlier this year, Meyers received lifetime use of the “Vieuxtemps” for concerts and recitals thanks to an unnamed benefactor who purchased it at a Chicago auction.

“It is very big responsibility,” says Meyers of the “Vieuxtemps,” which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. “[The ‘Vieuxtemps’] has this projection and richness; there’s such a breadth and dimension to the sound that’s unlike any instrument I’ve ever played.” (Meyers writes about her first experience playing the instrument HERE)

“There are very few of these [iconic] instruments in existence now, maybe 50,” said Meyers to James Cushing for an article in the San Luis Obispo Tribuine earlier this year. “Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifiez played Guarneri Del Gesu violins. Paganini himself played one! Most of them — actually, most violins at this level of quality — are usually locked away in museum display cases and never touched,” she said. “Whenever I see these instruments behind glass, I feel like I’m visiting some sort of zoo. Animals were made to run free, and these instruments were made to be played.” (Read Cushing’s complete story is HERE)

The “Ex-Molitor” was actually the second Strad that Meyers had purchased; the other was a 1730 instrument named the “Royal Spanish.” She made good use of both violins; Meyers’s most recent recording, Air: The Bach Album with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio, features Bach’s solo violin concerti as well as the double concerto with Meyers playing the solo parts on both the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” (which Meyers nicknamed “Molly”) and the “Royal Spanish” Strads. The album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Classical chart and was one of the top-selling classical albums of 2012

The “Vieuxtemps” received its recording debut with Meyers playing when she performed Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, along with Arvo Part’s Passacaglia, accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lockington. The recording is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Meyers has not decided what to do with her two Stradivarius violins. “As I was given lifetime loan of one of the most important violins ever created,” she said in an email, “I am playing on the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” almost exclusively now. I am deciding what to do with the “Royal Spanish” Strad and the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” Strad.” Given her statement earlier about instruments in museum cases, one might expect that the two Strads will find their way to other musicians.

Saturday’s concerts mark the second consecutive “debut” concert for Meyers with the PSO; when she appeared in 2010, it was James DePreist’s first concert as the orchestra’s music advisor.

For Meyers, Southern California concerts count as homecoming. Her career began in Southern California (Meyers was born in San Diego). Now age 43, living in Austin, Texas, where she is Distinguished Artist and Professor of Violin at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music and the mother of a two daughters, Meyers was living with her parents in Ridgecrest at the age of seven when her mother drove her more than three hours each way to Pasadena so Meyers could study with famed teacher Alice Schoenfeld at The Colburn School.

Meyers’ rise in the musical world was meteoric. She appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at age 11, made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut the same year and a year later soloed with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. At age 23, she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, the only artist to be the sole recipient of this annual prize, and embarked on an extensive recording career with RCA Red Seal (at the time one of the most prestigious labels in the industry).

• Local violinist Laurie Niles (who also runs an excellent Blog site entitled “”) has two stories on Myers and her “Vieutemps” HERE and HERE
• You can see a YouTube video clip of Myers talking about the violin HERE and that same clip is currently the lead when you click on her Web site HERE.
• Information on Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concerts is HERE.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

(CORRECTED) AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Opening a new chapter for the Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
Lockington PSO MD
In any musical organization’s life there are a number of key turning points, whether for good or bad. Often the full impact of decisions cannot be fully evaluated for several years but eventually we can look back and realize that an “aha!” moment did occur. Such a time would seem to be occurring with the Pasadena Symphony, which will open its 86th season Saturday with concerts at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium.

The program — Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with Anne Akkiko Meyers as soloist — will mark the inaugural concerts of David Lockington (right) as the orchestra’s fifth music director. (INFO)

More importantly, they also appear to signal the end of more than six chaotic years in which the orchestra amalgamated with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, weathered a nearly disastrous financial storm, remade its board and executive staff, successfully renegotiated a contract with its musicians through 2015, changed performance locales for both the Pasadena Symphony and the Pops (three times for the Pops), and completely overhauled the organization’s musical leadership team not once but several times.

Not all of these steps occurred seamlessly nor were they universally applauded. Good people lost jobs or volunteer positions. Two conductors beloved by audiences — Jorge Mester and Rachael Worby — departed; another, Marvin Hamlisch, died unexpectedly.

Nonetheless, the saga appears to have come to an end. In a decade where several orchestras around the world have folded or undergone significant labor strife, that statement may sound simple but it’s significant.

Michael Feinstein recently concluded a triumphant first season as principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops and his contract was quickly extended. Saturday’s concerts open a new era for the Pasadena Symphony, as well.

Owing to the fact that orchestra seasons are planned several years in advance, this will be the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. In addition, Nicholas McGegan — like Lockington, a native of England — begins his tenure as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the season’s second concert on Jan. 11. (INFO) That more than two-month gap between concerts is one of several issues confronting the Pasadena Symphony Association at it marches forward.

Less than a decade ago, the PSO offered eight classical programs a season (my original post said nine concerts). Can the orchestra continue to rebuild to that former level or beyond and thus increase its relevance to the Pasadena arts community and beyond?

Lockington, McGegan and Feinstein all have busy careers; Lockington and McGegan have long-standing tenures with other ensembles. Both promise to conduct the PSO multiple times in succeeding seasons but can they become part of our community rather than simply “fly in, conduct, fly out” maestros?

Can the PSO find ways to reach out to an audience that more closely mirrors the increasingly broad age and ethnic makeup of Pasadena and the surrounding communities? One way may be a venture that will be launched with Saturday’s concerts: the Pasadena Symphony Lounge, which will be set on Ambassador’s outdoor plaza and feature a “small-plate” menu, hosted by Claud & Co; a full bar; and light music. That sort of ambience might appeal to a younger audience.

Finally, can the Pasadena Symphony Association find a way to solve the riddle that permeates the entire classical-music community: how can organizations offer high-quality programs at reasonable prices for patrons while paying fair compensation to musicians and staff members? That requires rigorous, visionary management, dedication and skill from musicians, and communities that care enough about classical music to donate the funds that will make up the difference between expenses and revenues from ticket sales. Keeping that balance continues to be a high-wire act

So more than a successful opening program is at stake Saturday. Stay tuned to learn whether this is, indeed, becomes an “aha!” moment.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Kuan, Hartford Symphony go organic to open 70th season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Hartford Symphony; Carolyn Kuan, conductor
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Edward Clark, organist, Connecticut Youth Symphony (Daniel D’Addio, music director)
Harrison: Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra; Wu Man, soloist
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”); Edward Clark, organist
Friday, October 11, 2013 • Mortenson Hall at The Bushnell; Hartford
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m.

When Music Director Carolyn Kuan and officials at the Hartford Symphony planned the opening concerts of its 70th anniversary season, they tried to pack a lot of elements into the programs. Nonetheless, Kuan and a cast of hundreds managed to pull things off successfully for the most part.

Since the concerts were played in Mortenson Hall at The Bushnell, rather than the much smaller Belding Theater, the orchestra took the opportunity to spotlight the hall’s Austin Organ, which was built in 1929 and installed when the hall opened a year later. The HSO partnered with the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists for what it called “Bachtoberfest,” with dozens of demonstrations, concerts and lectures at churches around the city in the fortnight preceding the concerts. One can only hope that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will consider a similar strategy next year when it celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Walt Disney Concert Hall organ.

At 4 manuals and 102 stops, the Bushnell organ is good sized, although not gigantic; it’s smaller than the Disney Hall instrument and, considering that Mortenson Hall is quite a big larger than Disney, lacks the presence of the Los Angeles instrument. Nonetheless, it’s an important instrument by one of America’s oldest and most important organ builders, which is located in Hartford, so the evening’s focus made eminent sense.

Choosing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, was an obvious, if predictable choice, but Kuan at least changed things up a bit. Edward Clark, the HSO’s long-time organist, opened the evening playing the toccata as a solo. The HSO and the Connecticut Youth Symphony then combined forces to join Clark in Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of the fugue made popular in Walt Disney’s 1940 movie, Fantasia (the choice was also a subtle promo for the screening of Fantasia at The Bushnell on Oct. 26, with the HSO playing the music live). The orchestras and Clark alternated portions of the fugue until they amalgated for the grand finale at the end.

It’s never easy to keep 150+ musicians on the same page but Kuan — who cuts an energetic presence on the podium — was successful for the most part. Clark added a few flourishes to Bach’s familiar opening measures although, in my experience, Austin Organs aren’t designed to sound like German Baroque instruments. As an unannounced encore, Kuan and the two orchestras gave a spirited account of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture.

After intermission, Kuan, Clark and the HSO delivered a solid performance of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”). Heard from a center balcony seat, Mortenson Hall accentuated the lush sound of the orchestra’s strings, and the brass players were quite prominent during their shining moments. However, possibly because Kuan had the entire orchestra seated on the stage floor (as opposed to risers), the wind sections disappeared into a sonic haze for much of the performance.

Kuan opened the performance deliberately but soon had things humming along with a brisk sense of urgency. Clark conveyed a proper sense of mystery to open the second section and his C Major chord to fourth section burst forth with grandeur; by the end, he and the orchestra were playing with full-throated glory.

If neither the Bach nor the Saint-Saëns were adventurous programming choices, Kuan made up for it by inserting Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra in between the two warhorses. Wu Man, Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, was the soloist playing a piece that Harrison had written for her in 1977, but that was only part of the story.

Last June, Man was carrying her 17-year-old pipa (an ancient Chinese lute-like instrument with a long neck and four silk strings that she holds on her lap when performing) on a US Airways flight when a flight attendant accidentally broke it. After the instrument was declared irreparable, the airline paid for Man to fly back and forth to Bejing to have a new instrument made by the same master who made her old model (read a New York Times story HERE).

Last night’s concerts were Man’s first with her new pipa. Although Man said in the article that, “It [the new pipa] definitely has potential, but it will take a couple of years to get my own music out of it,” she’s probably the only one who could tell. Her playing was both dexterous and delicate, she got sympathetic support from Kuan and the HSO strings in the rhythmically challenging work, and the audience ate it all up. After a generous ovation, Man responded with a flashy encore, which brought forth even louder applause.

Hemidemisemiquavers (thoughts from an outsider):
• The printed program had no information on the organ (!).
• There was also no preconcert lecture, which was too bad because the Harrison concerto could have benefitted from some explanation.
• No information on Mortenson Hall, either, which seems a pity since the larger-than-usual crowd undoubtedly included people who had never been inside (the size of the crowd was undoubtedly swelled by parents, grandparents and other relatives of the kids).

The inside of the hall has a stunning art deco effort. When I first looked at it I was reminded of Radio City Music Hall (minus the latter’s garish red décor). Turns out that both buildings were designed by the same architectural firm: Corbett, Harrison and MacMurray (Radio City was opened in 1932 two years after The Bushnell). According to Wikipedia, “Drama, the largest hand-painted ceiling mural of its type in the United States, is suspended from the Hall’s roof by numerous metal supports. Painted by Barry Faulkner, the painting cost $50,000 to create in 1929.”
• Although the orchestra’s Web site indicates there that senior rush and student tickets are available, it gives no price for either. The cheapest tickets I could find six weeks in advance of the concert were balcony seats at $38.50 each (plus internet service charges). There were only a modest number of folks sitting in the balcony, although the Web site says that balcony tickets for tonight’s concert are nearly sold out. The vexing issue of pricing tickets in a way that keeps the organization in the black but opens doors for newcomers and lower-income folks is obviously an issue in Hartford as it is in most other cities.
• Parking was free in adjacent government lots, a far cry from Los Angeles where the government parking structures are money-makers for the county.
• Most of the “Masterworks” series of concerts are held in the 900-seat Belding Theater and are spread out over four days (Thursday through Sunday). Former music directors Michael Lankester and Edward Cummings are returning to lead concerts in this 70th anniversary season and violin soloist Peter Wingrad is the son of another former music director, Arthur Wingrad.
• Kuan has some interesting programming choices throughout the season. Among the most intriguing: Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) with Mozart’s Requiem.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil open subscription season with blockbuster concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Lieberson/Knussen: Shing Kham (Pedro Carneiro, percussion); Schubert Symphony No. 4
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Yefim Bronfman, piano)
Last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.

For most orchestras, first subscription concerts are a major event, complete with the high hopes attendant with the opening of a new season. In some cities — e.g., Chicago, New York and Los Angeles — the luster is dimmed a bit by an opening gala concert but not completely. Usually the galas are light-hearted affairs designed to lure major donors with easy-listening music and a party afterwards. The heavyweight fare comes with the first subscription concerts, which in L.A. usually includes a blockbuster piece to close the concert and, often, a premiere.

Although last Monday’s L.A. Phil gala was an unusually serious program for such an event, this weekend’s opening subscription concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall follow the familiar pattern. Gustavo Dudamel, beginning his fifth season as the Phil’s music director, offered a program that concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed with equal parts musicality and ferocity by Yefim Bronfman, Dudamel and his brilliantly playing band.

There was, however, a touch of nostalgia to the world premiere of Shing Kham, the final piece written by Peter Lieberson before he passed away in 2011 at the age of 64 from complications of lymphoma. What was going to be a three-movement, 25-minute percussion concerto written for Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro became instead an unfinished single movement of about 10 minutes that was later “realized” by English composer Oliver Knussen partly from Lieberson’s sketches and partly from Knusses’s and Carneiro’s best guess as to how Lieberson would have finished the movement.

You might expect a product to be a mishmash, but actually the result was a somewhat episodic set of mini-movements that was, nonetheless, fascinating from start to finish. There were measures of driving intensity, interspersed with jazzy sections, lyrical moments and a final flourish that sounded like vintage Leonard Bernstein.

As is often the case with a percussion concerto, watching Carneiro maneuver around an array of instruments was part of the attraction. The list included a marimba, snare drum, 12 tom toms (six of which were wood), bass drum, four suspended cymbals and a triangle — the last was the only instrument that Carneiro brought with him from Portugal; he also brought the two dozen or so mallets that he used in the performance, often holding two in each hand. The array was lined up to the right of the podium.

The work also called for some heavy-duty work from six percussionists in the orchestra, so another part of the interest came from the interplay between Carneiro and the orchestra (in the program note, Carneiro said, “Every step of the way I need to connect with every single player in the orchestra.”) The stylish performance received a respectful semi-standing ovation from the Friday-night crowd.

After intermission came the blockbuster. Many pianists come determined to show all of their formidable technique in Tchaikovsky’s famous work. Bronfman, instead, chose to probe the work’s musicality first; in the process, of course, he also displayed plenty of musical chops but that’s not surprising for those who have heard him play during the past quarter-century.

Given that I’ve heard this concerto played live at least 50 times and who knows many times in recordings of various formats, I was surprised and pleased how involved I became last night.

This was a big-boned performance both by Bronfman and the orchestra (this is, after all, Tchaikovsky, not Mozart). Bronfman probably missed a note or two somewhere but not so as you would notice. Dudamel had the trumpets and trombones on the top tier with nobody on the level below them, so they were ultra-bold but not strident in their opening measures and beyond. Dudamel, who conducted without a score, shaped phrases expertly; the buildup to the descending octaves that herald the first cadenza, for example, was gripping. That subtle phrasing meant that the “attack” chords, particularly in the first and second movements, really jumped out.

The second movement unfolded without haste, even in the second section. Bronfman studied with Rudolf Serkin at The Curtis Institute and in this performance was channeling Serkin’s elegant playing. The third movement was fast but not perilously so, until the final climactic measures when all hell broke loose from everyone.

I don’t think I’ve every heard this concerto conclude when a standing ovation didn’t occur but for once, this one was eminently deserved. After several curtain calls came an encore. Many pianists would offer something delicate or playful as a contrast to the concerto; not “Fima,” as he is known to many; he alternately powered through and toyed with what someone in the audience said later was a Paganini Caprice.

Before intermission, Dudamel and Co. offered an elegant, refined, albeit large-scaled performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor. This was one of a torrent of works that Schubert wrote during the years 1815 and 1816 when he was still a teenager; he later appended the moniker “Tragic” to the title. According to Brian Newbould, Schubert’s output during those months included more than 20,000 bars of music, more than half of which was for orchestra including nine church works a symphony, and about 140 songs.

The long first movement last night (it takes up about 40% of the piece) and the second movement, with its wonderfully Schubertian song tune, featured luxuriant strings interplaying with the winds; I was again reminded how well Disney Hall allows inner voices to be heard. The third movement, with what Lucinda Carver noted in her preconcert lecture is a meter similar to Beethoven’s fourth symphony, allowed Dudamel a chance to dance but he never overdid it. The final movement was a blaze of majestic glory.

• Bronfman was either exhibiting a dry sense of humor or twitting Carver in the preconcert lecture. Carver, who is a well-known pianist, conductor and teacher, characterized Bronfman’s sound as unique and asked how he did it. “With my hands,” he deadpanned. Later she described a report that Tchaikovsky made changes to the concerto after Nikolai Rubinstein originally excoriated it. When Carver asked Bronfman what changes were made, he said, “Nothing important.”
• Carneiro said that he almost never travels with instruments because they’re too hard to ship. He does bring his mallets but other than that, he assembles instruments from the place he is going to perform. He did bring a small triangle to Los Angeles because he thought Lieberson would have particularly liked the sound.
• The Phil rearranged the play order at the last minute (the original called for the Schubert first, followed by Shing Kam. The array of solo instruments was probably easier to take down than set up and the changeover took only about five minutes, although one of the stage crew nearly knocked over the snare drum before adroitly catching it on the way down.
• I’m not sure whether Bronfman played the encore Thursday night (Mark Swed’s review in the L.A. Times today doesn’t indicate — I was hoping to get a confirmation of the title, which Bronfman did not identify).
• The program note on Shing Kam is HERE.
• This program is part of the 10th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Details on upcoming concerts are HERE.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.