OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Mario Chang win top prizes at Operalia

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

Chang-Sorensen4Web
Mario Chang of Guatemala and Rachel Willis-Sørensen of the United States won the top prizes at Operalia last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Craig Mathew/LA Opera.

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American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang each won the two top prizes in the 22nd annual Operalia, the world opera competition founded by Plácido Domingo that concluded last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Søorensen and Chang won the male and female overall first prizes of $30,000 and the top Zarzuela prizes of $10,000 each. This marked just the third time since Operalia began a Zarzuela competition in 1995 that the same two singers won both portions of the contest; the others were in 2008 in Quebec and 2011 in Moscow.

Sørensen, 30, who is an alumna of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, also took home the Birgit Nilsson Price for Wagner/Strauss singing for her rich, soaring performance of Dich, teure Halle, from Wagner’s Tannhäuser Saturday night. That prize was a forgone conclusion since she was the only singer to choose an aria from those composers.

Second prizes of $20,000 each went to American soprano Amanda Woodbury and Mexican-American tenor Joshua Guerrero. Third prizes of $10,000 each were awarded to sopranos Anaïs Constans, 26, of France and Mariangela Sicillia, 28, of Italy and counternors John Holiday, 29, of the U.S. and and Andrey Nemzer, 31, of Russia after scores from the 15 judges were tied for third place.

Chang, 28, who recently completed his third year in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, also won the male audience prize, while Woodbury was the voted the female audience favorite. Each won a watch from Rolex, the competition sponsor. Guerrero, a member of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, also captured the CulturArte Prize of $10,000. Chang became just the fourth singer to win the top two prizes plus the audience prize.

In addition to her Tannhaüser aria, Søorensen — a statuesque blond wearing a bright red gown who had to overcome what is often a liability of being chosen as the first singer in the final round — was equally opulent in her Zarzuela aria, Tres horas antes del dia from Frederico Moreno Torroba’s La Marchenera.

Chang’s gripping rendition of Ella mi fu rapita! from Verdi’s Rigoletto elicited one of the biggest audience ovations of the evening and he backed it up with a heartfelt offering of No puede ser from Pablo Sorozábal’s La tabemera del puerto in the Zarzuela portion.

The 13 finalists came from 40 singers, ages 18-32, who represented 17 nations. The field was trimmed to 22 semifinalists earlier last week and then to 13 finalists for the concluding round. Five singers sang in the Zarzuela portion. This was the first year that no bass or baritone singer made the finals.

Domingo, who in addition to being Operalia’s founder is LA Opera’s general director, conducted the LA Opera Orchestra for the final round and presented the prizes at the conclusion of the evening. Each of the singers sang in front of a backdrop representing their chosen opera. In addition to the audience in the Pavilion, the competition was streamed live via medici.tv.

This year marked the third time that Operalia has been held in Los Angeles (the others were 2000 and 2004). The competition also was held in 2001 in Washington D.C. and 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Information: www.operaliacompetition.org

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Unlike major instrumental competitions, which require quite extensive repertoire of contestants, Operalia singers were required only to prepare four arias in their original language, plus two Zarzuela pieces if they desired. Thus it was disappointing that all but one of the arias sung in the finals were from the 19th century (the exception was a Handel aria, which of course, was from the 18th). Nothing was selected from the 20th or 21st centuries.
• Except for countertenor Andrey Nemzer singing an aria from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila and soprano Rachael Willis Sørenson’s number from Wagner’s Tannhauser, everything else was in French or Italian.
• Following the competition, all 40 singers joined Domingo and the orchestra in singing the Operalia Hymn, which was composed by Plácido Domingo, Jr. Although none of the songs had supertranslations, one might have expected that the hymn lyric translations would have been projected.
• The names and numbers for the first two singers weren’t projected (and since the house lights were down you couldn’t read the program). By the third singer the issue had been rectified.
• Thank goodness for women! While men were in black tie or white tie (not a single red bow tie in evidence), the women offered a pleasing array of gowns, different in style and color.
• Operalia took place at the same time as the first night of “Made in America,” the rock concert in nearby Grand Park. Fortunately, nothing — not even the heavily reverberant bass amps on the Grand Park stage — was evident in the Pavilion.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Winding down, ramping up as classical music seasons collide

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.

We’ve arrived at that odd time of the classical music year when outdoor concerts are winding down while at the same time indoor seasons are beginning to ramp up.

• Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops Orchestra wrap up their 2014 summer season Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum with a program entitled, “New York! New York!” The evening will include music by Leonard Bernstein (Candide Overture, West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town), several songs by Duke Ellington, and works by Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter. As is usually the case with a Feinstein concert, there will be several revivals among the offerings. Vocalists Patti Austin, Liz Callaway and Aaron Tveit will join the fun.

Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• Hollywood Bowl wraps up its classical season during the next couple of weeks. Ludovic Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony since 2011, returns to the Cahuenga Pass amphiteatre this week. Tuesday’s concert combines Mendelssohn with Mozart. Thursday’s performance features Colburn Conservatory student Simone Porter, who made an impressive debut with the Pasadena Symphony earlier this year, soloing in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Jessica Gelt has a profile of Porter in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

The final Tuesday concert (Sept. 9) will be led by Vancouver Symphony Music Director Bramwell Tovey. The program will open with the world premiere of Erskine, a concerto for drum set and orchestra, written by English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage for percussionist Peter Erskine, who will appear as soloist. Holst’s The Planets will conclude the evening, accompanied — as is now almost “de rigueur” — by imagery from NASA and JPL rovers and satellites, despite the fact that Holst’s musical depiction was astrological rather than astronomical.

On Sept. 11, Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena will lead Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale joining the Phil to conclude the season.

Information: 323/850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com

• Meanwhile, the Angeles Chorale begins in 40th anniversary season on Sept. 13 at First United Methodist Church in Pasadena. Artistic Director John Sutton will lead his chorale in “Unbridled Joy: an Evening of Gospel, Spirituals and More,” which will feature a performance of Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass. Two vocal soloists and several instrumentalists will join the chorale in the concert.

The concert will spotlight the “Justin Carr Wants World Peace” Memorial Foundation, established in memory of the then-16-year-old Altadena resident who died of cardiac arrest during a swimming workout in 2013.

Information: 818/591-1735; www.angeleschorale.org

• First Congregational Church of Los Angeles kicks off its 46th annual organ concert series with a weekend devoted to its multiple organs, which together total 346 ranks, 265 stops, and 18 divisions — more than 20,000 pipes in several locations around the massive gothic sanctuary (modeled after Chartres Cathedral in France).

Fred Swann, former organist at First Congo and former president of the American Guild of Organists, will give a master class on Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. That evening at 8 p.m., three notable college grad students — Jaebon Hwang, Minh Ngyuen and Qi Zhang — will play a free recital. The following afternoon will be an “organ crawl,” a chance to get an up-close look at the workings of this massive instrument. Advance tickets at $25 are required for the organ crawl; the other events are free.

Information: fccla.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

REVIEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops present disjointed evening of Hollywood music

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

In the (nearly) two seasons of Michael Feinstein’s tenure as Principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, a pleasing pattern has developed: his program have been tightly constructed and innovatively curated, filled with erudite commentary and (mostly) with pieces unearthed by Feinstein’s sleuthing in garages, attics and other hiding places.

Last night’s program at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, entitled “Hooray for Hollywood,” promised more in that vein, but someone decided to throw into the mix a celebration of the 100th birthday of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Either would have made an intriguing program; together they were a disjointed mish-mash that never really jelled.

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t some compelling moment moments; things weren’t just as smooth as normal. Feinstein made a big deal of shuffling cue cards to introduce the 16 guests (plus Pops Resident Conductor Larry Blank) and he forgot to identify Maureen McGovern until she had sang the title song of The Sound of Music along with three Harold Arlen songs: The Man That Got Away, Stormy Weather and Blues in the Night.

Unlike other nights, Feinstein’s Jewish and peacock jokes sounded forced Saturday and he seemed unusually nervous conducting the orchestra, which, by the way acquitted itself quite admirably, swerving and swaying throughout the complicated evening.

The ASCAP portion of the program brought several composers to perform arrangements of their scores accompanied by film clips. The clips helped compensate for the less-than-stellar work by the camera operators throughout the evening.

The most poignant moment of the evening came when Alan Bergman (who will turn 89 next month) first explained the background of and then sang The Windmills of Your Mind, the iconic lyrics he and his wife, Marilyn, wrote for a tune composed by Michelle Legrand for the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Michael Giacchino provided a welcome light-hearted touch by conducting a suite from his musical score for Up, while Bruce Broughton was the most assured podium presence when he conducted the score from Silverado. Kevin Earley jetted in from Chicago where he is appearing in Brigadoon to power out The Way You Look Tonight and On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe (the latter backed up by the quintet Down for the Count).

Stylistic whiplash was the overriding theme of the evening. A rendition of Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek was followed by Debby Boone belting her arrangement of You Light Up My Life, while the Funny Girl Overture led immediately into vocalist Sheléa belting Pharrell Williams’ Happy to conclude the evening. In retrospect, it was all just a bit too much of a good thing.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The final concert of the season will be Sept. 6 with Feinstein leading a program entitled “New York, New York.” INFO: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: John Adams’ “Ceiling/Sky” finally makes it to Los Angeles

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.
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I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky
Southern California premiere by Long Beach Opera
Aug. 23, 8 p.m.
John Anson Ford Theatre; 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East; Hollywood
Ticket prices: $60-$125
Information: www.longbeachopera.org
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Ceiling:Sky imageJohn Adams is America’s foremost living composer and, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair, certainly looms large on the Southern California classical music scene. So it’s somewhat surprising that two of his major works have yet to be performed locally.

Adams’ Dr. Atomic debuted in 2005 in San Francisco, but the sheer size and scope of the opera will make it difficult to perform anywhere, let alone in Los Angeles. However there are different issues surrounding I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, which will make its Southern California debut courtesy of Long Beach Opera on August 23 at 8 p.m. in the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in the Cahuenga Pass (directly across the Hollywood Freeway from Hollywood Bowl).

Perhaps the biggest problem with “Ceiling/Sky” is “What exactly is it?” Using a libretto by the late poet June Jordan, Adams composed the work following the Northridge earthquake in 1994; the title (a quote from the Los Angeles Times) quotes someone who experienced the quake firsthand.

Even Adams isn’t sure how to describe his musical version of Jordan’s text. The work has variously been called an “earthquake romance,” a “song play” and an “opera-musical theatre hybrid.” Adams compares the spirit of the work — performed by several musical theater singers, accompanied by three keyboards and a rock band formation — to Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The Boston Globe described “Ceiling/Sky” as some of “the most successful crossover music written in our time.”

As Adams relates, “After composing two grand operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, I’d realized that the only truly indigenous form of American musical theater was what we call, for lack of a more precise term, the ‘musical.’ ‘Ceiling/Sky’ is essentially a polyphonic love story in the style of a Shakespeare comedy. The characters, all inner-city young people in their twenties, play out their personal dramas against the backdrop of specific social and political themes.”

For more, hear a 1995 podcast from WQXR in New York City where John Schaefer interviews Adams about his then-new work. LINK

“Ceiling/Sky” premiered in Berkeley in 1995 and later played in New York, Montreal, Helsinki, Paris, Hamburg and Edinburgh — everywhere but in Los Angeles where it is set. “We’re righting a wrong with this performance,” says Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek, who will conduct the Ford Theatre performance.

This marks the second local major Adams premiere for LBO in the past six months; the company presented Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer last March.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Rachael Worby and Muse/ique offer the “keys” to music

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.

• Pianos and summertime concerts are about as ubiquitous as picnics and concerts. So leave it to Rachael Worby to find a way to shake up the norm with her next Muse/ique concert Saturday night beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Caltech’s Beckman Hall lawn (where picnicking is encouraged).

For those not in the know, Muse/ique is the ensemble Worby formed after she parted ways with the Pasadena Pops several years ago. The new group has allowed Worby to indulge the madcap nature of her programming mind and Saturday night’s concert is merely the latest example.

Rather than have just one piano soloist, Worby has invited five of the Southland’s best-known keyboard artists: Joanne Pearce Martin (the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal keyboard player); her husband, Gavin Martin; Bryan Pezzone, Alan Steinberger and 12-year-old Ray Ushikubo. They will join the orchestra in music ranging from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Bugs Bunny on Film, Elton John and Chico Marx.

Information: 626/539-7085; www.muse-ique.org

Michael Feinberg and the Pasadena Pops resume their summer season on August 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Arboretum when they celebrate the music of motion pictures and the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

In typical Feinstein fashion, most of the music will be non-standard summer concert fare. The orchestra will be joined by composers Alan Bergman, perhaps best known for Windmills of Your Mind from the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair; Michael Giacchino (Up), Bruce Broughton (Silverado) and Paul Williams (A Star is Born).

Vocalists Maureen McGovern, Debby Boone and Kevin Earley will appear on the program and Feinstein will introduce a symphonic arrange of Pharrell Williams’ Happy created for the Pasadena Pops. The complete playlist is near the bottom of the link below.

Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

The Pops’ Web site has dates, program titles and principal performers for next season’s concerts. As is the case this year, Michael Feinstein will appear on four of the five concerts, once as vocalist and the other three times as Principal Conductor. LINK

• Among the upcoming Hollywood Bowl concerts worth noting are next Thursday’s program of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Brahms’ Double Concerto, with violinist Alina Pogostkina and LAPO Principal Cellist Robert deMaine as soloists. What makes the program particularly intriguing is that the conductor, 28-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, has just been named the Phil’s assistant conductor for the next two years.

Gražinytė-Tyla, who was a Dudamel Fellow with the orchestra in 2012 and 2013, won the 2012 Nestle and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award and has been named music director of Salzburg Landestheater beginning with the 2015/16 season. See more info on her HERE.

Information: 323/850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com

The following week two celebrated soloists grace the Hollywood Bowl stage. On Oct. 12, violinist Gil Shaham will join the Phil in Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, while on August 14 cellist Yo-Yo Ma will be the soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Leonard Slatkin leading the LAPO in both programs. Tuesday concludes with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade,; Thursday ends with Debussy’s La Mer.

Information: www.hollywoodbowl.com

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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.