REVIEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops open summer season at the Aboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops opened their 2017 summer season at the Los Angeles County Arboretum Saturday night with one of those programs that has become “traditional” for Feinstein since he became the Pops’ Principal Conductor in 2012 and conducted his first concert a year later.

A large, nearly sellout audience — which included the usual contingent of joyous peacocks — saw Feinstein as conductor, pianist, soloist, duet singer, interviewer and, of course, raconteur. He does most of these things in many concerts, just not all of them at one time, usually. No circus bandleader could have handled the myriad duties with the aplomb of the irrepressible Feinstein.

He got assistance from four soloists (one of whom was a surprise), the Pops’ Resident Conductor Larry Blank (who also arranged three of the evening’s numbers), eight of the Donald Brinegar Singers, and several orchestra members who excelled in their solo turns.

The concert was entitled “Broadway: The Golden Age,” although Feinstein noted in his opening remarks that what constitutes the “Golden Age” differs in large part based on the listener’s age (for some people, Phantom of the Opera equates to ancient history). Nevertheless, the evening featured music covering four decades and, as is often the case, Feinstein unearthed a work that hasn’t been performed in public: Herbert Spencer’s arrangement of The Sound of Music.

From a performance point of view (aside from Feinstein), the evening’s highlight was vocalist Storm Large, who delivered passionate, sultry performances of As Long as He Needs Me and Maybe This time, joined with Feinstein for Come Rain or Come Shine, and did a hilarious send up of Hopelessly Devoted to You.

Feinstein introduced a young singer, Alex Getlin, who he discovered during parties at Judge Judy’s house when she was age 8. Now age 23 and a recent grad from Northwestern University, Getlin sang I’m the Greatest Star from Funny Girl with polished gusto.

After intermission, Joel Grey showed that even at age 85 he can still create magic in a medley from the musical Cabaret, for which he won an Academy Award and Tony Award in his role as the show’s Master of Ceremonies.

The evening’s surprise was the appearance of Liza Minnelli, who had been listed in the preconcert publicity as the evening’s honoree. After a video montage of some of her greatest musical moments, Minnelli came onstage and it appeared as if she would, indeed, simply be interviewed by Feinstein about her legendary career. Instead, she joined Feinstein for a couple of songs, including a performance of Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano, in which she flashed glimpses of her magnetic stage personality.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The Pops is co-sponsoring a performance by country-music star LeAnn Rimes on July 8 at The Arboretum. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased through the Pops’ Web site HERE.
• The next concert in the Pops’ season is July 15 when four of the original cast members of the Broadway’s Jersey Boys, who call themselves The Midtown Men, will present songs from that show along with music by the Beach Boys, Beatles and others. Resident Conductor Larry Blank will lead the orchestra. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Master Chorale concludes season with “Lux Aeterna” and other works at Disney Hall

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. (part of Gala Dinner program)
Thursday at 8 p.m. (part of Chorus America conference)
Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, rightfully so, is celebrated for its commitment to new music, both the pieces performed and even more for the pieces it commissions each season (next season the Phil will offer 23 commissions, 22 world premieres, six U.S. premieres and two west coast premieres).

However, many of the finest new compositions are in the realm of choral music and nobody celebrates this music joyously as Artistic Director Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which closed its 53rd season yesterday at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a concert of works written within the past 20 years.

If the Chorale’s splendid performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna was the afternoon’s highlight (I’ll discuss it in a few paragraphs from now) then the revelations were the seven a cappella pieces written by five composers integrally linked to the Master Chorale.

All of the composers either studied or were otherwise influenced by Lauridsen, who has been a professor of music at the USC Thornton School of Music for more than 50 years but always reserves the summer to do his composing on an isolated retreat in the San Juan Islands outside of Washington. Several of the works chosen yesterday played off of themes expressed in Lux Aeterna: hope, illumination and reassurance.

The most moving work was Angel Band, part of Heavenly Home: Three American Songs, by Shawn Kirchner, a member of the choir’s tenor section, who served for three years as Master Chorale Composer in Residence (as did Lauridsen before him).

The choir’s intonation of the moving Angel Band text was mesmerizing and Grant Gershon segued without pause into a rollicking version of Unclouded Day (although I’m not sure that a day without puffy clouds would be my idea of paradise).

Two of the pre-intermission works were world premieres: In Gratitude by Billy Childs, which the choir sang with diction so precise that the supertitles were not needed; and Time in Our Voices by Moira Smiley, which grew out of the Chorale’s Oratorio Project at Van Nuys High School (REVIEW LINK) and was conducted expertly by Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong.

The concert opened with Iri Da Iri, a work with slowly shifting chords that former L.A. Phil Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote on a commission from the Master Chorale members for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary in 2014.

Current LAMC Composer in Residence Eric Whitacre conducted the west coast premiere of I Fall, a piece with texts by Charles Anthony Silvestri that came 12 years after his wife’s untimely death. It’s a melancholy work that the Chorale sang with elegance. The piece will be part of an evening-long work Whitacre expects to complete next year entitled The Sacred Veil.

When Lux Aeterna was premiered by the Master Chorale on April 13, 1997 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I was in attendance. I’ve since heard it many times and sung it several more. My opinion hasn’t changed since that first hearing: it’s one of the landmark compositions of the late 20th century.

It’s also one of the most popular major choral pieces right now; the composer’s publishes says that the choral/orchestra version is performed about 50 times per year in the U.S. That doesn’t count the organ/choral version performances nor concerts outside the U.S., nor does it count the numerous church choirs who have the work’s third movement, O Nata Lux, in their libraries.

Lauridsen wrote Lux Aeterna for the Chorale’s makeup at the time. Prior to Lux Aeterna he had written another landmark piece, O Magnum Mysterium, for the Chorale and Lux Aeterna proved to be a natural successor.

The Master Chorale’s music director, Paul Salamunovich, loved Gregorian chant and he built his chorale forces from the bottom up, with men’s sections that produced particularly rich, deep sound; both factors have been clearly in evidence throughout the past 20 years.

The ensemble that Gershon has built is a more flexible force, even with 132 singers on the stage. Gershon emphasizes diction and projecting the meaning of texts and the Chorale has a somewhat leaner sound than was apparent under his predecssor. All of that was clearly in evidence Saturday as Gershon led Lux Aeterna’s first performance with choir and orchestra in Disney Hall — he had programmed the organ/choral version for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary season.

Gershon led an unhurried performance but one that never lost the sense of line. The Chorale sang as a marvelously flexible unit throughout, but particularly in O Nata Lux, which is the work’s central point both literally and figuratively.

Even with Lux Aeterna’s hushed ending, the performance brought forth an instantaneous standing ovation from the near-capacity crowd, applause which reached its apex when Lauridsen came on stage to join Gershon, the chorus and orchestra for the celebration. I wished I had been singing.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Although this concert represented the formal ending of the Master Chorale’s season (the performance tonight is part of a gala dinner honoring Lauridsen) and Thursday’s performance is the closing performance at the Chorus America national conference taking place in Los Angeles.
• The MC will sponsor “Big Sing L.A.,” a large group sing on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Grand Park (south of the Music Center). Five conductors will lead the songs (song sheets will be provided). Information: www.lamasterchorale.org
• The Chorale will perform five times this summer at Hollywood Bowl and on July 31 with the New York Philharmonic in Santa Barbara, before opening its 54th season Sept. 23 and 24 with a concert that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Information: www.lamasterchorale.org
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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FIVE SPOT: June 15-18

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending.

JUNE 17: LOS ANGELES MASTER CHORALE
2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
On the 20th anniversary of its premiere by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, current Artistic Director Grant Gershon conducts his chorus and orchestra in Morten Lauridsen’s iconic Lux Aeterna, plus premieres by Eric Whitacre, Billy Childs, Moira Smiley and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

JUNE 17: PASADENA POPS
7:30 p.m. at Los Angeles County Arboretum; Arcadia
Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein leads the Pops in a program of music from Broadway’s various “Golden Ages,” featuring soloists Storm Large, Joel Grey and Alex Getlin, along with Liza Minnelli, who will be interviewed onstage by Feinstein.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

JUNE 17: LONG BEACH OPERA
8:00 p.m. at MoLAA; Long Beach
Long Beach Opera presents the Southern California premiere of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera Frida in the first of five performances, all of which will be at MoLAA except for the June 23 performance, which will be at the Grand Performance space in downtown Los Angeles.

Information: www.longbeachopera.org

JUNE 17: HOLLYWOOD BOWL OPENING NIGHT
8:00 p.m. at Hollywood Bowl; Los Angeles

Thomas Wilkins conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) and the Moody Blues in the opening night of the Bowl’s 2017 summer season.

BONUS: Hollywood Bowl is easily reachable via several public transit options, including Metro’s Red Line via the Hollywood/Highland station. Information on the various alternatives is HERE.

Information: www.hollywoodbowl.com
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Americans win silver, bronze medals at Van Cliburn Piano Competition

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Yekwon Sunwoo, a 28-year-old South Korea native, captured the Gold Medal today in the 15th quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, TX.

Americans Kenneth Broberg, 23, of Minneapolis, and Daniel Hsu, 19, a native of the San Francisco Bay area, took the silver and gold medals. Hsu also won the Steven de Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music, and the Beverley Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work.

Sunwoo received a cash award of $50,000; three years of individualized career management, including U.S. concert tours and, in association with Keynote Artist Management, international concert tours, and numerous promotional opportunitiers. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the Curtis Institute of Music and his master’s at The Juilliard School, and also studied with Richard Goode at the Mannes School of Music. He currently studies under Bernd Goetzke in Hannover.

Among Sunwoo’s award will be a performance with the Pacific Symphony on Sept. 9 at its new site, the Orange County Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa. The PS Web site lists Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as the winner’s vehicle, presuming the winner either knows it or can learn it in three months. Information: www.pacificsymphony.org

Complete competition details are at: www.cliburn.org
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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ON THE ROAD: On becoming a one-car family — Chapter 1

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

“On the Road” is an occasional series on transportation — mostly public transit.

My wife, Nikki, and I are one month into our “great” experiment of whether it’s possible for two very busy people to survive on one car in Southern California. Now I realize that there are people who don’t own even one car — a few by choice and others by necessity — but we have been a two-car family for 34 years. In a metropolitan area that is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined we have traditionally put a lot of miles on our automobiles so, for us, this was a big step.

As is often the case, we were sort of forced into this decision, despite the fact that I’m a big proponent of public transportation and have ridden it often throughout my lifetime, not only here but in cities across this nation and around the world.

However, last month the lease on my wife’s Hyundai Sonata ran out (BTW: I’ve been totally put off on leasing and Hyundai — that’s another story). We decided to take a close look at the math and realized that a new (or even new/old) car + insurance + car registration meant we would be spending $350 per month or more without turning the key. Moreover, for senior citizens (age 62 and over), public transit fares are substantially lower than non-senior rates on virtually every transit system in our region. So, we did the math.

Consequently, we decided to experiment with what our life would be like with just one car. One month into the experiment, we have encountered few problems (and none that couldn’t be surmounted) and saved a lot of money. In addition to the Metro fares (which I estimate to have totaled $10), I took one Uber ride at $7.71 and rented a car for one day at $37 (plus gasoline). A plus: since I rented a compact the gas cost ($11) was less than if I had driven our Toyota Rav4, and if you use AAA’s figure of 56 cents per mile, the overall cost was less than using my own SUV.

What we have discovered:

Planning ahead is essential
Who needs the car on a regular basis and when has become a matter of calendaring, for us. At the moment, Nikki uses the car to go to her painting groups all day and evening on Tuesday and on Friday mornings. Beginning this month, I’ll be using the car on Wednesdays for two youth groups I am mentoring. Thus, keeping up with our calendars to minimize car conflicts is essential.

Learning how to manipulate transit systems is essential
Metro has a somewhat clunky transit app that lets you plan a trip ahead of time. I’ve learned to punch the “Regional Trip Planner” line at the bottom, which seems to be a more user-friendly option than the simple version and has the added advantage of recognizing systems other than Metro.

My iPhone also has a Metro app that tells me when the next bus or train is due at my stop. Most of the time it works well — the operative word is “most.” On the other hand, GPS in my car isn’t always totally reliable, either. I remember driving in Ireland when the GPS told me to turn right — if I had done so, I would have crashed through the median on the divided highway I was on!

Use “Stored Value” instead of passes on your TAP card
With Metro’s policy of allowing free transfers within a two-hour window, it’s rare that a single trip uses more than one fare or two fares for a round-trip. A non-senior would have to use more than four rides to equal the cost of a day pass. For a senior (or disabled person), the math is even more in favor of “Stored Value.”

BTW: I have no idea why Metro’s TAP system doesn’t use the same technology as London’s Oyster Card, which allows riders to use its version of Stored Value and recognizes when it reaches the day pass limit and then doesn’t charge for additional rides.

Walking to and from the Gold Line station becomes enforced exercise
My wife heartily approves, although she does give me a ride to the station whenever possible.

The biggest problem is our church
Although La Cañada Presbyterian Church is located on a major thoroughfare (Foothill Blvd.), Metro doesn’t run service in this area. The Glendale Bee bus does have a line but it quite inconvenient in terms of getting anywhere except Glendale. A few Sundays ago Nikki had an all-day art class at the La Cañada Community Center and I had an afternoon concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. So, she dropped me at church and went on to her class, while I took an Uber ride to the Memorial Park Gold Line station (the aforementioned $7.71 charge). I then rode the Gold Line to the Chinatown station and took the Metro 76 local line to Disney Hall.

Uber proved easy to use. I just dialed it up on my iPhone and a car and driver showed up at the church in about seven minutes and 10 minutes later I was at the Memorial Park station.

We don’t expect this to be a normal situation, since we usually go to church together. I surprised at Metro’s decision not to have a bus on Foothill in that area. I guess it figures if you’re rich enough to live in La Cañada, you don’t ride a bus!

Further reports later …

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