SAME-DAY REVIEW: L.A. Phil plays superb Wagner at Disney Hall

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Phillipe Jordan, conductor
“The Best of Wagner’s Ring”
Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Swiss conductor Phillipe Jordan is making his Los Angeles Philharmonic and Walt Disney Concert Hall debut this weekend with a marvelous program of music from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.”

I apologize for the length of this review, but I want to begin by telling you a story.

Wagner’s Ring cycle — Der Ring des Nibelungen — first came into my life in the early 1970s when I was living in Montreal. Time-Life Records reissued the famous London Decca recording of the Ring from the late 1950s and early 1960s and delivered it one opera at a time to my mailbox on LP records in beautifully bound cases.

This recording was ground breaking in many ways. It was the first studio-recorded Ring to be released commercially. It featured a then relatively unknown (in the U.S. at any rate) Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The singers included such legendary names as Birgit Nilsson and Kirsten Flagstad.

Under the technical leadership of John Culshaw this was also the first recording to show people how the new long-play recording technology could perform. Among other things, there were magnificent sound effects. This became a landmark, not only in recording in general but also in the history of recorded Rings.

The first opera, Das Rheingold, was delivered in a box that included the libretto in English and German and three hard-back books — Richard Wagner: the Man, His Mind and His Music by Robert W. Gutman, George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite, and, most importantly, Ring Resounding, Culshaw’s recount of how the original recordings came to be made.

That first shipment also included An Introduction to “Der Ring des Nieblungen” by British musicologist Deryck Cooke, which proved to be a superb way to learn the entire cycle — it’s still available in CD and via download — I highly recommend it!

After that first shipment I was hooked! I called Time-Life to see if I could just buy the other three immediately instead of having to wait each month to receive the next installment. No such luck. The calendar turned slowly.

One thing these recordings did was to make me appreciate my sense of imagination. All I had to do was listen and dream of how these opera would be staged. I never imagined that I would ever actually see a Ring in person (my wallet laughed uproariously at the idea that I would travel to New York City for a week to hear a cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, let alone Bayreuth). The concepts of VHS, laser disc, DVD and Blu-Ray were so far off that only a few visionaries could see them. So it was just me, the music, and my mind.

As it turns out, having now seen three complete Ring cycles plus parts of two other cycles in person, part of the latest Met cycle in a movie theatre, owning the James Levine-conducted Ring at the Met on laser discs, and having viewed two other versions on DVD, I remained convinced that what I first envisioned when I was listening to those Time-Life records remains the best staging ever.

This is a very long-winded preview to this morning’s performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic entitled “The Best of Wagner’s Ring”. In some respects, like many such marketing titles, it’s overblown — how can it be the “best” when it doesn’t have the entire “Wotan’s Farewell” or anything from Siegfried except “Forest Murmurs” or (insert your favorite section)?

However, if you consider the “best” in the context of today’s performance, it comes very close to the mark. This afternoon’s performance was 85 magnificent minutes of music (out of the 18 or so hours an entire production would take). There was no staging and only one singer (but what a singer!).

On the other hand, this performance had an oversized L.A. Phil onstage at Walt Disney Hall to perform the music. There were musicians everywhere on stage, including 16 winds, eight horns (four more than normal), five trombones (two extra), two timpani players, as opposed to one, seven percussionists (two extra) — several of whom hammered actual anvils — and six harps. The brass section, in the middle and back of the orchestra, stretched almost from one side of the stage to the other.

Swiss conductor Phillipe Jordan, music director of the Opéra National de Paris and chief conductor of the Vienna Symphoniker, was making his Disney Hall and L.A. Phil in the program, one that he has recorded previously with his Paris Opera forces. Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin was on hand to sing the “Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene,” the climax of the opera Götterdämerung and, indeed, of the entire cycle.

The 42-year-old Jordan cuts a dashing, athletic pose on the podium, crouching almost to the floor to get the soft dynamics that help make Disney Hall a wonder. He also crafted an expansive collage of portions of the Ring, far beyond what we usually get in concerts, and conducted it from memory.

Where most conductors would be content to open with the “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” from Das Rheingold, Jordan began with the Prelude, with that low E-flat that sets the entire work into motion and then morphs into the river Rhine motif. He continued with the orchestral interlude between scenes 2 and 3 (Rheingold plays as one continuous act with the four scenes separated by these interludes, which are the bane of stagehands because of their brevity). Only then did Jordan transition to the “Entrance of the Gods” but he preceded it with the music that sets up “Rainbow Bridge” theme and the concluding, majestic measures.

After the obligatory “Ride of the Valkyries” Jordan turned to the “Magic Fire Music” that concludes “Die Walkure,” but again he preceded those concluding measures with enough of “Wotan’s Farewell” to give those who know the opera the sense of why the “Magic Fire Music” is so important. I wish that the LAPO had hired somewhat like Eric Owens to sing the entire lament, but maybe next time.

Jordan concluded the program’s first half with “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried. As was the entire performance, there were amazing moments from the orchestra — in fact, hearing this music with the orchestra onstage and nothing from a stagecraft point of view to distract caused me to marvel again of how Wagner could write so brilliantly for the orchestra.

After intermission, Jordan elided all three sections he chose from Götterdämerung, the last of the four operas. He began with “Dawn” and “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” continued with “Siegfried’s Funeral March” and concluded with “Brünnhilde’s Immolation” that concludes the opera and the cycle.

The orchestra was magnificent — there is simply no other word for it. Every section and every soloist played beautifully, with special kudos to Burt Hara, clarinet, David Howard, bass clarinet, Nathan Cole, concertmaster, Andrew Bain, horn, and Marion Kuszyk, oboe. Whenever Jordan gets to conduct a Ring cycle in the opera house, it’s highly unlikely that he will be able to reproduce the sound he got from the Phil today.

As the final notes of “Siegfried’s Funeral March” were fading away, Theorin (pictured right, although she wore black instead of red today) walked slowly on stage. The Swedish soprano has sung the role of Brünnhilde in major opera houses around the world and it was easy to see and hear why.

She poured out all of the pathos, bitterness and, finally, redemption in that final scene with a powerful sound was never strident but cut through the orchestra sound fabric like a hot knife on butter. Jordan did an excellent job of balancing the orchestra with Theorin and the results left me in tears, as the scene played out in my imagination.

If you can get a ticket for one of the remaining performances, do so! And if LA Opera ever gets around to re-mounting its Ring production, Iréne Theorin is its Brünnhilde.

Robert D. Thomas is a freelance music writer. Email him at: More of his reviews, columns and features can be found at


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LINK: Anna Russell on Wagner’s “Ring” cycle

Music Critic

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Phillipe Jordan, conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Next performances: Tomorrow at 11 a.m. Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

The L.A. Philharmonic is presenting a program this weekend entitled “The Best of Wagner’s “Ring.” As is often the case with these kinds of titles, this one is overblown but the Phil has imported Swiss conductor Phillipe Jordan to conduct approximately 80 minutes of excerpts from all four Ring operas, aided by Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin in the climactic scene of Gotterdamerung and the entire cycle.

John Magnum — who once wrote program notes for the LAPO but is now President and Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County — has a relatively concise and well-written précis of the Ring cycle that you can read HERE.

However, if you want a funnier explanation of Wagner’s Ring (or even if you’ve never heard this or have and just want to revisit it), then click HERE for the late, great British comedienne Anna Russell’s classic telling of the story. Be forewarned: it runs about 20 minutes, but it’s well worth it! There are actually two different tellings of the story. The second one has a wonderful (and different) introduction and she throws in some different elements.

Incidentally, from her telling comes one of the great lines ever written: “That’s the beauty of grand opera. You can do anything you like as long as you sing it.”

Robert D. Thomas is a freelance music writer. Email him at: More of his reviews, columns and features can be found at


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FIVE-SPOT: April 27-May 3, 2007

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. As usual, Saturday requires tough choices this week but Sunday is also chock-full (and I didn’t even include LA Opera’s “Tosca” performance on that afternoon).

8 p.m. at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; Costa Mesa
Two French Canadians are on the program. Jean-Marie Zeitouni leads music by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. Louis Lortie will be the soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2


11 a.m. April 28, 8 p.m. April 29 and 2 p.m. April 30
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Swiss conductor Phillipe Jordan will join with soprano Iréne Theorin and the Phil for an evening of portions of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung. Jordan seems like a natural choice for this program, since he is music director of the Paris Opera where he succeeded James Conlon, and has recorded a CD with his Paris forces of this program.

The L.A. Phil concerts will include the excerpts from all four “Ring” operas that one would expect in this type of program. However, because the program also includes the Prelude and Orchestra Interludes from Das Rheingold, the orchestration includes six anvils, six harps, nine horns, two timpani and one hammer.

The climax, literally and figuratively, will find Theorin singing “Brunhilde’s Immolation” scene, the conclusion of Götterdämerung and the entire cycle. Hearing this music with the L.A. Phil on stage at Disney Hall should be one of the season’s highlights, at least for Wagner lovers.

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.


2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Music Director David Lockington will be on the podium for the final concerts in the PSO’s season. The first part of the program includes music by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The second half is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with the Donald Brinegar Singers, JPL Chorus and four soloists joining the orchestra in this monumental work.


8 p.m. at Terrace Theatre; Long Beach
Robert Istaad, incoming music director of the Pacific Chorale, leads an evening of Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute; Symphony No. 25; and Requiem, with the Long Beach Camerata Singers and soloists Elissa Johnston, soprano, I-Chin Lee, alto, Nicholas Preston, tenor, and Randall Gremillion, bass.

BONUS: The Terrace Theatre is easily accessible via the Metro Blue Line. Exit at 1st St. in Long Beach, walk a block south and cross the street to reach the plaza where the theatre is located..


3 p.m. at Soka University; Aliso Viejo
Music Director Carl St.Clair leads his ensemble in an all-Beethoven program: Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), with Joyce Yang as soloist; and the Triple Concerto, with the Faktura Piano Trio (HyeJin Kim, piano, Fabiola Kim, violin and Ben Solomonow, cello) as soloists.

BONUS: This is a great chance to experience one of the region’s unsung concert halls.


7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs an eclectic collection of spirituals and other music on April 30 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Artistic Director Grant Gershon and Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong will conduct 48 LAMC singers in a program entitled “Wade in the Water” (the title comes from the spiritual of the same name by Moses Hogan that will be on the program). The program ranges far and wide, including Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor.

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.


7 p.m. at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts; Beverly Hills
The British pianist plays sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Scriabin and other works.

BONUS: Grosvernor also appears with the same program on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa (

Information for April 30:

7 p.m. at Redondo Union High School; Redondo Beach
The orchestra continues its 50th anniversary season as Music Director Gary Berkson leads a program of suites by Grieg, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams and Ravel. Baritone Vladimir Chernov will be the soloist in Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kïjé suite.

BONUS: Free admission.


8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Three of the world’s most celebrated soloists play a series Bach Trios, arranged for cello, string bass and mandolin.

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.


(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: 1,000 students shine during L.A. Master Chorale High School Choral Festivazl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

There were several different ways to experience the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 28th annual High School Choral Festival this afternoon in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

You could start with the observation that it was amazing that 1,000 students from 29 high schools could actually be quiet at the same time, not once but several times! Not only that, they managed to get into their seats not once but twice nearly on time, a logistical feat approximating the D-Day landings on Normandy.

One could also be amazed at the technical prowess of the combined forces who were seated in the orchestra and orchestra view seats surrounding the Disney Hall stage. In seven pieces that ranged from Handel’s Your Voices Tune to several contemporary pieces, the students — led by LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon — sang with impressive diction and articulation and managed to create a wonderfully harmonious sound in those pieces where harmonies were at their lushest.

Two of the pieces — Bring Me Little Water, Silvy and Stand in that River — were by guest artist Moira Smiley (actually, as she explained, the former was a Ledbelly tune), who was on hand to teach the performers the percussion to accompany Bring Me Little Water, Silvy. Although students learned all of the music ahead of time, somehow everything managed to come together in a morning’s rehearsal, yet another amazing feat.

Midway through the choral concert, Gershon led 91 singers selected from the participating schools who comprised the Festival Honor Choir in three difficult, contemporary songs from around the world. The ensemble acquitted itself with distinction during this set; the final work — Tiptipa Kemmakem by Philippine-born composer Nilo Alcala — was particularly intricate in its time signatures.

Another aspect of the concert was to experience the amazing acoustics of Disney Hall, the second day in a row where that was the case (read my review of last night’s Los Angeles Philharmonic HERE). Although Disney Hall is one of the world’s great orchestra halls, it is best during choral concerts, especially during soft moments.

Today was actually three separate programs, beginning with a performance by the 16-voice L.A. Master Chorale Chamber Singers, led by MC Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong. Considering that she memorized the entire 40-minute set, this may well have been part of her Doctor of Musical Arts degree program at USC’s Thornton School of Music. She conducted the set with expressive hands and careful attention to the pieces’ many moods, and the singers’ tone resonated throughout the hall.

Among the highlights was Wir Juden (We Jews), a new composition by 18-year-old USC freshman Lucy McKnight. The moving, five-minute work, McKnight’s first choral piece, was selected as the winner of the Master Chorale’s second annual Young Composers’ Competition and is based on a poem by Gertrud Kolmar, a German-Jewish writer who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943.

The hit for the assembled students was True Colors by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, as arranged by Saunder Choi. The students were given colored lights and encouraged to illuminate them at appropriate times; the results made for a dazzling light display to accompany the singing.

After the Chamber Singers’ program, organist John West gave a demonstration of the Disney Hall organ, beginning with Bach’s Toccata in D Minor and ending with a Star Wars medley that brought forth the waving light show once again. A good time was had by all, especially those who had never heard this instrument!

Prior to the afternoon program, the 29 choral directors were honored onstage with certificates from the Master Chorale. Later, Gershon paid tribute to his high school choral teachers and encouraged the students to keep on singing. “God knows we need harmony in our lives today,” he said.

Next Master Chorale concert:
Gershon and Wong will conduct 48 Master Chorale singers in a program entitled “Wade in the Water” on April 30 in Disney Hall. The program’s title comes from the spiritual of the same name by Moses Hogan that will be sung during the concert. The music ranges far and wide, including Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor. Information:

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Jacobs, Robertson and L.A. Phil offer a dazzling organ concerto premiere

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Paul Jacobs is the soloist this weekend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto. He’s pictured last November in the world premiere of the piece with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo credit: Philadelphia Orchestra

Los Angeles Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Ives: Three Places in New England; Rouse: Organ Concerto;
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (“from the New World”)
Next performances: Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

With pipe organs being installed in concert halls in increasing numbers during the past decade or so, composers have gained increasing opportunities to create new organ concertos. Christopher Rouse, one of America’s more prolific composers, has added to the canon with his concerto, which was given its west coast premiere last night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conductor David Robertson, and organist Paul Jacobs at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Remarkably this concerto is just the second organ piece that Rouse has composed (the first, a solo piece, has been “euthanized” from his catalogue, as he puts it). Jacobs premiered the new work last November with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rouse’s Organ Concerto is quite short, just a shade under 20 minutes, written with three connected movements. The Phil’s “FastNotes” states: “Rouse’s Organ Concerto has connections to two famous organ works: a brief reference to the Poulenc Organ Concerto at the beginning, and a hint at the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony at the end. (‘The notes have been changed to protect the innocent,’ Rouse says.)”

Despite its brevity, Rouse’s new work packs quite a wallop. It opens with a loud bang and concludes with an even louder chord. Immediately after that opening punch, Jacobs launched into an extended pyrotechnical cadenza and the movement then shifts to lyrical, tonal writing punctuated with occasional bursts of sound.

The lyrical second movement — with mounds of organ chords atop the dreamy accompaniment — gives way to the finale, which allows the organist to stretch her (or, in this case, his) virtuosic chops.

The Phil placed the organ console at the very front of the stage, which allowed many in the large crowd (which included hundreds of young people) a chance to see Jacobs’ hands fly up and down from one keyboard to another and his feet dance along the pedal board.

Robertson and the orchestra ripped through the accompaniment with aplomb and the audience gave Jacobs, Robertson, the orchestra and the composer an enthusiastic standing ovation following that climactic outburst of sound.

Jacobs responded with a sparkling account of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, as an encore, which showed off his technical prowess (the pedal cadenza at the end was dazzling) as well some intriguing registrations on the Disney Hall instrument.

Any orchestra that has a significant pipe organ (or Cameron Carpenter’s international touring instrument) and a top-flight organist available now has a wonderful piece to alternate with the usual organ concerto suspects. I hope the Phil brings it back soon.

Robertson’s programming choices are always interesting; last night was no different. He opened with Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, a 20-minute work with a lengthy gestation period; Ives began it in 1903 and didn’t finish revising the piece until 1929.

Ives’ father told him, “You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.” Despite that admonition, with its spooky beginning and incorporation of snippets from familiar hymns and folk tunes Three Places in New England is one of this craggy composer’s most accessible works and, consequently, one of his most played, as well. Rouse even seemed to quote the work in his concerto.

Robertson and the orchestra gave Three Places in New England a sensitive, probing performance, particularly in the third movement where the organ’s rumbling bass notes provided added heft.

Although Robertson has undoubtedly conducted Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony hundreds — perhaps thousands — of times and the Philharmonic musicians have played it innumerable times, as well, conductor and musicians treated last night’s performance as if it, rather than Rouse’s work, was the premiere.

The piece offers innumerable solo opportunities and the Phil’s section leaders were at the top of their game, beginning with Carolyn Hove’s plaintive second-movement solo, and also including (but not limited to) Denis Bouriakov, flute; Burt Hara, clarinet; Anne Marie Gabriele, oboe; and Andrew Bain, horn.

The 58-year-old Robertson — who has announced he is leaving his post as music director of the St. Louis Symphony in a couple of years — is a wildly exuberant presence on the podium. Where with Gustavo Dudamel, for example, you are entranced by his hands, with Robertson you watch his feet — if he ever touched the metal supporting bar behind the podium after his feet slid along the carpet he’d probably get a static-electricity shock.

Nonetheless, he clearly communicates his feelings to orchestra and audience alike and really makes effective use of pianissimos and, especially, silences, which always seem to resonate at Disney Hall. In total, the results last night were thrilling, even to a critic who has heard the piece hundreds of times, and the audience ate it up.

• At the conclusion of the Dvorak, Robertson came onstage to the sustained applause and acknowledged Hove and Bain before asking the entire orchestra to stand. After exiting the stage again, he reappeared but this time to stand with the brass section and then with the winds — a nice touch, even if he didn’t ask the orchestra to turn and acknowledge thos seated behind them as Gustavo always does.
• Because Three Places in New England has both piano and organ parts, Joanne Pearce Martin (the LAPO principal keyboard player) had to leave her piano bench to a colleague, Vicki Ray, and race upstairs to sit at the rarely used organ bench high above the bench seats to play the organ in the third movement.
• The first L.A. Phil performance of Three Places in New England was led by Nicolas Slonimsky in 1932. Most of us know Slominsky as a musicologist, particularly for his marvelous book, Lexicon of Musical Invective. However, Slonimsky was also a conductor and Ives created a chamber-orchestra version of this work for his Boston Chamber Orchestra in 1930.
• The “New World” Symphony was one of the first pieces every played by the Phil when Walter Henry Rothwell conducted the first LAPO performance on Oct 25, 1919.

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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