NEWS: LA Opera’s “Off Grand” productions to move farther off of Grand next season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

With all of the schedules flowing into my email inbox, even for someone who spent much of my life writing media releases it’s easy to miss an important aspect of an email. That was the case with LA Opera’s 2018-2019 season announcement a couple of weeks ago.

Most of the posts I’ve read (including mine) focused on the company’s six main stage productions for next season, which — to be charitable — aren’t particularly adventurous: Carmen and The Pearl Fishers by Bizet; Nabucco and Rigoletto by Verdi; Gluck’s Orpheus and Eruydice and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

Orpheus is a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago (read details HERE) and Candide (a musical, rather than an opera) is part of the company’s three-year celebration of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth.

However, what nearly all of us overlooked is that LAO will offer four productions in its “Off Grand” series, which is really beginning to live up to its name as three of the four productions are actually playing in facilities off of Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. The four offerings are one more than this season’s schedule.

Phillip Glass’ La Bette et la Bête will take place at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing will play at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. A double bill of operas by Gordon Getty, The Canterville Ghost and Usher House, will be held at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

The fourth production will be Keeril Makan’s Persona, which will play at REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater inside of Walt Disney Concert Hall. The company will again present a community opera, Jonah and the Whale, on March 16 and 17, 2018 in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which is (barely) off Grand.

Persona, Crossing and The Canterville Ghost will all be receiving their west coast premieres and all except Crossing will play for four performances each — there’s just one performance of Crossing scheduled.

Why are the “off Grand” productions important? There are at least two reasons:
1. They are a chance for the company to present operas by living composers without having to sell the 3,000+ seats in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
2. They allow the company to bring opera to locales that are away from its Bunker Hill headquarters. The Theatre at the Ace Hotel is a refurbished United Artists movie theatre from the 1920s and the other venues are recently built.

So kudos to LAO for branching out!


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

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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Allan Glassman as Herod and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera

Los Angeles Opera: Richard Strauss’ Salome
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Next performances: March 2 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. March 5 and 19 at 2:00 p.m.
Pre-performance lecture by James Conlon one hour before each performance.
NOTE: The opera runs 90 minutes without intermission, not counting the lecture.

(With apologies to Peter King of, who runs “10 Things I Think I Think About” in his weekly “Monday Morning QB” column)

1. James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra are, once again, worth the price of admission. The orchestra occasionally swamped the singers but, in his pre-performance lecture, Conlon said that was the composer’s design (the Pavilion problems also accentuated that problem — see No. 7 below).

2. Strauss reportedly told the original portrayer of the title role in his version of this story that Salome was supposed to be a teenager who could sing the role of Isolde. The singer replied, “You can have one or the other, but not both.” Patricia Racette, singing the role during this production, came darn close to the ideal. As she cavorted about the stage, she gave a great approximation of a bratty teenager (quite a feat for someone who is age 52) and her singing was riveting all the way up to and through that ridiculously daunting final scene.

3. Racette’s early costume — a sort of tunic/pants suit — didn’t exactly look like something the original Salome would have worn (the story dates to Biblical times). On the other hand, Racette’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” would certainly have captivated the original tetrarch, Herod. Overall, the new costumes, by Sara Jean Tosetti (in her company debut), were striking.

4. Peggy Hickey — who made her company debut in 1989 as a dancer in Orpheus in the Underworld and her choreography debut in the company’s 1992 presentation of Don Giovanni — gets high marks her choreography for this Salome, her fifth LAO choreo job in the last three seasons.

5. The balance of the cast was uniformly strong, particularly Issachah Savage, making his company debut as Narraboth, and Allan Glassman as Herod. This was Savage’s second strong performance in a month; he was one of the stars of the production of Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, the final part of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Lift Every Voice” series in January.

6. The issue of the five Jews often causes some people heartburn but I thought this quintet did a fine job of elucidating the tensions that Jews struggled with about Jesus (and John the Baptist) in Palestine during the time of the Biblical story.

7. Once again, the Pavilion’s sound problems when it comes to singers were audible. The farther back onstage the singers are, the harder it is to hear them, even with the raked stage floor. This won’t ever be solved until there’s a major renovation of the Pavilion, which is now well into its second half century of usage, but — given the cost of such a project — I don’t expect to live long enough to see that happen.

8. This production was the third ever mounted by the company, in 1986 during its original season (see my preview article HERE). To my memory, the original lighting scheme had a richer blue cast, but the basics remained the same and quite effective.

9. Conlon revealed in his pre-performance lecture that he saw his first Salome performance at the age of 15 in the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Karl Boehm conducted (“for about the 150th time,” said Conlon). Birgit Nilsson sang the role for the first time, he remembered. It’s kind of hard to go anywhere up from there.

10. Conlon also told the pre-performance crowd that the first two notes of one of Salome’s theme were the same as the last two notes of Isolde’s “Liebestold” (in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). “It’s not crucial that you know this,” said Conlon with a chuckle. If you will be attending one of the final performances, don’t miss the lecture, which as usual is erudite and worth the time, even if you know the opera.

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

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Grimaud, Gaffigan, L.A. Phil make a potent combination

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Hélène Grimaud was the soloist today with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall (photo from a 2015 concert in Berlin).

Los Angeles Philharmonic; James Gaffigan, conductor
Today (March 24)
Walt Disney Concert Hall; 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m.
Preconcert lecture one hour before each performance.

Among other things this weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall offer some insight into the art of program design. Three pieces: one about 12 minutes, one about 15 and a third about 50.

Simple, right? The 50-minute piece — in this case, Brahms’ second piano concerto, with Hélène Grimaud as soloist — finishes the concert post-intermission, right? However, the 12-minute piece is a world premiere — Unchained by James Matheson — which means that opening the program with this work risks the possibility of plenty of folks waiting to show up until the other work: Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, Suite No. 2.

So, guest conductor James Gaffigan (pictured left) elected to open the program with the concerto, which created an additional problem: there was an uncomfortable pause between the first two movements to seat latecomers. In fact there were very few laggards this morning and the house was nearly full but, as I said in my review of last Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concert, there may come a day when some group will make those who can’t make the starting time (10 minutes after the appointed hour today) wait until the first piece is done, not just the first movement.

That pause is particularly egregious in Brahms’ second piano concerto because the first two movements have similar characteristics — in fact, I can remember a concert where the conductor paused just one second between movements. This morning, Gaffigan and Grimaud waited patiently and then plunged back into the music.

Grimaud, who recorded both of the Brahms concertos in 2013 and is touring currently with No. 2, offered a superb rendition this morning: a winning blend of majesty, subtlety and even a little humor (a couple of times Gaffigan grinned as she slipped in a sneaky little pause at the end of a phrase). More than anything, what impressed me was the sonorous tone she produced on the Phil’s Steinway, even in the rapid-fire Rondo movement that concludes the piece.

Gaffigan was equally impressive in shaping the accompaniment. This was a robust performance but it never seemed to be overly rushed, even in the finale. Now in his late 30s, Gaffigan — who recently extended his contract as Chief Conductor of Switzerland’s Lucerne Symphony until 2022 — continues to impress with his ability to bring out the best in the Phil, not an easy task for a guest conductor. Even in an ultra-familiar work like the Ravel, he seems to find a way to put his own stamp on the piece and that was also the case in the Brahms, a work in which the orchestra has as big a part as the pianist.

Of course it helps when the orchestra is playing as well as the Phil did this morning. Principal horn Andrew Bain began the concerto with an elegant solo (kudos, also, to third horn Amy Jo Rhine, who got in her own lovely solo licks later in the piece) and Principal Cellist Robert deMaine delivered an elegant solo in the concerto’s third movement. In the Ravel, Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov led the way, but the entire wind section was in top form throughout.

As it turned out, the backstory of Matheson’s premiere piece was more interesting than the work. He choked up during the pre-concert lecture when he explained to host Daniel Kessner and the audience that the work’s genesis began 21 years ago when he was studying with Steven Stucky at Cornell University. He befriended a young African-American resident of Ithaca, New York, which is home to Cornell and Ithaca College, but later — for unexplained reasons — had him arrested.

The outcome, which Matheson believes was a disproportionate sentence, and the composer’s own recent brush with the law, led him to write the single-movement work. The young man involved in the story is scheduled to be released Monday from a mental-health facility that has served as a halfway house to help him transition back into society. All of this, writes John Henken in his program note (LINK), gives the work “both its moments of release and its taut-but-unsettled forebodings,” as well as its title, Unchained.

Those “taut-but-unsettled forebodings” did permeate most of the work and it’s certainly accessible in terms of its musical style, but I was left with a sort of “meh” feeling at the conclusion. The audience gave the performance, which Gaffigan led without a baton, a tepid round of applause.

If you’re into compare and contrast, Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic will conclude their concert on March 15 in Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Concert Hall with Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, Suite No. 2. INFORMATION.
• Gaffigan will be on the run for the next few weeks. He returns to Europe for a month of concerts after his Phil performances, then conducts the Vancouver Symphony April 1, 2 and 3 in a program that concludes with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Why is that important? The Vancouver ensemble is searching for a replacement for its retiring Music Director, Bramwell Tovey. Earlier this year, Gaffigan conducted the San Diego Symphony, which is also in a Music Director search. Either would be lucky to nab Gaffigan.

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

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NEWS: Pacific Symphony’s 2017-2018 season includes Carnegie Hall debut and more

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Sometimes the most intriguing parts of a season announcement are not what management thinks is the lead item but what’s buried inside the release. It may be a particularly interesting soloist, an up-and-coming guest conductor, or an unusual piece to be performed.

Case in point: the Pacific Symphony, which announced its 39th season with a lengthy release emailed to the media yesterday. The lead was obvious: the orchestra will make its Carnegie Hall debut on April 21, 2018, the final event in the iconic New York City hall’s yearlong celebration of Philip Glass’ 80th birthday.

However, buried among the season details are a couple of fascinating conducting debuts.

On Oct. 19, 20 and 21 André Previn makes his PS debut in a program beginning with the West Coast premiere of his own ZZZAlmost an Overture,ZXZ which will receive its premiere as the first piece of the inaugural season of the Newport Contemporary Music Festival this July. The now-87-year-old Previn will conclude the PS program with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, which he recorded decades ago when he was principal conductor of the London Symphony.

The backstory of Previn’s appearance, of course, is that it is not with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Previn became the Phil’s music director in 1985, succeeding Carlo Maria Giulini but resigned in 1989, reportedly after clashing with the Phil’s Executive VP and General Manager Ernest Fleischmann. It’s been decades since Previn has returned to conduct the Phil, although that may change when the LAPO releases its 2017-2018 season on Tuesday.

Another interesting PS conducting debut is Ben Gernon, who was a 2013-1014 Gustavo Dudamel Fellow with the LAPO and has just been named Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in England. Gernon will lead the PS concerts on May 31, June 1 and 2.

Carl St.Clair, who begins his 28th season as the Pacific Symphony’s Music Director, will lead eight of the 12 weeks on the subscription seasons, plus a one-time concert featuring Joshua Bell as soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. He will also conduct the Carnegie Hall concert.

Among the season’s soloists will be violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who will play Morten Lauridsen’s arrangement of his famous choral work, ZZZO Magnum Mysterium,ZXZ on the season’s final concerts on June 14, 15 and 16.

Read Paul Hodgins’ report in the Orange County Register HERE.

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

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