NEWS: LACO names Scott Harrison as Executive Director

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has named Scott Harrison as its new Executive Director. Harrison, who will begin on October 6, succeeds Rachel Fine, who left LACO earlier this year.

Harrison, 35, comes to Los Angeles from Detroit where he served as Vice President for Advancement and External Relations for the Detroit Symphony, which underwent a bitter labor strike in 2011. At LACO, Harrison will have a hand in the search for replacing Jeffrey Kahane as the orchestra’s Music Director; Kahane will step down at the end of the 2016-2017 season.

Read the full media release on Harrison HERE.

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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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MUSINGS: Do visuals help or hurt a concert experience?

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Joshua Kosman (San Francisco Chronicle)

Zachary Woolfe (New York Times)

Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times)

At first glance, reading these two reviews following a presentation by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis — and Mark Swed’s review of a performance earlier this year by MTT and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall — might seem like the latest chapter in the “were you and I at the same concert” series of reviews.

However, the question these two reviews illuminate is whether inserting visuals (or whatever kind) into a concert piece is helpful or merely a gimmick. Earlier this year the New West Symphony used abstract visuals in its performance of Holst’s The Planets — and I noted the challenges that came from that performance in my review HERE.

Tonight’s performance by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LINK) is quite a different animal but its concept of melding live performance with motion pictures (in this case, Disney cartoons) is another side of the equation: how do we introduce people who are increasingly visually oriented to a medium that has traditionally aural? Do visuals help or hurt?
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: New West Symphony adds visuals to “The Planets”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
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Does a piece with descriptions embedded into its movements, such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, need visuals to supplement the music? In this age where visuals are everywhere, are they helpful in (a) attracting newcomers to concerts and/or (b) making the music more understandable?

Those are among the questions that the New West Symphony is attempting to answer this weekend during the fifth concert of its 20th anniversary season by adding images to its performances of The Planets (I heard last night’s concert in Thousand Oaks; the final performance is this afternoon in Santa Monica — INFO).

Strictly speaking, Holst wrote no program notes for The Planets. As Dr. Richard E. Rodda quoted Holst in his program notes: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them … If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in the broad sense.”

That broad concept is what Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and seven local artists took in illustrating the music. Rather than use NASA images as has been done by many orchestras, the NWS commissioned the artists to paint large abstracts, which were projected on a screen above and behind the orchestra.

The visual results were problematic, although the NWS earns kudos for attempting something different for a piece that approaches warhorse status for classical music lover. Lehninger and his ensemble played the work with vigorous moments interspersed with sections of lyrical sweep and appropriately mystery where called for. At the end, however, significant questions remained for this critic and his visual artist wife as to whether the paintings were helpful.

To begin: considering that this project came together quite late in the game — the artists had less than a month to create their paintings. Surely some, perhaps many, of those attending had no idea what was going on. There was no insert in the program either identifying the artists or explaining what each saw in the music (these were abstracts, after all). Artists’ names, photos and bios were projected during intermission but (a) many people were outside during that time and (b) the small typeface rendered much of the text unreadable.

Lehninger also didn’t introduce the concept before the performance. Several people left in between movements either bewildered by the concept or having no appreciation for abstract art.

Having to work with three different halls on consecutive nights must have caused headaches for the technology folks handling the images, and the results showed. The ambient light from above the stage and the music stand lights severely hampered the ability to see some of the images and sabotaged the fades and pans of the technician. Midway through the performance, it occurred to me that this concept would work better outdoors at a locale such as Hollywood Bowl where ambient light issues wouldn’t be in play.

The pattern for each movement was to show small sections of the appropriate painting or panning over larger sections; the entire painting wasn’t shown until near the end of each movement. In the fifth movement, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, the image rotated slowly, giving it a somewhat psychedelic effect. Given that the paintings were abstracts, it was hard to figure out until the movement ended that one had actually seen the entire painting.

For me, the best melded movement was the final section, Neptune, the Mystic, which had the benefit of a painting by Julie Pinkham that was more visible than others and also from the ethereal voices of women from the Cal Lutheran University Choral Ensembles, intoning beautifully their wordless lines offstage. Unfortunately someone in the audience insisted on breaking in with a bravo while the last notes were dying away, thus spoiling the mystical effect.

Did the painting concept work? Some people around me thought so, others fled so quickly that the applause had died away before Lehninger had a chance to bring the visual artists onstage, if indeed he planned on doing so. It will be interesting to see how the concept works today in Santa Monica.

Prior to intermission, the orchestra played Sibelius’ Violin Concerto for the first time and had Pasadena native Jennifer Frautschi on hand making her NWS debut as soloist.

Frautschi, now in her mid-30s, is well established in the violin firmament. Playing on a 1722 Stradivarius named “ex-Cadiz,” she delivered a quicksilver tone to go with her prodigious technique. She worked on the dynamic extremes of this early 20th century work — at times the pianissimo sections were almost too precious — but she really made me feel as if this was her concerto. The second movement, in particular, was spellbinding.

Lehninger and Co. offered taut, sweeping accompaniment. In those times where Frautschi wasn’t playing, Lehninger plunged forward exuberantly, punching out the attacks for emphasis, only to rein back when Frautschi joined in again.

Frautschi will be soloing in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto next year with the Pasadena Symphony. It will be interesting to see whether she adopts the same tonal style in a quite different work.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• During intermission, the orchestra took the opportunity of having the screen down to screen a number of promos, including upcoming concerts and events, a slide on planned giving, and a slide with the various ways people can follow the orchestra (e.g., Internet, Facebook, Twitter). Smart marketing, from my perspective.
• Prior to the performance, Executive Director Natalia Staneva noted the concert’s synchronicity — this year is the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth and the orchestra’s 20th anniversary. She tried to link The Planets into the mix, calling 2015 the 100th anniversary of its composition. Unfortunately she missed by a couple of years. While part of the piece was completed in its two-piano form in 2015, the entire orchestrated piece wasn’t finished until 1917 and premiered a year later.
• The season’s final concert will take place May 8, 9 and 10 when Lehninger leads a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, with four soloists and the Los Robles Master Chorale. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Dudamel’s contract extension affects orchestras in Berlin, New York

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

With prestigious orchestras — the New York Philharmonic and Berlin Phil — and others searching for new music directors, today’s announcement (LINK) that Gustavo Dudamel’s contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been extended through the 2021-22 season may have put a spoke into several wheels.

Along with the extension — which means the now-34-year-old Dudamel will lead the LAPO for at least 13 seasons — he has added the title of Artistic Director to his current Music Director post. No financial terms were detailed; the Los Angeles Times reported that Dudamel was paid $1.44 million in 2012, according to tax returns. The announcement came during the final leg of LAPO’s Asian tour, which wraps up Sunday in Tokyo.

Given that Dudamel seems fully invested as music director of the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra (flagship of Venezuela’s El Sistema program), it seems unlikely that he could maintain that post, the LAPO position, and a music directorship in either Berlin and/or New York unless he wants to be the reincarnation of Valery Gergiev, the world’s most peripatetic maestro these days.

Alan Gilbert has announced that he will leave his post as New York Philharmonic in 2017 (LINK). Simon Rattle will leave his post with the Berlin Philharmonic a year later and become music director of the London Symphony (LINK).

The same situation would seem to be the case with another high-profile conductor, Yannick Nezét-Seguin, who recently re-upped with the Philadelphia Orchestra through 2022.
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: McGegan leads sparkling Pasadena Symphony concert

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

McGeganEvery time Nicholas McGegan (pictured right) conducts the Pasadena Symphony we learn something new about this 65-year-old native of England who last Saturday completed his first year as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.

From a witty, erudite Q&A with PSO President and CEO Laura Unger preceding Saturday afternoon’s concert at Ambassador Auditorium, we learned a good deal about the opening work, an 18th century ballet suite from the opera Naïs by Jean-Philippe Rameau, including how to recognize the work’s end. McGegan — ever beaming his cherubic smile — delivered a condensed version of the intro before leading a sparkling performance by the orchestra that featured Theresa Dimond grinding a massive wind machine and then ending the work with a tambourine smack.

One thing we had learned from previous concerts is that McGegan likes his tempos fast, and that was evident in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). Things quieted down in the second movement, which was notable for lyrical, silky strings. McGegan played a game of “How well do you know your Beethoven?” by adding a measure of music at the end that Beethoven wrote after the piece was en route to the printer.

Tempos picked up again in the third movement. Perhaps this wasn’t the best choice, as there was not as much contrast with the “Storm” section as at least this listener would like. Overall, this was a sunny, breezy performance of this much-loved work, notable particularly for smart playing from the winds.

Geneva_Lewis_WEBIn his preconcert remarks, McGegan noted that every time he sees the soloist, 16-year-old violinist Geneva Lewis (Ieft) she has grown an inch or two — “I need the podium to stand on,” he joked. Her PSO debut vehicle was Mozart’s third violin concerto, a piece written when the composer was age 19, which meant, said McGegan, that “we have music written by a teenager played by a teenager.”

Actually, Lewis played like someone much older than her 16 years. Using a 1991 violin made by Arkansas luthier Terry Borman, on loan from the Doublestop Foundation courtesy of acclaimed Chinese violinist Cho-Liang Lin, Lewis produced luxuriant tones in the middle and lower registers and a silky, sweet tone on top with remarkably consistent and lyrical runs and trills throughout the performance.

She maintained almost constant eye contact with McGegan (there were several sly grins between them in the third movement) and the two, along with the orchestra, combined for a gentle, graceful performance of this sunny work.

A student at The Colburn School with PSO Concertmaster Aimee Kreston (who didn’t join the orchestra for this piece), Lewis played cadenzas written by noted musicologist Robert Levin in the 1980s for Gidon Kremer and delivered them with aplomb. The future looks very bright for this young Irvine resident who looks to join the ranks of Midori and others as someone PSO patrons can say in years to come, “We heard her when.”
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HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• The final concert of the 2014-2015 classics series takes place on May 2 at Ambassador Auditorium. Music Director David Lockington will conduct Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, the two suites from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez as soloist. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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