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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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony delivers strong performance before sold-out house

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Music Director David Lockington’s decision to pair Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for today’s Pasadena Symphony concerts proved to be boffo box office as both concerts at Ambassador Auditorium were virtually sold out. Moreover, based on this afternoon’s first-rate performance, most of those new to the PSO (as well as regular attenders) should have gone home pleased.

Using what he called the Beethovian philosophy of darkness to light, Lockington elected to open the concert with the symphony and leave the concerto and its upbeat ending for after intermission.

For whatever reason, the orchestra’s playing in the symphony’s first movement seemed almost understated and, prior to the second movement, there was a pause to seat latecomers. Some day an orchestra will have the courage to insist that people who arrive well after the starting time wait until the first piece — not just the first movement — has concluded. After that long pause, the entire mood changed: the strings had more weight and the entire performance seemed more energized.

In his preconcert lecture and remarks to everyone before he began the performance, Lockington said — with a tone of resignation — that even if people applauded after the thunderous conclusion to the third movement, he and the orchestra would, in fact, play the concluding movement. Many people (of course) did applaud, and the orchestra did resume, finishing with impressive intensity. In a nice touch, Lockington not only asked principals stand to acknowledge the applause, he asked each section to stand, as well.

After intermission Natasha Paremski (pictured left), a 29-year-old Moscow native who now lives in New York City, displayed impressive technical prowess in her performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. She also seemed occasionally to bring a hard edge to her tone, although this may have been more to do with the piano and wasn’t as apparent during her encore, one of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux.

In the preconcert lecture, Paremski said that in recent years she had gone back to scrutinize the score and from that examination had acquired a new interpretative slant to this familiar work. She and Lockington were not always in synch in the opening movement, as Paremski often seemed to leap slightly ahead of Lockington, but eventually they locked in together during the balance of the performance.

The second movement was the most impressive as Paremski delivered long, singing lines in the opening and closing parts of that section. Kudos, also, to Donald Foster, whose plaintive clarinet solos were a marvelous match for Paremski’s ruminations. Paremski then blazed through the final movement while Lockington and the orchestra hung on for dear life. Predictably — and deservedly — all forces earned a standing ovation.

• Prior to the concert, the Pasadena Symphony Women’s Association presented a check for $119,000 from its Holiday Look-in project to CEO Laura Unger.
• Paremski’s bio says she made her professional debut with the El Camino Youth Symphony in Palo Alto at the age of 8.
• Emulating Yuja Wang, Paremski was wearing bright red stiletto heels — I have no idea how she can pedal in them!
• Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will lead the next concerts on March 18, a program of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (“Scottish”) and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major (“Turkish”) with Rachel Barton Fine as soloist. INFORMATION
• Season-ticket holders got a first look at the 2017-2018 season, which begins on Oct. 14 and concludes on April 28. Lockington will lead five of the six concerts (McGegan leads the other one) and the season will feature two world premieres, including one by a composer yet to be named that is a co-commission with the Huntington Library. Among the soloists will be violinist Dylana Jensen, who is also Lockington’s wife. More on the season in a later post.

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

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PREVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Salome” marks a revival of an historically important production

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tomas Tomasson as John the Baptist and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s historic production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which opens tomorrow night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera

The story is legendary in the opera world; even those who weren’t in attendance (as I was) remember it. 1986 — the inaugural opening night for Los Angeles Opera: the curtain rising on the opening act of Verdi’s Otello pauses partway up before continuing its ascent a few seconds later. It was a “heart-in-the-throat” moment for those in attendance (particularly for those in company management, one suspects). It also provided a ready-made, humorous lead for critics (including me), leaning forward in anticipation.

That opening production was an exciting time for all concerned, but fewer people remember the third opera in that inaugural season.

Otello was followed by a very conventional presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring — somewhat implausibly — Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San.

However, it was the third offering — a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome — that in retrospect, put the company on the international opera map. It’s also the only production from that original season that remains in the LAO repertoire, 31 years later. The Met still has Franco Zeferelli’s iconic Madama Butterfly in its rep; Sir Peter Hall’s Salome is LAO’s equivalent.

Tomorrow night LAO revives that Salome production in the first of six performances, running through March 19. The big news has been that superstar American soprano Patricia Racette is portraying the title heroine; both Michelle Mills in our SCNG papers (LINK) and Catherine Womack in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) have focused on that story.

Yet, it’s not too big a stretch to say that without that 1986 production of Salome, there might be no LA Opera (as the company now calls itself). Thus the historical aspect of this opera deserves to be remembered.

That seems strange in retrospect because Salome wasn’t an easy sell in a city where opera was still working to establish a beachhead.

For one thing, LAO’s production of Salome was created by Sir Peter Hall, who was far better known for his work in the theatre than in the opera world, although, with conductor Georg Solti, he did direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1983 at Bayreuth for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Second, the opera (written by Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century using a libretto that he adapted from an infamous Oscar Wilde play) runs in a single act that lasts an hour and 40 minutes without intermission — although for those who don’t like long nights at the opera house, that’s a plus.

Another issue is that the character originates in synoptic Biblical gospels of Matthew and Mark, although in those accounts she is unnamed. Wilde’s and Strauss’ “scandalous” treatment of a Biblical character always caused ruffled feathers among conservative Christian folk.

A final (and related) problem was the opera’s most famous moment: Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she writhes before Herod in an erotic dance and where each of the veils are removed until she stands naked before the king. The scene so scandalized the performers and audiences that in earlier productions a dancer performed, and, later, singers used a body stocking for the dance. Even today the nude scene features prominently in almost any article, include those noted above.

Sir Peter would make no offering to modesty, in part because the Salome in that 1986 production — his wife, Maria Ewing — was good looking and was willing to end the dance naked. In addition, the production was notable because the performers were both compelling as singers and actors. It was, particularly, a hard role for Ewing, who was a mezzo-soprano rather than a sopranos, but she carried off the singing handsomely and her acting was riveting.

One other aspect of that LAO Salome premiere was the size of the orchestra: 92 players (much larger than either of the first two offerings), bulging the Pavilion pit and led by Henry Lewis. Hearing this luscious score played this by the now top-flight LAO Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon, should be one of the prizes of this year’s production.

Reports are that Sir Peter’s production has been refurbished for this run — not surprising given that it has been lent to companies around the world (a nice money-maker for the company). Sir Peter (who reportedly suffers from dementia) will not be on hand, although he continues to be listed for his production. Instead, David Paul makes his company debut as director and Duane Schuler will handle the crucial lighting details.

Like all productions of Salome, there’s a great deal of complexity and intrigue that will surround this revival. But there is also a great deal of history, which should not be forgotten. The L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Martin Bernheimer — not known for throwing around accolades lightly — wrote of that 1986 production: “This is what opera should be about.”


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

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