REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony shines brightly in Saturday concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Andrew van Oeyen performed as soloist with the Pasadena Symphony Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium. Photo credit: Kay Kochenderfer.
Music directors of orchestra, choirs, etc. love to build their programs around themes but Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concert was unique because PSO Music Director David Lockington interwove two themes into the three pieces on the program at Ambassador Auditorium.

Of course it wasn’t necessary that you knew of this thematic duality to enjoy the concert. The masterful performances by Lockington, the orchestra and piano soloist Andrew van Oeyen were enough for any patron in the nearly sold-out house.

The theme of hidden meanings appeared in the first piece, Scherzo Crypto by American composer Alexander Miller, and in the final, far-more-familiar work, Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The Elgar title also alluded to the program’s other theme, variations, which also dominated the middle piece, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

One thing unusual about the program was how the orchestra was seated. It’s not unusual to have the cellos in the middle of the ensemble, which promotes a deep, rich bass sound that was appropriate for all three pieces. However, rather than split the violins as is usual, Lockington placed the violas on the right side of the orchestra, which added to the deep tonal luster, particularly in the Elgar.

Scherzo Crypto is a five-minute bundle of energy. The composer is assistant oboist for the Grand Rapids Symphony (Lockington’s former band) and he composed this overture-like work in 2014 on a commission from the San Antonio Symphony.

Embedded within the piece was a cryptogram about a musical instrument that, it turns out, is a viola. Lockington and the orchestra delivered the piece in a spritely manner and, in a nice touch, Lockington used a light to the right of the orchestra to let patrons know when the cryptogram was appearing.

The program’s centerpiece, figuratively and literally, was the Rachmaninoff and, for a change, the highlight was the orchestra rather than the soloist. Van Oeyen was no slouch — which isn’t a big surprise. He made his professional debut at age 16 with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, won the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award in 1999 and also took First Prize in the Leni Fe Bland Foundation National Piano Competition in 2001.

Now, 22 years later, he is an assured, polished presence at the keyboard, offering crisp yet delicate fingering throughout the Rachmaninoff with excellent degrees of dynamic shadings throughout. His rendition of the 14th variation was even more striking than the famous 18th but overall there was much to enjoy in his work.

However, what was really notable was the accompaniment by Lockington and the orchestra. In his five years leading the PSO, Lockington has taken an ensemble that was already quite good and elevated it into one where excellence is the byword.

That was certainly true in the Rachmaninoff and at the beginning of the Elgar, although — whether through orchestral fatigue or pedestrian composition — things tended to flag a bit toward the end. Lockington’s tempos were calm and majestic throughout, particularly in the famed Nimrod section.

• Just as Lockington was poised to give the downbeat to the Elgar, a cell phone went off in the auditorium. Lockington turned around, pantomimed answering the phone, reset the orchestra and the audience, and moved on smoothly. Other conductors have handled similar situations worse.
• The final concerts in the orchestra’s 90th season are on May 5 when Lockington leads Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) and the Violin Concerto, with Angelo Xiang Yu as soloist. Information:
• The 2018 Pops summer season begins June 23 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia, as Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein leads tributes to Gershwin and Sondheim. Information:

(c) Copyright 2018, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Master Chorale offers epic revival of “Lagrime di San Pietro”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Master Chorale’s production of “Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter)” last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo credit: Tao Ruspoli/Marie Noorbergen

Any doubts as to the power and importance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s presentation of Orlando Di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter) were certainly laid to rest this weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall (I heard the Sunday evening performance).

Conducted by Grant Gershon, directed by Peter Sellars, with sensitive lighting by James F. Ingalls and costumes by Daniele Dominique Sumi, the LAMC’s offering of this Renaissance-era work has become one of the most important pieces that the ensemble has presented in its 53-year history.

That renown figures to increase substantially during the next couple of years when the MC takes the production on the road around the world, beginning this June at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival and then in 2019 in London and Paris (with other sites to be announced).

The physical production is part of the unique aspect of this presentation. There was no seating in the balconies or the bench seats, so the crowd numbered at perhaps 1,300. The floor was flat and there were 21 chairs (12 on the right and 9 on the left) for the production’s singers and actors during the last 10% of the performance.

Di Lasso originally set the work for seven voices but Gershon decided that seven voices wouldn’t carry throughout the hall. The ensemble’s size proved highly appropriate. Of the 21 singers two years ago, 17 were in the hall again last night, along with four newcomers. The costumes were street-people accurate and everyone, including Gershon, were in bare feet.

The piece, using a text by Renaissance poet Luigi Tansillo, was set in 20 madrigals and a Latin motet and refers to the St. Peter’s three-time renunciation of Jesus Christ. The music itself is gripping but Sellars’ production adds an additional element to the story and the music. He also acknowledged the glory of Disney as a performing space, calling it “a magical, beautiful place,” although, one wonders how well the production will translate to future halls and/or outdoor spaces on tour.

The Chorale members, who memorized nearly of the music and all of the staging, sang beautifully as an ensemble and sustained the tension of the drama superbly. Gershon moved around the singers as he conducted and made highly effective use of silences in between the movements. Projected English translations enabled everyone to follow the flow easily and the 85 minutes sped by with astonishing and rapid fluidity. It was a memorable evening.

(c) Copyright 2018, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Kahane, Batjer, LACO offer sparking Respighi and West Coast premiere of a promising concerto

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
Alex Theatre; Glendale. March 17, 2018
Respighi: Three Botticelli Pictures
Jaubert: Violin Concerto; Margaret Batjer, soloist
Haydn: Symphony No. 99 in E-flat major; Hob 1.99
Next performance: March 18 at 7:00 p.m. Royce Hall, UCLA

When a former music director returns to conduct his old ensemble, it’s always a matter of interest, especially since such returns happen infrequently in Los Angeles, although Esa-Pekka Salonen, now the L.A. Philharmonic’s conductor laureate, returns regularly to conduct the Phil and Zubin Mehta comes back occasionally.

Other local orchestras are not so willing to bring back a former conductor. Last June JoAnn Falletta came back to lead the Long Beach Symphony but that was after a 20-year absence. I’m not sure that a former Pasadena Symphony music director has ever come back to conduct and Carl St.Clair has been at the Pacific Symphony for so long (nearly 40 years) that he’s surely outlived his predecessors.

So when Jeffrey Kahane returned this weekend to conduct the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra — the ensemble that he led for 20 years before retiring last year — the large crowd at the Alex Theatre gave him ovations before and after the performances. The evening had the feel of a family reunion (Kahane, now LACO’s Conductor Laureate, expects to conduct at least once in each of the upcoming seasons).

In his preconcert dialogue with composer Pierre Jalbert, Kahane allowed that coming back was lots of fun: an orchestra he still knows very well and a gig that doesn’t include fund raising. The orchestra, for its part, delivered the sort of top-flight performance that we were used to hearing when Kahane was in charge. It did, indeed, seem like the good old days.

It was, in many ways, a typical Kahane program: a relatively unfamiliar tone poem followed by the West Coast premiere of a concerto that he was instrumental in commissioning before he left, and a familiar Haydn symphony. Owing to a medical issue, I had to leave at intermission and, therefore, missed the Haydn. The two pre-intermission works were plenty.

Respighi’s Three Botticelli Pictures were written in 1922 and inspired by, as the title says, a triptych of mid-15th century paintings by Sandro Botticelli.

The first movement, La Primavera (Spring), was played with spritely exuberance.

L’Adoracione del Magi (Adoration of the Magi),Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come Emmanuel) had an Asian feel to it, helped in large part by the winds and, in particular, three of their principals: Kenneth Munday, bassoon; Joachim Becerra Thomsen, flute; and Claire Brazeau, oboe.

The third movement, La Nacita di Venere (The Birth of Venus), gave the strings the opportunity to cut loose with a luscious sound that was reminiscent of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Kahane led everything with a sure, suave hand; it’s hard to believe that the work had appeared on only two previous LACO programs.

The evening’s centerpiece, figuratively if not necessarily literally, was the West Coast premiere of Jalbert’s Violin Concerto. Jalbert, who is a former LACO composer-in-residence and now teaches at Rice University, was commissioned by LACO, the Milwaukee Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and wrote the piece with each orchestra’s Concertmaster in mind.

The 26-minute work is in two movements. The opening movement, Soulful, mysterious, Scherzando, began with mysterious Asian sounds, aided notably by pianist Mark Robson, with the violin solo meandering above. Without warning, the “Scherzando” section gave Batjer a chance to show her virtuous chops before the movement turned back to its original feel.

The second movement (considerably shorter than the first and subtitled With Great Energy,) often had a Leonard Bernstein feel to it. Batjer delivered the formidable solo writing with the energy that Jalbert called for, particularly in the concluding cadenza.

It’s often hard to tell whether a piece has the legs to move into the repertoire, but this Violin Concerto certainly has promise. Whether other soloists will want to study and learn the music, any orchestra interested in programming it has at least three soloists they can choose to import.

(c) Copyright 2018, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEWS: Important, informative posts on this weekend’s LA Chamber Orchestra and LA Master Chorale concerts

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Master Chorale’s concerts this weekend feature a performance of its Peter Sellars-directed production of Orlando Di Lasso’s “Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter).”

Both the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Los Angeles Master Chorale have major concerts this weekend (see the LINK to my column in print last Sunday). Since both concerts involve works that will be unfamiliar to many of those in attendance, it will be worth your while to link to the following sites:

• Violinist Laurie Niles on her Web site has an informative interview with LACO Concertmaster Margaret Batjer about the West Coast premiere of Pierre Jalbert’s Violin Concerto HERE. Former LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane conducts.

• CK Dexter Haven, on his informative Web site “All is Yar” (LINK) has an extensive interview with LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon on the company’s reprise of Peter Sellars production of Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter) by Renaissance composer Orlando Di Lasso.

Even if you are unable to attend, both posts are worth reading. If you are attending, you’ll have a better understanding of these two works after reading the above.


(c) Copyright 2018, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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