LINK: A column worth reading

For decades, Alex Ross has been one of the nation’s most important and literate music critics. This column about the Street Symphony in downtown L.A.’s Skid Row and, in particular, Vijay Gupta — the L.A. Phil’s extraordinary violinist and outreach advocate — shows what I mean. LINK

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NEWS: Two conductor cancellations rattle L.A. Phil’s December schedule

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Arts organizations hate cancellations, whether it’s a conductor, soloist, composer, whatever. At the bottom of each ticket and Web page are the words “Programs, artists, dates, times, prices and availability subject to change. No one likes to invoke these words but there are occasions and there are occasions, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic discovered twice this week.

Early in the week, guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya cancelled his appearances at this weekend’s Phil concert due to illness. Into to his place stepped current Dudamel Fellow Jonathan Heyward (pictured right), who will lead the program with just one change — Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite replacing Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. Since Heyward also has to conduct a world premiere and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”), freeing him from having to learn the Rachmaninoff seems reasonable.

After all, the focal point of the program is violinist Hillary Hahn as soloist in the Bernstein piece, which — despite its fancy title — is really a violin concerto. While there may have been a few folks who bought tickets to see Harth-Bedoya or hear the Rachmaninoff symphony, those numbers can’t be too high and they get the chance to see an up-and-coming young conductor leading one of Stravinsky’s most popular scores.


By contrast, two days later came news that Zubin Mehta has undergone shoulder surgery and has to lay off conducting for at least four weeks, a period which includes a set of concerts with the L.A. Phil on Dec. 14, 15, 16 and 17. The program includes pianist Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist in in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9.

This presents the Phil with a much tougher replacement problem. Most of the people who bought tickets for these concerts did so because of Mehta, a former L.A. Phil music director with a still-loyal following. Moreover, Bruckner’s Symphony is not in every conductor’s arsenal. So it’s no surprise that no replacement conductor for the program has been named. Stay tuned!

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

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REVIEW: Pianist Zee Zee shines in sparkling Pasadena Symphony program

Music Critic

Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor>
Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Next performance: Dec. 16 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
All Saints Church; Pasadena

My former wife, who died decades ago from Multiple Sclerosis, was a concert pianist. There are a handful of piano concertos that I consider “Jennifer concertos” (concertos she played), which means when they show up on a schedule I draw a big circle around the particular date.

One of those is the Saint-Saéns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, which was (for me, at any rate), the centerpiece — both literally and figuratively — of the Pasadena Symphony’s concert yesterday afternoon and evening in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium (I saw the afternoon performance).

The soloist was the young, award-winning Chinese-born pianist now known as Zee Zee, pictured at the top of this post (I assume she changed from Zhang Zuo because Zee Zee is easier to spell and pronounce). Unlike her compatriot, Yuja Wang, Zee Zee came on stage wearing a blue formal gown — she preferred to let the music and her music making speak for itself. And speak it did, wonderfully.

Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto was once a staple on concert programs but it has fallen into neglect these days. Zee Zee argued a persuasive case for its reintroduction. Her rendition of the lengthy solo fantasia that opens the work was both powerful and musical and those qualities permeated the balance of the concerto, as well. She sailed through the work’s numerous flying octaves with aplomb while at the same time playing trills and runs with effortless pearl-like delicacy. It was a tour de force in the best use of that phrase, and she is somebody the PSO should re-engage as soon as possible.

Music Director David Lockington elected to construct yesterday’s program in an old-fashioned manner: 18th century overture, followed by the concerto and then a Mozart symphony. In doing so, he reminded all in attendance why this format and this music has remained so popular for nearly two centuries.

Lockington opened the program with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, leading a striking performance that melded extraordinary precision with sensitive musicality. Those qualities were also evident in the concerto accompaniment and in the concluding Mozart symphony (No. 41, Jupiter). The Pasadena Symphony usually offers excellent programs — especially when you consider it plays just seven sets of concerts during the season — but yesterday they pushed their level of excellence up a notch or two with their performances.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Mauceri, New West Symphony and others offer full evening of Leonard Bernstein’s music

Music Critic

New West Symphony and others; John Mauceri, conductor>
Valley Performing Arts Center; Northridge
Next performances: Tonight (November 18) at 8 p.m., Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
November 19 at 2 p.m., Oxnard Performing Arts Center

Is it possible to have too much of Leonard Bernstein’s music on a single program? A large crowd last night at Cal State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center — aka the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts or “the Soraya” for short — got a chance to consider that question when they heard a program entirely of Lenny’s music that was two years in the making by conductor John Mauceri and VPAC Executive Director Thor Steingraber.

Part way through the multi-year celebration of Bernstein’s birth centennial and several things have become apparent about how we are treating the composer-conductor-educator-raconteur-etc.

There have been plenty of duplication of some of Bernstein’s pieces but his three symphonies are not showing up on local programs (although next summer’s Hollywood Bowl programs, to be announced next February might change that).

However, no one — until this weekend — has programmed an entire concert of Bernstein’s music (technically the Los Angeles Philharmonic will also have an entire program of Bernstein when Gustavo Dudamel leads a performance of the composer’s Mass on Feb. 1, 2, 3 and 4).

However, last night’s program was unique — in brief pre-performance remarks Steingraber said he believed this was the only program in the world that would include music from all eight of Bernstein’s theatrical pieces.

The program was a natural for Mauceri to spearhead since Bernstein was one of his mentors and close friends. He is also someone whose skill set (minus composition) is remarkably similar to Bernstein, particularly in his winsome way of producing deft commentary about a program.

Mauceri enlisted the help of 130 musicians on stage: the New West Symphony, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Women of Areté Vocal Ensemble and California Lutheran University Choir, and a quarter of soloists. He also inserted recordings of Billie Holliday, Eileen Farrell and Bernstein himself — playing the piano and singing — into the beginning and encore pieces on the program.

The concert showed off Bernstein at his best and worst in terms of composition. Three of his works — On the Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story — were certifiable hits (and in the case of WSS, a mega-hit). Two — Trouble in Tahiti and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — were all-world flops and two — Candide and Mass — continue to have their adherents and detractors.

Nonetheless, even the least successful of Bernstein’s compositions have music that is worth hearing, even though it made for a lengthy program, running a shade over 2½ hours in length. It could have been longer. As Mauceri pointed out during one of his typically erudite comments, Bernstein’s duties as New York Philharmonic music director precluded him from writing any stage shows from West Side Story in 1956 to Mass in 1971 (he did find time to write his Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish), Chichester Psalms and other instrumental pieces).

Mauceri elected to perform selections from the eight theatrical pieces in chronological order, which meant that the post-intermission portion had three of Bernstein’s most-recognizable pieces, and placed Candide — which would have made a great conclusion — at the beginning of the second act (as it were).

However, programming the works in chronological order allowed patrons to experience how Bernstein’s compositional style evolved from his original piece, the music to a Jerome Robbins ballet entitled Fancy Free, to his final two shows, Mass and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bernstein’s writing often reflected the music of the era in which he wrote. Like most great composers, he borrowed liberally from his earlier works and wasn’t afraid to recycle pieces later on. Among other things, Mauceri noted that One Hand, One Heart was originally conceived for Candide but ended up in West Side Story (Bernstein wrote both at the same time).

Mauceri conducted the program expertly, although his tempos for Mambo from WSS seemed unusually pedestrian. The New West Symphony handled its parts of the program with stylish finesse (it’s not easy to perform a program made up of snippets from eight works). The choral ensembles delivered their parts mostly with panache (although being placed in the back of the stage gave the occasional impression that they were singing from downtown Los Angeles).

Each of the four soloists had their moment to shine. Baritone Davis Gaines was wistfully soulful in Lonely Town from On the Town and delivered Simple Song from Mass with a gentle style that belied the impossible range Bernstein used when he wrote the character of the Celebrant.

Tenor Casey Candebat and Soprano Célena Shafer soared through Tonight from WSS, and Shafer brought down the house with her rendition of Glitter and be Gay from Candide.

Mezzo-soprano Susanna Guzmán was hilarious in I Can Cook, Too from On the Town and What a Movie from Trouble in Tahiti.

The program repeats tonight in Thousand Oaks and Sunday afternoon in Oxnard on the New West Symphony’s subscription series.

• Coinciding with the programs comes the release of Mauceri’s new book, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting, which is available in hardback and electronic editions.
• Information on the L.A. Phil performances of Mass is HERE.
• Overlapping the L.A. Phil performances, LA Opera is producing Candide January 27, Feb. 3, 8, 11 and 15. James Conlon conducts; Francesca Zambello directs. Details HERE.

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