OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 revived powerfully at Los Angeles Philharmonic concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. • Feb. 9 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced its 2013-2014 season last spring, I immediately put a big red circle around this weekend’s concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall because they featured John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 being played for only the second time in LAPO history. I remember hearing the first time when David Zinman conducted the Phil at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in January 1993 and being gobsmacked by the work’s power and anguish.

However, this is a different time. Gustavo Dudamel is a different conductor, and Walt Disney Concert Hall is a VERY different venue than the Pavilion. At the time of its composition, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 was triggered by the AIDS crisis that was sweeping the nation. Many people now view the work simply as a “tragic symphony,” a la Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique.” Either reaction, says Corigliano, is fine.

“At the time [the work was written],” said Corigliano in an e-mail interview just after his 76th birthday last month, “I had lost over 100 friends and colleagues. My closest friend (for three decades) was dying, and came to the performances, accepted the dedication to him, and passed away a week later. This was a horrible time and writing my symphony was all I could do. So my feelings at the premiere were enormously influenced by my friend, Sheldon [Shkolnik], his state and the world then around me.” Corigliano subtitled the first movement Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance.

Thanks to increase in medical treatments and national awareness, AIDS is no longer the scourge it was in 1990. “Many things have changed,” says Corigliano, “especially concerning the treatment of AIDS. So hearing the work now has been more of a nostalgic experience. The memories of my friends come back to me, and I feel grateful to be able to mourn them in this different way.”

Corigliano was age 48 and serving as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first Composer in Residence when in 1998 the CSO commissioned him to write a large work. The orchestra got more than it bargained for. It was Corigliano’s first large-scale symphonic work; the four-movement piece lasts a little over 40 minutes and the forces necessary to perform the piece are enormous.

There are extra players in every section last night, including 18 brass players in a ring behind the winds and strings. The percussion array includes two sets of timpani (Dudamel placed them on either edge of the back row); two sets of tubular chimes, placed behind the orchestra’s first and second violins; two pianos, one onstage and one off, along with two glockenspiels, crotales, two vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, snare drum, three tom-toms, three roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, three bass drums, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, three temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, ratchet, harp and four (!) mandolins. About the only instrument that Corigliano didn’t use was an organ — I think Chicago’s symphony hall didn’t have one at the time and where would they have put the console anyway?

Corigliano was on hand during rehearsals this week and attended last night’s performance. He also provided an emotional and extensive tour of the work at the preconcert lecture, far more detailed than either his original program notes or the truncated version in the L.A. Phil’s printed program. If you’re going to one of the remaining concerts, don’t miss the lecture.

Dudamel was conducting the work for the first time. He used a score, followed it carefully and brought out a great deal of both the anger and pathos in the work, along with much of the tragic lyricism. Following this weekend’s performances, the Phil will make this work a centerpiece of its North American tour beginning March 11 (DETAILS). They will perform it in six cities and, based on how splendidly Dudamel and the orchestra played last night, I would love to be in Montreal or Boston at the end of the tour to hear how everyone will have grown into this complex piece after another eight performance.

Among the highlights:
• The strings underlaying Joanne Pearce Martin’s wistful playing of measures from Albéniz’s Tango in the first movement. The effect was mesmerizing.
• The end of the second movement, described by the composer as “a brutal scream” with the overtones ringing throughout a silent Disney Hall for several seconds. Magical.
• The hauntingly soulful solos by Principal Cellist Robert deMaine and Assistant Principal Ben Hong in the third movement, Chaconne: Giulio’s Song. Sublime.
• The full-out orchestra in the many moments of rage that are embedded throughout the work. Shattering.

During the tour, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 will be paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which will make for an emotionally wrenching evening. This weekend, the companion piece is the much more pastoral Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which will be played as part of an alternate tour program in second concerts in San Francisco and New York City and in the single performance in Kansas City.

Compared to the Corigliano, the Phil seemed like a chamber orchestra in the Brahms: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons (the Corigliano had four, three, four and three, respectively); four horns instead of six, two trumpets (five), three trombones (four) and one tuba (2). On the back riser instead of that massive percussion array sat a lone set of timpani with Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira. Nonetheless, it was enough; all forces could produce a powerful, albeit sweet sound.

Freed from having a score on a music stand in front of him and leading a work he knows well, Dudamel was in his all-out “Showtime” conducting mode and the orchestra was right with him for the entire ride. Dudamel sculpted phrases throughout, often with big swooping movements, occasionally with the barest of gestures. The first movement began with unhurried lyricism, the second emphasized drama, the third was notable for its gentle opening, and the finale blazed in full glory. By March 12, everyone will be ready for Davies Hall in San Francisco.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• For my preview story including other comments from Corigliano, click HERE.
• Corigliano’s complete program notes for Symphony No. 1 are HERE.
• One of the interesting things to come out of the preconcert lecture was that all three of Corigliano’s symphonies were written for quite different ensembles. Symphony No. 2 (which won him the Pulitzer Prize after it was composed in 2000) was written for string orchestra, while Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Circus Maximus,” was written for concert band — brass and wind ensemble.
• Corigliano’s music will return next year when Los Angeles Opera presents The Ghosts of Versailles Feb. 7 through March 1 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. DETAILS
• Of the more than 100 works that Corigliano has published, arguably the best known is his score for the movie The Red Violin, for which he received an Oscar in 1999 and subsequently created a violin concerto and other versions.
• Corigliano is one of a very few composers to have won an Oscar, Grammy, Pulitzer and a Grawmeyer Award (he won the latter for Symphony No. 1).
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: March coming in like a lion

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

Even with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on tour during the next three weeks, March is a very busy month for classical music lovers. Among the offerings are:

• To be accurate, the Phil is in town this weekend with Gustavo Dudamel conducting John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. My preview story is HERE.

• If meaty Brahms is your idea of a musical feast, then make a reservation for the Long Beach Symphony concerts tomorrow night at 8 in that city’s Terrace Theatre. Enrique Arturo Diemecke, who is completing his 14-year-tenure as the LBSO’s music director, will lead Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Piano Concerto No. 2; the latter features Mexican pianist Jorge Federico Osorio. (Hint: arrive early; no matter which piece gets played first, the initial movement is long and you don’t want to wait in the lobby for late seating.) INFO: www.lbso.org

Two organists are on the agenda this week.

Ann Elise Smoot, 1998 winner of the American Guild of Organists’ National Young Artists Competition in Organ Performance, makes her Disney Hall debut on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with a program of music by J.S. Bach, Reger, Jehan Alain and others including the U.S. debut of Solomon’s Demos by Joanna Marsh, a British composer who has lived in Dubai since 2007. INFO: www.laphil.com

Timothy Howard will present a free recital at Pasadena Presbyterian Church on March 15 at 7:30 p.m. Playing on the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, Howard will be assisted by organist Meaghan King and soprano Judith Siirila Paskowitz in a program of music by J.S. Bach, Marcel Dupré, Paul Halley, William Mathias, Giacomo Puccini and Louis Vierne. INFO: www.ppcmusic.org

On the choral front:

Pasadena Pro Musica continues its 50th anniversary season on Sunday at 4 p.m. at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church as Artistic Director Stephen Grimm leads a program of music by Flemish Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso: De profundis clamavi, Primi diei from Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes, and Prophetiae Sibyllarum. INFO: www.pasadenapromusica.org

• Janet Harms will lead the combined forces of the Windsong Southland Chorale and the United Methodist Church of La Verne Choir, in “Sacred Utterances” on March 15 at 7 p.m. at the UMLV, 3205 “D” Street, La Verne. The program will include O, Gracious Light (Phos hilaron) by Timothy Sharp, The Lord is My Light by Hank Beebe, True Light by Keith Hampton, I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light by Kathleen Thomerson, Magnificat by Charles Villiers Stanford and others.

This concert will be a reprise of the same program Windsong sang when it participated in an annual choral festival on February 16 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

Hollywood Master Chorale will present an afternoon of Dvorak’s Mass in D Major, Op. 86 and Te Deum on March 16 at 4 p.m. at Hollywood Lutheran Church. Artistic Director Lauren Buckley will conduct. The Te Deum was written in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing on the American shore. Mass in D Major was composed two years before. INFO: www.hollywoodmasterchorale.org

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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Corigliano and Lauridsen to be featured in upcoming concerts

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. • Feb. 9 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com
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Two of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century, John Corigliano and Morten Lauridsen, will be featured on programs during the next fortnight in Southern California.

Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 will open the Los Angeles Philharmonic programs this weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. L.A. Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel will lead the concerts, which will also include Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.

mortenMeanwhile, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will offer two evenings in tribute to Lauridsen (pictured right) — long-time professor of music at the USC-Thornton School of Music, the Master Chorale’s composer-in-residence from 1994-2001, and a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama in 2007.

On March 14, the Master Chorale will honor Lauridsen at the Alex Theatre in Glendale with a screening of the documentary Shining Light: a Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen, followed by a discussion between the composer, LAMC Music Director Grant Gershon and film director Michael Stillwater.

On March 16, Music Director Grant Gershon will lead 48 singers of the LAMC in an evening of Lauridsen’s music with the composer accompanying one of the pieces at the piano. The program will include Mid-Winter Songs, Ave Dulcissima Maria, Canticle/O Vos Omnes, O Magnum Mysterium, , Madrigali, Nocturnes and Les Chansons des Roses (Lauridsen will accompany the last two pieces on the piano). Ironically, the only major piece the Chorale won’t be singing is Lux Aeterna, which has become a choral landmark since it was premiered and recorded by the Master Chorale in 1997.

Lauridsen, who turned 71 this week, lives in Hollywood but spends his summers composing on remote Waldron Island, located off the coast of Washington State in the Pacific Northwest’s San Juan Archipelago in the Pacific.

The 74-minute film being screened Friday has won several awards and features interviews with Lauridsen in both of his homes and in Scotland, interspersed with his music. Other composers and critics are also interviewed, including Southern California musicologist and conductor Nick Strimple, who describes Lauridsen as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic … and the most frequently performed American choral composer. “ Terry Treachout has an online review of the film in the Wall St. Journal HERE.

Following their performances this weekend, Dudamel and the Phil will make Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 a centerpiece of their North American tour, which runs March 11-23 (DETAILS). The work, paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, will be played in San Francisco, New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Montreal and Boston.

The alternate program — Brahms’ Symphony No. 2; Blow bright, by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason, which received its world premiere in Disney Hall last December; and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Yuja Wang as soloist — will be played in Kansas City and New York.

Dudamel has elected to pair the uber-familiar Tchaikovsky fifth on tour with the far-less-known Corigliano work because, “[although] they were composed nearly a century apart, these two works communicate similarly deeply human messages … and highlight core aspects of the Philharmonic’s unique programmatic philosophy” of spotlighting significant contemporary works.

Written in 1988 when Corigliano was age 50 and first performed by the Chicago Symphony under the baton of Daniel Barenboim in 1990, the 41-minute-long Symphony No. 1 was the composer’s first large-scale work and was written as the AIDS crisis was raging in the United States.

Corigliano“At the time,” said Corigliano (pictured right) in an e-mail interview just after his 76th birthday last month, “I had lost over 100 friends and colleagues. My closest friend (for three decades) was dying, and came to the performances, accepted the dedication to him, and passed away a week later. This was a horrible time and writing my symphony was all I could do. So my feelings at the premiere were enormously influenced by my friend, Sheldon [Shkolnik], his state and the world then around me.

“Since then,” continued Corigliano, “many things have changed, especially concerning the treatment of AIDS. So hearing the work now has been more of a nostalgic experience. The memories of my friends come back to me, and I feel grateful to be able to mourn them in this different way.”

Symphony No. 1 won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Composition in 1990 and captured Grammy Awards in 1991 for “Best New Composition” and “Best Orchestral Performance” (by Barenboim and the CSO). Six years later the piece won another Grammy, for “Best Classical Album,” a recording by the National Symphony led by Leonard Slatkin. That combo played the work at Disney Hall in 2005.

Dudamel will be conducting piece for the first time. It’s just the second time that the Phil has played it; the first was in 1993 with David Zinman conducting. Corigliano will be in town for the rehearsals this week. “I always listen to any of my works in two ways,” said Corigliano, “one, as a trouble-shooter in rehearsal, and the other remembering the genesis of the work and the people I wrote the piece for.”

In his program notes for the symphony’s premiere, Corigliano wrote: “A few years ago I was extremely moved when I first saw ‘The Quilt’ (LINK), an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing.

“I decided to relate the first three movements of the symphony to three lifelong musician-friends,” Corigliano continued. The dramatic opening of shimmering dissonant strings punctuated by a clanging bell and pounding percussion boldly proclaims the opening-movement’s title, Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance.

“The first movement is highly charged,” wrote Corigliano, “and alternates between the tension of anger and the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering. It reflects my distress over a concert-pianist friend contracting the disease.

“The second movement, Tarantella, was written in memory of a friend who was an executive in the music industry. He was also an amateur pianist, and in 1970 I wrote a set of dances (Gazebo Dances for piano, four hands) for various friends to play and dedicated the final, Tarantella, movement to him.

“This was a jaunty little piece whose mood, as in many tarantellas, seems to be at odds with its purpose. For the tarantella, as described in Groves Dictionary of Music, is a “South Italian dance played at continually increasing speed [and] by means of dancing it a strange kind of insanity [attributed to tarantula bite] could be cured.” The association of madness and my piano piece proved both prophetic and bitterly ironic when my friend, whose wit and intelligence were legendary in the music field, became insane as a result of AIDS dementia.

“In writing a tarantella movement for this symphony, I tried to picture some of the schizophrenic and hallucinatory images that would have accompanied that madness, as well as the moments of lucidity.”

“The third movement (Chaconne: Giulio’s Song),” continues Corigliano, “recalls a friendship that dated back to my college days. Giulio was an amateur cellist, full of that enthusiasm for music that amateurs tend to have and professionals try to keep. After he died several years ago, I found an old tape recording of the two of us improvising on cello and piano, as we often did. That tape, dated 1962, provided material for the extended cello solo in this movement. Still other friends are recalled in a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.

“The symphony’s final part (Epilogue) … is played against a repeated pattern consisting of ‘waves’ of brass chords. To me, the sound of ocean waves conveys an image of timelessness.”

(Read the entire original program note HERE).

While knowing the symphony’s origins provides rich background reading, it’s not essential to enjoying the work, says the composer. “There are no rules on how to listen to this piece,” he said in his email. “When it was played in Kiev, with no program notes written, it was heard as a tragic symphony. When it was played a month later in San Francisco, many of the audience heard it in an intensely personal way. Both are correct.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

NEWS: Free tickets available for LA Opera’s “Jonah and the Whale”

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

Free tickets still remain for Los Angeles Opera’s world premiere of Jonah and the Whale, the latest installment in its community opera, which presents family-oriented opera at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angeles in downtown Los Angeles. This production will be presented March 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Jonah and the Whale was composed by Jack Perla to a libretto by Velina Hasu Houston. LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct and the opera and will be directed by Eli Villanueva.

Tickets are free, although there’s a $1.00 service charge. They usually go fast for these presentations. Information: www.laopera.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Billy Budd” sets sail at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Saturday, February 22 • Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Remaining performances: March 2 at 2 p.m. March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

Billy Budd _OT2 _February 16, 2014
Liam Bonner in the title role sings his final soliloquy in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd,” which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Robert Millard.

Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd can be approached from several — perhaps dozens of — perspectives: religious, political, sexual, etc. It has allusions to the operas of Verdi and Wagner who, like Britten, celebrated important birthdays last year (200 for the first two and 100 for Britten).

But first and foremost, Billy Budd is a gripping drama with a marvelous musical score. Liam Bonner, who made his role debut last night, told me last week that he believed most people would come to the opera first through the drama and then through the music.

Last night, in the first of six performances, Los Angeles Opera succeeded marvelously on both important points. I was on the edge of my seat right to the end and my wife stayed awake all evening — the highest of praise. Everyone involved — cast, orchestra and, in particular, the men of the LA Opera Chorus — sang, played and acted Britten’s music wonderfully. With this production, the company’s multi-year “Britten 100/LA” celebration is ending on an extremely high note.

Britten wrote the original version of Billy Budd in 1951, using a libretto written by E.M Forester and Eric Crozier. In 1960, Britten revised the opera from four acts to two acts plus a prologue and an epilogue. This later version is now standard and is being used here.

Billy Budd is unique in several ways. The cast of more than 20 and a chorus of 46 men and 10 boys (from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus), plus 14 fighters and supernumeraries, are all men. In his typically erudite pre-performance lecture, Music Director James Conlon noted nobody had every done that in an opera before. The orchestra of more than 70 was the largest Britten ever used, including in Peter Grimes.

However, Billy Budd has similarities to Britten’s other two big operas: Peter Grimes and Death in Venice. Most apparent is the fact that all three operas use the sea as their locale. In the case of Billy Budd, that’s literally true because the entire opera takes place on an English warship, the HMS Indomitable, sailing the Atlantic in 1797 in search of the French.

In Francesca Zambello’s spare but highly effective production — created in 1985 with sets and costumes by Alison Chitty and last seen in Los Angeles in 2000 — that ship is a large triangular plank that juts from the stage over the orchestra pit; part of the plank raises to form a battle station and the captain’s cabin. Ropes and a mast add verisimilitude to the atmosphere aided, particularly in the last scenes, by Allen Burnett’s lighting design. Director Julia Bevzner moved the action along smoothly.

Bonner, a baritone from Pittsburgh, is creating the title role for the first time and last night the world discovered it’s next great Billy Budd. At age 32 (and seeming much younger) Bonner really looks the part of the sweet, innocent young man. But this was no one-dimensional performance. Bonner sang with impressive power and pathos throughout the evening, particularly in his final soliloquy in which he praises Captain Vere, the man who ultimately condemned him. Equally important, his acting was subtle and thoughtfully conceived from beginning to end, and he deserves special kudos for dangling quietly for 10 minutes following his hanging near the opera’s end.
Vere
As Vere, veteran tenor Richard Croft (right) at times displayed the sort of gleaming voice Britten always favored in his tenors (particularly his life partner, Peter Pears) but in other scenes Croft’s voice turned appropriately steely. His anguish in the scene in which he must choose between enforcing the King’s strict justice over compassion for Billy Budd was heart-rending, as was his concluding epilogue.

Greer Grimsley, making his LAO debut as the evil John Claggart, a Britten-esque Iago, brought Wagnerian fervor to the role. As usual LA Opera has assembled a very strong ensemble cast; that ability has been one of the company’s strengths during its recent run of Britten operas, including The Turn of the Screw and Albert Herring.

Among the many cast members, special mention goes to James Creswell as Dansker, Keith Jameson as Novice and, in particular, Greg Fedderly as Red Whiskers. The men of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, a vital part of the opera, acted and sang splendidly throughout the evening while successfully negotiating steep stairs and scrambling up and down ropes.

Conlon has a deep and abiding love for Britten and that shows every time he steps into the pit for one of the composer’s operas. Last night was no different as Conlon and the orchestra played the score with equal portions of grandeur and grace. Never has a three-hour-long evening flown by so quickly.
Budd Crowd
The crew prepares for battle aboard the HMS Indomitable in Francesca Zambello’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd.” Photo by Robert Millard.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• LA Opera has a number of articles in the “Learn More” tab of the Billy Budd section of its Web site HERE. They and the synopsis provide good reading ahead of time, particularly if you’ve never seen the opera before. The opera portion of the printed program is also available for downloading. And, of course, don’t miss Conlon’s frenetic, pre-performance lecture.
• The final performance of Billy Budd overlaps the beginning of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which opens on March 15 in a new production that stars Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the title role. DETAILS.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: Passing the baton at L.A. Opera’s “Billy Budd”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this story is online today and will run in the print editions of the above newspapers Sunday.
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Tomorrow, March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 16 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org
Hemmings-Family-2-4Web
Rory, Amelia, Michele and Rupert Hemmings, in front of a portrait of Peter Hemmings, founder of Los Angeles Opera. Photo by Robert Millard

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Although Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd is undeniably a tragedy, there’s also an element of sweetness to the title character whose innocence leads to his demise. However, there’s another element of sweetness to Los Angeles Opera’s production of the opera, which opens tomorrow night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the first of six performances.

If you scroll down the cast list in the printed program, you’ll see listed as the Cabin Boy the name Rory Hemmings. It might ring a bell. Rory is the son of LAO Senior Director of Production Rupert Hemmings and the grandson of Peter Hemmings, who was the company’s founding general director, serving from 1984 to 2000.

That lineage was almost broken before it began. “Dad really didn’t want to hire me,” remembers Rupert, “because he was afraid that people would think it was nepotism. Fortunately, someone else in the company hired me and when the paperwork crossed Dad’s desk, he signed off reluctantly. I had to call him ‘Mr. Hemmings’ in the office but when we got home, we’d have a glass of whiskey and talk about how things were going.”

Rupert left the company in 2000 to become a free-lance producer with major companies around the United States, including Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Florida Grand Opera in Miami. “I did everything you could do in producing opera and was really hands-on in rehearsals,” recalls Rupert, “but it was a pretty hectic lifestyle.”

While in Miami, he met his future wife, Michele, who was in the young artist program at Florida Grand Opera. They married while in Florida and their two children, Rory and Amelia, were born in Miami but when Christopher Koelsch, now L.A. Opera’s chief executive officer, offered Rupert the chance to return in 2007 as LAO’s Senior Director of Production, he signed on willingly.

Rupert spends his days involved in virtually every production decision for the company, including hiring directors, set designers and costume designers. “I love all the elements I am able to touch,” he says. “especially in a good-sized company such as ours.”

Ten-year-old Rory was born after Peter had died but he is beginning to understand the importance his grandfather’s legacy. “When we were upstairs in the company’s offices this week,” recalls Rupert, “Rory looked up and saw a photo of Peter on the wall and said, ‘Hi, Grandpa!”

Rory, a fifth grader at McKinley School in Pasadena, isn’t a music major, although he does play the violin. His favorite subject is chemistry and he’s an avid gymnast. However, last summer he and his sister — perky, nine-year-old Ameila — attended the LAO Opera Camp where he performed in a production of Brundibár and an in-school tour of The Prospector with LAO’s Education and Community Outreach Department.
Rory4Web
When the company was looking for a 10-year-old to play the Cabin Boy in Billy Budd Rory (pictured right, with Richard Craft as Capt. Vere) got the nod. “I started working with my Mom about a month before rehearsals,” he explains. The work paid off; his non-singing role has grown from three lines to five during rehearsals. When not rehearsing his scenes, Rory has enjoyed hanging out with the cast, particularly Liam Bonner, who plays the title role. “We just sit and talk together,” says Rory. “It’s pretty neat.”

While all this is swirling, Mom Michele also juggles a full life. In addition to mothering her family, she is an active mezzo-soprano, singing with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and in choral backup groups for motion pictures. She also teaches at the Pasadena Conservatory of music and privately — “every gig that comes along,” she says with a laugh.

One of those gigs will make L.A. Opera will truly a family affair in March. While Rory and Rupert are finishing up their jobs in Billy Budd, Michele and daughter Amelia will be appearing in the world-premiere LAO production of Jonah and the Whale March 21 and 22 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

Since he returned to LA Opera in 2007, Rupert has watched the company weather the challenges of producing its first “Ring” cycle and grow steadily since then. “I loved what Achim Freyer did with his production of the ‘Ring’ and am very proud of our company’s total effort,” says Rupert.

However, the most fun he’s enjoyed has been with LAO’s world-premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino, which debuted in Los Angeles in September 2010. “Not only was it a wonderful success here in Los Angeles,” recounts Rupert, “but I got to be there when it was produced in Mexico, Daniel’s birth country, and in Chile, which was where Pablo Neruda spent much of his life. It’s also been produced around the world in places such as Vienna and Paris, so that was significant for our company, as well.”

But for the moment, Rory and Rupert are focused on Billy Budd, which adds a final touch of nostalgia for Rupert Hemmings. When this production last played at LAO in 2000, it was Peter’s final production at the helm of the company he founded. That was bittersweet for Rupert, who was the Assistant Director/Assistant Stage Manager for that production. “On the last night, when everyone else was taking their bows,” he remembers wistfully, “I had to push dad out on stage so he could take a final bow. So having Rory onstage for this revival will really be meaningful for me.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

LINKS: From the “Were You and I at the Same Show?” file

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

Every music critic has received the occasional “Were you and at the same concert?” letter or email, so I’m happy to report that theater critics apparently can engender the same reaction. The Bridges of Madison County, a musical adaptation of the 1992 tear-jerker bestselling book by Robert Weller, officially opened last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City. The book adaptation was by Marsha Norman, Jason Robert Brown (Parade) wrote the music, and the show stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale.

Broadwayworld.com has a roundup of clips from the reviews HERE. Although there are many similarities, there are some points where I did, indeed, wonder, “Were you folks at the same show?” Remember, dear readers, that a review is one person’s opinion.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

COLUMN LINKS FOR FEB. 16

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

My “Around Town/Music” column in the above newspapers listed links to upcoming schedules for Hollywood Bowl, L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information. (NOTE: my full column is HERE).

Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale 2014-2015 season (below the Hollywood Bowl blurb)

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: “Billy Budd,” L.A. Chamber Orchestra, L.A. Phil headline busy fornight + upcoming schedues

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Several significant events will take place during the next fortnight, headed by Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which opens next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the first of six performances running through March 16 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Four performances are in the evening while two are in the afternoon.

LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct this production and will offer one of his typically erudite lectures an hour before each performance. Billy Budd concludes the company’s celebration of the centennial of Britten’s birth on Nov. 22, 2013.

Baritone Liam Bonner performs the title role for the first time, joining with tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere and bass Greer Grimsley, making his company debut, as John Claggart, whose attraction to Billy is the pivot point of the opera. The production, by Francesca Zambello, originated in Geneva in 2004 and at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1995; it was first seen in L.A. in 2000.
Read my preview story HERE.
John Farrell’s story in the above newspapers is HERE
David Ng’s preview story in the Los Angeles Times is HERE.

Information: www.laopera.com

• The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presents its annual “Discover” concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena Saturday night at 8 p.m. The program this year focuses on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). In the first half of the program, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will lead the orchestra in a demonstration and discuss this pivotal work in classical music history. The second half will be a complete performance of the symphony.

Information: www.laco.org

• The Los Angeles Philharmonic begins its “TchaikovskyFest” series on Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a performance by the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra String Quartet and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Beginning Friday and continuing every night (and some days) except one through March 2, Gustavo Dudamel will lead his two orchestras, the Phil and SBSO, in performances of all six of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies plus other assorted works. Mark Swed has an interview with Gustavo in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

Information: www.laphil.com

• Muse/ique continues its “Uncorked” series with a performance on Feb. 24 at “The Noise Within,” the theatre/performing space located just north of the Gold Line’s Sierra Madre Villa station at the eastern edge of Pasadena.

Music Director Rachael Worby will lead 13 members of her ensemble in Aaron Copland’s original score for the ballet Appalachian Spring. However, in true Worby fashion, that’s just part of the evening. The 70-minute program will also feature Mike Simpson (aka EZ Mike of the Dust Brothers) and fits + starts for electronic music with live cello, a piece commissioned by L.A.’s Hysterica Dance Company from composer Anna Clyne. Kitty McNamee and members of Hysterica Dance Co. will supply choreography for the evening.

Information: www.muse-ique.org

* The 2014 summer schedule for Hollywood Bowl and 2014-2015 season schedules for L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale have been released. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information:
Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale (below the Hollywood Bowl blurb)