CLASS ACT: L.A. Phil readies for spring tour with Mahler’s Symphony No. 3

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

What an orchestra programs when it goes on tour offers a fascinating look into the psyche of the ensemble and its conductor. Dudamel-9-29-13Most groups elect to play very standard fare, albeit usually very well, but rarely with any any risk-taking. However, Gustavo Dudamel (right) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic almost never follow that pattern, as this spring’s upcoming tour indicates.

This week’s concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow, Friday, Saturday and Sunday feature Dudamel conducting a single, massive work: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which will be one of two programs during the orchestra’s upcoming travels to New York City and Europe.

The other tour program is even more daring: “Music of the Americas,” including John Williams’ Soundings, which was written for the opening of Disney Hall in 2003; a new work, Play: Level 1, by Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Composer-in-Residence Andrew Norman, which received its world premiere in Disney Hall last week; Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Sergio Tempo as soloist; and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite.

Each program presents major challenges for a touring orchestra. The “Music of the Americas” concert — which will be played March 14 at David Geffen Hall in New York City, March 19 at the new Philharmonie in Paris, March 21 in Luxembourg, and March 22 in London’s Barbican Centre — features, as noted above a premiere and two other pieces rarely played, which would represent a challenge for promoters were it not for the fact that Dudamel is conducting.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 presents its own issues. It’s a 90-plus-minute, seven-movement work with much of that time taken up by its raucous opening movement and majestic final section. It has been a L.A. Phil specialty since the days of its former music director, Zubin Mehta. In this week’s Disney Hall performances patrons will have a chance to see how Dudamel’s concept has matured since he first conducted the symphony here during the orchestra’s “Mahler Project” in 2012 (my review is HERE).

In addition to an oversized orchestra, Mahler’s third calls for female chorus and children’s choir. In L.A. those duties will be dispatched by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, but when Dudamel conducts the work in NYC on March 13, Amsterdam on March 17, Paris on March 20 and London on March 24, he will be working with different choral ensembles each time. The mezzo-soprano soloist, Tamara Mumford, will sing in all concerts, including this week at Disney Hall.

For an added touch when Dudamel and the Phil are in London, they will reprise their performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoilles … (From the canyons to the stars …) played earlier this month in Disney Hall, complete with the multi-media presentation that debuted here.

Now that’s adventurous tour programming!

Information on the Disney Hall programs this week: 323/850-2000; www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony, Russian National Orchestra offer “traditional” programs impressively played

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

For decades symphony orchestras have struggled with the question of how to program in ways that will increase their attendance and financial support. “New” music vs. traditional fare, young conductors or older maestros (and, increasingly, women conductors instead of men) are just some of the questions continually being asked and debated.

There is much to be said for orchestras programming a healthy dose of new music because tastes change, although perhaps not as much or as quickly as some might imagine. However, standard classical repertoire continues to remain popular, as sold-out audiences in recent concerts by the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium and the Russian National Orchestra at Valley Performing Arts Center can attest.

To judge by audience growth, the Pasadena Symphony seems to have found the “sweet spot” in terms of programming for its audiences. The throng 10 days ago at Ambassador Auditorium, its home since 2010, was the largest I can remember for an afternoon performance and the evening concert was reportedly sold out.

Some of that can be attributed to the pieces being played — Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 — two of the most popular in the symphonic repertory (in the preconcert lecture, soloist Jennifer Frautschi even dared to call the concerto a “warhorse”). But even more people — a healthy number of whom are younger — are undoubtedly coming because of the orchestra’s exemplary playing under Music Director David Lockington.

The afternoon was a homecoming for Frautschi, who played in the Pasadena Symphony Youth Orchestra and in the back row of the second violin section of the symphony itself during those youthful days.

She has matured into a marvelous, assured artist, playing on a 1722 Antonio Stradivarius violin known as the “ex-Cadiz,” and all of her talent and musicality were on display during her fiery performance of the concerto. She was a joy to watch and it was exciting to hear her play a work that was deemed “unplayable” by its original dedicatee, Leopold Auer. However, it was also fascinating to contemplate the very young-looking blonde near the back of the second violin section and speculate if she was thinking that she might be at center stage one day.

Lockington led the orchestra in a sensitive accompaniment of Frautschi and also in an expansive performance of the Sibelius symphony. The orchestra obviously loves playing for him and that translates fully into what the audience hears each concert.

When the Russian National Orchestra was founded in 1990, it was a unique institution. Although its founder, Mikhail Pletnev, was a close friend of Mikhail Gorbachev the orchestra began with no government support. Last Friday’s VPAC concert was the opening event of a 16-city 25th anniversary tour, a testimony to the ensemble’s staying power and its quality playing.

To no one’s surprise, Plentnev brought an all-Russian program to VPAC but there was just enough variety to make it interesting both on paper and in person. He revels in the deep, soulful tones that characterize Russian music and those were on full display Friday night. He began Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” with rich sonority before exploding into a rhythmically precise reading of balance of the piece.

Likewise, Plentnev’s reading of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” (using the 1945 version as opposed to the more familiar 1919 suite) was deeply felt and the playing of his orchestra — in the printed program, he is listed variously as Founder & Artistic Director, Music Director and conductor — ranged from opulent sonority to crackling intensity. That incisiveness also extended to the two encores: Khachaturian’s Waltz from “Masquerade” and Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Buffoons” from “The Snow Maiden.”

The centerpiece — literally and figuratively — of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s second Piano Concerto, instead of the far more familiar first. Soloist Yuja Wang brought her customary pyrotechnic technical brilliance to her solo work. However, she and Plentnev — who made his reputation as a world-class pianist and has played and recorded this concerto — seemed to be of two minds regarding the first-movement tempos: Yang bounding ahead with Plentnev lingering over the soulful accompaniment.

Yang chose to play the original rendition of this unfamiliar concerto with its long second movement that feels more like a piano trio. That choice allowed the spotlight to shine on superb playing from Concertmaster Alexy Bruni and Principal Cellist Alexander Gotgelf, along with Wang and (occasionally) the orchestra. By the third movement, Yang and Plentnev were on the same page, which meant for a hell-bent-for leather conclusion.
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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CLASS ACT: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra set important concerts

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

This is a month for Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose). Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the orchestral version of the work with a multi-media accompaniment last weekend.

Meanwhile, guest conductor Matthias Pintscher (right) Pintscher for Webtakes the podium at Los Angeles Chamber Orchestraconcerts tomorrow in Glendale’s Alex Theatre and Sunday in UCLA’s Royce Hall with a program that includes Mother Goose sans the multi-media aspect. The program also includes Faure’s Pavane, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. A preview takes place an hour before each concert.

With LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane scheduled to step down at the end of next season, every guest conductor, in effect, is auditioning for the post. The 45-year-old, German-born Pintscher is currently music director of the prestigious Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris, and holds several other conducting and composing positions, as well.

Information: 213/622-7001; www.laco.org

Speaking of LACO guest conductors, Karina Canellakis — who made a critically acclaimed debut with the orchestra last season — stepped in to replace Dallas Symphony Music Director Jaap van Zweden with 20 minutes notice earlier this month and conducted Shostakovich’s massive Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”) to critical acclaim.

It’s the second time in less than two years that Canellakis — who is the DSO’s assistant conductor — has stepped in at the last moment to replace van Zweden, who had to fly to Holland on a family emergency last week. Last month, Van Zweden was chosen as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic, so Dallas may not have to look for his successor. Moreover, if LACO wants to hire Canellakis, it may have to move quickly.

When orchestras plan tour programs, they usually lead with their strengths, so it’s no surprise that the Russian National Orchestra is bringing an all-Russian program to the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge tonight as the first concert of its 25th anniversary tour.

Wang for WebMusic Director Mikhail Pletnev will lead his ensemble in Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” and the 1945 version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The unusual part of the program comes courtesy of superstar pianist Yuja Wang (left), who will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2— yes, you read right: No. 2.

Many people don’t realize that Tchaikovsky wrote more than one piano concerto. No. 1 is so well known that it’s often called “The” Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. In fact, he wrote three concerti, but neither No. 2 nor No. 3 (a shorter, one-movement work) gets much play, so kudos to Wang for bringing it along. Incidentally, she’s playing the original version of the work with a second movement that is essentially for piano trio (including violin and cello).

Information: 818-677-3000/www.valleyperformingartscenter.org
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla takes a giant step

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

The news that Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla has been named music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England has become a big deal in the classical music world. It’s a giant step for the 29-year-old Latvian-born conductor (her name is pronounced MEER-gah grah-zhee-NEE-teh tee-LA), who succeeds Andris Nelson, who left the CBSO to become music director of the Boston Symphony. Among her predecessors is Sir Simon Rattle, who moved from the CBSO to become music director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1998.

Her appointment helps crack open the glass ceiling that has held down women conductors in recent years, so she will be under even greater scrutiny than would be the case for one of the world’s foremost orchestras.

Michael Cooper broke the story in the New York Times (LINK). Mark Swed, music critic at the Los Angeles Times, who has been among Mirga’s biggest supporters since her Hollywood Bowl debut in 2014, offers an excellent perspective HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Jaap van Zweden named New York Philharmonic music director

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

With the New York Philharmonic’s decision to hire Jaap van Zweden as its next music director (LINK), the merry-go-round of music director searches among the nation’s largest orchestras comes to a temporary halt (barring death, serious illness or conductor-management conflict nearly all of the recently appointed music directors are signed to 2021-22 or beyond). The New York Times article on van Zweden’s appointment is HERE.

There are, of course, several orchestras seeking leaders. Lisa Hirsch in her “Iron Tongue of Midnight” Blog (HERE) lists some here although she apparently thinks that the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Long Beach Symphony are not important enough to merit her attention (the San Diego Symphony does make her list). However, for the largest U.S. ensembles, the searches are over, for the moment.

The NYPO decision to tap van Zweden (his name is pronounced Yahp van ZVAY-den) predictably met with mixed reaction in the press and elsewhere (see Hirsch’s Blog HERE for a list of media reviews). The 55-year-old Dutch native currently leads the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic but stepping up to the NYPO will be a quite different challenge and the media folks are quick to point up the issues.

Chief among them is that the NYPO will have to raise big, big bucks to renovate its home, now known as David Geffen Hall, and the orchestra will have to find new home(s) for at least two years when the project begins, tentatively set for 2019.

What’s interesting to note (from my perspective) is how the choices came down overall. Three of the orchestras chose young conductors (Gustavo Dudamel by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Yannick Nézet-Séguin by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Andris Nelsons by the Boston Symphony) while three went for older maestros (van Zweden, Riccardo Muti, 74, by the Chicago Symphony, and Gianandrea Noseda, 51, by the National Symphony of Washington, D.C.).

No women or U.S. born folks made the cut; all except Dudamel are white males from Europe or, in the case of Nézet-Séguin, Canada. Two are from Italy; Nelsons is from Latvia. At least one woman, Los Angeles Philharmonic Associate Conductor Mirga Grazintye-Tyla, has seen her name mentioned lately as a potential up-and-coming leader.

All except Muti have other music director commitments, two of them — Dudamel with the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra and Nézet-Séguin with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal — long-standing relationships with ensembles that nurtured their talent early (good for them, IMHO).
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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