REVIEW: Angeles Chorale opens 40th season with exciting Gospel concert

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

The Angeles Chorale opened its 40th anniversary season by reprising one of the most popular concerts in the ensemble’s history, an evening of Gospel music. It proved to be a savy choice; the performers (including a sizzling sextet of instrumentalists, two soloists and the chorale’s be-bopping artistic director, John Sutton) were hotter than the sweltering non-air conditioned sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church of Pasadena. For one of the rare times, the marketing tagline, “Unbridled Joy!” nailed it.

The 54 singers in the Pasadena-based chorale wore multi-colored casual tops and sang about 80 minutes from memory (the program, performed without intermission lasted a little over two hours). The chorale’s diction was so impressive that even though the texts were printed in the program that was a waste of paper except for when baritone soloist Darnell Abraham sang.

Freed from the shackles of holding music scores and/or folders, the singers — with a couple of exceptions — bounced and swayed to the music with joyful exuberance on their faces as did Sutton, who was fully in charge throughout the performance. It wasn’t how an African-American choir would have sung the program but it was exciting and performed with a high degree of polish.

After 20 minutes or so, the audience got into the swing of things. Part of the early lethargy was the heat both outside and inside (Sutton suggested people think of the evening as a Richard Simmons workout and fan with their programs in time with the music). However, when Tenor Saxophonist Ramsey Castaneda, soprano Eyvonne Williams and the chorale performed a gripping rendition of Mark Hayes’ arrangement of Here’s One, everyone was hooked. By evening’s end (an encore written and led from the piano by Byron Smith) all were on their feet stomping and screaming.

The instrumental ensemble — Castaneda, pianist Byran Pezzone, Moses Sun on guitar, Sean Barrett bass guitar, Greg Mathieson on a Hammond B-3 organ, and Bryan Taylor on a drum set — played wonderfully, especially in Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass, which concluded the formal portion of the program.

As heard from a balcony seat, the instrumentalists occasionally overpowered the choir and Abraham, but when 50+ singers from the Azusa Pacific University Choir joined the Angeles Chorale for the last three pieces of the Gospel Mass the balance evened out nicely. Pezzone offered a nicely nuanced bridge to help the choristers get into the choir loft and each of the instrumentalists played hot jazz riffs during the final portion of Gospel Mass.

The evening was dedicated to the memory of Justin Carr on what would have been the former Harvard-Westlake student’s 18th birthday. The Altadena resident (he and his family lived next to Sutton and his wife) died from an undiagnosed case of idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy while in a swimming workout on Feb. 22, 2013 at the school.

After a screening of a CBS-2 Emmy-award winning news segment on the tragedy, Carr’s parents, Darnell Carr and Susan Toler Carr, came on stage and discussed the Justin Car Memorial Fund (www.justincarrwantsworldpeace.org). Perhaps the most meaningful moment was the revelation that a San Fernando Valley high school had tested their student-athletes and discovered one with the disease before it could result in the kind of tragic accident that killed Justin.

For the record: the other pieces performed were Wondrous Love, Ain’t Got Time to Die, Lord I Know I’ve been Changed, and City Called Heaven.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Although I realize the concert was a significant event in the chorale’s history, the constant running around of the videographers and photographers proved to be distracting.
• The chorale’s next concert will be a holiday-music performance on Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at FUMCP. Information: www.angeleschorale.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: LACO to open 46th season next weekend

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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• Next weekend might seem like a typical season-opening set of concerts by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and in one sense it is. Jeffrey Kahane and LACO begin the ensemble’s 46th season Saturday at 8 p.m. in Glendale’s Alex Theatre and next Sunday at 7 p.m. in UCLA’s Royce Hall with, what for them, is a typical Kahane-planned program.

However, what makes the concerts different is a clicking clock. Kahane, who turned 58 on Friday, announced in April that he would retire at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season, which will be his 20th with the orchestra. Consequently, every move LACO makes in the coming years will be scrutinized as to its future direction.

Perhaps with a nod to continuity, this weekend’s program is quintessential Kahane. It opens with a world premiere — the first performance of Lines of the Southern Cross, a work for strings and percussion by young Australian-born composer Cameron Patrick — and concludes with a Beethoven’s most famous symphony, the fifth. In between comes a less-than-frequently played concerto — Saint-Säens’s fifth (the Egyptian) — with Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen as soloist

Throughout his career, Kahane has championed the orchestra’s commissioning of new works and Patrick’s is the latest in a long line of premieres. Moreover, when Kahane began his tenure 18 years ago, one of his goals was to expand the orchestra’s repertoire beyond the then-traditional baroque-era pieces to include larger works, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Information: www.laco.org

• If you’re looking for a great concert at an affordable price, consider The Colburn Orchestra, which opens its season on Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Music Director Yehuda Gilad leads his young but talented ensemble in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and Brahms’s Double Concerto, with Colburn School faculty members violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith as soloists.

Tickets are just $10 each. Metro riders get a $5 discount if they present their Metro TAP card. Information: www.colburnschool.edu

• The Pasadena Master Chorale will use a unique twist on a familiar pricing strategy when it opens its season Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday at 4 p.m. in Altadena Community Church. Although tickets are required, they are free but those attending are asked to pay what they think the concerts are worth following the performance, a variation on freewill offerings that many groups use to help defray costs.

Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein will conduct an eclectic program with music ranging from Hildegard of Bingen and Giovanni da Palestrina to Eric Whitacre Randall Thompson and PMC composer-in-residence Reena Esmail. Soloists will include pianist Crystele Rivette and percussionists from LaSalle High School.

Information: www.pasdenamasterchorale.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops end season on upbeat

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Michael Feinstein’s season-ending concert with the Pasadena Pops Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum was appropriately titled “New York! New York!” Like some Broadway shows I have attended, it began tentatively, clicked in during the middle (thanks to a soloist’s star number) and ended with a flourish in a splashy production number.

Along the way the show demonstrated Feinstein’s strong and weakest points. The show was an artfully created set of songs written over more than a half-century that paid homage to the Big Apple with Feinstein’s typically erudite, witty commentary tying it all together. Moreover, the orchestra got much more time in the spotlight than has become customary in recent concerts.

However the latter meant that Feinstein’s still-evolving skills as the Pops Principal Conductor were also in the spotlight or, in this case, the headlights (think deer). When Resident Conductor Larry Blank led the encore with Feinstein belting out “New York, New York,” at least this critic wished that Feinstein had allowed Blank’s assured hand to lead more of the orchestral numbers.

The orchestra was in top form throughout the evening, with the numbers requiring musicians to switch styles from number to number. Notable soloists included Greg Huckins, saxophone, Chris Eble, trumpet, Alex Iles, trombone, Bryan Pezzone, piano and Albie Berk, drumset.

As is always the case Feinstein re-discovered a number of pieces that have lain fallow in places ranging from attics and garages to the Library of Congress. One of those was What More Do I Need? which was written by Stephen Sondheim in 1955 for his early musical Saturday Night but wasn’t actually sung until 1983. Liz Callaway sang it Saturday night (pun intended) lavishly and its gritty lyrics nicely contrasted with Cole Porter’s I Happen to Like New York from the 1930s musical The New Yorker.

Aaron Tveit followed stylishly with Conrad Sallinger’s arrangement of Autumn in New York. He then belted out Broadway Baby in the best “the show must go on” tradition because EMTs were taking away in an ambulance an audience member who had collapsed during the evening.

In the second half of the program, Patti Austin stole the spotlight with a melancholy, wistful performance of a Shirley Horn signature number Here’s to Life. She then joined with Feinstein and the “band” for a powerful medley of Duke Ellington songs.

All of that led to the final production number with soloists, the Donald Brinegar Chorus and dancers joining into the title number of 42nd Street (one of 82 film scores that Warren wrote). That and Feinstein’s joyous rendition of New York, New York as an encore made for a memorable conclusion to the season.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Acting as a bridge between seasons, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops presents its annual free concert on the steps of the Pasadena City Hall on Oct. 4. Blank will lead the ensemble, which will be joined by vocalists Valerie Perri, Christina Saffran, and David Burnham. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• The Pasadena Symphony’s 87th season opens November 1 at Ambassador Auditorium as Music Director David Lockington leads a program of music by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, with Lockington’s own Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare opening his first full season as the orchestra’s musical leader. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Domingo, Koelsch ink long-term extensions with LA Opera

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

Barring unforeseen circumstances (e.g., illness, death or artist pique), Los Angeles Opera has solidified its senior management core for the next five years by announcing long-term contract extensions for General Director Plácido Domingo and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Koelsch.

Domingo, who has been in his present position since 2003 but whose tenure traces to the company’s founding in 1986 when he sang the title role in LAO’s inaugural production of Verdi’s Otello, has extended his contract through the 2018-2019 season. Koelsch, who joined the LAO staff in 1997 and was named CEO in 2012, has extended through 2018.

They join Music Director James Conlon, who has a contract through June 2018, and Resident Conductor Grant Gershon, who recently extended his contract through June 2017. In today’s announcement, the company also named John Nuckols, who has been with LAO since 2002, to the new position of Executive Vice President through June 2018.

The executive staff includes Faith Raiguel, who has been Vice President and Chief Financial Officer since 2008, and Diane Rhodes Bergman, who has been Vice President of Marketing and Communications since 2011.

Domingo, now 73, continues to be a workhorse. This month he will appear as Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata, his 26th different role with LAO. He has also conducted 15 operas to date with the company and continues to appear as singer and conductor all over the world. During his role as LAO General Director, he founded what is now the Domingo-Colburn-Stern Young Artist Program and recently oversaw the 22nd Operalia vocal competition (for good measure, he conducted the LAO Orchestra in the final round). LINK

Koelsch oversees all aspects of artistic planning for the company, including repertoire development, music administration, the casting of artists, and the selection of guest conductors. He has overseen the creation of more than 32 new productions, including five world premieres, and seven television recordings for LA Opera, including Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which won two Grammy Awards upon its DVD release. He is also in charge of every aspect of the company’s strategic resources, including board development, fundraising, branding, marketing, public relations and educational administration.

My qualifiers in the first paragraph are worth noting. I’m sure the Vienna State Opera thought it was in fine administrative shape until its General Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst, resigned abruptly today LINK. Nothing is for sure in the music world.

Read the complete LAO media release HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Mario Chang win top prizes at Operalia

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

Chang-Sorensen4Web
Mario Chang of Guatemala and Rachel Willis-Sørensen of the United States won the top prizes at Operalia last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Craig Mathew/LA Opera.

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American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang each won the two top prizes in the 22nd annual Operalia, the world opera competition founded by Plácido Domingo that concluded last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Søorensen and Chang won the male and female overall first prizes of $30,000 and the top Zarzuela prizes of $10,000 each. This marked just the third time since Operalia began a Zarzuela competition in 1995 that the same two singers won both portions of the contest; the others were in 2008 in Quebec and 2011 in Moscow.

Sørensen, 30, who is an alumna of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, also took home the Birgit Nilsson Price for Wagner/Strauss singing for her rich, soaring performance of Dich, teure Halle, from Wagner’s Tannhäuser Saturday night. That prize was a forgone conclusion since she was the only singer to choose an aria from those composers.

Second prizes of $20,000 each went to American soprano Amanda Woodbury and Mexican-American tenor Joshua Guerrero. Third prizes of $10,000 each were awarded to sopranos Anaïs Constans, 26, of France and Mariangela Sicillia, 28, of Italy and counternors John Holiday, 29, of the U.S. and and Andrey Nemzer, 31, of Russia after scores from the 15 judges were tied for third place.

Chang, 28, who recently completed his third year in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, also won the male audience prize, while Woodbury was the voted the female audience favorite. Each won a watch from Rolex, the competition sponsor. Guerrero, a member of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, also captured the CulturArte Prize of $10,000. Chang became just the fourth singer to win the top two prizes plus the audience prize.

In addition to her Tannhaüser aria, Søorensen — a statuesque blond wearing a bright red gown who had to overcome what is often a liability of being chosen as the first singer in the final round — was equally opulent in her Zarzuela aria, Tres horas antes del dia from Frederico Moreno Torroba’s La Marchenera.

Chang’s gripping rendition of Ella mi fu rapita! from Verdi’s Rigoletto elicited one of the biggest audience ovations of the evening and he backed it up with a heartfelt offering of No puede ser from Pablo Sorozábal’s La tabemera del puerto in the Zarzuela portion.

The 13 finalists came from 40 singers, ages 18-32, who represented 17 nations. The field was trimmed to 22 semifinalists earlier last week and then to 13 finalists for the concluding round. Five singers sang in the Zarzuela portion. This was the first year that no bass or baritone singer made the finals.

Domingo, who in addition to being Operalia’s founder is LA Opera’s general director, conducted the LA Opera Orchestra for the final round and presented the prizes at the conclusion of the evening. Each of the singers sang in front of a backdrop representing their chosen opera. In addition to the audience in the Pavilion, the competition was streamed live via medici.tv.

This year marked the third time that Operalia has been held in Los Angeles (the others were 2000 and 2004). The competition also was held in 2001 in Washington D.C. and 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Information: www.operaliacompetition.org

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Unlike major instrumental competitions, which require quite extensive repertoire of contestants, Operalia singers were required only to prepare four arias in their original language, plus two Zarzuela pieces if they desired. Thus it was disappointing that all but one of the arias sung in the finals were from the 19th century (the exception was a Handel aria, which of course, was from the 18th). Nothing was selected from the 20th or 21st centuries.
• Except for countertenor Andrey Nemzer singing an aria from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila and soprano Rachael Willis Sørenson’s number from Wagner’s Tannhauser, everything else was in French or Italian.
• Following the competition, all 40 singers joined Domingo and the orchestra in singing the Operalia Hymn, which was composed by Plácido Domingo, Jr. Although none of the songs had supertranslations, one might have expected that the hymn lyric translations would have been projected.
• The names and numbers for the first two singers weren’t projected (and since the house lights were down you couldn’t read the program). By the third singer the issue had been rectified.
• Thank goodness for women! While men were in black tie or white tie (not a single red bow tie in evidence), the women offered a pleasing array of gowns, different in style and color.
• Operalia took place at the same time as the first night of “Made in America,” the rock concert in nearby Grand Park. Fortunately, nothing — not even the heavily reverberant bass amps on the Grand Park stage — was evident in the Pavilion.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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