MEMOIR: Michael Feinstein — building and preserving “The Great American Songbook”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
home
Michael Feinstein will sing songs of the Gershwins — an integral part of “The Great American Songbook” — with the Pasadena Pops on Saturday, July 19, at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. LINK
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When I first heard the term “The Great American Songbook,” I thought it was actually a book — I even went online to see whether I could purchase it. If I had, I would have needed to be a loose-leaf notebook, because “TGAS” is, in reality, a living, expanding organism, as one of its greatest exponents, Michael Feinstein explains.

”The Great American Songbook is a body of work that began in the earlier part of the 20th century, crystalizing in the 1920s and continues today,” Feinstein explains. “It contains music and lyrics that transcend their time — they have a timeless quality that appeals to contemporary audiences.”

One could, of course, make the same claim for classical music. “We’re still listening to the music of Schubert and Brahms because it still has value or resonance today,” says Feinstein. “It’s the same things with these songs: this is popular music that has turned into standards by still being performed: people continue to want to hear them.”

By Feinstein’s definition, “The Great American Songbook” begins with music from the 1920s. “There are a few songs from the early 1900s that survive — Stephen Foster and Victor Herbert, for example,” continues Feinstein, “but the creations that began in the 1920s had a certain level of sophistication in the words, a clever turn of phrase, that not only has appeal today but continues to speak to the human condition. It is time that determines what lasts, not someone saying, ‘This is part of The Great American Songbook.’”

“No one knows exactly when the term The Great American Songbook was first used,” believes Feinstein. “Ella Fitzgerald, starting in the 1950s, recorded what she called the Rodgers and Hart song book; I don’t know if anyone used the term prior to those recordings. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that we’ve been using the phrase The Great American Songbook.”

Feinstein’s devotion to what would become TGAS began in the 1970s when he was introduced to Ira Gershwin, who hired him to catalogue his extensive collection of phonograph records. “I fell in love with the Gershwins’ music at a very early age,” recalls Feinstein, “and then had the opportunity of knowing and working with Ira Gershwin for six years.”

Later he began cataloguing and preserving the unpublished sheet music and rare recordings in Gershwin’s home, thus securing the legacy of not just Ira but also that of his composer brother George Gershwin, who had died four decades earlier. “He [Ira] taught me much of what I know about this music and how to perform it.”

That preservation work continues to this day. “I have office space where I have thousands and thousands of pounds of sheet music,” says Feinstein who has lived in a 1920s-era castle-like house since 1998 (“it’s a peaceful retreat, which is necessary for balance in my life”). Feinstein has a full-time archivist working in Hollywood. Some of the material can be scanned but not all. “Some are not readable enough to be digitized,” explains Feinstein.

“There are songs being written today that have the potential of becoming part of the Great American Songbook,” believes Feinstein. “The last great wave of songwriters was in the 1970s: Carole King, Billy Joel, Elton John, Carly Simon. Their songs are now being recognized as part of The Great American Songbook.

“One of the problems with songs written today is that they are often identified indelibly an individual performer. One example is Pharrell Williams’ song, Happy. Other people can sing it but it’s really identified with him. So I don’t know what has been written in the last 20 years that will last, aside from the specific recordings. And maybe that’s how they will last because technology is such that people will go back to that specific recording.”

Feinstein cites one of many examples. “A song like Skyfall, by Adele: It won an Oscar but that’s a terrible song. It’s three chords and succeeds because of the power of her interpretation. She’s a powerful and talented performer but not’s delude ourselves: it’s not a great song and outside of her performance I doubt very much if that song will last.”

One of the things that make a song last is that it’s been interpreted by many people in many different ways. “Any given Gershwin song can have hundreds of interpretations,” says Feinstein. I Got Rhythm was introduced by Ethel Merman in 1930 but it is the different types of interpretations over the years that has kept it alive.”

Feinstein’s work in TGAS takes many forms. In 2007, he founded the “Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative,” dedicated to celebrating the art form and preserving it through educational programs, Master Classes, and the annual High School Vocal Academy and Competition, which awards scholarships and prizes to students across the country.

He serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, an organization dedicated to ensuring the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America’s sound recording heritage.

Feinstein’s work as Principal Conductor of the Pasadena Pops have open up new horizons. “This was an opportunity to create music in a different way and it explained why I had been collecting orchestrations these many years,” explains Feinstein. “I would never had the opportunity to sing a Peggy Lee tune to an orchestration because it’s in a different key for a different singer, but when I would come across these things I would preserve them and collect them. Now I realize why I’ve been preserving and collecting orchestrations all these years.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Tovey conducts Bernstein, Gershwin at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic: Bernstein and Gershwin
Branwell Tovey, pianist and conductor; Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocalist
Thursday, July 10 • Hollywood Bowl
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Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin, Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic — four names inextricably linked with Hollywood Bowl — combined for an occasionally quirky but ultimately satisfying concert last night at the Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. The pairing was certainly popular: 11,875 people showed up, 4,155 more than attended Tuesday night’s classical-season opener of this, the 93rd season at the famed outdoor venue.

The Phil apparently can’t decide how to describe its relationship with Tovey, the British-born composer-conductor-pianist who turns 61 today (which also happens to be the 77th anniversary of Gershwin’s untimely death). Although none of the preconcert media releases list any local title for Tovey (since 2000 he has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony), the printed program continues to list him as Principal Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. Whatever; he’s a welcome presence. With his conducting skills and erudite comedy that last night played to and off of the audience, various orchestra members and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tovey remains the pinnacle of outdoor maestros both for his musical and raconteur skills.

Last night he showed off another of his many facets by doubling as pianist and conductor in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Most people who attempt this dual role remove the piano lid and shove the piano into the middle of the orchestra (over the conductor’s podium, in effect). Tovey, instead, placed the piano in its usual concert position with the lid raised to its full extension, which meant that a goodly number of players couldn’t see Tovey while he was playing.

Tovey solved this problem (sort of) by beginning the introduction — with Michele Zukovsky’s slinky, sumptuous clarinet solo — on the podium and then sitting down to play. The orchestra had a tendency to bog down a bit until Tovey would get off the bench and whip the tempo back to what he considered acceptable. It was all a bit disconcerting. Considering that Tovey doesn’t make his living as a pianist, he was remarkably dexterous in the solo portions, although the performance certainly wasn’t note-perfect. The audience had a good time; they gave Tovey and the orchestra a thunderous ovation at the end.

Prior to Rhapsody in Blue, Tovey and Co. offered a fiery rendition of Bernstein’s Candide Overture and four pieces from the 1944 musical On the Town. The three-movement orchestral suite from the musical was notable for, among other things, melancholy solos by James Wilt on trumpet and Carolyn Hove on English horn in the second movement and the car-horn effect in the first movement, appropriate since Gershwin’s An American in Paris was the concert finale.

Following the suite, Alysha Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson raced onstage to perform the saucy I Can Cook, Too as a plug for a Broadway revival this fall at New York City’s Lyric Theatre. Of a review of the 2013 production in Vermont, New York Times critic Ben Brantlee wrote: “John Rando’s production of On The Town … is one of those rare revivals that remind us what a hit show from long was originally all about. The joy of Mr. Rando’s production is in its air of erotic effortlessness.” It would be hard to term last night’s “tease” as “effortless” but “erotic” it certainly was; this number (for which Bernstein wrote the lyrics) must have ruffled more than a few feathers in 1944.

After intermission, Bridgewater joined Tovey (at the piano) and the orchestra for arrangements of four Gershwin songs that Tovey orchestrated in 2000. Whether she genuinely had a brain cramp that left her totally clueless as how to begin A Foggy Day in London Town or was grinding through a grossly overdone shtick between her and Tovey, Bridgewater’s breathy renditions of Foggy Day, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and Fascinating Rhythm gave little, if any, sense of Gershwin’s genius in this genre.

There’s no programming genius required to conclude this kind of concert with An American in Paris, but Tovey’s humorous introduction (one wonders how a felt hat draped over a trumpet bell really affects the sound) led to a solid, forthright performance of this Bowl and L.A. Phil staple, which sent everyone home happy.

Bernstein, Gershwin, Tovey and the L.A. Phil under a full moon and basking in delightfully cool evening temperatures — this is why people keep coming back year after year.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The brightest sign of the $2.8 million renovations to the Bowl this year this is the addition of new Alaskan cedar benches, which replaced ones that had been in use since 1982. “Over time,” writes Ross Guiney, LA County Department of Parks and Recreation Director, “the wood will naturally weather in the beautiful silvery-gray color with which Bowl-goers are familiar.”
• C+ to the camera operators, who weren’t always on cue with which orchestra player was being featured in a solo lick. On the other hand, the color quality was superb and the sound system has become first-rate.
• On Tuesday, conductor James Gaffigan leads the Phil in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Behzod Abduraimov, who is making both his Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl debuts, as soloist in the concert. They replace Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yefim Bronfman, who were originally scheduled to perform. Salonen, former LA Phil music director and now conductor laureate, cancelled “due to unforeseen personal reasons,” says the Phil announcement, while Bronfman is bowing out “due to the unavoidable scheduling of a minor medical procedure.” (LINK)
• Next Thursday, Salonen will return to the Bowl for the first time since 2009, conducting first piano concertos and first symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Yuja Wang will be the piano soloist in both concertos; joining her for the Shostakovich will be LAPO Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: A big opening classical-music month for Hollywood Bowl

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.

Although classical concerts fill only about a third of the increasingly busy Hollywood Bowl season, for us old codgers summer at the Bowl doesn’t really begin until the classical season opens July 8 with Tuesday and Thursday night concerts continuing until Sept. 11.

There’s an unusually interesting mix of programs and conductors in this, the 93rd season at the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. Any season where we can see Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen in consecutive weeks rates as noteworthy.

Bramwell Tovey, who for several years held the title of Principal Conductor at the Bowl but now is just a frequent albeit welcome guest, leads the July 8 program, which is definitely not your typical classical-season opener. Instead it’s a delightful hodge-podge featuring violinists Joshua Bell and Phillippe Quint, the ensemble Time for Three, vocalist Frankie Moreno and actress Glenn Close, performing music ranging from Franz Waxman to Edgar Meyer and Igor Stravinsky (the 1919 Firebird Suite).

Tovey will be both conductor and pianist on July 10 in music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, including Rhapsody in Blue. Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater will sing Gershwin songs during the concert.

Things shift into hard-core classical programming after that. In the second week Salonen — the Phil’s former music director and now conductor laureate — makes rare Bowl appearances. The July 15 program pairs a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto; one of Salonen’s favorite collaborators, Yefim Bronfman, will be soloist.

The July 17 program is subtitled “Russian First” with good reason. It pairs the first symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich with both composers’ first piano concertos. One of our era’s most exciting pianists, Yuja Wang, will return to the Bowl as soloist in the concertos and LAPO Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten will do the honors in the Shostakovich (indeed, hearing Yang and Hooten in the Shostakovich should be worth the price admission by itself).

LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel takes the Bowl podium for the next two weeks. The July 22 and 24 programs are duplicate performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and his rarely performed Triple Concerto, featuring Renaud Capuçon, violin, Gautier Capuçon, cello and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano.

The duplication gives the Phil extra time to rehearse for what has become the now-annual opera night, which this year features the traditional pairing of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana on July 27.

Dudamel and the Phil continue the summer’s crossover programming on July 29 with Marquez’s Danzóns Nos. 4 and 8 and Kauderer’s Symphonic Tangos joined by Latin-jazz songs of from Rubén Blades.

The final July concert will conclude this summer’s edition of Dudamel’s “Americas and Americans” theme as the orchestra screens film clips accompanied by music from a number of composers including Gustavo Santaolalla (e.g., The Motorcycle Diaries) and concluding with a suite from Dudamel’s score to Libertador, a Simón Bolivár biopic that is scheduled to open in the U.S. Aug. 22.

That, my friends, counts as quite a month of music making!

INFORMATION: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Broadway with a twist from Pasadena Pops

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

What if an orchestra presented a summertime Broadway-themed concert and Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t show up? That’s what the Pasadena Pops almost did last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Of the nearly three-dozen songs on the program, only one was by the iconic duo. Instead, the Pops spotlighted four beautiful and talented Broadway female vocalists and one hunky (and talented) male. Along with delivering a first-rate program, they emphatically demonstrated that there’s been a lot of life on The Great White Way since R&H left the scene more than half a century ago.

The Pops’ resident conductor, Larry Blank, presided over a well-paced program and the orchestra provided stylish accompaniment throughout. The ensemble also got its moments in the spotlight with renditions of Song on the Sand from La Cage Aux Folles and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture.

However, the spotlight was on the vocalists: Susan Egan, Valeri Perri, Christina Saffran, Lisa Vroman and David Burnham.

There were several touching moments and a surprise during the evening. Egan, Perri and Saffran (with some well-time peacocks counterpoint) offered a poignant rendition of At the Ballet from A Chorus Line by the Pops’ late principal conductor, Marvin Hamlisch. Later in the second half, Vroman delivered an operatic performance of If I Loved You from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, just two days after Richard’s daughter, Mary, died at the age of 83. In dedicating the performance to Mary Rodgers, Blank noted that she was involved in the R&H Foundation, which owns and licensed much of the music on the program.

The surprise was Egan’s powerful rendition of the world premiere of Every Time We Touch from an unproduced musical by Richard Kagan and Michael Jay. Kagan had been friends with Hamlisch for 48 years and was with him when Hamlisch died suddenly on August 6, 2012 at the age of 68.

As Blank related, Kagan had harbored thoughts of becoming a composer but after he heard Hamlisch play, Kagan recalls, “it changed my life. I was overwhelmed by his talent. I knew for me it was time to go into the insurance business.” For the next four decades, Kagan ran a successful life insurance business in L.A. but apparently he has had second thoughts about the musical theatre.

Burnham and Vroman provided one of the evening’s highlights with their heartfelt rendition of All I Ask of You from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Perri brought great emotion to Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita, while Saffran displayed a gorgeous voice in I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.

Although Judy Garland didn’t have a Broadway stage career, she figured prominently in the evening’s proceedings. Perri sang an arrangement written for Garland of Almost Like Being in Love from Brigadoon, while later Egan brought her unique touch to a medley of Garland songs from the movies, concluding with (what else?) Over the Rainbow.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Now in its third season at the Arboretum, the Pops continues to settle in nicely. The video screens on either side of the stage seem to have much sharper definition this year and the camera work was, for the most part, quite satisfactory. The only oddity was that Perri’s purple gown showed up bright blue on the video, although the other ladies’ gowns seemed to translate well on screen.
• One major problem from previous years, a lack of lighting on the pathway leading to the south exit after the concert, has been rectified thanks to dozens of young volunteers armed with flashlights.
• Although not many people seemed to realize it, the Pops has “gone green” by publishing its playlists on its Web site (www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org) and on a free app downloadable for tablets and smart phones. A limited number of paper copies were available last night.
• Fortunately last night was the only concert this summer where the Pops goes head to head with the California Philharmonic at nearby Santa Anita Racetrack. At least one patron got on the wrong shuttle and ended up at the Arboretum instead of the other location.
• Last night was also the only concert of the summer that didn’t invite Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein, who returns on July 19 to sing music by George and Ira Gershwin with Blank again on the podium (LINK). Feinstein will conduct the final two concerts of the summer on Aug. 16 and Sept. 6.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Cal Phil, Pasadena Pops perform Saturday in Arcadia

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This column was published today in the above papers.

Summertime … and the classical music season warms up along with the temperatures. Arcadia is the place to be on Saturday as the California Philharmonic begins its 2014 summer season at Santa Anita Racetrack, while a few hundred yards away at the Los Angeles County Arboretum the Pasadena Pops continues its summer schedule.

• Music by John Williams headlines the Cal Phil’s opening concert, as Victor Vener leads his ensemble in the first of five concerts at the performing space in the infield of the famed racetrack. Among the selections will be a violin/cello arrangement of the theme from Schindler’s List, with father and son duo Dennis Karmazyn on cello and Max Karmazyn on violin as soloists. The program will also include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Orff’s Carmina Burana, with the Cal Phil Chorale assisting in the latter.

Other 2014 concerts are:
July 12 — “Copland and Cowboys”
July 26 — “Music, Fantasy and Adventure”
Aug. 9 — “Movie Masterpieces
Aug. 23 — “Broadway and Bolero”
As usual, each outdoor program is repeated the following afternoon in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Information: www.calphil.com

• Broadway is on the Pasadena Pops agenda Saturday night, as resident conductor Larry Blank leads the orchestra in a potpourri of selections from famous Broadway shows. Soloists include vocalists Susan Egan, Valerie Perri, Christina Saffran, Lisa Vroman, and David Burnham. Among the shows featured will be Cabaret, Evita, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, A Chorus Line, The Music Man, Wicked and West Side Story.

This is the only concert of the five-event Pops season that will go head-to-head with the Cal Phil, but as is usual when that happens, traffic issues can arise. This is also the only Pops concert of the season where Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein will not appear. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

Got a bunch of money? If you hurry you can still find an orchestra that will put your name on its music director position. The Chicago Symphony was the latest to join the naming craze when a gift of $17 million from the Zell Family Foundation bought perpetual naming rights to the orchestra’s music director position, currently held by Riccardo Muti.

If the name “Zell” sounds familiar, it’s because Sam Zell bought The Tribune Co. (including the Los Angeles Times) in April 2007 and then took it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy 20 months later.

The CSO joins the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Gustavo Dudamel holds the title of “Music Director, Walt and Lily Disney Chair” (which is amusing since Dudamel only sits on a chair during rehearsal), and Los Angeles Opera, where James Conlon is the “Richard Seaver Music Director.” Upon checking their Web sites, it appears that both the Pasadena Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are still open.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Indoor, outdoor concerts clash in first weekend of June

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

Style: "p25+-Ipro"
Michael Feinstein will open his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor on June 7 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
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We’re at that odd time of the year for classical music when seasons collide. In June we’re wrapping up indoor seasons and beginning the outdoor concerts that are so much a part of Southern California life and, unfortunately, they all collide next weekend.

On the indoor scene:
• The Pasadena-based Angeles Chorale will conclude its 2013-2014 season at UCLA’s Royce Hall on June 7 at 8 p.m. when long-time artistic director and now resident guest conductor Donald Neuen makes his final appearance with the Angeles Chorale. The ensemble will be joined by the UCLA Chorale, UCLA Philharmonia and piano soloist Neal Stulberg in an all-Beethoven program: Mass in C Major, Choral Fantasy and the “Hallelujah” chorus from Christ on the Mount of Olives. Soloists for the mass will be soprano Sarah Grandpre, alto Sarah Anderson, tenor Daniel Suk, and bass Michael Dean. Information: www.angeleschorale.org

• The Pasadena Master Chorale’s final concert this year will feature Carl Orff’s ever-popular Carmina Burana on June 7 at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein will conduct the work’s two-piano chamber version. Soprano Krystle Casey and Baritone Ryan Thorn will be the soloists. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

• On June 8, Pasadena Pro Musica concludes its 50th season at 4 p.m. at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church as Artistic Director Stephen Grimm leads a program of music by Mozart. Soloists include soprano Paula Rasmussen, who sang with PPM as a young chorister and has since gone on to an international opera career. Information: www.pasadenapromusica.org

• The Los Angeles Master Chorale wraps up its 50th season on June 8 at 7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall as Artistic Director Grant Gershon leads world premieres of pieces by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Conductor Laurate Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Lang, and the Chorale’s composer-in-residence, Shawn Kirschner, along with music by Gabriela Lena Frank and Francisco Nuñez. Gershon’s new title came with welcome news that he is extending his contract with LAMC through 2019-2020. Information: www.lamc.org

On the outdoor front, Michael Feinstein returns for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, leading the group’s opening concert on June 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The program will include a treasure trove of lost works that Feinstein has unearthed in places ranging from libraries to garages as he continues to build “The Great American Songbook.” Feinstein will conduct three of this summer’s concerts and sing in a fourth. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

NEWS: San Diego Opera avoids closure, announces 50th anniversary season

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

In a scenario that would make great grand opera, the board of directors of San Diego Opera voted to rescind a previous decision to close the company and announced plans for a slimmed-down 50th anniversary season of three fully-staged operas and a “gala concert.” Previous years have featured four full productions.

The company’s board voted on March 19 to close the company and sell its assets due to dwindling fund-raising and ticket sales. About half of those board members have since resigned and the company raised $2,116,376 in donations from 2,461 of donors as of midnight Sunday, May 18, 2014. 48% of these donors have never given before, said the company. The campaign received gifts from six countries — Austria, Australia, Canada, England, Italy, and Mexico — 36 States.

The 50th season will open on Jan. 24 with four performances of Puccini’s La Boheme,• which was the first opera the company produced. Other productions will be Mozart’s Don Giovanni and John Adams’ Nixon in China. All will be presented in San Diego’s Civic Theatre. In place of a previously planned production of Wagner’s Tannhauser, the company will present concerts on April 18 and 19 at the Jacobs Music Center – Copley Symphony Hall, home of the San Diego Symphony, which plays for the opera.

Left unstated were any plans for beyond 2015 or how the company plans to make up the gap between the funds raised and the estimated budget of $6.5 million in contribution income for the season. The reported operating budget for the season is 10.5 million, with ticket sales making up the bulk of the difference. The company is also negotiating a financial settlement after parting ways with long-time Artistic Director and General Ian Campbell and Ann Spira Campbell, the company’s deputy director (and Ian’s former wife).

• The San Diego Union-Tribune story is HERE.
• The KPBS story is HERE.
• The San Diego Opera Web site is HERE

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

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: A new direction for opera?

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.

ARenée Fleming stars as Blanche DuBois in André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” being presented May 18, 21 and 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenburg, Lyric Opera, Chicago.

Los Angeles Opera: André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire
May 18 at 5 p.m.; May 21 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.org

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Mozart’s Così fan tutte
May 23 and 29 at 7:30 p.m.; May 25 and 31 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Information: www.laphil.com
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Although unintended, it’s ironic that as San Diego Opera continues to struggle with the question of how or even whether it should move forward, Los Angeles during the next couple of weeks offers two notable examples of what the future might look like not only for San Diego but for other opera companies, as well.

On May 18, 21 and 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles Opera presents an innovative staging of André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire with superstar soprano Renée Fleming in the role of Blanche DuBois. Then on May 23, 25, 29 and 31 the Los Angeles Philharmonic will conclude its three-year cycle of Mozart/Da Ponte operas when Gustavo Dudamel conducts Così fan tutte at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

On March 19 San Diego Opera’s board of directors voted to close the company following the completion of this, its 49th season, due to dwindling financial support. Since then plans are moving forward cautiously to (a) find a way to finance a 50th anniversary season and (b) discover a new future direction. Fundraising will be a key to both decisions. For the past year San Diego Opera’s budget was reportedly about $15 million annually and it presented four operas.

If San Diego Opera closes, it will follow in the footsteps of Opera Pacific in Orange County and New York City Opera, each of which shuttered its doors. If SD Opera continues, it will undoubtedly be as a different, probably smaller, company.

Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera’s chief executive officer, says he has no inside knowledge of the San Diego Opera struggles, but he can relate to them. “When the 2008 worldwide crisis hit,” he remembers, “we at LA Opera had to pivot to become a much different company, going from a $60 million budget to $40 million. It wasn’t easy.”

What’s important, say Koelsch and other arts organization leaders, is that companies must be in constant dialogue with their communities as organizations determine what programming can and should be presented. A key word that Koelsch uses frequently is “diversity,” a word that relates both to audiences and programming.

“The traditional subscription model of selling tickets is breaking down,” says Koelsch. “Instead of one large audience, we now have audiences breaking down into smaller niches. It’s not that we’re totally abandoning the idea of presenting grand operas in a house the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But we’re constantly trying find ways to demystify the art form so that we can broaden our overall appeal.”

Earlier this spring, LAO presented another in its family opera programs, the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels diagonally across the Temple St. and Grand Ave. corner from the Music Center. Thousands of people attended the free performances; many had never seen an opera before.

A Streetcar Named Desire is another example of reaching out to different audiences. The original work was a play written in 1947 by Tennessee Williams, for whom it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Three years later, Elia Kazan’s searing film adaptation won Academy Awards for Vivian Leigh (best actress), Karl Malden (best supporting actor) and Kim Hunter (best supporting actress). Marlon Brando, who played Stanley Kowalski, lost out to Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen) for the Best Actor Oscar.

Previn — who, although he has composed extensively, is better known for his work in motion pictures and as an orchestra conductor — used a libretto by Philip Littell to adapt the play into an opera; it was premiered in San Francisco in 1998. However, rather than using the elaborate original production, LAO is using Brad Dalton’s intriguing staging that puts the costumed cast at the front of the stage, with the orchestra on stage behind the action. The production has played to strong reviews at Carnegie Hall in New York City and Lyric Opera Chicago.

Koelsch cautions that creating a show with a “much smaller footprint” from a larger version may not always be feasible, but it’s one way for companies such as LAO to bring contemporary operas into the company’s increasingly large repertoire.

Of course it helps that Fleming is portraying the one of the starring roles in Streetcar. “I’ve been eager to bring Renée to Los Angeles as Blanche DuBois for more than a decade,” says LAO’s General Director Plácido Domingo, Fleming’s only rival for operatic superstar status. Ironically, Domingo is appearing onstage in Jules Massenet’s Thais, which is running in tandem with Streetcar. The opportunity to present Streetcar came together at the last minute, as least in opera company terms. It didn’t materialize until LAO had already announced its current season last year.

The L.A. Phil’s Così follows in the footsteps of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro to be presented on stage at Disney Hall during the past two years. In each case, the director and stage designer had to find innovative ways to cope with the fact that Disney Hall was built for orchestra and choral groups, not operas. That means there is no proscenium or ways to hang scenic backdrops. Overall, the two Mozart productions successfully managed that challenge.

Well-known opera director Christopher Alden will lead the Cosí fan tutte production, which has been created by architect Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 (the previous productions were also designed by architects; Frank Gehry handled Don Giovanni, while Jean Nouvel did the “installations” for The Marriage of Figaro). Hussein Chalayan has designed the Cosí costumes.

As is the case with LAO, the Phil is using this unique combination of talents to reach out to new audiences, as well as to traditional opera and symphony fans.

Next season LAO continues its broadening trend in two radically different ways. For its production of Hercules vs. Vampires in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the company will synchronize live music with the 1961 cult fantasy film. When actors on the screen open their mouths to speak, the audience will instead hear their lines sung by members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra.

The company’s final offering of the 2014-2015 season will be David T. Little’s Dog Days, which will be presented at Disney Hall’s The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), which seats less than 300 people.

This is definitely not your grandfather’s opera company.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony concludes season with scintillating Shostakovich 5th

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

jahjaconduct “Going out in a blaze of glory” may be a hackneyed phrase but it was applicable to yesterday afternoon’s concert at Ambassador Auditorium that concluded the Pasadena Symphony’s 86th season. Guest conduct Jahja Ling (left) and the musicians ended the program with a scintillating and superbly played performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor.

And yet it wasn’t the brass blazing or percussion thundering in the final measures that was the highlight for this critic. Instead, it was the expansive “Largo” movement, a symphony for strings with occasional woodwind and harp interjections that Ling and the orchestra delivered sumptuously. Shostakovich divided each of the string sections into two components (three for the violins) and Ling expertly delineated each of the sections in a way that was unusually comprehensible to those in the auditorium.

Surrounding that languid third movement, Ling — who just completed his 10th season as music director of the San Diego Symphony — drove the opening and closing movements forward with relentless urgency and caught all of the sardonic, lurching humor in the “Allegretto” second movement.

The orchestra, which always seems to relish playing music by this 20th century composer, was in top form again in yesterday’s performance. Although Ling singled out many individuals in the winds and brass sections during the bows, he asked the strings to stand en masse, which was a pity because he might well have asked the split sections to take their own bows.

Pairing Shostakovich’s fifth symphony with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 turned out to be an excess of bombast. There were, of course, dangers of over-exposure. If Tchaikovsky’s first isn’t the most-played concerto ever written, it’s No. 1A to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, especially in Southern California where, because of outdoor and indoor concerts, we hear several performances of each most years. Nonetheless, the combination proved to be a savy marketing move. Yesterday afternoon’s audience appeared to easily be the largest this season and the evening concert was nearly sold out.

The soloist yesterday was 38-year-old Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner, who has made quite a good reputation recently playing Schubert and Mozart, but has come very late to this famous work, which he was performing in public for just the third time. In his preconcert Q&A yesterday, Wosner admitted candidly, “I’m still unwrapping this work and trying to get my mind around it. Perhaps by the 150th time I will fully understand it.”

His inexperience showed. Wosner delivered an ultra-cautious performance that had only the minimum amount of dazzle, although his decision to focus on sensitive nuance at the expense of bravura had its compensations. In the end, however, at least this listener wished he had elected to program a Mozart concerto instead for his PSO debut.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• In that preconcert session, Wosner — who studied at The Juilliard School with Emmanuel Ax — said that famous mentor taught him that “what you hear onstage may be different that what they [the audience] hear. The best performances are when those two views come together.”
• This was the last concert of a four-year-run to be led by guest conductors. PSO management said that ticket sales for the 2013-2014 season exceeded goals by 30%.
• Beginning Nov. 1, the 2014-2015 season will have either Music Director David Lockington or Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan on the podium. My preview is HERE.
• Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn’s program notes yesterday called the first piano concerto and violin concerto “Tchaikovsky’s two most popular works,” a questionably sweeping statement that tosses aside the 1812 Overture, the Nutcracker, and the composer’s fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies.
• The PSO takes a four-week break before reincarnating as the Pasadena Pops, which performs a five-concert summer series at the Los Angeles County Arboretum under the baton, keyboard and vocals of Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein. Info: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

ANALYSIS: Doors close and open at local orchestras

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

Like any business and top executives, orchestras and their music directors undergo cyclical lives — it’s just that when an orchestra changes its music director it’s newsworthy, at least in its hometown or region.

In Los Angeles, we’ve gotten a bit spoiled because both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have enjoyed great longevity in their musical leadership. Esa-Pekka Salonen served as the L.A. Phil’s music director from 1992 through 2009 and his successor, Gustavo Dudamel, came on board immediately after Salonen stepped down.
Kahane
Jeffrey Kahane (right) has been LACO’s music director since 1997 but recently announced that the 2016-2017 season will be his 20th and final season at LACO’s helm. Meanwhile, earlier this season, Enrique Arturo Diemecke announced that he would not return as the Long Beach Symphony’s music director.

On the other side of the coin, the Pasadena Symphony has now settled its musical leadership team. Michael Feinstein returns this summer for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, and Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will divide duties for the PSO’s upcoming season as they begin their tenures with the orchestra.

In some ways, Long Beach’s situation parallels the Pasadena Symphony when it severed relationships with its long-time music director, Jorge Mester, in 2010. The LBSO management situation appears more stable than the turmoil that had enveloped the PSO four years ago, so it may not take the length of time that it took the PSO to get its new Lockington-McGegan-Feinstein music leadership team on board but it will undoubtedly take some time to find the right replacement for Diemecke, who has led the LBSO for 10 years.

LACO has more than three years to find Kahane’s replacement but they may need every month . For one thing, Kahane brought unique combination of skills to the position. Among his predecessors, only Sir Neville Marriner and Christof Perick could have been classified as “pure” conductors. Gerard Schwarz was well known for his trumpet skills as for his conducting prowess and Iona Brown did most of her conducting from the first violin chair. Kahane came to LACO with a modest, albeit growing, reputation as a conductor but he was — and is — a high-profile pianist, something he hopes to continue in his post-LACO life.

Moreover, LACO has several musical streams beyond its orchestral series, including its “Baroque Conversations” and “Westside Connections” series. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer has curated the latter series; what influence or changes will a new music director want to make in either or both of these series will be part of the questions involved in naming Kahane’s successor.

In contrast to LACO and Long Beach, the Pasadena Symphony is looking forward eagerly to its new era. Some music directors come to new positions with great overarching themes, but Lockington’s first season as Pasadena Symphony music director has a series of themes interwoven throughout the five programs, each of which will be presented in two concerts at Ambassador Auditorium.

Lockington-small4Web“I suppose if I had to pick one adjective for the season,” said Lockington (right) recently, “it would be ‘colorful.’ “ The PSO’s 2014-2015 season includes a wide range of music, from Baroque to contemporary, with a healthy selection of American music sprinkled throughout the five programs.

Lockington and McGegan will alternate in leading the five programs. The opening concerts on Nov. 1 will feature an all-American program that says Lockington, “focuses on popular, virtuosic styles” using music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

The program opens with Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare, which Lockington wrote in 2009 for the Grand Rapids Symphony (where he remains music director) in conjunction with a project he championed entitled “ArtPrize.” “The piece features church bells,” says Lockington, “and when we performed it in Grand Rapids the city’s churches rang their bells to coincide with the music.” Unfortunately, Ambassador is too far from Pasadena’s churches to achieve the same effect.

The Nov. 1 concerts will also feature pianist Terrence Wilson as soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Lockington has never conducted the young African-American pianist but he likes what he has heard. “He plays with great panache,” says Lockington, “with a clear, precise king of brilliance.”

Perhaps the most interesting program is the Feb. 14 concerts, which will be the second that Lockington will conduct. It features Dylana Jenson (who is also his wife and mother of their four children) as soloist in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Lockington’s decision to feature his wife as soloist on Valentine’s Day may seem to smack of nepotism but nothing could be further from the truth. A Los Angeles native, Jenson was a child prodigy who studied under Nathan Milstein (among others), shared silver medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition, and made Carnegie Hall debut two years later with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Shostakovich first violin concerto is a work that Lockington and Jenson recorded in 2008 (along with the Barber Violin Concerto) with the London Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim several years ago.

The program will open with Enter Light, a work by Joel Scheckman, a California native who is a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony clarinet section. “It’s about an eight-minute piece that works beautifully as a lead-in to the violin concerto,” says Lockington. The concert concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Seminal works anchor McGegan’s two concerts: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). The cheeky January 17 concerts open with Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, and also feature Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Esther Keel and her mother, Mihyang Keel, as soloists.

So as LACO and the Long Beach Symphony move forward into uncertain futures, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops appear to be on the threshold of new chapters of stability. Just remember: in a few years (or, if the stars align, decades), the cycles will undoubtedly turn over again.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.