OVERNIGHT REVIEW: James McVinnie, L.A. Phil premiere Nico Muhly organ concerto

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; James Conlon, conductor
Nico Muhly: Register, for Organ and Orchestra (world premiere, LA Phil commission)., James McVinnie, soloist
Mussorgsky-Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
Tonight and Sunday: Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Walt Disney Concert Hall; 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2:00 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

To kick off a very busy music weekend in Southern California and to conclude one of the most significant months in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s long and storied history, LA Opera Music Director James Conlon walked across 1st St. to Walt Disney Hall to lead a “Casual Friday” L.A. Phil concert that paired the “old” with the new.

The “old” was Maurice Ravel’s ultra-familiar 1922 orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The new was the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Register, for Organ and Orchestra, with British organist James McVinnie (pictured left) as soloist on the Disney Hall pipe organ.

Because this was a “Casual Friday” concert (drinks in the WDCH Gardens ahead of time and craft beer afterwar with the audience encouraged to dress casually), the work that will open tonight’s and tomorrow afternoon’s program, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, was omitted and the two other works were played without intermission.

At age 36 Muhly is one of the busiest and most sought-after composers plying his trade today, so it was something of a coup for the Phil to get him to write his first organ concerto. He played the organ in high school but views the instrument as the companion to the synthesizer. The new work is one movement, with three sections, and sped by in a brief 20 minutes.

Muhly collaborated closely with McVinnie, who he met in 2004 at Cambridge and with whom he has maintained a close relationship. Their first musical experience was in a small chapel on Clare College in Cambridge, from where McVinnie went on to become assistant organist at Westminster Abbey and then organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, among other appointments.

As Muhly explained in the preconcert lecture, the title, “Register,” has several meanings but the principal one is the art and science that the organist employs to make the organ produce the sounds he (and the composer) wants, a practice that is called “Registration.” Organists register the instruments by pulling and pushing the draw knobs that are to each side of the organ console (along with those on the pedal board) and also uses switches, known as couplers, to create various combinations of sounds.

As McVinnie noted in that same lecture, each organ has a unique sound. What he produced on the Disney Hall organ will be quite different than when he plays the piece on the Harrison & Harrison organ in Royal Albert Hall in a summer Proms concert.

McVinnie made ample use of many of the Disney Hall organ sounds but what was unexpected was how well he and the orchestra blended together. Except for the extended cadenza in between sections 2 and 3, it was often hard to tell whether McVinnie was producing the sounds or whether they came from the orchestra, which had an oversized brass section as well as numerous percussionists. That cadenza, with two extended pedal solos, gave McVinnie a real chance to shine.

Conlon conducted the orchestra carefully, attentive to the score and to his soloist. The orchestra appeared to relish playing Muhly’s music and did so with a high degree of panache. The ending, based on a Pavane in G minor by 17th century composer Orlando Gibbons, was so mysterious that the audience didn’t quite know what to make of it. They will the next time they hear the concerto.

Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s famous piano piece is easily the best known of about two dozen different arrangements, but in a short talk before the performance Conlon noted that the French composer was working from a version of the piano score by Rimsky-Korskov, not the original music. Conlon said that, since he had access to that original score, he added in a couple of extra parts to the 14 movements. I was really only aware of one addition; they certainly didn’t detract from the original score, which was commissioned in 1922 by Serge Kousevitzky.

Conlon — who conducted without a score — took tempos were stately for the most part, and the orchestra — apart from a couple of scrappy entrances — delivered a sumptuous performance, with noteworthy performances particularly from the brass and winds sections. It made for a popular piece with which to accompany the organ concerto and the audience responded with a predictably raucous ovation.

In addition to the Phil subscription concerts this weekend, other significant programs are:
• The Phil’s Toyota Symphonies for Youth concert this morning will feature the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate (and former music director) Esa-Pekka Salonen leading his composition Wing on Wing, which was written for the opening of Disney Hall 14 years ago. Information: www.laphil.com

• The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by guest conductor Douglas Boyd, will play tonight at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and tomorrow night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The program will include the latest offering in LACO’s “Sound Investment” series — a work by Ellen Reid — Haydn’s Symphony No 104 in D Major, “London,” and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, with Thomas Cooley as soloist.Information: wwwlaco.org

• The Valley Performing Arts Center offers a screening tonight of the 1954 film On the Waterfront, with Richard Kaufman leading the New West Symphony as it plays the acclaimed Leonard Bernstein score live to accompany the film. Information: www.valleyperformingartscenter.org

• Carl St.Clair leads the Pacific Symphony tonight and Tuesday night in semi-staged performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the latest effort in the orchestra’s opera series. Information:www.pacificsymphony.org

• The next L.A. Phil subscriptions on March 2 and 3 features the U.S. premiere of A Trip to the Moon, another L.A. Phil commission, this time by Andrew Norman. Yuval Sharon will stage this piece and Teddy Abrams will conduct. The program also includes Holst’s The Planets. Information: www.laphil.com

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LINK: A column worth reading

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

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

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

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

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

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

Information: www.laphil.com

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

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

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

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REVIEW: Pianist Zee Zee shines in sparkling Pasadena Symphony program

Music Critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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