SAME-DAY REVIEW: Trifonov dazzles in Rach 3 with Dudamel and L.A. Phil

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

2014-03-31_trifLos Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Dec. 2; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite, Op. 20; Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; Daniil Trifonov, pianist
Next concerts: Today at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2 p.m.

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic first played Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto on Jan. 2, 1930 the soloist was Vladimir Horowitz, making his L.A. debut at the age of 26.

Writing about concert, Los Angeles Times critic, Isabel Morse Jones, called Horowitz “overrated.” She wrote: “He has been praised by the most discriminating and lauded as ‘the greatest,’ the most astounding, and all the rest of the superlatives press representatives overwork. After a first hearing of a concerto that makes tremendous technical demands upon the player but contains little that is emotional or poetic, my impression of Mr. Horowitz is that he has been overrated. He is, without question, one of the astounding piano talents in point of facility and, in what is better, musicianship. He lacks feeling and his truly marvelous ability and cleverness for effort does not compensate. He is yet too young in soul to be called a great pianist. The future will answer what he will become.”

The future did, indeed, pass judgment on Horowitz (and on Rachmaninoff’s third). To Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend comes another young (age 25) Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov, who has been proclaimed by many to be the next Horowitz since he captured both the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Israel in 2011 at the age of 20.

In his Hollywood Bowl debut in 2013, Trifonov soloed in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and his Disney Hall recital debut last February concluded with that composer’s first piano sonata. In March he played Prokofiev’s third piano concerto with L’Orchestre Symphonie de Montréal, led Kent Nagano, in Santa Barbara.

So there was tremendous anticipation for his Rach 3 performance this morning, which came less than 12 hours after playing the same piece the night before. This was also Trifonov’s first appearance with Dudamel (the Bowl concert was led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya). The house this morning was almost completely filled.

Based on my first experience with Trifonov, I’m certainly not going to call him “overrated.” Is he the “next Horowitz”? Only time will tell. For now I will happy to call him the first Trifonov — that’s more than enough!

He was fascinating to watch as well as to hear. He bounded on stage and sat quietly before melting his opening lines out of the orchestral introduction. At the meditative beginning of the second movement, he sat head bowed as if he was in prayer. But each time he dug into the meat of Rachmaninoff’s concerto, he gradually hunched over as he roared through the octaves and other pyrotechnic moments. In her preconcert lecture, Lucinda Carver said that Trifonov played thye “small notes” for the cadenzas, not the larger notes that most pianists use.

All of that was certainly thrilling to watch and hear. However, what I most remember were the quiet, poetic lines (yes, Ms. Jones, there is plenty that is emotional and poetic this gigantic work) that Trifonov played with exquisite delicacy.

Dudamel and the Phil gave Trifonov warm, supple support. Dudamel conducted using a score and he was extremely attentive to his soloist. Kudos, especially, to Principal Horn Roger Kaza and Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov for their contributions. Together they brought out all of Rachmaninoff’s long, soaring lines.

The finale brought the expected standing ovation but this one had even more excitement than most. Seemingly unfazed by the workout, Trifonov responded with a playful account of Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Gavotte from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006.

One of the problems with Rach 3 is what do you pair with this mammoth concerto? Indeed, one of the surprises of the day was that the concerto opened the program — how do you follow that? Rather than with a symphony, Dudamel elected to pair use strange works: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Op. 20 and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54. One reason might have been that the two works call for similar orchestration: both call for two harps and each piece has lots of percussion; one difference is that the Scriabin ends with full pipe organ.

The Scythian Suite was Prokofiev’s attempt to channel Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Like Rite, the Scythian Suite was originally conceived as a ballet by Diaghliev, but it never came to pass. Instead, Prokofiev fashioned the music into a four-movement, 22-minute orchestral suite.

Dudamel conducted without a score. The Phil played the raucous two opening movements with razor-sharp precision, the dreamy third movement unfolded gently and the final movement was majestic in Dudamel’s conception. Herbert Glass’ program note contained a quote from a cellist in the first performance: “I have a sick wife and three children; must I be forced to settle for this hell?” Half of the row in which I was sitting apparently agreed. They fled as the last notes finished.

I confess to never having heard Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. In his program note, Herbert Glass said that the premiere in New York City received “scathing reviews.” I’m not willing to go that far but I’m not looking forward to hearing it again.

The work is sort of a precursor of minimalism with a series of never-ending falling and rising motifs, often led with panache by Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan. Except for a few measures of calm, the work builds inexorably to a massive fortissimo. Dudamel and the Phil gave it all the gusto possible.

Fortunately, nothing could wipe out the excitement of Trifonov in Rach 3. We’ve now heard him in lots of Russian music — I can’t wait to hear him in some other genres. His bio says that during the past couple of seasons he has played Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and Schumann with other orchestras. Those will give us a better sense of what he can become in the next decades.

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Thoughts on moving forward …

“Harmony is made of not people parroting or repeating each other’s notes, but the opposite: The blend of very different notes creates the chord. And so it’s not just singing in unison; it’s singing in harmony, with everyone’s diversity intact.
— Director Peter Sellars, on his 1988 staging of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which was set in Trump Tower in New York City. Read Michael Cooper’s interview with Sellars in the New York Times HERE.

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NEWS: Pittsburgh Symphony strike ends

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The Pittsburgh Symphony finally settled its 55-day labor stoppage today. Read the story by Bob Batz, Jr. in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette HERE.

Now, can the folks at the Ft. Worth Symphony and Pacific Symphony get their sh*t together, too, please?

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Berlin Philharmonic dazzles in Orange County

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

rattleSir Simon Rattle led his Berlin Philharmoniker yesterday in Rénee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. 2013 photo by Monika Ritterhaus.

My review of the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert Sunday in Costa Mesa, published online on the County Register’s Web site, is HERE. The story will run in the Register’s print editions tomorrow.

Following are some additional notes that fell on the cutting room floor:

• The BPO’s appearances in Walt Disney Concert Hall Saturday and Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Sunday was part of a cross-continent tour that began in New York City’s Carnegie Hall on Nov. 9 and 10 and continued in Boston, Toronto and Ann Arbor, Michigan before heading to the west coast. The tour concludes tonight and tomorrow in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.

• The alternate tour program, which was played in Disney Hall, was equally challenging to that we heard Sunday: Pierre Boulez’s Éclat and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7.

• Sunday’s concert was the Berlin Philharmonic’s appearance in Orange County in 15 years. It came back then to the original Segerstrom Hall when Claudio Abbado led the ensemble in two all-Beethoven programs, featuring the third, fifth and sixth symphonies. This was also, of course, the BPO’s first time in Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this season.

• The OC program booklet contained the longest set of music notes than I can ever remember, stretching more than seven pages (although, thankfully for us older folks, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County uses nice large type for its notes). The one paragraph about Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 was dwarfed by the copious notes on the three pre-intermission works: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b, by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, and Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 by Alban Berg.

• The orchestra’s rehearsal schedule created some serious problems for the PSOC and Segerstrom Concert Hall. The orchestra’s desire to rehearse in the main auditorium right up to the concert time meant that the preconcert lecture by Christopher Russell had to be switched into a smaller room that didn’t have nearly enough seats to handle the crowds. I arrived five minutes after the posted start time and people were already standing around and behind the chairs. I suspect that more folks than usual came hoping to learn something about the first half of the program, only to be turned away.

Segerstrom isn’t alone in this type of problem. At least with BP Hall in Disney, people can stand on the balconies and hear the lecture, if necessary. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion uses the second-floor lobby for its lectures and that has the capacity for extra seating, if necessary. Ambassador Auditorium has nothing other than the main hall with which to handle lectures. Offhand I can’t think of another hall that could deal with the problem that cropped up Sunday.

Moreover, Segerstrom Concert Hall has only minimal seating in its lobbies, a fact that was exacerbated by the light rain that was falling as folks were arriving. Sir Simon Rattle, the BPO’s chief conductor and artistic director, called it “British weather.” He should know. Rattle returns top his native England to become Music Director of the London Symphony beginning in 2017.

• PSOC President and Artistic Director John Magnum welcomed the orchestra by announcing that the Society is halfway to its goal of $10 million endowment campaign that will enhance the group’s programming efforts.

• The next orchestra on the PSOC series is the Taiwan Philharmonic, which appears on Dec. 12 with violinist Cho-Liang Lin. The program includes two works including a violin concerto by Taiwanese composer Tyzen Hsiao along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Information:

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Phil screens “On the Waterfront” with live orchestra accompaniment

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

on-the-waterfront-4-blogMarlon Brando (left) won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” Karl Malden should have won the Best Supporting Actor for the role of Father Barry but didn’t (he was one of three men nominated — the others were Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger. They undoubtedly split the vote and the statuette went to Edmond O’Brien won for “The Barefoot Contessa”).

The Los Angeles Philharmonic screened the 1954 film classic On the Waterfront last night in Walt Disney Concert Hall with composer David Newman conducting the orchestra as it played Leonard Bernstein’s score live.

If your goal was to hear Bernstein’s gritty, dramatic music full throat while, incidentally, seeing director Elia Kazan’s gripping treatment of crime and mob influence on the New York docks, then the evening was a rousing success. If, on the other hand, you wanted to see the film with the score integrated into the movie, the evening was probably less successful.

The film is one of three being screened this weekend as part of the orchestra’s in/SIGHT series. It also marked the beginning of a three-year collaboration between the Phil and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the orchestra playing the scores live while the movies are shown on a large screen suspended above the ensemble. My preview story is HERE.

Owing to previous commitments I was unable to see Rebel Without a Cause Thursday night and won’t be at Casablanca tomorrow afternoon, either. Others who are seeing all three films will have to judge as to whether the issues that emerged last night will also appear in the other two films. My guess is they will.

In one sense On the Waterfront was a perfect choice for this format, since Bernstein’s 50-minutes of music is less than half of the picture’s 108-long run time (there was also an intermission last night). Long stretches of the movie, therefore, have no music underlay. However, when the orchestra was playing the score it so overpowered the actors onscreen that captions were not only welcome, they were a necessity.

Although On the Waterfront was released by Columbia Pictures, it was an independent film produced by Sam Spiegel, one of many he made in the 1950s and 1960s (others included Bridge On the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, all of which won Oscars for Best Picture, making Spiegel the only person to win three Best Picture statuettes).

Needing a big name for the box office, Spiegel tapped Bernstein, who wrote what would be his only score composed expressly for a movie, although On the Town and West Side Story were adapted for the big screen. Rumor exists that Bernstein was disenchanted with the fact that director Kazan excised two segments of the score and that led to the composer’s decision to forego writing for another motion picture.

In the preconcert lecture last night, composer Laura Karpman — who has written for film, television, video games, theater, and the concert hall — said that’s the way films work; the director has the ultimate say and you know that going in.

Newman and the orchestra played the score powerfully and with their customary excellence last night. What Bernstein wrote was typical of Lenny: jazz and blues influenced, gripping, craggy and sweeping in its scope and the orchestra put all of that front and center.

As Karpman noted, seeing a movie like On the Waterfront with an orchestra playing the score live is similar to seeing a Wagnerian opera where the music often overpowers whatever is on stage. That was the case last night. However, for those who have seen On the Waterfront only on a television screen, viewing it in Disney Hall with a live orchestra was surely a revelation on several levels.

Moreover, whether Bernstein was, indeed, disenchanted with not having control of the score in the final movie or whether he feared what happened to Leonard Rosenman after the latter scored Rebel Without a Cause (“Back in the day when you went to Hollywood — for whatever reason,” said composer-conductor Scott Dunn in the Phil’s program notes for Thursday night’s screening, “you were just labeled and that was it”), Bernstein’s one film score was a masterpiece, as last night demonstrated anew.

• Eva Marie Saint, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Edie Doyle, introduced the film last night, reminiscing about how she felt as she made what was her film debut. It was Saint’s only Oscar and was one of eight the movie captured that year. We should all look and sound as good as Saint when we are 92 years old.
Casablanca screens tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Disney hall with Newman conducting the L.A. Phil as it plays Max Steiner’s score. Noted film music author Jon Burlingame delivers a preconcert lecture at 1 p.m. Information:

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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