“I’m back!”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

My “regular” job as Director of Administration and a member of the pastoral staff at Pasadena Presbyterian Church has caused me to lay aside my music critic/columnist role during an ultra-busy holiday season but I’m back on a semi-regular basis now.

During my hiatus, we’ve lost some musical giants to death — including Kurt Masur and Pierre Boulez — and retirement — Michelle Zukovsky (LINK).
In addition, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. has made a fascinating choice for its next music director in Gianandrea Noseda (LINK)

Meanwhile, our ultra-busy musical life plunges ahead here in Southern California.

During the past several seasons, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has played a single concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena (which long ago was its home). During these “Discover” concerts, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane takes the first half of the evening to explain a major work and then leads the orchestra in a complete performance of the work.

This year’s 8 p.m. concert tomorrow will feature Bach’s Cantata No. 140, known as Sleepers Awake because of the Advent-themed tune that dominates the work. For tomorrow night’s performance, LACO will be joined by the USC Thornton School Chamber Singers, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and three soloists.

Information: www.laco.org

For a choral experience of a totally different sensation, consider the Los Angeles Master Chorale performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” on January 30 at 2 p.m. and Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Artistic Director Grant Gershon will lead 110 choristers, four soloists and an orchestra in this monumental work with dynamics ranging from the softest solos to roof-rattling full-ensemble climaxes.

The latter will be accentuated by antiphonal trumpets placed around Disney Hall and a custom-built double bass drum to be used in the Dies Irae section. True confessions: while singing the Verdi Requiem would be a real treat, what I always wanted to do was whack that double bass drum.

Information: www.lamc.org

Speaking of rattling the Disney Hall rafters, organist Paul Jacobs and soprano Christine Brewer will make an unusual combination in a duo-recital at Disney Hall on this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Among the unusual choices of repertoire will be several pieces by Nadia Boulanger, who was better known as a teacher in the early 20th century than for her compositions.

The program comes from a recently released recording, “Divine Redeemer,” by the artists who will sign copies of the CD after the concert. For organ traditionalists, the evening will end with Jacobs playing the famous “Toccata” from the Symphony No. 5 by Charles-Marie Widor.

Information: www.laphil.com

Among the notable orchestral concerts coming up, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead his New West Symphony in concerts tomorrow night in Oxnard, Saturday night in Thousand Oaks and Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica. The program will feature music by George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel. Finnish pianist Denis Kozhukhin will be the soloist in Ravel’s G Major Concert.

Information: www.newwestsymphony.org

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor Laureate, returns to Disney Hall for a nearly month-long series of concerts that begins Jan. 29, 30 and 31 when he leads the Phil in performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with another familiar figure, pianist Yefim Bronfman as soloist.

It would be tempting to call this a program of “firsts,” except that the concerto was actually the second that Beethoven wrote. Since it was published before the B-flat major concerto, the C Major concerto became listed as No. 1.

Information: www.laphil.com

Salonen will return to lead the Phil during mid-February in two programs as part of his “City of Light” festival, which features French music spanning a century. Among the other programs in the festival will be Music Director David Robertson leading his St. Louis Symphony in a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles, a 90-minute work inspired by Utah’s national parks, including Bryce Canyon.

Information: www.laphil.com

Full information on the “City of Light” festival is HERE.

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

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OBIT: Famed choral musician Sir David Wilcocks dies at age 95

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Although none of our local media (nor even national media) have paid much notice, Sir David Wilcocks died Thursday at the age of 95. Unless you’re a choral musician, the name might not mean anything, although it’s quite likely that some of the carols you have sung in Christmas Eve service were arranged by this remarkable English conductor-composer-arranger, etc. Christmas Eve for me doesn’t really start until we have sung O Come, All Ye Faithful in the Wilcocks arrangement.

Wilcocks also edited, with composer John Rutter, a series of carol books that are widely used by choral groups both in churches and secular settings. Moreover, as the obit in the Manchester Guardian HERE shows, he was a prolific musician in many areas and even won a Military Cross during World War II.
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: LACO names Scott Harrison as Executive Director

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has named Scott Harrison as its new Executive Director. Harrison, who will begin on October 6, succeeds Rachel Fine, who left LACO earlier this year.

Harrison, 35, comes to Los Angeles from Detroit where he served as Vice President for Advancement and External Relations for the Detroit Symphony, which underwent a bitter labor strike in 2011. At LACO, Harrison will have a hand in the search for replacing Jeffrey Kahane as the orchestra’s Music Director; Kahane will step down at the end of the 2016-2017 season.

Read the full media release on Harrison HERE.

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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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MUSINGS: Do visuals help or hurt a concert experience?

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Joshua Kosman (San Francisco Chronicle)

Zachary Woolfe (New York Times)

Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times)

At first glance, reading these two reviews following a presentation by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis — and Mark Swed’s review of a performance earlier this year by MTT and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall — might seem like the latest chapter in the “were you and I at the same concert” series of reviews.

However, the question these two reviews illuminate is whether inserting visuals (or whatever kind) into a concert piece is helpful or merely a gimmick. Earlier this year the New West Symphony used abstract visuals in its performance of Holst’s The Planets — and I noted the challenges that came from that performance in my review HERE.

Tonight’s performance by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LINK) is quite a different animal but its concept of melding live performance with motion pictures (in this case, Disney cartoons) is another side of the equation: how do we introduce people who are increasingly visually oriented to a medium that has traditionally aural? Do visuals help or hurt?
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: New West Symphony adds visuals to “The Planets”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
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Does a piece with descriptions embedded into its movements, such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, need visuals to supplement the music? In this age where visuals are everywhere, are they helpful in (a) attracting newcomers to concerts and/or (b) making the music more understandable?

Those are among the questions that the New West Symphony is attempting to answer this weekend during the fifth concert of its 20th anniversary season by adding images to its performances of The Planets (I heard last night’s concert in Thousand Oaks; the final performance is this afternoon in Santa Monica — INFO).

Strictly speaking, Holst wrote no program notes for The Planets. As Dr. Richard E. Rodda quoted Holst in his program notes: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them … If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in the broad sense.”

That broad concept is what Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and seven local artists took in illustrating the music. Rather than use NASA images as has been done by many orchestras, the NWS commissioned the artists to paint large abstracts, which were projected on a screen above and behind the orchestra.

The visual results were problematic, although the NWS earns kudos for attempting something different for a piece that approaches warhorse status for classical music lover. Lehninger and his ensemble played the work with vigorous moments interspersed with sections of lyrical sweep and appropriately mystery where called for. At the end, however, significant questions remained for this critic and his visual artist wife as to whether the paintings were helpful.

To begin: considering that this project came together quite late in the game — the artists had less than a month to create their paintings. Surely some, perhaps many, of those attending had no idea what was going on. There was no insert in the program either identifying the artists or explaining what each saw in the music (these were abstracts, after all). Artists’ names, photos and bios were projected during intermission but (a) many people were outside during that time and (b) the small typeface rendered much of the text unreadable.

Lehninger also didn’t introduce the concept before the performance. Several people left in between movements either bewildered by the concept or having no appreciation for abstract art.

Having to work with three different halls on consecutive nights must have caused headaches for the technology folks handling the images, and the results showed. The ambient light from above the stage and the music stand lights severely hampered the ability to see some of the images and sabotaged the fades and pans of the technician. Midway through the performance, it occurred to me that this concept would work better outdoors at a locale such as Hollywood Bowl where ambient light issues wouldn’t be in play.

The pattern for each movement was to show small sections of the appropriate painting or panning over larger sections; the entire painting wasn’t shown until near the end of each movement. In the fifth movement, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, the image rotated slowly, giving it a somewhat psychedelic effect. Given that the paintings were abstracts, it was hard to figure out until the movement ended that one had actually seen the entire painting.

For me, the best melded movement was the final section, Neptune, the Mystic, which had the benefit of a painting by Julie Pinkham that was more visible than others and also from the ethereal voices of women from the Cal Lutheran University Choral Ensembles, intoning beautifully their wordless lines offstage. Unfortunately someone in the audience insisted on breaking in with a bravo while the last notes were dying away, thus spoiling the mystical effect.

Did the painting concept work? Some people around me thought so, others fled so quickly that the applause had died away before Lehninger had a chance to bring the visual artists onstage, if indeed he planned on doing so. It will be interesting to see how the concept works today in Santa Monica.

Prior to intermission, the orchestra played Sibelius’ Violin Concerto for the first time and had Pasadena native Jennifer Frautschi on hand making her NWS debut as soloist.

Frautschi, now in her mid-30s, is well established in the violin firmament. Playing on a 1722 Stradivarius named “ex-Cadiz,” she delivered a quicksilver tone to go with her prodigious technique. She worked on the dynamic extremes of this early 20th century work — at times the pianissimo sections were almost too precious — but she really made me feel as if this was her concerto. The second movement, in particular, was spellbinding.

Lehninger and Co. offered taut, sweeping accompaniment. In those times where Frautschi wasn’t playing, Lehninger plunged forward exuberantly, punching out the attacks for emphasis, only to rein back when Frautschi joined in again.

Frautschi will be soloing in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto next year with the Pasadena Symphony. It will be interesting to see whether she adopts the same tonal style in a quite different work.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• During intermission, the orchestra took the opportunity of having the screen down to screen a number of promos, including upcoming concerts and events, a slide on planned giving, and a slide with the various ways people can follow the orchestra (e.g., Internet, Facebook, Twitter). Smart marketing, from my perspective.
• Prior to the performance, Executive Director Natalia Staneva noted the concert’s synchronicity — this year is the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth and the orchestra’s 20th anniversary. She tried to link The Planets into the mix, calling 2015 the 100th anniversary of its composition. Unfortunately she missed by a couple of years. While part of the piece was completed in its two-piano form in 2015, the entire orchestrated piece wasn’t finished until 1917 and premiered a year later.
• The season’s final concert will take place May 8, 9 and 10 when Lehninger leads a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, with four soloists and the Los Robles Master Chorale. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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