SAME-DAY REVIEW: USC Thornton Symphony successfully scales Richard Strauss’ mountaintop

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

About 40 years ago I heard my first live performance of Richard Strauss’ tone poem An Alpine Symphony when Zubin Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I vividly remember the performance — Strauss’ sprawling tone poems were right in Mehta’s wheelhouse (to use a baseball term) and he and the Phil were in peak form. I also have never forgotten Martin Bernheimer’s review in the Los Angeles Times: “This was magnificent playing of awful music.”

In the ensuing four decades, I have come to realize that while Bernheimer was spot on with regard to the performance, he was off the mark with regard to the piece. Sprawling? Yes. Grandiose? Yes. Awful? No (sorry, Martin, to disagree with you).

This afternoon Carl St.Clair led the USC Thornton Symphony Orchestra in a performance of An Alpine Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the L.A. Phil’s “Sounds About Town” concert series. It was a stupendous undertaking for a university orchestra, even one as good as this one.

For one thing, it’s quite likely that few, if any, of the musicians had even seen the score (nor perhaps even heard the piece) before they began learning it this season. Moreover, the oversized forces includes a massive percussion section (two sets of timpani, bass drum, cowbells, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, thunder machine, triangle and wind machine), along with two harps, celesta, organ and more than the usual strings winds and brass.

Although Strauss stopped and started this composition several times, what emerged in 1915 was a 50-minute musical depiction of his journey up and down an Alpine mountain, played in 22 connected movements — thankfully, the folks at Disney Hall projected the titles to help everyone in the audience figure out where they were on this sonic journey. One thing that the USC folks had that wasn’t available in the Pavilion was Disney’s kick-ass pipe organ!

If this performance wasn’t always magnificent playing, there were many, many splendid moments. St.Clair (who had a miniature score in front of him but didn’t appear to use it) led a bracing account that didn’t wallow in Strauss’ excesses but brought both spaciousness and an ever-moving forward line to the performance.

The players hadn’t, perhaps, had enough time to adjust to the ultra-live Disney Hall acoustics, which produced some overly bright overtones, and the entire orchestra could have used some more bass heft, but those sorts of things will come when the collegians move out into the professional world.

At the conclusion, St.Clair had each of his section leaders and then each section stand, a welcome and appropriate gesture for the splendid effort put forth.

St.Clair certainly isn’t the first conductor to use the “macro/micro” form of programming, so it was no surprise that he began the program with a Mozart work. What was unusual was the choice: Concerto in E-flat Major for Two Pianos, K. 365.

The soloists, Bernadene Blaha and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, are both Canadians who now teach at the USC Thornton School of Music. They both delivered pristine performances, so much so that even when you were looking at them you couldn’t tell when one had handed off the solo line to the other.

St.Clair (who in addition to being artistic leader of the Thornton ensembles is also music director of the Pacific Symphony) led a reduced ensemble of strings, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns with grace and sensitivity and the musicians — soloists and ensemble — responded with elegant playing throughout.

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

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Weill songs, Adolphe violin concerto highlight LACO’s “Lift Every Voice” festival in Glendale

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
January 21, 2017; Alex Theatre, Glendale
Kurt Weill: Song Suite for Violin and Orchestra (arr. By Paul Bateman). Daniel Hope, violinist
Bruce Adolphe: Violin Concerto (I Will Not Remain Silent). Daniel Hope, violinist
Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins. Storm Large, vocalist; Hudson Shad, vocal quartet
Next performance: Tonight at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA
Next concert: Weill: Lost in the Stars. Royce Hall, UCLA

KahaneWhen Jeffrey Kahane (pictured right) began planning “Lift Every Voice,” the two-week long festival that would be the centerpiece of his 20th and final season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he had no idea of the tumultuous times in which this nation now finds itself.

And when he chose the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto as the centerpiece of last night’s concert, which would mark the midpoint of the festival, he had no idea that last night’s performance of the concerto, subtitled, “I Will Not Remain Silent,” would come on the day when more than a million people marched and rallied for causes of justice — particularly women’s justice — and against what they see as the oppression of the newly inaugurated President of the United States, Donald Trump.

As Kahane has said in multiple interviews (including one with me — LINK), “Lift Every Voice” is about the concepts of civil rights and justice for all, although much of the focus is on what transpired in Nazi Germany. Moreover, as Kahane noted in a talk preceding the concerto’s performance, “The struggle goes on. The process is never finished.”

Adolphe’s 35-minute long concerto is a tribute to Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), who was a relative of Adolphe’s wife and foresaw the coming horrors of the Nazis. Prinz warned people to flee and ultimately (after being arrested three times) emigrated to the United States in 1937, where as a rabbi in Newark, New Jersey, he immersed himself in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“I Will Not Remain Silent” (which comes from Isaiah 62:1 in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible) was the title of the address Prinz gave at the 1963 March on Washington immediately preceding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Daniel HopeAgainst that backdrop, it’s no surprise that violinist Daniel Hope — whose parents fled South Africa due to their opposition to apartheid six months after he was born in 1973 and settled in England and who now lives in Germany — would give an impassioned performance of the two-movement work.

The first movement, meant to depict Prinz’s struggle’s in Nazi Germany, was ferocious in its concept with the orchestra’s percussion and brass sections adding weight to Hope’s fiery solo playing. The second movement, which describes Prinz’s fight for African-American civil rights in the U.S., gave Hope’s sweet, silky upper tones a chance to shine forth, then ended with a violin cadenza that leads to the piece’s dissolute ending.

Kahane and the orchestra offered impassioned support to Hope, who plays in nearly all of the 20 minutes of music. Hope encored with a rich, soulful rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Kaddish.

To open the concert, Kahane, Hope and LACO gave the U.S. premiere of English composer’s Paul Bateman’s arrangement of six Kurt Weill songs for violin and orchestra. Hope and Kahane danced playfully through the set, which began with Havanna Song from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and concluded with Weill’s most famous song, Mack the Knife from Three Penny Opera.

As Dr. Christine Lee Gengaro wrote in her music notes, this song suite was meant to represent the transition from Weill’s career in Germany to his time after he emigrated to the U.S. in 1933 (his Jewish roots and the nature of his music both made him an anathema to the Nazis). Hope and Kahane (who conducted without a baton and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself) both had a good time with Weill’s jazzy, syncopated music as interpreted by Bateman.

Storm_LargeAfter intermission, Kahane, LACO, vocalist Storm Large (pictured left) and the vocal quartet Hudson Shad delivered a mostly satisfying performance of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. As was the case with all three works, this was the first LACO performance of this piece, which received mixed reviews when it premiered in 1933 and only began to gain popularity after Weill died in 1950.

Weill combined with Maxwell Anderson and Berthold Brecht on this work, which tells the story of a woman with a split personality (Anna I and Anna II), who leaves her home in Louisiana and travels the country hoping to make enough money to send back to her parents to build a home in her native state. Along the way, the girl(s) are bedeviled by the seven deadly sins in the cities they visit (an unnamed town, Memphis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, an unnamed Tennessee town, and, finally, San Francisco), before finding their way back home.

In its original form Anna I was performed by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, with Tilly Losch dancing the role of Anna II. However, Large — with minimal props — did an excellent job of portraying both sides of Anna with the appropriate amount of sauciness and sexuality. Moreover (spoiler alert if you’re coming tonight), to keep the piece current, midway through the performance she donned a knitted, pink cap.

The male quartet acts as a sort of Greek chorus playing Anna’s family. Unlike Large, their diction was frustratingly uneven, except when Wilbur Pauley was singing his sonorous bass solos (that may have been the result of the music or the amplification in the Alex Theatre).

As an encore, Large and LACO presented a throbbing performance of Stand Up for Me, a piece Large wrote for marriage equality. Most of the audience stood during at least part of the moving rendition.


• Kahane and Hope were on hand Friday morning for a screening of Hope’s documentary Terezin — refuge in music before several hundred high school students and a few assorted others at the Mary Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study. The 70-minute documentary centered around two survivors (at the time of the filming) of the concentration camp, called Theresienstadt in German and known, ironically, as “The Paradise Ghetto.”

The documentary was filled mostly in the camp. The comments from the survivors — 104-year-old pianist Alice Herz-Sommer and 90-year-old jazz guitarist Coco Schumann — were poignant and the story was framed by music and readings from Hope and mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter. The students were spellbound, to judge by the lack of noise, and their questions of Hope and Kahane afterwards were thoughtful and probing.

• The festival concludes next weekend with a performance of Weill’s Broadway musical-theatre piece, Lost in the Stars, which is based on Alan Paton’s anti-apartheid novel, Cry the Beloved Country. Anne Bogart directs the production, which features members of her SITI Company, the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, members of the Renaissance Arts Academy, and others. This is the first time this work has been presented in Los Angeles since the 1950s. Information:

• Concertgoers got a first look at LACO’s 50th anniversary season, which begins on Sept. 30. With no one yet named to succeed Kahane, five of the eight orchestra concerts will be led by guests (some of whom are returnees). Kahane will come “home” to lead one concert set and Concertmaster Margaret Batjler will lead performances of Bach’s complete Brandenburg concerti. Provocatively, no one is listed as conducting the final concerts in May.

The season will spotlight Mozart’s final three symphonies and will include the world premiere of a new violin concerto written by Andrew Norman.

I’ll have more information on a post later this week.

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

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

NEWS: Indeed, great news! Conlon renews LA Opera contract for three more years

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Conlon 2016With no fanfare, merely a simple media release, Los Angeles Opera took a supremely important stop in its growth by announcing that Music Director James Conlon (pictured right) has renewed his contract for an additional three years, through the 2020/21 season (click HERE for the release).

While General Director Plácido Domingo is the best-known figure in LAO management (more for his legendary singing career and his ability to draw other major singers than for his administrative abilities), Conlon — now in his 10th season at LAO — and President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Koelsch are equally important — many would say more important — than Domingo for the company’s long-term growth and success. Last year Domingo re-upped his contract through the 2021-22 season.

Domingo understands Conlon’s importance. “It is impossible to overstate what a profound impact James Conlon has made during his ten years in Los Angeles,” said Domingo in the release. “I am thrilled that James will continue to shape the company’s artistic legacy for many years to come, for he has truly become an essential member of the LA Opera family.”

Thus, with companies such as New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco in transition, it is significant that L.A. was able to keep Conlon, now age 66, on board. He will continue as Principal Conductor of the Italian RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Turin, a post he assumed last year.

It is Conlon who directs the majority of the company’s main-stage productions (this season he leads four of the six offerings at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) and offers erudite preconcert lectures before each performance. However, his involvement doesn’t stop there.

Conlon will lead a revival of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde on May 6 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles as part of the company’s “Community Opera” program.

Moreover, on Feb. 3 at The Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, Conlon will conduct the Pittance Chamber Ensemble (comprised of member’s of the LA Opera Orchestra) in a program of Mozart’s Serenade in B flat (Gran Partita) and Octet for Strings in E flat, Op. 20. (INFORMATION)

Conlon’s next Pavilion appearances will be to lead performances of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio beginning Jan. 28 and Richard Strauss’ Salome, beginning Feb. 18 (INFORMATION)

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

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

PREVIEWS: Adams celebration, Pacific Symphony, L.A. Phil kick off January programs

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

In addition to Los Angeles Chamber Chorus’ “Life Every Voice” festival (LINK), which begins Jan. 14, and two previously noted Los Angeles Philharmonic programs (LINK), two other noteworthy events are worth mentioning as I get back into my biweekly column routine for 2017.

Composer John Adams turns age 70 on Feb. 14 and, as has been noted in other columns and Blog posts, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is paying tribute to its Creative Chair throughout the current season. However, it’s not the only organization honoring Adams.

The Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge has a mini-festival that kicks off on Jan. 14. Entitled “American Berserk” and also presented by Jacaranda Music, the Santa Monica-based contemporary music organization, this concert ends with three Adams pieces: American Berserk, a short piano piece; John’s Book of Alleged Dances, originally written for the Kronos Quartet; and Grand Pianola Music, one of Adams’ best-known works.

The concert also includes music by Louis Marie Gottschalk, Scott Joplin, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Theolonius Monk and Colon Noncarrow.

Performers will include Christopher Taylor, piano; the Lyris Quartet with four dancers; the Jacaranda Chamber Orchestra (Mark Alan Hilt, conductor) with Gloria Cheng and Taylor pianos; Holly Sedillos, soprano; Zanaida Robles, soprano; and Kristen Toedtman, alto.

Other VPAC programs during the Adams celebration will take place on Feb. 3 and 15. Information:


Music Director Carl St.Clair will lead the Pacific Symphony on Jan. 12, 13 and 14 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The program will pair Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with 25-year-old Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang as soloist. On Jan. 15 the program is solely the Prokofiev symphony. Information:

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

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email

ROUNDUP: Music Director carousel resumes

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Just when it seemed as if the orchestral music director carousel had spun to a stop comes word that the retirement of two leaders will crank up the engine again.

david-robertsonDavid Robertson, (right) the Santa Monica native who has led the St. Louis Symphony since 2005, has announced that he will step down from that post at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 season. In a STORY in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robertson said, “I think my sell-by date has come and I think it’s important not to overstay one’s welcome.”

Robertson continues as music director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia. He lives in New York City his wife, pianist Orli Shaham, and their 9-year-old twin sons, Nathan and Alex. SLSO officials must have breathed a sigh in relief last spring when the New York Philharmonic chose Jaap van Zweden as that orchestra’s next music director. A premature sigh, as it turned out.

A frequent collaborator with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Robertson will return to conduct the Phil on April 20, 22 and 23 in a program that will include music by Ives and Dvorak, as wall as the west coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto, with Paul Jacobs as soloist. INFO

Meanwhile, Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, is reporting HERE that Zubin Mehta will retire from his position as Music Director-for-life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2018. The decision will end a 55-year formal relationship between the now-80-year-old Mehta and the ensemble to which he was appointed music director in 1969 and lifetime music director in 1981.

Mehta was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978 and will return to lead the Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 13, 14 and 15 in a program of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben and the west coast premiere of the Sitar Concerto No. 2 Raga Mala by Ravi Shankar, with Shankar’s daughter, Ankoushka, as soloist. INFO

Tovey_2013One conductor coming to the end of a transition, Bramwell Tovey (right), returns to Disney Hall to lead the L.A. Phil in a typically cheeky program on January 5, 7 and 8. The program includes Sir William Walton’s Façadce Suite, No. 2, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (with Ray Chen as soloist) and the second act of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty. INFO

Tovey has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2000. In the fall of 2018, the VSO’s centenary year, he will become the orchestra’s Music Director Emeritus. He also served as Principal Guest Conductor of the LAPO at Hollywood Bowl for several years.

Tovey is a noted composer. In 2014 his trumpet concerto, Songs of the Paradise Saloon, was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Alison Balsom as soloist. The work ended up in Tovey’s opera, The Inventor, which commissioned by Calgary Opera and premiered in January 2011.

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

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email