CLASS ACT: Spring flings

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Summertime and its outdoor concerts loom on the horizon but there’s still some work left to wrap up the 2015-2016 indoor Southern California classical music seasons.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are offering a wide array of concerts to conclude their Walt Disney Concert Hall season, programs that are both interesting in their own right and demonstrate Dudamel’s continued growth as a conductor and musical leader.

Consider next weekend offerings, which feature two programs melding music by an old master and two contemporary folks.

On Thursday and Friday nights, Dudamel leads the Phil in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, K. 453, with Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan as soloist, and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten and Symphony No. 4 (Los Angeles). The program also includes Inverted Birth, a short work by video artist Bill Viola.

The Saturday and Sunday programs pair Mozart’s Symphonies No. 35 and No. 40 with the world premiere of Pärt’s Greater Antiphons, a 15-minute work for strings that was commissioned by the Phil from the Estonian composer.

Information: 323/850-2000;

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s subscription seasons are over but there’s always one final offering by the innovative ensemble. For several years LACO presented silent movies in UCLA’s Royce Hall as a fundraiser, but last June the orchestra changed things up by offering Disney cartoons with the orchestra accompanying the big screen presentation.

This year LACO reprises that concept when it offers seven Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” on June 4 at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Six-time Emmy Award-winning conductor and composer Mark Watters leads the ensemble as it accompanies cartoons that include the first commercial short produced in Technicolor and five Academy Award winners.

Part of the evening’s enjoyment will be the theatre itself. Built in the 1920s, the Orpheum was the fourth and final theatre operated the Orpheum vaudeville circuit in Los Angeles. Its opulent lobby and auditorium remain a historical artifact of a bygone era, one that saw lavish movie and vaudeville palaces built across the country.

Information: 213/622-7001;


John Sutton leads the Angeles Chorale in a program entitled ““FREEDOM! The Sounds of Hope and Survival” on June 11 at First United Methodist Church, Pasadena. The principal work will be Songs of the Slave, a suite from the opera John Brown by Kirke Mechem. Bass-baritone Cedric Berry will be the soloist.

Information: 818/591-1735;


On June 11 and 12, the Pasadena Master Chorale concludes its season at Altadena Community Church when Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein leads the chorale, soloists and pianist Michael Alfera in a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion.

Information: 626/208-0009;

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

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NEWS: L.A. Phil names Susanna Mälkki as principal guest conductor

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Makkki 4 WEBFor just the third time in its history and the first in a quarter-century, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has appointed a principal guest conductor: Susanna Mälkki, a Finland-born, rising star in the conducting firmament. Her appoint begins in the 2017-2018 season and runs for three years.

Mälkki becomes the first woman named to this post and joins Mira Gražinytė-Tyla, the Phil’s newly named assistant conductor, in the orchestra’s musical leadership role, led by Music Director Gustavo Dudamel.

The only other two PCGs for the Phil were Sir Simon Rattle, 1981-1994, and Michael Tilson Thomas, 1981-1985. Both have gone on to major conducting careers and Mälkki is expected to follow in their footsteps. In fact many people championed her for the music director post at the New York Philharmonic before that ensemble choose Jaap van Zweden, instead.

Mälkki will assume the chief conductor role at the Helsinki Philharmonic beginning next season. Previously she was music director of Paris’ he Ensemble InterContemporain from 2006-2013. She began her musical career as a cellist, winning 1st prize in the 1994 Turku National Cello Competition. Subsequently she was principal cellist at the Gothenburg Symphony before make a career change to conducting.

In her new LAPO post, Mälkki will present three subscription weeks as part of the Walt Disney Concert Hall 2017/18 season, Green Umbrella dates along with projects with the orchestra to be announced. She has impressed both with her work in standard repertoire and contemporary works.

Read the LAPO media release here.

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

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CLASS ACT: Pasadena Symphony music director takes on soloist role

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

David Lockington, conducter, guest cellist performs Sawyers Cello Concert with the Modesto Symphony Orchestra. November 3, 2012

David Lockington, conducter, guest cellist performs Sawyers Cello Concert with the Modesto Symphony Orchestra. November 3, 2012

David Lockington, music director of the Pasadena Symphony, will perform as cello soloist in this weekend’s concerts at Ambassador Auditorium.

Pasadena Symphony; Nicholas McGegan, conductor; David Lockington, cellist
Saturday (March 19) at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 South St. John Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$110.
Information: 626/793-7172;

Most orchestra conductors begin their careers as instrumentalists, but when they ascend the podium they give up their “other” gig. There are exceptions, of course: Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman continue their solo careers even as they have transitioned more and more to conducting, and Jeffrey Kahane often leads from the piano at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

However, for the most part, it’s either conducting or solo careers, which makes this Saturday’s concerts by the Pasadena Symphony, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium rather unusual because PSO Music Director David Lockington will appear not as conductor but as soloist in the cello concerto by British composer Philip Sawyers.

Nicholas McGegan, the PSO’s principal guest conductor, will lead the ensemble accompanying Lockington, and also in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

“I was a very serious cellist until I was about 40,” explains Lockington when questioned about his soloist role for the concert. “By then I had achieved all my performing aspirations and was concentrating on my conducting career. Over the years I played a few small things with the Baltimore Symphony and when I got to the New Mexico Symphony and the Grand Rapids Symphony, I would play little things at fund raisers and the like.

“But then,” he continues, “my friend Philip wrote this cello concerto in 2010, not for me but for a festival that subsequently didn’t happen. In the meantime I had scheduled the piece for the Modesto Symphony, so just by chance, by default really, I ended up playing the world premiere of Philip’s concerto.”

Subsequently Lockington performed the work with the Grand Rapids Symphony, so this will be the third time he has played it in concert. “I absolutely love the piece,” he says. “It’s beautiful and interesting with a lot of variety, yet in many ways it’s a traditional three-movement concerto for cello and chamber-sized orchestra.

“Philip’s music is contrapuntal,” continues Lockington, “and he composes in an organic way, so the orchestra is integrated into the musical texture of the piece. Particularly in the last movement he has a great sense of thrust and dynamism, which makes it a perfect pairing for the Beethoven ‘Egmont’ Overture.

“The same is true of the Mozart symphony,” concludes Lockington. “The first movement of the concerto is sort of soulful, almost tragic, with a sighing-falling motif, similar to the Mozart 40, so all of this seemed to fit very nicely as a program.”

The concerto also provides an opportunity for Lockington and McGegan to appear in the same concert. “Nick, Philip and I had a brief connection way back when I was at Cambridge,” recounts Lockington. “So we haven’t seen each other together since we were there 40 years ago.” Sawyers is scheduled to be attendance for the performances, which will be a reunion as well as a performance.

Saturday will be a very busy day, musically, in Pasadena. In addition to the PSO performances, two major free-admission choral concerts will take place a block from each other.

Gregory Norton will lead his Claremont Chorale in a 4 p.m. performance of Mozart’s Solemn Vespers and Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna as part of First United Methodist Church, Pasadena’s “Third @ First concert” series. (Information:

Then at 7 p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church, Timothy Howard will lead his Pasadena Singers, soloists and orchestra in a complete performance of Handel’s Messiah. (Information: 626/793-2191;
The timing of the three events means you could attend the afternoon PSO concert and still have time to hear Messiah, hear the Claremont Chorale concert and attend the PSO evening performance or hear both choral concerts back to back — a cornucopia of musical riches.

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

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CLASS ACT: L.A. Phil readies for spring tour with Mahler’s Symphony No. 3

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

What an orchestra programs when it goes on tour offers a fascinating look into the psyche of the ensemble and its conductor. Dudamel-9-29-13Most groups elect to play very standard fare, albeit usually very well, but rarely with any any risk-taking. However, Gustavo Dudamel (right) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic almost never follow that pattern, as this spring’s upcoming tour indicates.

This week’s concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow, Friday, Saturday and Sunday feature Dudamel conducting a single, massive work: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which will be one of two programs during the orchestra’s upcoming travels to New York City and Europe.

The other tour program is even more daring: “Music of the Americas,” including John Williams’ Soundings, which was written for the opening of Disney Hall in 2003; a new work, Play: Level 1, by Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Composer-in-Residence Andrew Norman, which received its world premiere in Disney Hall last week; Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Sergio Tempo as soloist; and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite.

Each program presents major challenges for a touring orchestra. The “Music of the Americas” concert — which will be played March 14 at David Geffen Hall in New York City, March 19 at the new Philharmonie in Paris, March 21 in Luxembourg, and March 22 in London’s Barbican Centre — features, as noted above a premiere and two other pieces rarely played, which would represent a challenge for promoters were it not for the fact that Dudamel is conducting.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 presents its own issues. It’s a 90-plus-minute, seven-movement work with much of that time taken up by its raucous opening movement and majestic final section. It has been a L.A. Phil specialty since the days of its former music director, Zubin Mehta. In this week’s Disney Hall performances patrons will have a chance to see how Dudamel’s concept has matured since he first conducted the symphony here during the orchestra’s “Mahler Project” in 2012 (my review is HERE).

In addition to an oversized orchestra, Mahler’s third calls for female chorus and children’s choir. In L.A. those duties will be dispatched by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, but when Dudamel conducts the work in NYC on March 13, Amsterdam on March 17, Paris on March 20 and London on March 24, he will be working with different choral ensembles each time. The mezzo-soprano soloist, Tamara Mumford, will sing in all concerts, including this week at Disney Hall.

For an added touch when Dudamel and the Phil are in London, they will reprise their performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoilles … (From the canyons to the stars …) played earlier this month in Disney Hall, complete with the multi-media presentation that debuted here.

Now that’s adventurous tour programming!

Information on the Disney Hall programs this week: 323/850-2000;

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

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REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony, Russian National Orchestra offer “traditional” programs impressively played

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

For decades symphony orchestras have struggled with the question of how to program in ways that will increase their attendance and financial support. “New” music vs. traditional fare, young conductors or older maestros (and, increasingly, women conductors instead of men) are just some of the questions continually being asked and debated.

There is much to be said for orchestras programming a healthy dose of new music because tastes change, although perhaps not as much or as quickly as some might imagine. However, standard classical repertoire continues to remain popular, as sold-out audiences in recent concerts by the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium and the Russian National Orchestra at Valley Performing Arts Center can attest.

To judge by audience growth, the Pasadena Symphony seems to have found the “sweet spot” in terms of programming for its audiences. The throng 10 days ago at Ambassador Auditorium, its home since 2010, was the largest I can remember for an afternoon performance and the evening concert was reportedly sold out.

Some of that can be attributed to the pieces being played — Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 — two of the most popular in the symphonic repertory (in the preconcert lecture, soloist Jennifer Frautschi even dared to call the concerto a “warhorse”). But even more people — a healthy number of whom are younger — are undoubtedly coming because of the orchestra’s exemplary playing under Music Director David Lockington.

The afternoon was a homecoming for Frautschi, who played in the Pasadena Symphony Youth Orchestra and in the back row of the second violin section of the symphony itself during those youthful days.

She has matured into a marvelous, assured artist, playing on a 1722 Antonio Stradivarius violin known as the “ex-Cadiz,” and all of her talent and musicality were on display during her fiery performance of the concerto. She was a joy to watch and it was exciting to hear her play a work that was deemed “unplayable” by its original dedicatee, Leopold Auer. However, it was also fascinating to contemplate the very young-looking blonde near the back of the second violin section and speculate if she was thinking that she might be at center stage one day.

Lockington led the orchestra in a sensitive accompaniment of Frautschi and also in an expansive performance of the Sibelius symphony. The orchestra obviously loves playing for him and that translates fully into what the audience hears each concert.

When the Russian National Orchestra was founded in 1990, it was a unique institution. Although its founder, Mikhail Pletnev, was a close friend of Mikhail Gorbachev the orchestra began with no government support. Last Friday’s VPAC concert was the opening event of a 16-city 25th anniversary tour, a testimony to the ensemble’s staying power and its quality playing.

To no one’s surprise, Plentnev brought an all-Russian program to VPAC but there was just enough variety to make it interesting both on paper and in person. He revels in the deep, soulful tones that characterize Russian music and those were on full display Friday night. He began Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” with rich sonority before exploding into a rhythmically precise reading of balance of the piece.

Likewise, Plentnev’s reading of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” (using the 1945 version as opposed to the more familiar 1919 suite) was deeply felt and the playing of his orchestra — in the printed program, he is listed variously as Founder & Artistic Director, Music Director and conductor — ranged from opulent sonority to crackling intensity. That incisiveness also extended to the two encores: Khachaturian’s Waltz from “Masquerade” and Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Buffoons” from “The Snow Maiden.”

The centerpiece — literally and figuratively — of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s second Piano Concerto, instead of the far more familiar first. Soloist Yuja Wang brought her customary pyrotechnic technical brilliance to her solo work. However, she and Plentnev — who made his reputation as a world-class pianist and has played and recorded this concerto — seemed to be of two minds regarding the first-movement tempos: Yang bounding ahead with Plentnev lingering over the soulful accompaniment.

Yang chose to play the original rendition of this unfamiliar concerto with its long second movement that feels more like a piano trio. That choice allowed the spotlight to shine on superb playing from Concertmaster Alexy Bruni and Principal Cellist Alexander Gotgelf, along with Wang and (occasionally) the orchestra. By the third movement, Yang and Plentnev were on the same page, which meant for a hell-bent-for leather conclusion.

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

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