PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony to open 87th season with Bernstein-Gershwin program Saturday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
This article was first published today Sunday in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News.

Read my preview of the Pasadena Symphony’s season-opening concert on Saturday HERE.

Performance details:
Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor
Nov. 1; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preconcert discussion one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 S. St. John St., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$110
Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Lora Unger named CEO of Pasadena Symphony Association

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

UngerJust when we thoughts things had settled down at the The Pasadena Symphony Association the wheel turns again. The association, which, operates the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, today announced that it has tapped Lora Unger Z(right) as its new Chief Executive Officer, effective November 1. Read the Pasadena Star-News story HERE.

Unger replaces Paul Jan Zdunek, who has been named Chief Capital Development Officer with Singpoli Capital Corp. in Pasadena. For the past several years, Singpoli has sponsored the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor classics series.

Zdunek took over the association in December 2008 in the midst of a major financial crisis that resulted in part from financial losses incurred in the recession. One of his first moves was to hire Unger and together the two have worked with others to steer the PSA back to financial and artistic health.

Among the changes were moving the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor season from the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium into the more intimate Ambassador Auditorium, one of the world’s acoustic gems, in 2010. Two years later the Pops shifted into its summer home, the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The PSO also presents a holiday concert at All Saints Church, Pasadena.

Other changes were messier. Long-time PSO Music Director Jorge Mester left in acrimony and Pops leader Rachael Worby also stepped down. Eventually Zdunek and the association hired Marvin Hamlisch as the Pops’ principal conductors only to have him die suddenly in 2012. Despite the grief from Hamlisch’s death, Zdunek and the board took a gamble by hiring entertainer and historian Michael Feinstein to replace Hamlisch, a toss of the dice that has paid off well both artistically and financially.

The Pasadena Symphony’s music director, David Lockington, will lead his first concert in his new role on Nov. 1 at Ambassador Auditorium (LINK). Noted British conductor Nicholas McGegan will assume his new role as the symphony’s principal guest conductor January 17 (LINK).

In a media release, Lockington said he is “thrilled for Paul and absolutely delighted that Lora will be assuming the role of CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association.” Lockington pointed out that he has “worked with Lora for over four years. She is visionary, smart and an astute strategist. Her style is a stimulating blend of seriousness and humor which makes for a creative working environment.”

Unger, who is a trained violist, holds a BA in Music with a Minor in Business Administration from the University of Louisville, and received her MA in Arts Administration from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati College of Business Administration.

Prior to coming to Pasadena she worked with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as well as the Cincinnati, Modesto, and Jacksonville Symphony Orchestras in public relations, marketing and artistic operations. She was a League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Management Fellow with residencies at the Aspen Music Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. She is a member of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras and a presenter at their conferences

“Given the enormous contributions to our success that Lora has made for us, we’re delighted to elevate her to the position of CEO, following thoughtful deliberation by the Board,” said Kay Kochenderfer, president of the PSA Board of Directors, in the media release. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in Classics Series ticket sales, an astonishing 200% increase in POPS sales, and an 85% subscription retention rate.

Read the full media release HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Grams, Porter make impressive debuts at Pasadena Symphony concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Andrew GramsOne of the advantages of the long interregnum between Pasadena Symphony music directors is that local audiences have heard a number of young conductors who are forging strong careers with orchestras in the United States and abroad. Saturday brought the last of those young maestros as Andrew Grams (right) took the podium at Ambassador Auditorium.

The 36-year-old Baltimore native was recently named music director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in suburban Chicago, an ensemble that is similar in size to the PSO. Grams reportedly was the unanimous choice of the ESO’s musicians and it’s easy to see why. He has an enthusiastic, energetic conducting style and, as he showed in the opening piece Saturday night, a cheeky sense of humor, as well.

For William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra Grams tucked a trio of string soloists high on the back row of the orchestra, where percussionists would normally sit. Midway through their first solo lick, Grams turned to the audience and pointed to the soloists with a sly smile, as if to say, “Did you find them?” It was an appropriately light touch to Bolcom’s mashup of styles that range from Baroque to Mahler to slapstick.

Grams was all business in the final piece for the evening, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, although at the end of the first movement he peeked over his shoulder and smiled as if to say, “It’s okay to applaud.” Overall, Grams took things at a brisk pace, although he also found time to luxuriate in the woodwind solos that permeate the uber-familiar work. The orchestra was in top form throughout most of the performance.

In between those two pieces came Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with 17-year-old Simone Porter as the soloist. A native of Seattle, Porter studies with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. She is also part of Colburn Artists, a program created in 2012 by The Colburn School to provide professional management services to its most-accomplished students, and Saturday night Porter validated her selection.

Playing a 1742 Camillus Camilli violin, Porter displayed a sweet, yet rich tone throughout the concerto, not just in the low notes but on the upper strings as well. She attacked this familiar work with exuberant, youthful gusto and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the moment, listening and bouncing along with the orchestral accompaniment when she wasn’t playing. It was an impressive performance; she is clearly someone to keep an eye and ear on.

Grams and the orchestra offered rich, luxuriant accompaniment, particularly during the broad, romantic moments of this familiar work. I hope that representatives of the Long Beach Symphony, which is searching for a new music director, were in the audience. Grams should be on their candidates list.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Porter’s PSO appearance is one of several important local concerts for her this year. On April 27 she will play Beethoven’s Romances 1 & 2 with the Pacific Symphony, led by Carl St.Clair, at the SOKA Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. On Sept. 4 she will make her Hollywood Bowl debut as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.
• The final concert of the PSO’s 2013-2014 classics season will be held May 10. Jahja Lang, long-time music director of the San Diego Symphony, will lead a program of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Shai Posner as soloist. Information.
• Audience members got the first public look at the PSO’s 2014-02015 season. Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will alternate leading the five classics series concerts, with Lockington conducting the first, third and final program and McGegan leading Nos. 2 and 4. Opening night is Nov. 1. I’ll have more on this tomorrow in a Blog post.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Pasadena Symphony resumes youth movement

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this story was printed today in the above newspapers.
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Pasadena Symphony; Andrew Grams, conductor, Simone Porter, violin
March 29 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preview one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 South St. John Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$105.
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Simone_Porter_4_WebFor more than a quarter-century the Pasadena Symphony has distinguished itself by discovering young, talented soloists. Earlier this year 13-year-old pianist Umi Garrett soloed in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. For the PSO’s programs on March 29 at Ambassador Auditorium, a “grizzled veteran,” 17-year-old violinist Simone Porter (pictured right), will join the orchestra and guest conductor Andrew Grams for a performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The concerts will open with William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra and will conclude with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Porter’s PSO appearance is one of several important local concerts for her this year. On April 27 she will play Beethoven’s Romances 1 & 2 with the Pacific Symphony, led by Carl St.Clair, at the SOKA Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. On Sept. 4 she will make her Hollywood Bowl debut as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.

A native of Seattle, Porter studies with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. She is also part of Colburn Artists, a program created in 2012 by The Colburn School to provide professional management services to its most-accomplished students.

The PSO’s “youth movement” also includes its guest conductor. Grams, a 36-year-old Maryland native, last fall became music director of the Elgin Symphony just outside of Chicago, an ensemble that is similar in many respects to the Pasadena Symphony. In January he conducted the Baltimore Symphony in a concert that elicited from Tim Smith, music critic of The Baltimore Sun, the following: “The year is not even a week old, and there’s a contender for highlight of the 2014 music season in Baltimore.”

Meanwhile, two area choral groups resume their seasons this week.

• Jeffrey Bernstein leads the Pasadena Master Chorale in “The Voice of California” on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday at 4 p.m. at Altadena Community Church. The program features music by Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, along with premieres by Los Angeles-based composers Matt Brown and Reena Esmail. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

• Artistic Director John Sutton will lead his Angeles Chorale in “Romancing the Soul,” an evening of Brahms love songs on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena’s First United Methodist Church and March 30 at 4 p.m. at Northridge United Methodist Church. Information: www.angeleschorale.org

• This evening at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Grant Gershon leads 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in music by famed Southern California composer Morten Lauridsen. The program will include Mid-Winter Songs, Ave Dulcissima Maria, Canticle/O Vos Omnes, O Magnum Mysterium, , Madrigali, Nocturnes and Les Chansons des Roses (Lauridsen will accompany the last two pieces on the piano). Ironically, the only major piece the Chorale won’t be singing is Lux Aeterna, which has become a choral landmark since it was premiered and recorded by the Master Chorale in 1997. Information: www.lamc.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony opens 86th season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Igor Stravinsky’s score to the ballet, The Rite of Spring, is 100 years and five+ months old but it remains one of the most unsettling works ever written, no matter how often you’ve heard it. Pairing “Rite” with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture made for a formidable opening concert to the Pasadena Symphony’s 86th season Saturday afternoon at Ambassador Auditorium.

The program —David Lockington’s first as the PSO’s fifth music director — offered major challenges for the players, conductor and the audience; the latter included a sizeable number of children and young people (always a healthy sign for an orchestra).

The 57-year-old, British-born Lockington’s conducting style seems precise (judged from an audience seat) and he generates a great deal of energy on the podium. As we learned from when he first conducted the PSO in 2012, the orchestra clearly responds well to his leadership. Lockington also delivered erudite comments in the preconcert lecture and prior to the playing of Serenade.

In The Rite of Spring Principal Bassoonist Rose Corrigan spun an appropriately ominous line at the beginning and Lockington and the orchestra built the tension until the first driving, rhythmic section exploded. The orchestra’s winds and the percussion section, headed up by Timpanist Wade Culbreath, were in top form throughout the afternoon. The overall performance was solid, but not breathtaking and the audience responded with a generous standing ovation.

Lockington chose Bernstein’s Serenade as a companion piece because, in his words, “I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.” The rarely played 30-minute work, written in 1954, was inspired by Plato’s dialogue “Symposium” and is the most un-Bernstein sounding piece he ever wrote, although his familiar snappy, jazzy motifs (think West Side Story) do finally emerge in the final movement.

Anne Akiko Meyers gave a superbly virtuosic performance, playing on a 1741 Guarneri del Gesu violin, “Ex-Vieuxtemps,” for which she recently received lifetime performance rights (details HERE) Her lyrical portions sang sweetly (her pianissimos were particularly striking) and she sailed through the thorny sections as if they had been written for her instead of for violinist Issac Stern. Lockington and the orchestra provided supple support.

The program opened with a sizzling rendition of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. Lockington took tempos that were just short of frenetic but not over the top and the PSO was at its razor-sharp best.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Because orchestra schedules are planned well in advance, this was the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. Beginning next season, he’s expected to lead at least three of the classical concerts. Read my story on Lockington HERE).
• The Pasadena Symphony’s holiday concerts are Dec. 14 at 4 and 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper conducts the orchestra, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, vocalist Lisa Vroman and the L.A. Bronze handbell choir. INFO.
• Nicholas McGegan (LINK) makes his first appearance as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the orchestra on Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. The program is scheduled to be Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E minor, with 13-year-old (yes, you read that right) pianist Umi Garrett (LINK) as soloist. Info on the concert is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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