PREVIEW: Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers isn’t just fiddlin’ around at the Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
MyersWebMuch of the buzz for Saturday’s concerts by the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium surrounds David Lockington’s first concerts as the orchestra’s fifth music director. However, the soloist, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, has quite a story to tell, as well.

When Meyers (left) played the Barber Violin Concerto to open the Pasadena Symphony’s 2010-2011 season, it was the first time she had played in a concert with her new violin, the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon,” a Stradivarius dated 1697, which she purchased for a then-world-record price of $3.6 million (the “Lady Blunt” Strad was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million). In a review of that concert, I wrote that she “produced a rich, creamy tone throughout a vibrant performance and set off fireworks in the third movement with her prodigious technique.”

However, when she returns to open the PSO’s 86th season Saturday, she will be playing not her Strad but the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, an instrument Myers calls “one of the most iconic violins ever made.” Earlier this year, Meyers received lifetime use of the “Vieuxtemps” for concerts and recitals thanks to an unnamed benefactor who purchased it at a Chicago auction.

“It is very big responsibility,” says Meyers of the “Vieuxtemps,” which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. “[The ‘Vieuxtemps’] has this projection and richness; there’s such a breadth and dimension to the sound that’s unlike any instrument I’ve ever played.” (Meyers writes about her first experience playing the instrument HERE)

“There are very few of these [iconic] instruments in existence now, maybe 50,” said Meyers to James Cushing for an article in the San Luis Obispo Tribuine earlier this year. “Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifiez played Guarneri Del Gesu violins. Paganini himself played one! Most of them — actually, most violins at this level of quality — are usually locked away in museum display cases and never touched,” she said. “Whenever I see these instruments behind glass, I feel like I’m visiting some sort of zoo. Animals were made to run free, and these instruments were made to be played.” (Read Cushing’s complete story is HERE)

The “Ex-Molitor” was actually the second Strad that Meyers had purchased; the other was a 1730 instrument named the “Royal Spanish.” She made good use of both violins; Meyers’s most recent recording, Air: The Bach Album with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio, features Bach’s solo violin concerti as well as the double concerto with Meyers playing the solo parts on both the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” (which Meyers nicknamed “Molly”) and the “Royal Spanish” Strads. The album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Classical chart and was one of the top-selling classical albums of 2012

The “Vieuxtemps” received its recording debut with Meyers playing when she performed Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, along with Arvo Part’s Passacaglia, accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lockington. The recording is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Meyers has not decided what to do with her two Stradivarius violins. “As I was given lifetime loan of one of the most important violins ever created,” she said in an email, “I am playing on the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” almost exclusively now. I am deciding what to do with the “Royal Spanish” Strad and the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” Strad.” Given her statement earlier about instruments in museum cases, one might expect that the two Strads will find their way to other musicians.

Saturday’s concerts mark the second consecutive “debut” concert for Meyers with the PSO; when she appeared in 2010, it was James DePreist’s first concert as the orchestra’s music advisor.

For Meyers, Southern California concerts count as homecoming. Her career began in Southern California (Meyers was born in San Diego). Now age 43, living in Austin, Texas, where she is Distinguished Artist and Professor of Violin at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music and the mother of a two daughters, Meyers was living with her parents in Ridgecrest at the age of seven when her mother drove her more than three hours each way to Pasadena so Meyers could study with famed teacher Alice Schoenfeld at The Colburn School.

Meyers’ rise in the musical world was meteoric. She appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at age 11, made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut the same year and a year later soloed with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. At age 23, she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, the only artist to be the sole recipient of this annual prize, and embarked on an extensive recording career with RCA Red Seal (at the time one of the most prestigious labels in the industry).
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Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Local violinist Laurie Niles (who also runs an excellent Blog site entitled “Violinist.com”) has two stories on Myers and her “Vieutemps” HERE and HERE
• You can see a YouTube video clip of Myers talking about the violin HERE and that same clip is currently the lead when you click on her Web site HERE.
• Information on Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concerts 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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(CORRECTED) AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Opening a new chapter for the Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
Lockington PSO MD
In any musical organization’s life there are a number of key turning points, whether for good or bad. Often the full impact of decisions cannot be fully evaluated for several years but eventually we can look back and realize that an “aha!” moment did occur. Such a time would seem to be occurring with the Pasadena Symphony, which will open its 86th season Saturday with concerts at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium.

The program — Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with Anne Akkiko Meyers as soloist — will mark the inaugural concerts of David Lockington (right) as the orchestra’s fifth music director. (INFO)

More importantly, they also appear to signal the end of more than six chaotic years in which the orchestra amalgamated with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, weathered a nearly disastrous financial storm, remade its board and executive staff, successfully renegotiated a contract with its musicians through 2015, changed performance locales for both the Pasadena Symphony and the Pops (three times for the Pops), and completely overhauled the organization’s musical leadership team not once but several times.

Not all of these steps occurred seamlessly nor were they universally applauded. Good people lost jobs or volunteer positions. Two conductors beloved by audiences — Jorge Mester and Rachael Worby — departed; another, Marvin Hamlisch, died unexpectedly.

Nonetheless, the saga appears to have come to an end. In a decade where several orchestras around the world have folded or undergone significant labor strife, that statement may sound simple but it’s significant.

Michael Feinstein recently concluded a triumphant first season as principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops and his contract was quickly extended. Saturday’s concerts open a new era for the Pasadena Symphony, as well.

Owing to the fact that orchestra seasons are planned several years in advance, this will be the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. In addition, Nicholas McGegan — like Lockington, a native of England — begins his tenure as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the season’s second concert on Jan. 11. (INFO) That more than two-month gap between concerts is one of several issues confronting the Pasadena Symphony Association at it marches forward.

Less than a decade ago, the PSO offered eight classical programs a season (my original post said nine concerts). Can the orchestra continue to rebuild to that former level or beyond and thus increase its relevance to the Pasadena arts community and beyond?

Lockington, McGegan and Feinstein all have busy careers; Lockington and McGegan have long-standing tenures with other ensembles. Both promise to conduct the PSO multiple times in succeeding seasons but can they become part of our community rather than simply “fly in, conduct, fly out” maestros?

Can the PSO find ways to reach out to an audience that more closely mirrors the increasingly broad age and ethnic makeup of Pasadena and the surrounding communities? One way may be a venture that will be launched with Saturday’s concerts: the Pasadena Symphony Lounge, which will be set on Ambassador’s outdoor plaza and feature a “small-plate” menu, hosted by Claud & Co; a full bar; and light music. That sort of ambience might appeal to a younger audience.

Finally, can the Pasadena Symphony Association find a way to solve the riddle that permeates the entire classical-music community: how can organizations offer high-quality programs at reasonable prices for patrons while paying fair compensation to musicians and staff members? That requires rigorous, visionary management, dedication and skill from musicians, and communities that care enough about classical music to donate the funds that will make up the difference between expenses and revenues from ticket sales. Keeping that balance continues to be a high-wire act

So more than a successful opening program is at stake Saturday. Stay tuned to learn whether this is, indeed, becomes an “aha!” moment.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops close season in style

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

Russell-Feinstein
Vocalist Catherine Russell, conductor Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops lit up the night in an arrangement of Gershwin tunes at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. (Photo by Steve Sabel for the Pasadena Pops)
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When the Pasadena Pops hired Michael Feinstein to replace Marvin Hamlisch as its Principal Conductor shortly after Hamlisch died unexpectedly on Aug. 6, 2012, the orchestra was taking quite a gamble. Although Feinstein is a prolific entertainer and musical scholar, he had never conducted an orchestra prior to the Pops’ opening night last June.

To judge by the summer’s results — notably that first concert and Saturday night’s season finale — that gamble has paid off in a jackpot-large way. According to management, attendance at the Los Angeles County Arboretum has been up more than 30 percent and season renewals for next season have increased more than 200 percent. It’s no surprise that the board wasted no time extending Feinstein’s contract through the 2016 season.

Feinstein has worked on the music of George and Ira Gershwin since pianist Oscar Levant introduced Feinstein to Ira in 1977. Since then, Feinstein has been researching, cataloguing and preserving unpublished Gershwin sheet music and rare recordings, including a six-year-sojourn in the Gershwin’s home.

Thus it’s no surprise that last night’s concert, entitled “The Gershwins and Me,” included 20 Gershwin tunes, many of which were performed in arrangements that had not been played before or at least since their premieres.

As has been the case in all Feinstein concerts, his commentary Saturday was erudite, insightful and witty, laced with fascinating factoids drawn from Feinstein’s relationship with the Gershwin family and Hollywood. What was different from the opening concert was how much more comfortable Feinstein seemed on the podium (at least judging from the audience side). His beats were concise, his cutoffs more expert, and he seemed to swing and thoroughly enjoy himself, particularly in the arrangements of four songs that Nelson Riddle made for Ella Fitzgerald.

Catherine Russell was a creamy soloist in that set, which began with Nice Work if You Can Get It and ended with The Man I Love. In the second half of the concert, Tom Wopat emphasized lyrics in a set that opened with Love is Here to Stay and concluded with I Got Plenty of Nuttin, the latter using an arrangement that Riddle wrote for Frank Sinatra.

The JPL Chorus (Donald Brinegar, conductor) offered spritely lyrics to I Got Rhythm and the orchestra delivered lush sounds throughout the evening. Among the instrumental soloists, Aimee Kreston, violin, and Bryan Pezzone, piano, were standouts.

Before the final scheduled number, Feinstein sang a winsome arrangement of They Can’t Take That Away From Me from the piano, which he termed a preview of the 2014 season when Feinstein will conduct and/or sing in four of the five Pops programs beginning June 7, 2014. Judging by the audience’s reaction, that date will be eagerly awaited.
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HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Last night was Feinstein’s 57th birthday; the orchestra and audience serenaded him with Happy Birthday prior to the concert.
• Among the celebrities in the audience, Feinstein introduced before the concert’s end Mark Gershwin and other members of the Gershwin family, Patricia Kelly (widow of dancer-singer-actor-director Gene), Ginny Mancini (widow of composer Henry), singer Debby Boone (also known to us old fogies as daughter of crooner Pat) and actress Betty White, who Feinstein noted is older than Rhapsody in Blue (look it up).
• The camera work was spotty most of the evening. Sometimes they got the correct soloist (albeit a note or two late); at other times they were totally off base, which can be disconcerting for those watching. Directing a concert is an art form in itself.
• The Pops will offer its annual free “Music Under the Stars” concert on Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the Pasadena City Hall plaza. The orchestra’s resident conductor, Larry Blank, will lead the program. INFO
• The Pasadena Symphony opens its indoor season on Nov. 2 at 2 and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium when newly appointed Music Director David Lockington will lead a program that will include what CEO Paul Jan Zdunek joked last night will probably be the final performance in 2013 of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (this year marks the centennial of the piece’s Paris debut and seemingly every orchestra in Southern California — and probably the world — has programmed it this year). Fortunately, it remains fresh and provocative each time I hear it. INFO
• Brinegar and the JPL Chorus opened the evening with The Star-Spangled Banner, accompanied by snare drum.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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(Revised) AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Sat., Feb. 23 — Mark Your Calendars

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
The revision is a change of date in the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts on March 7, 8 and 10.


The upcoming fortnight has several major orchestral concerts on the schedule and next Saturday (Feb. 23) is one of those occasional overflowing days in terms of classical music that seem to show up every year about this time.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra returns to Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena for its annual one-night “Discover” concert on Saturday at 8 p.m. During Ambassador’s heyday as an arts impresario organization, Ambassador was home to LACO for several concerts each season at the acoustically friendly auditorium (the orchestra now performs at the Alex Theatre in Glendale), but these days LACO returns for just one program annually.

On Saturday, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will take the first half of the concert to delve deeply into Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with the orchestra on stage to illustrate his lecture. Following intermission, Kahane will lead the orchestra from the keyboard and perform as soloist in this landmark concerto.

Information: www.laco.org

There are several other Saturday evening concerts, as well, including:

Musica Angelica — one of the world’s premiere period-instrument ensembles — celebrates its 20th anniversary with performances of Handel’s Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and a suite from Handel’s Water Music, and Telemann’s Concerto for Three Trumpets led by Music Director Martin Hasselböck. The concert is at 8 p.m. at the AT&T Center Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and at 3 p.m. Sunday at First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica. Information: www.musicaangelica.org

The La Mirada Symphony plays the third free concert in its 50th anniversary season at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as Music Director Robert Frelly conducts Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, with Teresa de Jong Pombo as soloist. Information: www.lamiradasymphony.com

Organist Meaghan King makes her Southern California recital debut in a free concert Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. King, the church’s assistant organist, will play music by J.S. Bach, César Franck, Franz Joseph Haydn, Olivier Messiaen and Charles-Marie Widor on the church’s massive Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Information: www.ppcmusic.org

The Los Angeles Philharmonic also plays Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall but fortunately that’s just one of four opportunities to hear this week’s concert, which mark the return to L.A. of Gustavo after a four-month hiatus. He’ll be in town for a flurry of concerts during the next three weeks before he heads out again — this time with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in tow for a tour of London, Paris, Lucerne and New York City.

Dudamel’s latest sojourn begins Tuesday night when he leads The Colburn Orchestra in Disney Hall in a program of Revueltas’ Sensemayá, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, and Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Colburn Conservatory student Sang Yoon Kim as soloist.

The program is noteworthy on several levels. First, since the concert is part of the Philharmonic’s “Sounds About L.A.” series (which presents student ensembles), tickets run from just $20.50 to $45. Second, Tchaikovsky’s fifth was the work with which Dudamel had his local debut, in 2005 at Hollywood Bowl.

Information: www.laphil.com

Dudamel returns to the L.A. Phil podium with concerts Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday that feature Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music from Wagner’s Götterdämerung, along with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish) and Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist. Information: www.laphil.com

The Feb. 28, March 1, 2 and 3 will showcase Debussy’s La Mer and the complete Firebird by Stravinsky. All except the “Casual Friday” concert on March 1 will open with the first LAPO performances of Zipangu by French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier. Information: www.laphil.com

The whirlwind series of Dudamel concerts concludes March 7, 8 and 10 with the first staged performances of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, with Dudamel conducting the L.A. Phil, L.A. Master Chorale, six singers and three dancers.

When the oratorio version of this work premiered last spring, I called it “a very important work, stunningly performed by all forces.” (LINK) It was also nearly three hours long and Adams was, reportedly, very late in delivering the piece to the Phil and others. So part of the intrigue will be whether Adams has trimmed the work in any way and if — or how — Sellars’ staging contributes to the work’s overall impact.

Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW, Christine Brewer in Pasadena Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

 

59959-Brewer-Shustak Web.jpg

Christine Brewer was the soloist in Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in yesterday’s Pasadena
Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium with Michael Stern conducting. Photo
by Ivan Schustak for the Pasadena Symphony.

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Normally when you hear that Christine Brewer is going to
appear with an orchestra in Southern California, you’d expect that the ensemble
would be the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not this year. For the final concert of
its 2011-2012 season, the Pasadena Symphony engaged the well-known American
soprano and had the good sense to ask her to sing one of her signature pieces:
Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in
two concerts yesterday at Ambassador Auditorium.

 

Actually, Brewer is better known for her Wagnerian roles
(she was a stellar Isolde in the L.A. Phil’s “Tristan Project” under Esa-Pekka
Salonen several years ago) but these were the 81st and 82nd
times she has performed Strauss’ magnificent look back on his 84 years of
living. She sang them sumptuously yesterday afternoon.

 

When Strauss wrote the songs, he was looking back to a
musical era — 19th century Romanticism — that had vanished amid the
wreckage of what World War II had done to Germany and, in particular, its
artistic life. Although there’s no evidence that Strauss intended to group the
songs (that was done after his death by his publisher), Strauss used a poem by
Joseph von Eichendorff and three by Hermann Hesse for his evocative texts.

 

Brewer’s lustrous voice swept over the four songs like a
soothing balm. The opener, Spring, was
bright and the second, September, was
wistful. In Going to Sleep,
Concertmaster Aimee Kreston’s rich solo line was a perfect complement to
Brewer’s singing, and the final song, In
the Twilight,
was full of aching melancholy.

 

The orchestra, under the sure hand of guest conductor
Michael Stern (music director of the Kansas City Symphony), delivered rich,
sumptuous accompaniment for Brewer. Together, it was a memorable performance.

 

Stern (who by the way, is the son of legendary violinist
Isaac Stern) was subbing for the PSO’s music advisor, James DePreist, who is
recovering from recent heart bypass surgery. Stern kept the original program,
which began with Dawn and Siegfried’s
Rhine Journey
from Wagner’s Gtterdmerung,
the sort of music for which Strauss was longing in his Four Last Songs. Stern led a brisk rendition of Engelbert
Humperdinck’s concert version of Wagner’s music, highlighted by James
Thatcher’s horn solos.

 

After intermission, Stern concluded the program with
Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Stern obviously knows this piece well (he conducted
without a score) and offered a distinctive reading of this four-movement work
that Stern, in his preconcert discussion, characterized as another of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. You might not have
fully agreed with Stern’s push-and-pull tempos but the orchestra played
gorgeously and he made me think about what was being played — altogether, not a
bad combination for a very familiar work.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Although the classical season officially ended yesterday,
two free concerts have been added next Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium. At 2
p.m., Jack Taylor will lead his Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra in music by
Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland and others that will be a preview of the
ensemble’s upcoming European tour. At 7:30 p.m., Donald Brinegar will lead a
new chorus that has been formed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory along with the
Pasadena City College Chamber Singers in music by Britten, John Lennon and Paul
McCartney, Faur and others. Information:
www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

The Pasadena Pops opens at its new home, the Los Angeles
County Arboretum, on June 16 when Marvin Hamlisch leads a concert version of
his own musical, They’re Playing Our
Song,
with Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein as soloists. The evening will also
include a tribute to Arnaz’s parents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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