AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Winding down, ramping up as classical music seasons collide

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.

We’ve arrived at that odd time of the classical music year when outdoor concerts are winding down while at the same time indoor seasons are beginning to ramp up.

• Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops Orchestra wrap up their 2014 summer season Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum with a program entitled, “New York! New York!” The evening will include music by Leonard Bernstein (Candide Overture, West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town), several songs by Duke Ellington, and works by Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter. As is usually the case with a Feinstein concert, there will be several revivals among the offerings. Vocalists Patti Austin, Liz Callaway and Aaron Tveit will join the fun.

Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• Hollywood Bowl wraps up its classical season during the next couple of weeks. Ludovic Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony since 2011, returns to the Cahuenga Pass amphiteatre this week. Tuesday’s concert combines Mendelssohn with Mozart. Thursday’s performance features Colburn Conservatory student Simone Porter, who made an impressive debut with the Pasadena Symphony earlier this year, soloing in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Jessica Gelt has a profile of Porter in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

The final Tuesday concert (Sept. 9) will be led by Vancouver Symphony Music Director Bramwell Tovey. The program will open with the world premiere of Erskine, a concerto for drum set and orchestra, written by English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage for percussionist Peter Erskine, who will appear as soloist. Holst’s The Planets will conclude the evening, accompanied — as is now almost “de rigueur” — by imagery from NASA and JPL rovers and satellites, despite the fact that Holst’s musical depiction was astrological rather than astronomical.

On Sept. 11, Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena will lead Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale joining the Phil to conclude the season.

Information: 323/850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com

• Meanwhile, the Angeles Chorale begins in 40th anniversary season on Sept. 13 at First United Methodist Church in Pasadena. Artistic Director John Sutton will lead his chorale in “Unbridled Joy: an Evening of Gospel, Spirituals and More,” which will feature a performance of Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass. Two vocal soloists and several instrumentalists will join the chorale in the concert.

The concert will spotlight the “Justin Carr Wants World Peace” Memorial Foundation, established in memory of the then-16-year-old Altadena resident who died of cardiac arrest during a swimming workout in 2013.

Information: 818/591-1735; www.angeleschorale.org

• First Congregational Church of Los Angeles kicks off its 46th annual organ concert series with a weekend devoted to its multiple organs, which together total 346 ranks, 265 stops, and 18 divisions — more than 20,000 pipes in several locations around the massive gothic sanctuary (modeled after Chartres Cathedral in France).

Fred Swann, former organist at First Congo and former president of the American Guild of Organists, will give a master class on Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. That evening at 8 p.m., three notable college grad students — Jaebon Hwang, Minh Ngyuen and Qi Zhang — will play a free recital. The following afternoon will be an “organ crawl,” a chance to get an up-close look at the workings of this massive instrument. Advance tickets at $25 are required for the organ crawl; the other events are free.

Information: fccla.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: Tovey conducts Bernstein, Gershwin at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic: Bernstein and Gershwin
Branwell Tovey, pianist and conductor; Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocalist
Thursday, July 10 • Hollywood Bowl
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Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin, Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic — four names inextricably linked with Hollywood Bowl — combined for an occasionally quirky but ultimately satisfying concert last night at the Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. The pairing was certainly popular: 11,875 people showed up, 4,155 more than attended Tuesday night’s classical-season opener of this, the 93rd season at the famed outdoor venue.

The Phil apparently can’t decide how to describe its relationship with Tovey, the British-born composer-conductor-pianist who turns 61 today (which also happens to be the 77th anniversary of Gershwin’s untimely death). Although none of the preconcert media releases list any local title for Tovey (since 2000 he has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony), the printed program continues to list him as Principal Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. Whatever; he’s a welcome presence. With his conducting skills and erudite comedy that last night played to and off of the audience, various orchestra members and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tovey remains the pinnacle of outdoor maestros both for his musical and raconteur skills.

Last night he showed off another of his many facets by doubling as pianist and conductor in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Most people who attempt this dual role remove the piano lid and shove the piano into the middle of the orchestra (over the conductor’s podium, in effect). Tovey, instead, placed the piano in its usual concert position with the lid raised to its full extension, which meant that a goodly number of players couldn’t see Tovey while he was playing.

Tovey solved this problem (sort of) by beginning the introduction — with Michele Zukovsky’s slinky, sumptuous clarinet solo — on the podium and then sitting down to play. The orchestra had a tendency to bog down a bit until Tovey would get off the bench and whip the tempo back to what he considered acceptable. It was all a bit disconcerting. Considering that Tovey doesn’t make his living as a pianist, he was remarkably dexterous in the solo portions, although the performance certainly wasn’t note-perfect. The audience had a good time; they gave Tovey and the orchestra a thunderous ovation at the end.

Prior to Rhapsody in Blue, Tovey and Co. offered a fiery rendition of Bernstein’s Candide Overture and four pieces from the 1944 musical On the Town. The three-movement orchestral suite from the musical was notable for, among other things, melancholy solos by James Wilt on trumpet and Carolyn Hove on English horn in the second movement and the car-horn effect in the first movement, appropriate since Gershwin’s An American in Paris was the concert finale.

Following the suite, Alysha Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson raced onstage to perform the saucy I Can Cook, Too as a plug for a Broadway revival this fall at New York City’s Lyric Theatre. Of a review of the 2013 production in Vermont, New York Times critic Ben Brantlee wrote: “John Rando’s production of On The Town … is one of those rare revivals that remind us what a hit show from long was originally all about. The joy of Mr. Rando’s production is in its air of erotic effortlessness.” It would be hard to term last night’s “tease” as “effortless” but “erotic” it certainly was; this number (for which Bernstein wrote the lyrics) must have ruffled more than a few feathers in 1944.

After intermission, Bridgewater joined Tovey (at the piano) and the orchestra for arrangements of four Gershwin songs that Tovey orchestrated in 2000. Whether she genuinely had a brain cramp that left her totally clueless as how to begin A Foggy Day in London Town or was grinding through a grossly overdone shtick between her and Tovey, Bridgewater’s breathy renditions of Foggy Day, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and Fascinating Rhythm gave little, if any, sense of Gershwin’s genius in this genre.

There’s no programming genius required to conclude this kind of concert with An American in Paris, but Tovey’s humorous introduction (one wonders how a felt hat draped over a trumpet bell really affects the sound) led to a solid, forthright performance of this Bowl and L.A. Phil staple, which sent everyone home happy.

Bernstein, Gershwin, Tovey and the L.A. Phil under a full moon and basking in delightfully cool evening temperatures — this is why people keep coming back year after year.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The brightest sign of the $2.8 million renovations to the Bowl this year this is the addition of new Alaskan cedar benches, which replaced ones that had been in use since 1982. “Over time,” writes Ross Guiney, LA County Department of Parks and Recreation Director, “the wood will naturally weather in the beautiful silvery-gray color with which Bowl-goers are familiar.”
• C+ to the camera operators, who weren’t always on cue with which orchestra player was being featured in a solo lick. On the other hand, the color quality was superb and the sound system has become first-rate.
• On Tuesday, conductor James Gaffigan leads the Phil in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Behzod Abduraimov, who is making both his Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl debuts, as soloist in the concert. They replace Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yefim Bronfman, who were originally scheduled to perform. Salonen, former LA Phil music director and now conductor laureate, cancelled “due to unforeseen personal reasons,” says the Phil announcement, while Bronfman is bowing out “due to the unavoidable scheduling of a minor medical procedure.” (LINK)
• Next Thursday, Salonen will return to the Bowl for the first time since 2009, conducting first piano concertos and first symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Yuja Wang will be the piano soloist in both concertos; joining her for the Shostakovich will be LAPO Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten.
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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: A big opening classical-music month for Hollywood Bowl

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.

Although classical concerts fill only about a third of the increasingly busy Hollywood Bowl season, for us old codgers summer at the Bowl doesn’t really begin until the classical season opens July 8 with Tuesday and Thursday night concerts continuing until Sept. 11.

There’s an unusually interesting mix of programs and conductors in this, the 93rd season at the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. Any season where we can see Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen in consecutive weeks rates as noteworthy.

Bramwell Tovey, who for several years held the title of Principal Conductor at the Bowl but now is just a frequent albeit welcome guest, leads the July 8 program, which is definitely not your typical classical-season opener. Instead it’s a delightful hodge-podge featuring violinists Joshua Bell and Phillippe Quint, the ensemble Time for Three, vocalist Frankie Moreno and actress Glenn Close, performing music ranging from Franz Waxman to Edgar Meyer and Igor Stravinsky (the 1919 Firebird Suite).

Tovey will be both conductor and pianist on July 10 in music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, including Rhapsody in Blue. Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater will sing Gershwin songs during the concert.

Things shift into hard-core classical programming after that. In the second week Salonen — the Phil’s former music director and now conductor laureate — makes rare Bowl appearances. The July 15 program pairs a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto; one of Salonen’s favorite collaborators, Yefim Bronfman, will be soloist.

The July 17 program is subtitled “Russian First” with good reason. It pairs the first symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich with both composers’ first piano concertos. One of our era’s most exciting pianists, Yuja Wang, will return to the Bowl as soloist in the concertos and LAPO Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten will do the honors in the Shostakovich (indeed, hearing Yang and Hooten in the Shostakovich should be worth the price admission by itself).

LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel takes the Bowl podium for the next two weeks. The July 22 and 24 programs are duplicate performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and his rarely performed Triple Concerto, featuring Renaud Capuçon, violin, Gautier Capuçon, cello and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano.

The duplication gives the Phil extra time to rehearse for what has become the now-annual opera night, which this year features the traditional pairing of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana on July 27.

Dudamel and the Phil continue the summer’s crossover programming on July 29 with Marquez’s Danzóns Nos. 4 and 8 and Kauderer’s Symphonic Tangos joined by Latin-jazz songs of from Rubén Blades.

The final July concert will conclude this summer’s edition of Dudamel’s “Americas and Americans” theme as the orchestra screens film clips accompanied by music from a number of composers including Gustavo Santaolalla (e.g., The Motorcycle Diaries) and concluding with a suite from Dudamel’s score to Libertador, a Simón Bolivár biopic that is scheduled to open in the U.S. Aug. 22.

That, my friends, counts as quite a month of music making!

INFORMATION: www.laphil.com
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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: Tovey, L.A. Phil dazzle in Shostakovich’s 5th, “Songs of the Paradise Saloon”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Bramwel Tovey, conductor
Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. (includes Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Information: www.laphil.com

As a professional music critic, I try not to write reviews based on comparisons with other performances I’ve heard. It would be disingenuous to say that I don’t recall them; that wouldn’t be human nature and, indeed, there are a double handful of performances that are seminal in my musical life. Nonetheless, I try to take each performance as I hear it, on its own merits or lack thereof.

Having said all of that, I cannot remember a more stunning performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 than I heard played by Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, nor can I imagine the Phil playing any better period. This one goes in my double handful!

From the first notes, it was obvious that Tovey had his own take on this towering, 45-minute piece written in 1937 when the composer was in the midst of one of his battles with the Soviet Union government bureaucracy and, specifically with Joseph Stalin.

Moreover, this was one of those performances when the orchestra seemed at one with the conductor, both making this performance a living, breathing organism. I’ve seen this happen between the Phil and Gustavo Dudamel but rarely with other conductors; last night, happily, was one of those times.

I could toss out kudos to every player but must single out the Phil’s new principal flute, Julien Beaudiment. When Tovey waded into the orchestra to acknowledge principals, Beaudiment’s hand was the first he shook, and with good reason. Throughout the piece, his playing was deeply soulful with a gorgeous tone.

Others to note were Marion Arthur Kuszyk, oboe, Principal Clarinet Michele Zukovsky, Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, and the entire brass section. More than individuals, however, were the sound and precise execution of each section in the orchestra: strings, winds, brass, piano, harp and percussion.

As the Largo movement unfolded majestically, I was reminded of Howard Posner’s program note (which, interestingly, is not the one posted online). Posner wrote, “The Largo had much of the audience in tears. It does not tend to have the same effect on us because we do not hear echoes of Russian funeral music in its melodies, and we have not experienced the devastating upheaval that they lived with.” Perhaps not, but as the final hypnotic notes died away, I could appreciate why those first Russian audiences wept; the effect last night was deeply moving (thanks, also, to Disney Hall’s marvelous acoustics).

Tovey immediately launched into the fourth movement, taken at an imperial, majestic tempo, before cutting the orchestra loose in frenzy. As he did throughout the performance, Tovey layered the levels of sound perfectly in this movement (kudos, again, to the brass) and the final measures, taken in as slow a tempo as I have ever heard, were riveting, the final tympani and bass drum blows ringing out as canon shots. The audience, predictably, went bonkers.

All of this, ironically, eclipsed the Los Angeles premiere of Tovey’s own Songs of the Paradise Saloon (in a hilarious talk before the performance, Tovey looked back at the score and joked that he can never remember whether it’s Songs of the Paradise Saloon or Songs from the Paradise Saloon.)

Either way, the piece — which grew out of Tovey’s opera, The Inventor — proved to be a jazzy, jaunty look at a New York City bar (Tovey, ever the Brit, called it a “pub”). In truth, it’s really a trumpet concerto, written for Toronto Symphony Orchestra Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless.

Last night, British trumpeter Alison Balsom — this year’s Gramophone “Artist of the Year” —gave a bravura performance of the piece, which is essentially a theme and 12 variations, all of which last about 25 minutes. The variations proved to be fascinating and Balsom seemed to sail effortlessly through everything, displaying a golden tone throughout the performance as she played at various times on two trumpets and a flugelhorn.

Tovey and the orchestra accompanied her with impressive sensitivity, not always easy because at some spots — especially when she put a mute into her trumpet — Balsom’s sound was barely audible. The interplay between Balsom and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and between Balsom and Principal Cellist Robert DeMaine were particularly noteworthy.

This is a piece I would love to hear again, although my wife thought it sounded crazy. I pointed out that’s exactly the scene that the music was written to convey.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The concerts tonight and tomorrow afternoon include a performance of Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was omitted last night in the “Casual Friday” format.
• Based on last night’s crowd, there should be plenty of tickets available for tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Grab one!

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PREVIEW: Bramwell Tovey returns to conduct Los Angeles Philharmonic in his own work

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Bramwel Tovey, conductor
Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Saturday and Sunday only)
Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon; Alison Balsom, trumpet
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com
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Tovey_2013There are multiple reasons why people choose concerts to attend. Sometimes it’s the ensemble or soloist performing. Sometimes it’s the hall. Sometimes it’s the program. Sometimes it’s the conductor.

Occasionally it’s all four and that’s the case for me this weekend when Bramwell Tovey (right) conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in three concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Tovey, now in his 14th season leading the Vancouver Symphony, is always a welcome guest on the podiums at Disney Hall and Hollywood Bowl (where for several years his title was Principal Guest Conductor).

In addition to being a first-rate conductor, Tovey is one of the most erudite lecturers I’ve ever heard. Although Veronica Krauses is listed as the preconcert facilitator, I certainly hope Tovey will make an appearance; no offense to Veronica but Bram by himself would be just fine.

Friday’s concert is part of the orchestra’s “Casual Friday” series. After introductory remarks, usually by a member of the orchestra, this Friday will open with Tovey’s own work, Songs of the Paradise Saloon, which was written in 2008 for Toronto Symphony Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless. It ultimately ended up in Tovey’s opera, The Inventor, commissioned by Calgary Opera and premiered in January 2011 (with a libretto by John Murrell). Rather that rewrite the story of Tovey’s work, I suggest you read his own program note HERE.

I would expect Tovey to spend a few minutes talking about the program and, specifically, about his own work, and there will be a Q&A session after the performance. The soloist for these concerts will be English trumpet soloist Alison Balsom, winner of Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” for 2013. (INFO)

Like many organizations, the Phil is pairing Tovey’s piece with a famous repertoire works: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. It should be a big night for the Phil’s brass and percussion sections. The Saturday and Sunday concerts open with Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which would have been a perfect choice for a “Casual Friday” concert, although the two pieces selected are just fine, by me.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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