NEWS: Pacific Symphony’s 2017-2018 season includes Carnegie Hall debut and more

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Sometimes the most intriguing parts of a season announcement are not what management thinks is the lead item but what’s buried inside the release. It may be a particularly interesting soloist, an up-and-coming guest conductor, or an unusual piece to be performed.

Case in point: the Pacific Symphony, which announced its 39th season with a lengthy release emailed to the media yesterday. The lead was obvious: the orchestra will make its Carnegie Hall debut on April 21, 2018, the final event in the iconic New York City hall’s yearlong celebration of Philip Glass’ 80th birthday.

However, buried among the season details are a couple of fascinating conducting debuts.

On Oct. 19, 20 and 21 André Previn makes his PS debut in a program beginning with the West Coast premiere of his own ZZZAlmost an Overture,ZXZ which will receive its premiere as the first piece of the inaugural season of the Newport Contemporary Music Festival this July. The now-87-year-old Previn will conclude the PS program with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, which he recorded decades ago when he was principal conductor of the London Symphony.

The backstory of Previn’s appearance, of course, is that it is not with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Previn became the Phil’s music director in 1985, succeeding Carlo Maria Giulini but resigned in 1989, reportedly after clashing with the Phil’s Executive VP and General Manager Ernest Fleischmann. It’s been decades since Previn has returned to conduct the Phil, although that may change when the LAPO releases its 2017-2018 season on Tuesday.

Another interesting PS conducting debut is Ben Gernon, who was a 2013-1014 Gustavo Dudamel Fellow with the LAPO and has just been named Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in England. Gernon will lead the PS concerts on May 31, June 1 and 2.

Carl St.Clair, who begins his 28th season as the Pacific Symphony’s Music Director, will lead eight of the 12 weeks on the subscription seasons, plus a one-time concert featuring Joshua Bell as soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. He will also conduct the Carnegie Hall concert.

Among the season’s soloists will be violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who will play Morten Lauridsen’s arrangement of his famous choral work, ZZZO Magnum Mysterium,ZXZ on the season’s final concerts on June 14, 15 and 16.

Read Paul Hodgins’ report in the Orange County Register HERE.

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

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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.

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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.

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CLASS ACT: Some last-minute gift ideas for your classical music lover

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each year about this time, people call or email me asking what to get as a holiday present for their favorite classical music lover. My answer this year remains the same: tickets. Technological innovations notwithstanding, attending a concert in person is still the best way to experience the full scope of classical music.

If you plan ahead, you can obtain tickets at reasonable prices, especially if the recipient of your gift is a senior or student. Better still, plan on attending the concert with the person to whom you provide the tickets.

Here are a few opportunities among hundreds in genres ranging from orchestras to chamber music to choral programs and beyond:
• Earlier this year the Long Beach Symphony named Eckart Preu (pictured) as its next music director. You will have a chance to experience his podium presence on Feb. 4 when Preu makes his only appearance this season with the LBSO (he takes over the orchestra’s podium next season). His all-French program concludes with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Information:

• This season is Jeffrey Kahane’s last as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and he’s going out with a bang, curating a two-week series in January entitled “Lift Every Voice.” I’ll detail the proceedings in my January 1 column (which includes an interview with Kahane) but there are several events worthy of your attention during this series that might make great gifts: Information:

• If sweeping Romantic music is your forte, consider the Pasadena Symphony’s Feb. 18 concerts. Music Director David Lockington will conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique) and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Natasha Paremski as soloist. On the other hand, if your tastes run to the baroque, the PSO’s January 21 concerts feature music of Bach and Handel led by Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan. Information:
• Carl St.Clair (pictured), music director of the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, will lead the USC Thornton School of Music Symphony on Jan. 22 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program is micro and macro: Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos (with Bernadene Blaha and Kevin Fitz-Gerald as soloists) and Richard Strauss’ sprawling musical depiction of a day the country, An Alpine Symphony.

This appearance is part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sounds About Town” series, which offers top-quality student ensembles at reasonable prices: $30-$44 each. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing a concert in Disney Hall, this is a splendid opportunity for superb music in a great setting. Information:

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

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 17, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



Each Thursday morning, I list five events that peak my
interest, including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at a minimum,
inexpensive tickets). Today’s grouping covers a wide geographical area:



Thursday through
Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rene and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

Pacific Symphony;
Carl St.Clair, conductor — Music Unbound: Mahler’s Symphony No. 9

The latest installment of the orchestra’s Music Unbound series focuses on Mahler’s
Symphony No. 9. Although the concert begins at 8 p.m., the preconcert program
at 7, created by Joseph Horowitz, features actors Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett
performing in “I Beg You to be Truthful”
— The Marriage of Gustav and Anna Mahler: A Self-Portrait in Letters.
30-minute presentation is based on Gustav Mahler: Letters to his Wife, edited by Henry-Louis de La
Grange and Gnther Weiss in collaboration with Knud Martner. There will also be
a display of the Mahlers’ letters in the lobby. Info:


Saturday at 8 p.m.
and Sunday at 6 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica

Jacaranda’s tribute
to Henryk Gorecki

Jacaranda is one of the area’s most impassioned (and
excellent) advocates of new music. This program will pay tribute to the Polish
composer who died Nov. 12, 2010. Pianist Mark Robson will perform Gorecki’s
first published work (Four Preludes, Op.
and the Calder Quartet and Lyris Quartet will join Jacaranda’s chamber
orchestra in other Gorecki works. Info:


Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
at Sexson Auditorim, Pasadena City College

Pasadena Young
Musicians Orchestra; Jo Stoup, conductor

This program could have fit in the “free or nearly free”
category below because tickets are just $7 for adults and $5 for students and
seniors. In a program entitled “The French Connection,” Stoup leads her young
musicians in Gershwin’s An American in
Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espaol
and other non-French works. Info:


Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Lszl Fassang,

This is a good weekend for organ lovers (see Timothy
Howard’s program listed below). At Disney Hall, Bach and Liszt will dominate Hungarian
organist Lszl Fassang’s program as he plays music by J.S. Bach (Toccata and
Fugue in F Major), Robert Schumann (Four Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op. 60), Max Reger
(Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46) and Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos salutaren undam) and finishes the
evening with his own improvisations on Bach and Liszt themes. Info:


And the weekend’s “free admission” program …


Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Timothy Howard,

Improvising is pretty much of a lost art with the notable
exception of organists, who — because of proclivity or church job requirements
— relish the opportunity (see Fassang above). One of the best at improvising is
Timothy Howard, whose weekly worship service efforts often include a postlude
improvisation on the final hymn (full disclosure: PPC is my home church and I
sing with Tim, so — as the late, great columnist Molly Ivins often wrote — you
can take this strong recommendation with a grain of salt or a pound of salt).


In addition to two of his own hymn improvs, Howard’s program
— music by Csar Franck, Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Tournemire, Herbert
Howells and Marcel Dupr — will feature pieces originally improvised and later
written down. A bonus is hearing the music played on the church’s 112-rank
Aeolian-Skinner organ, one of the largest and most important instruments in
Southern California. Info:



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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