NEW: Pasadena Symphony extends contracts of Lockington and McGegan

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The Pasadena Symphony has extended the tenures of Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan through the 2018-2019 season. Lockington and McGegan were each appointed three years ago with three-year contracts and the contracts have been extended each year, in effect making them “evergreen” contracts.

Lockington will conduct four concerts during the upcoming season, beginning with the opening programs at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on October 8 at Ambassador Auditorium. McGegan will lead two concerts at Ambassador and the seventh event will be the now-annual holiday-music concert on Dec. 17 at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

The final Pasadena Pops concert of the summer season will be Sept. 10 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Pasadena.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pianist Francesco Piemontesi debuts at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Piemontesi_2016Francesco Piemontesi made a sparkling Los Angeles Philharmonic debut last night at Hollywood Bowl. Photo by Nikki Thomas.
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Francesco Piemontesi. Remember the name.

Under the less-than-ideal conditions ever present in Hollywood Bowl (lack of rehearsal time, outdoor amplification — although the sound engineers were in fine form last night — aerial intrusions —including a flight directly over the bowl — rolling wine bottles, etc.) Piemontesi offered a performance as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 that made even someone who has heard this piece dozens of times in performance sit up and take notice.

Born in 1983 in Locarno, Switzerland, Piemontesi sits in an unassuming manner at the keyboard (the antithesis of Lang Lang, to name but one). He counts as his mentors Murray Perahia, Cécelia Ousset, Alexis Weisenberg and, in particular, Alfred Brendel who, says Piemontesi, taught him “the love of details.”

Those influences were particularly evident in his limpid tone and in the grace and sensitive musicality he brought to the lyrical moments of this ground-breaking concerto, including the trills and runs that permeate much of the work. However, even in the bravura portions of this work there was a genuine sense of musicality to the performance. Rarely has the Bowl’s Steinway sounded so elegant. Someone needs to get Piemontesi back here — and indoors — quickly.

In response to a sustained ovation (lengthy, even by Bowl standards) and at Guest Conductor Andrew Manze’s urging, Piemontesi offered a graceful account of a work that a colleague identified as Au lac de Wallenstadt from the Suisse section of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Throughout its gentle elegance my mind flashed 40 years to when I first Murray Perahia in a solo recital — highest praise, indeed.

Manze and the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered vigorous, yet sensitive support of Piemontesi. We would get a better take on Manze from their performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”), which concluded the concert.

Manaze-2016At age 51 Manze (pictured left) is in that “no-man’s land” for conductors. He is too young to be thought of as one of the “old guard” (e.g., Riccardo Muti, Daniel Brenboim) but he’s too old for orchestras that are enamored with the marketing flash and sizzle of younger conductors such as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Pablo Heras-Casado and — yes — Gustavo Dudamel.

Balding and bespectacled, Manze looks like a genial professor and scholar (both of which he is). He is a former top-flight violinist who cut his conducting teeth in period-performance music, first as Associate Conductor of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and then of The English Consort.

He is quietly building his resume (and expanding his repertoire) with provincial European orchestras, including the Helsingborg Symphony in Sweden from 2006-2014 and since then as Principal Conductor of the NDR Radio-Philharnonic in Hannover. Think of him as a musical “cousin” to another British string player (in this case, a cellist) turned “under the radar” conductor: David Lockington, now Music Director of the Pasadena Symphony.

With Gustavo Dudamel leading only about 35% of LAPO concerts during any one season (typical for music directors of major orchestras these days), having a roster of solid, inspiring guest conductors is a must. Manze appears to be one of those.

He made his L.A. Phil in Feb. 2015 in a Haydn-Mozart concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall and his concert on Tuesday night in the Bowl was all-Mozart. Thus, last night’s program of Beethoven and Schubert can be termed pushing the envelope, somewhat.

Manze led an exuberant, vigorous account of Schubert’s Ninth and the orchestra responded with first-rate playing throughout, with particular shout-outs to the brass and to Oboeist Anne Marie Gabriele. Manze’s period-performance background was evident in his brisk, no-nonsense tempos led with a minimum amount of rubato. This performance of a work probably completed in 1826 looked backward to Beethoven, rather than forward to Brahms and Schumann, whose symphonic works were yet to come, which is a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable approach to take.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Speaking of conductor moving beyond their perceived specialty, Nicholas McGegan, Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco and Principal Guest Conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, will be on the Bowl podium Tuesday and Thursday.

Tuesday’s all-Handel program features, the LAPO, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as soloist and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. INFO

By contrast, Thursday’s program features Weber’s Oberon overture and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish), along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. The program will be a collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is holding a retrospective of paintings by Théodore Roisseau. Videos created in conjunction with The Getty will introduce much of the music. INFO

• On Aug. 21 cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble returns to the Bowl for a program of music spanning the globe — no surprise, since the ensemble is comprised of performers and composers from more than 20 countries.

• It would have been fun to meet Piemontesi. My wife and I have made several trips to his hometown, which is just north of the Italian border (thus, his Italian name) on the northern edge of Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore). We first visited when we were doing a Eurail trip through Europe and journeyed south through the Gotthard Pass Tunnel (the old one, not the one recently opened) to escape a rainy day in Lucerne. We were enchanted and returned several times to visit, so reading of Piemontesi’s hometown brought back a lot of pleasant memories.
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: New West Symphony’s Marcelo Lehninger named music director of Grand Rapids (MI) Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Sometimes the classical world can seem very large. At other times, it’s amazingly small.

Four years ago David Lockington was named music director of the Pasadena Symphony. In taking that position he wound up his 16-year tenure with the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan (he is now that ensemble’s Conductor Laureate).

After a three-year search, the Grand Rapids Symphony has named Lockington’s successor and the orchestra found its man about 45 minutes west of Ambassador Auditorium, the PSO’s home. He is Marcelo Lehninger, who for the past four years has been the music director of the New West Symphony, which plays concerts in Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks and Oxnard. The Brazilian-born Lehninger was also first assistant conductor and then associate conductor of the Boston Symphony for several years.

Lehninger is the 14th music director in the 86-year history of the Grand Rapids Symphony, which runs a 40-week season. Beginning with the 2017-18 season, he reportedly will lead a majority of concerts on the GRS’s classical series and will make podium appearances at other symphony series as well.

Just to add a further twist, the Web site “Slipped Disc” lists Lehninger as one of two Brazilian candidates to be the next music director of the New Mexico Philharmonic (LINK). That’s the ensemble born out of the 2011 bankruptcy of the New Mexico Symphony, where Lockington was music director from 1996-2000. Lehninger will conduct the New Mexico Philharmonic in a concert on Dec. 10 that concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”).

Meanwhile, New West Symphony begins its search for a new music director with guest conductors leading each of the six concerts in the upcoming season, which opens September 30 and October 1 with Tania Miller, the only woman among the six, on the podium (INFO).

Yet to be heard from is the Long Beach Symphony, which has been in a music director-search process for more than three years. The orchestra has released programs and dates for its upcoming season but only three of the six classical concerts have conductors listed.

Ironically, two of the three are connected with the Virginia Symphony. The 2016-2017 season will conclude on June 10 when former LBSO Music Director Joann Falletta returns to Long Beach to lead her former orchestra. Falletta is now music director of both the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony. The LBSO season will open on October 1 when Benjamin Ruffalo, the Virginia Symphony’s resident conductor, leads a program of music by Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams and Prokofiev.

The third conductor on the LBSO season is Robert Istad, newly appointed artistic director-designate of the Pacific Chorale, who will lead an all-Mozart program that will include the Requiem in D Minor, with the Long Beach Camerata Singers, which Istad also directors, joining the orchestra. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Violinist Dylana Jenson: the backstory to an upcoming concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Violinist Dylana Jenson will appear as soloist with the Pasadena Symphony on Feb. 14 — read my preview story HERE.

Jenson’s struggles to find a violin that sings to and through her soul have been detailed in several postings. One is Jenson’s interview with Pasadena-based violinist and blogger Laurie Niles HERE. Another is an interview with violinist Robert L. Jones HERE.

An article by Donald Rosenberg in the Cleveland Plain Dealer is particularly illuminating because details the struggles of violinists to find just the right instrument — as Rosenberg puts it, “a cautionary tale for anyone in search of the instrument that best reflects his or her artistic soul” — Read it HERE.

As I read Rosenberg’s article, I was struck by the similarities between Jenson and organist Cameron Carpenter, who grew so frustrated with the organs on which he has played throughout his career that he built his own instrument. Read my story HERE.

My late wife was a concert pianist and I remember our long search for exactly the “right” piano for her. I was struck by the differences between the many instruments that she played, which included several Steinways. Finally when she sat down at a Baldwin L, she (and I) could hear that this was “Jennifer’s piano.”

FURTHER NOTES:
Jenson’s recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra is still available on compact disc. The recording of the Shostakovich and Barber Violin Concertos she made in 2008 with David Lockington and the London Symphony Orchestra is available as a download through cdbaby.com HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony opens 87th season with dazzling concert

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

My review from last Saturday’s concert is online HERE and has been published in the print editions of the above newspapers.

Additional Thoughts and Musings:
• While I was looking at the piano Saturday afternoon, it appeared to have a fabric cover on top of the lid. Since neither Terrence Wilson nor David Lockington took it off, I assumed that it was on intentionally. Correct, says President/CEO Lora Unger, who reported that the cover was on because the light reflecting on the wood (ebony) results in a glare in the orchestra members’ eyes, which prevents them from seeing.

• I’m still processing the wealth of emotions that I experienced during the superb performance of the West Side Story Symphonic Dances delivered by David Lockington and the PSO.

For someone who grew up during the time that West Side Story came to fruition, the work remains a seminal moment in my musical life. From the passage of time many historians realize that WSS was a landmark in musical theatre but those of us who lived the experience knew it from the start. “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr in his New York Herald Tribune review after the official premiere. I was 12 at that time and even living in the “foreign country” of Los Angeles I knew what was happening. I was 16 when the movie version appeared and, like many teenagers, was entranced by the great love songs: Maria, One Hand, One Heart and Tonight. You can get some background from a recent New York Philharmonic program note HERE.

Although Lockington didn’t explain the history of why Bernstein wrote the West Side Story Symphonic Dances (nor did the printed program), the backstory of West Side Story that he offered was fascinating.

In 1961, the New York Philharmonic was planning a pension fund benefit concert entitled “A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein” on the day before Valentine’s Day. The program was to celebrate Bernstein’s tenure as NYPO music director, which began in 1958, and also the fact that he had just signed a contract to renew that position for another seven years. Lukas Foss conducted the premiere.

Bernstein pulled together nine dances from his iconic musical, which had debuted on Broadway in 1957 and ran there for nearly two years. WSS was made into a movie in 1961. It won 10 Academy Awards out of 11 nominations, including Best Picture, and also won a special award for choreographer Jerome Robbins. BTW: the one nomination that didn’t turn into an award was Best Adapted Screenplay, where Ernest Lehman’s work lost out to Abby Mann for Judgment at Nuremberg.

As nearly everyone knows, West Side Story was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What isn’t as well known is the backstory: in 1947, Robbins approached Bernstein and author Arthur Laurents about a Romeo and Juliet-style work. Robbins wanted it to be about an Irish-Catholic family and a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and its original title was to be East Side Story.

The idea never got any traction but, according to Lockington, Laurents met Bernstein when the latter was conducting at Hollywood Bowl in 1956 and tried to re-pitch the idea. Someone suggested moving the locale to Los Angeles but Laurents was more familiar with Puerto Rican turf wars in New York, so eventually the setting was shifted back to New York City, but this time on the west side of Manhattan — in fact, the setting was in the area now occupied by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“Casting was another problem,” wrote Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn in their program notes. “The perfectionist Robbins wanted a cast of 38 who could both dance and sing — a nearly impossible demand in those days, but now the rule rather than the exception. A choreographer first and foremost, Robbins finally settled on dancers who could sing — as opposed to singers who could dance.”

Ultimately Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins and Stephen Sondheim (who wrote the lyrics) became the creative team and, after nearly every Broadway producer turned down the project, Harold Prince and Robert Griffiths took it on.

Lockington brought out two other points in his preconcert talk. Tonight, which became the famous balcony-scene song, was not the original choice for that pivotal moment. The original idea choice was One Hand, One Heart but that was ultimately moved to the wedding scene. And because the musical leaned so heavily on the tragic nature of the work, the creative team swiped a song from another Bernstein musical, Candide, and turned it into Officer Krupke.

What the West Side Story Symphonic Dances showed was the fragility of Bernstein’s score. The dance suite left out Tonight, Maria, Something’s Coming and Officer Krupke — the “happiest” parts of the musical — and also the sardonically witty America. What emerged was a suite that, while powerful, emphasized the work’s “darker” side. As I noted in the review, the audience didn’t know how to respond to what was a wonderful performance.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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