ANALYSIS: Doors close and open at local orchestras

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

Like any business and top executives, orchestras and their music directors undergo cyclical lives — it’s just that when an orchestra changes its music director it’s newsworthy, at least in its hometown or region.

In Los Angeles, we’ve gotten a bit spoiled because both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have enjoyed great longevity in their musical leadership. Esa-Pekka Salonen served as the L.A. Phil’s music director from 1992 through 2009 and his successor, Gustavo Dudamel, came on board immediately after Salonen stepped down.
Kahane
Jeffrey Kahane (right) has been LACO’s music director since 1997 but recently announced that the 2016-2017 season will be his 20th and final season at LACO’s helm. Meanwhile, earlier this season, Enrique Arturo Diemecke announced that he would not return as the Long Beach Symphony’s music director.

On the other side of the coin, the Pasadena Symphony has now settled its musical leadership team. Michael Feinstein returns this summer for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, and Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will divide duties for the PSO’s upcoming season as they begin their tenures with the orchestra.

In some ways, Long Beach’s situation parallels the Pasadena Symphony when it severed relationships with its long-time music director, Jorge Mester, in 2010. The LBSO management situation appears more stable than the turmoil that had enveloped the PSO four years ago, so it may not take the length of time that it took the PSO to get its new Lockington-McGegan-Feinstein music leadership team on board but it will undoubtedly take some time to find the right replacement for Diemecke, who has led the LBSO for 10 years.

LACO has more than three years to find Kahane’s replacement but they may need every month . For one thing, Kahane brought unique combination of skills to the position. Among his predecessors, only Sir Neville Marriner and Christof Perick could have been classified as “pure” conductors. Gerard Schwarz was well known for his trumpet skills as for his conducting prowess and Iona Brown did most of her conducting from the first violin chair. Kahane came to LACO with a modest, albeit growing, reputation as a conductor but he was — and is — a high-profile pianist, something he hopes to continue in his post-LACO life.

Moreover, LACO has several musical streams beyond its orchestral series, including its “Baroque Conversations” and “Westside Connections” series. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer has curated the latter series; what influence or changes will a new music director want to make in either or both of these series will be part of the questions involved in naming Kahane’s successor.

In contrast to LACO and Long Beach, the Pasadena Symphony is looking forward eagerly to its new era. Some music directors come to new positions with great overarching themes, but Lockington’s first season as Pasadena Symphony music director has a series of themes interwoven throughout the five programs, each of which will be presented in two concerts at Ambassador Auditorium.

Lockington-small4Web“I suppose if I had to pick one adjective for the season,” said Lockington (right) recently, “it would be ‘colorful.’ “ The PSO’s 2014-2015 season includes a wide range of music, from Baroque to contemporary, with a healthy selection of American music sprinkled throughout the five programs.

Lockington and McGegan will alternate in leading the five programs. The opening concerts on Nov. 1 will feature an all-American program that says Lockington, “focuses on popular, virtuosic styles” using music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

The program opens with Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare, which Lockington wrote in 2009 for the Grand Rapids Symphony (where he remains music director) in conjunction with a project he championed entitled “ArtPrize.” “The piece features church bells,” says Lockington, “and when we performed it in Grand Rapids the city’s churches rang their bells to coincide with the music.” Unfortunately, Ambassador is too far from Pasadena’s churches to achieve the same effect.

The Nov. 1 concerts will also feature pianist Terrence Wilson as soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Lockington has never conducted the young African-American pianist but he likes what he has heard. “He plays with great panache,” says Lockington, “with a clear, precise king of brilliance.”

Perhaps the most interesting program is the Feb. 14 concerts, which will be the second that Lockington will conduct. It features Dylana Jenson (who is also his wife and mother of their four children) as soloist in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Lockington’s decision to feature his wife as soloist on Valentine’s Day may seem to smack of nepotism but nothing could be further from the truth. A Los Angeles native, Jenson was a child prodigy who studied under Nathan Milstein (among others), shared silver medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition, and made Carnegie Hall debut two years later with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Shostakovich first violin concerto is a work that Lockington and Jenson recorded in 2008 (along with the Barber Violin Concerto) with the London Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim several years ago.

The program will open with Enter Light, a work by Joel Scheckman, a California native who is a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony clarinet section. “It’s about an eight-minute piece that works beautifully as a lead-in to the violin concerto,” says Lockington. The concert concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Seminal works anchor McGegan’s two concerts: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). The cheeky January 17 concerts open with Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, and also feature Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Esther Keel and her mother, Mihyang Keel, as soloists.

So as LACO and the Long Beach Symphony move forward into uncertain futures, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops appear to be on the threshold of new chapters of stability. Just remember: in a few years (or, if the stars align, decades), the cycles will undoubtedly turn over again.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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.

PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony, David Lockington open new chapters in their lives

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A version of this article will be published Friday in the above papers.
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Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor
Shostakovich: Festive Overture
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato’s “Symposium”); Anne Akiko Meyers, violinist
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. • Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Lockington-pensive4WebWhen David Lockington (right) takes the podium Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium, it will mark a new chapter in the 86-year history of the Pasadena Symphony, as he becomes the orchestra’s fifth music director and the first to hold the position since Jorge Mester in 2010.

However, it will also mark a new chapter in the life of the 57-year-old Lockington, a career that has spanned two continents and carried him from coast to coast in the United States. Although he was born in England, in a sense he’s returning to family roots because his wife, acclaimed violinist Dylan Jenson, was born in Los Angeles and has many family members in Southern California.

Saturday’s programs, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. will include Shostakovich’s Festive Overture; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers as soloist. This marks the second consecutive concert Meyers has soloed for a conductor making his PSO debut; in 2010 it was James DePreist leading his first concert as the orchestra’s Music Advisor.

Meyers (below, right) will also be playing an historic instrument: the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. 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 (read more about the story of Meyers and her violin HERE).

Lockington has served as the Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra since 1999 and has held the same position with the Modesto Symphony since 2007 (where he worked with current Pasadena Symphony Association Executive Director Paul Jan Zdunek). He is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias in Spain.

However, when he was named PSO Music Director last March his focus changed. He’s not yet certain whether he and his family, which includes three grown children and a daughter in middle school, will relocate from Grand Rapids to Southern California. Nonetheless, he says, “I’ve always had a strong belief that if I can’t literally live where I’m working that it’s important for me to have a strong presence in the community, and that certainly will be the case with Pasadena.”

Since he first conducted the Pasadena Symphony in January 2012, Lockington has been in the city five times, meeting people and planning for the future. “The Pasadena Symphony musicians are so quick and so responsive and so professional, says Lockington. “They want to be led but they have a strong desire to make it work and are willing to go wherever you take them, However, if we don’t reach people, if I’m not strongly enough here as the face of the orchestra, then we won’t be doing our job.”

One thing that Lockington has learned is the Pasadena Symphony musicians’ high quality. “Southern California is a London sort of situation with this incredible pool of musicians,” notes Lockington from first-hand experience. Over the years, he has collaborated with several London orchestras; a new recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons he and Meyers made with the English Chamber Orchestra (the first with Meyers playing the “Vieuxtemps” violin) is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Although Lockington will continue to conduct the Modesto Symphony, he will end his relationship with the Grand Rapids Symphony after next season. “That will be 16 years with the orchestra and will mark its 85th season,” explains Lockington. “It was an appropriate time to move on to another chapter.”

He remains unsure about the Spanish job. “My contract is through end of next year (he has led up to 10 concerts a year) and after that we’ll see,” he says. “I love going there,” he says with a chuckle. “Among other things, I can take a long weekend to visit my mother, who still lives on the outskirts of London.”

That kind of innovative planning characterizes Lockington’s musical life, as is evidenced by Saturday’s program. The Rite of Spring was an obvious gift,” says Lockington, “because this year is its 100th birthday. I suppose virtually every orchestra has programmed it (Lockington opened the current Grand Rapids Symphony season with the work).

“Gustav Mahler said of his music, ‘My time will come.’ You wonder whether Stravinsky could have imagined the vast number of performances of “Rite of Spring that have taken place this year and how it has become a staple of orchestral repertoire. It doesn’t have the same shock value as when it premiered, but when you look at the audience attendance numbers every time it’s played it draws well. That shows how more sophisticated audiences have become.”

MyersWebBernstein’s Serenade is much less known than The Rite of Spring Nonetheless, says Lockington, “I love this piece. It’s not typical of Bernstein; it’s so different than West Side Story, which was composed in 1957, three years after Serenade. There are measures that sound sort of Russian. There’s something knotty about it that reminds me of the Russian school. I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.”
Although this is the only PSO concert that Lockington will conduct this season (orchestra schedules are typically planned several years in advance), he will lead three of the five classical concerts beginning next year; the other two will be led by newly named Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan.

Lockington also indicated he would be open to conducting a summer concert at the Los Angeles County Arboretum; he has led outdoor concerts in Grand Rapids and Modesto and attended two concerts at the Arboretum last summer. “The setting is great and the programs are so diverse, always interesting,” he marvels. “I think it’s amazing so see so many people sitting at so many tables; it was mind-boggling! I loved the atmosphere and the peacocks in the background.”

Like many conductors, Lockington was an instrumentalist before he took up the baton. In his case, he played the cello, first in a youth orchestra conducted by his father and later for two years in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (where one of his colleagues was Andrew Shulman, now the PSO’s principal cellist).

Lockington came to the U.S. to earn a Master’s degree at Yale University (he is now a U.S. citizen). He played cello in the New Haven Symphony and was assistant principal cellist for the Denver Symphony for three years before turning to conducting.

“I spent a lot of time observing conductors and what worked with them,” says Lockington. “As a cellist and sitting up front, I had a perfect nest-eye view of what was going on. Being unencumbered by my instrument was also important. If I’d been a violinist, I would have had my instrument in my ear but sitting with my head free couldn’t have been a better way to learn.

“Because I played the cello in an orchestra, I know first-hand what being an orchestra musician is like,” continues Lockington. “I realize it’s a stressful life and I know from experience the precision that’s required, the preparation, the emotional, mental and physical energy it takes to be engaged for long periods of time. So I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for musicians.

“I’m still a practicing cellist,” notes Lockington. “It keeps me honest. I’m asking people to do things every single day that I do when I practice. I know the process and efficiency that’s required to keep in shape and to be able to pull something off in a short period of time. So, in a funny sort of way, I feel like it gives me a license, the right to demand these sorts of things of people because I’m doing it every day.”

Lockington believe there’s another advantage that he has as a cellist. “Being in touch with the string family, the main sound producer of the orchestra, means that the sound I can draw out of the strings affects the total sound of the orchestra,” he believes. “Being a string player means that the sound I listen for and the sound that I draw out is different than if I were a pianist or a horn player for example; not necessarily better, just different. I hope it’s colorful and I hope it’s beautiful. The music has to be special and we have the musicians to do that here.”
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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.

(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.

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.

NEWS: Pasadena Symphony names new music director, principal guest conductor

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

Don’t be surprised if the Pasadena Symphony adopts “The British are Coming” as the theme for an upcoming season. In biting England-like weather conditions today in the rotunda of the Pasadena City Hall, the PSO named British-born David Lockington as the orchestra’s next music director and also announced that another Brit, Nicholas McGegan, would serve in the newly created post of principal guest conductor.

Both contracts are for three years. The 56-year-old Lockington (right) was already scheduled to conduct the opening concert of the orchestra’s 86th season Nov. 2 at Ambassador Auditorium, a program that will conclude with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring), and McGegan was slated for his third consecutive appearance with the ensemble on January 11, 2014 (LINK)

The remaining concert this season and the other three concerts next season will be led by previously announced guest conductors. Beginning in the 2014-2015 season, Lockington will conduct three concerts annually and McGegan will lead two.

Lockington is in his 14th season as music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan. Since 2007 has served in a similar capacity with the Modesto Symphony in central California (Paul Jan Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association, came to that position from the Modesto Symphony). Lockington is also principal conductor of Spain’s Orquestra Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias. He said today he would continue in those positions but expects to spend several weeks in Pasadena beyond those when he conducts.

An accomplished cellist before turning to conducting, he and PSO Principal Cellist Andrew Shulman played cello together in the National Youth Orchestra of Britain more than 30 years ago and Lockington once served as assistant principal cellist with the Denver Symphony). Lockington has also been music director of the Long Island Philharmonic, New Mexico Symphony, Cheyenne Symphony and the Ohio Chamber Orchestra.

McGegan, 61, is international renowned as a baroque music specialist but in recent years has been broadening his conducting repertoire. Two years ago he led the PSO in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) and earlier this year was on the podium for the PSO’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.

For 27 years, McGegan has been music director of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorale. He’s also a familiar face on the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium and will lead the LAPO this August in Hollywood Bowl.

At the media conference, today Lockington called his appointment something of a homecoming. “My wife [concert violinist Dylana Jenson) has relatives in the Valley,” he explained, “so we’ve been coming here for years and we’ve always hoped that we’d establish a professional reason to keep returning.”

At the same time, Lockington said he was excited about the orchestra’s musicians and about reaching deep into the fabric of lives in Pasadena and the surrounding regions. “Those of who love live symphonic music have a responsibility to be forceful advocates for the arts,” he declared. “I’m particularly interested in connecting with young people and making a difference in their lives.” Lockington and his family (he and Jensen have four children) will continue to live in Grand Rapids but he expects to spend several weeks in Pasadena beyond those when he conducts.

While the PSO has been led by a series of guest coductors during the past three seasons (most of whom have acquitted themselves admirably), the orchestra’s boar and musicians were determining the scope of future leadership. “We were looking for someone with leadership, musicianship and inspiration qualities,” said Board President Diane Rankin (a former member of the PSO’s flute section).

Drew Dembowski, the PSO’s principal bass who was one of four musicians on the committee that recommended Lockington, said, “David was the clear choice of the musicians. I cannot ever remember being as excited as I am about this announcement today.”

Lockington has made five recordings with the Grand Rapids Symphony (one was nominated for a Grammy in 2007) and he and Jensen collaborated on a recording of the Shostakovich First and Barber Violin Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2010.

McGegan (*left) has more than 100 recordings to his credit and has garnered both a Gramophone Award and a Grammy nomination. Like Lockington, McGegan was educated at Canbridge (McGegan also studied at Oxford, the English equivalent of attending both USC and UCLA). McGegan received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 2010.

At today’s media conference, Zdunek noted that the two appointments bring to a conclusion a turbulent period that began with the worldwide financial meltdown in 2008. During the past four years, the orchestra has:
• severed its relationship in May 2010 with music director Jorge Mester after a 25-year tenure;
• named James DePreist as artistic director after Mester’s departure; DePreist died last month month at age 76;
• had former Pasadena Pops music director Rachael Worby leave after a 10-year-run;
• appointed legendary composer Marvin Hamlisch as Worby’s successor, only to have him die unexpectedly last August;
• named Michael Feinstein as Hamlisch’s successor beginning this June;
• changed outdoor venues three times (ending at the Los Angeles County Arboretum);
• moved into its new indoor home, Ambassador Auditorium;
• named Peter Boyer as the orchestra’s first composer-in-residence (the orchestra’s final concert this season on April 27 will conclude with the world premiere of Boyer’s Symphony No. 1 (LINK);
• remade its staff and board of directors; and
• retired a $1.2 million debt.

Read Janette Williams’ story in the Pasadena Star-News HERE.

Read the complete PSO media release HERE.

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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Two conductors make big news

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

Two conductor announcements thousands of miles apart made news this past week. One has immediate implications for Los Angeles and the other might. One thing’s for sure: the year 2018 has just gained significance in the classical music world.

The immediate impact story
James Conlon has extended his tenure as music director of Los Angeles Opera through the 2017-2018 season. Conlon joined LA Opera in 2006, succeeding Kent Nagano. Among his many accomplishments, Conlon led the company’s first production of Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen in 2010.

During his tenure with LAO, Conlon has conducted a total of 33 different operas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, including 18 company premieres and two U.S. premieres. To date, he has conducted 190 performances of mainstage LA Opera productions, more than any other conductor in the Company’s history. He returns to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion pit on March 9 to lead six performances of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and on March 23 to lead six performances of Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

It’s a measure of Conlon’s versatility that he could handle Wagner’s dramatic account of the sea captain doomed to wander the seas endlessly in his ghost ship and Rossini’s telling of the Cinderella story in the same month. In fact he conducts the two operas within 18 hours of each other on March 23 and 24.

He’s been a joy since he arrived and we’re lucky that this transplanted New Yorker has learned to love L.A. enough to sign on for another five years. Conlon’s commitment is also a reaffirmation of LAO’s continued rebound from the economic crash of 1998.

The longer-range story
Simon Rattle has announced that he will step down as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic when his contract expires in 2018. Sir Simon (he was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1994) will be 64 when he leaves the prestigious post; he was named to succeed Claudio Abbado in 1999 and began his tenure in 2002. When he retires, Rattle will have been in the post longer than all but two other conductors: Arthur Nikisch (1895-1922) and Herbert von Karajan (1954-1989).

In his announcement, Rattle said he gave a long lead-time to allow the orchestra time to name a successor. Most orchestras have a gap — sometimes a long gap — between the end of one tenure and the beginning of another; to cite one example, the Chicago Symphony went four years between the tine Daniel Barenboim left in 206 and Riccardo Muti arrived in 2012. Berlin has a chance to avoid what can be a major problem.

Speculation about Rattle’s successor will, inevitably, center on Gustavo Dudamel, whose contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic currently runs through 2018-2019 (which will be the Phil’s centennial season). Rattle, of course, has a history with the LAPO. He made his North American debut in 1976, conducting the London Schools Symphony Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. He first conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1979 and was the Phil’s Principal Guest Conductor from 1981╨1994. How ironic it would be if Rattle and Dudamel swapped posts.

NEWS FROM AROUND THE MUSICAL WORLD
The Grand Rapid Symphony apparently sounded like Southern California transplants this weekend. David Lockington — the group’s music director who was in town last year to conduct the Pasadena Symphony — led his orchestra in performances of John Adams’ City Noir, the work he wrote three years ago for Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural Disney Hall concerts as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director. Also on the GRS program was The Great Swiftness by Andrew Norman, a Grand Rapids native who is the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s composer-in-residence. LACO played The Great Swirtnexx earlier this season. You can read what a local music critic had to say about the GRS performance HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

NEWS: Pasadena Symphony unveils 2013-2014 season

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

There are similarities between the current Pasadena Symphony season and the 2013-2014 schedule, but there are also some subtle differences. All five concerts will have performances at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium but, unlike the current season, which began with two concerts in late 2012, the upcoming schedule will begin November 2 and then conclude with four concerts in a five-month-span in 2014.

The orchestra continues to operate without a music director and is now sans a music advisor, as well, following the death last Friday James DePreist (LINK), who had held the latter title for three seasons.

Two of the five conductors will be returnees, including Nicholas McGegan, who appears for the third consecutive season on Jan. 11. His program includes Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with 12-year-old Uni Garrett as soloist (yes, you read that age right; actually, she will be 13 when she appears with the PSO — she becomes a teenager on Aug. 15).

David Lockington, music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony, appears for the second consecutive season when he leads the opening concerts on Nov. 2 that feature Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, Anne Akiko Meyers as violin soloist. May 29, 2013 marks the centennial of the inaugural performance of the Stravinsky/Diaghilev that caused a riot when it opened in Paris.

Outside of McGeghan, the best known of the conductors is Jahja Ling, now in his ninth season as music director of the San Diego Symphony, who will conduct the final concert of the season on May 11, 2014. The blockbuster program will include Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Israeli-born Shai Wosner as soloist.

The other guest maestros are Indiana native Kazeem Abdullah, who will lead the PSO and Donald Brinegar Chorale in Morten Lauridsen’s Midwinter Songs and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on Feb. 15, 2014; and Maryland native Andrew Grams, whose program on March 29, 2014 will include Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra, and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with another precocious teenager, Simone Porter, as soloist.

The annual holiday concert will be held Dec. 14 at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper returns to conduct the orchestra, vocalist Susan Egan, the Donald Brinegar Singers, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and L.A. Bronze handbell choir.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Pasadena Symphony;
David Lockington, conductor

Sawyers: The Gale of
Life.
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 (Andrew Shulman, soloist).

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56, (Scottish)

Saturday, January 14, 2012 Ambassador Auditorium

Next concert: Feb. 18, 2012

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

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There was a multiplicity of themes associated with the
Pasadena Symphony concert yesterday afternoon at Ambassador Auditorium (which
was repeated last night). The predominant theme was Britain: two of the three
composers were English, the guest conductor (David Lockington) and cello
soloist (Andrew Shulman) were born in England but now live in the U.S, and the
concluding work on the program was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish).

 

Prior to the performance, Lockington — music director of the
Grand Rapids and Modesto Symphonies — described the program’s theme as “Looking
Back.” Mendelssohn, who began the symphony at age 21 and completed it 12 years
later, was recalling a trip he made to Scotland as a teenager in 1829. Elgar,
said Lockington, was looking back on the wreckage of World War I when he wrote
his Cello Concerto in 1919 (the program note by Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn said,
“It isn’t a requiem for the war dead, but rather for a lost way of life, the
end of a civilization”). Even Sawyers’ piece, which was composed in 2008, uses
as its text the poem On Wenlock Edge
from the 1896 cycle A Shropshire Lad by
A.E. Housman.

 

A third theme was friendship. Lockington and Shulman played
cello together in the National Youth Orchestra of Britain more than 30 years
ago, and Lockington and Sawyers are now friends. And a final theme was uniform
excellence, as in the performances Lockington, Shulman and the orchestra
delivered throughout the concert.

 

The program’s centerpiece — in placement, as well as in
performance — was Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Shulman captured the work’s aching
melancholy (the first three movements begin Adagio,
Lento
and Adagio) superbly with
his silky tone and expressive musicality, while Lockington and the orchestra
accompanied sensitively.

 

The opening work, The
Gale of Life
a 10-minute
concert overture that ends by alluding to the “Witches’ Sabbath” ending of
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
received an exuberant reading from Lockington and the ensemble; they brought
out sympathetically all of Sawyers’ musical metaphors of the windy cliffs of
Wenlock’s Edge on the England coast.

 

Lockington displayed an assured feeling about Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, which concluded the
program. He had a score in front of him but rarely seemed to look at it, often
turning multiple pages at a time. His overall concept was to imbue the reading
with stately grandeur; call it “Mendelssohn a la Elgar.” The orchestra was in
top-notch form, playing with impressive rhythmic precision in the second
movement and displaying a lush sound from all sections — but particularly from
the strings — throughout the performance.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

One other tie in the concert concerns Lockington and Paul
Jan Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association. Prior to coming to
Pasadena, Zdunek held a similar position with the Modesto Symphony where one of
his moves was to bring Lockington on board as that orchestra’s music director
in 2007.

With Shulman scheduled to conduct next weekend’s Los
Angeles Chamber Orchestra concerts (Jan. 21 at the Alex Theater and Jan. 22 at
UCLA’s Royce Hall), LACO and the PSO took the opportunity to do some cross-promotion
by inserting a flyer with a 20% ticket discount for the LACO concerts. Smart
move, IMHO. Shulman will lead LACO in Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 and Violin
Concerto No. 3, along with Walton’s Sonata for Strings. A link to my article on
Shulman and the PSO and LACO concerts is HERE.

Emulating LACO’s “Sound Investment” commissioning program,
the PSO has begun its “Fresh Ink Society,” which will commission and make
possible the performance of the Symphony No. 1 by Peter Boyer as part of the
opening concert on the PSO’s 2012-2013 season. One of Boyer’s numerous
compositions, Ellis Island: The Dream of
America,
which was premiered in 2002, was nominated for a Grammy Award for
Best Classical Contemporary Composition. For more information on the “Fresh Ink
Society” or to make a contribution, call 626/793-7172.

Lockington’s “Looking Back” theme got me to recall the
first time I heard Elgar’s Cello Concerto in concert, in 1975, when the great
cellist Gregor Piatigorsky was scheduled as soloist in he concerto at a Los
Angeles Philharmonic concert. Zubin Mehta was the conductor, I think it was
opening night, and I believe the other work on the program was Mahler’s
Symphony No. 5. Ronald Leonard had just been named the Phil’s Principal Cellist
and when Piatigorsky had to cancel at the last minute, Leonard stepped in,
which meant his first notes in his new position were the opening lines of the
Cello Concerto (the soloist begins the piece). As I recall, Leonard played it
beautifully, but I’ll always remember it more for his ability to rise to an
unexpected challenge successfully.

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