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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meyers’ rise in the musical world was meteoric. She appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at age 11, made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut the same year and a year later soloed with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. At age 23, she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, the only artist to be the sole recipient of this annual prize, and embarked on an extensive recording career with RCA Red Seal (at the time one of the most prestigious labels in the industry).
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Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Local violinist Laurie Niles (who also runs an excellent Blog site entitled “Violinist.com”) has two stories on Myers and her “Vieutemps” HERE and HERE
• You can see a YouTube video clip of Myers talking about the violin HERE and that same clip is currently the lead when you click on her Web site HERE.
• Information on Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concerts is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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(CORRECTED) AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Opening a new chapter for the Pasadena Symphony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OVERNIGHT REVEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops close season in style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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