OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Jacobs, Robertson and L.A. Phil offer a dazzling organ concerto premiere

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Paul Jacobs is the soloist this weekend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto. He’s pictured last November in the world premiere of the piece with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo credit: Philadelphia Orchestra

Los Angeles Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Ives: Three Places in New England; Rouse: Organ Concerto;
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (“from the New World”)
Next performances: Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

With pipe organs being installed in concert halls in increasing numbers during the past decade or so, composers have gained increasing opportunities to create new organ concertos. Christopher Rouse, one of America’s more prolific composers, has added to the canon with his concerto, which was given its west coast premiere last night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conductor David Robertson, and organist Paul Jacobs at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Remarkably this concerto is just the second organ piece that Rouse has composed (the first, a solo piece, has been “euthanized” from his catalogue, as he puts it). Jacobs premiered the new work last November with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rouse’s Organ Concerto is quite short, just a shade under 20 minutes, written with three connected movements. The Phil’s “FastNotes” states: “Rouse’s Organ Concerto has connections to two famous organ works: a brief reference to the Poulenc Organ Concerto at the beginning, and a hint at the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony at the end. (‘The notes have been changed to protect the innocent,’ Rouse says.)”

Despite its brevity, Rouse’s new work packs quite a wallop. It opens with a loud bang and concludes with an even louder chord. Immediately after that opening punch, Jacobs launched into an extended pyrotechnical cadenza and the movement then shifts to lyrical, tonal writing punctuated with occasional bursts of sound.

The lyrical second movement — with mounds of organ chords atop the dreamy accompaniment — gives way to the finale, which allows the organist to stretch her (or, in this case, his) virtuosic chops.

The Phil placed the organ console at the very front of the stage, which allowed many in the large crowd (which included hundreds of young people) a chance to see Jacobs’ hands fly up and down from one keyboard to another and his feet dance along the pedal board.

Robertson and the orchestra ripped through the accompaniment with aplomb and the audience gave Jacobs, Robertson, the orchestra and the composer an enthusiastic standing ovation following that climactic outburst of sound.

Jacobs responded with a sparkling account of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, as an encore, which showed off his technical prowess (the pedal cadenza at the end was dazzling) as well some intriguing registrations on the Disney Hall instrument.

Any orchestra that has a significant pipe organ (or Cameron Carpenter’s international touring instrument) and a top-flight organist available now has a wonderful piece to alternate with the usual organ concerto suspects. I hope the Phil brings it back soon.

Robertson’s programming choices are always interesting; last night was no different. He opened with Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, a 20-minute work with a lengthy gestation period; Ives began it in 1903 and didn’t finish revising the piece until 1929.

Ives’ father told him, “You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.” Despite that admonition, with its spooky beginning and incorporation of snippets from familiar hymns and folk tunes Three Places in New England is one of this craggy composer’s most accessible works and, consequently, one of his most played, as well. Rouse even seemed to quote the work in his concerto.

Robertson and the orchestra gave Three Places in New England a sensitive, probing performance, particularly in the third movement where the organ’s rumbling bass notes provided added heft.

Although Robertson has undoubtedly conducted Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony hundreds — perhaps thousands — of times and the Philharmonic musicians have played it innumerable times, as well, conductor and musicians treated last night’s performance as if it, rather than Rouse’s work, was the premiere.

The piece offers innumerable solo opportunities and the Phil’s section leaders were at the top of their game, beginning with Carolyn Hove’s plaintive second-movement solo, and also including (but not limited to) Denis Bouriakov, flute; Burt Hara, clarinet; Anne Marie Gabriele, oboe; and Andrew Bain, horn.

The 58-year-old Robertson — who has announced he is leaving his post as music director of the St. Louis Symphony in a couple of years — is a wildly exuberant presence on the podium. Where with Gustavo Dudamel, for example, you are entranced by his hands, with Robertson you watch his feet — if he ever touched the metal supporting bar behind the podium after his feet slid along the carpet he’d probably get a static-electricity shock.

Nonetheless, he clearly communicates his feelings to orchestra and audience alike and really makes effective use of pianissimos and, especially, silences, which always seem to resonate at Disney Hall. In total, the results last night were thrilling, even to a critic who has heard the piece hundreds of times, and the audience ate it up.

• At the conclusion of the Dvorak, Robertson came onstage to the sustained applause and acknowledged Hove and Bain before asking the entire orchestra to stand. After exiting the stage again, he reappeared but this time to stand with the brass section and then with the winds — a nice touch, even if he didn’t ask the orchestra to turn and acknowledge thos seated behind them as Gustavo always does.
• Because Three Places in New England has both piano and organ parts, Joanne Pearce Martin (the LAPO principal keyboard player) had to leave her piano bench to a colleague, Vicki Ray, and race upstairs to sit at the rarely used organ bench high above the bench seats to play the organ in the third movement.
• The first L.A. Phil performance of Three Places in New England was led by Nicolas Slonimsky in 1932. Most of us know Slominsky as a musicologist, particularly for his marvelous book, Lexicon of Musical Invective. However, Slonimsky was also a conductor and Ives created a chamber-orchestra version of this work for his Boston Chamber Orchestra in 1930.
• The “New World” Symphony was one of the first pieces every played by the Phil when Walter Henry Rothwell conducted the first LAPO performance on Oct 25, 1919.

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

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FIVE-SPOT: April 20-23, 2017

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending. Once again, Saturday will be a VERY busy day.

8 p.m. April 20 and 22; 2 p.m. April 23
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, returns “home” (he’s a Santa Monica native) to lead the Phil in a program that features the west coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto, with Paul Jacobs as soloist. The concerto is bookended by Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“from the New World”). The Rouse concerto, a L.A. Phil co-commission, debuted last fall in Philadelphia.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

1 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles (see “Additional Concert” below)
1,000 high school students from 30 Southland schools can be heard in a free concert when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presents the 28th Annual High School Choir Festival. The Festival choir will be led by LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon in a varied program that features works by this year’s guest artist singer/composer Moira Smiley. Smiley will also teach the massive choir body percussion to accompany one of her songs.

BONUS: Free admission, first come, first served (which means it’s a great — and cost effective — opportunity to hear choral music in Disney Hall).

ADDITIONAL CONCERT: Assistant conductor Jenny Wong will lead 16 members of the Chorale in a concert at 11 a.m. This one is also free but tickets must be arranged through the Master Chorale Web Site (see below).

Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Guest Conductor Christian Arming (music director of the Liège Royal Philharmonic) leads this top-notch conservatory orchestra in a program that features a collection of songs by Irving Berlin sung by tenor Joshua Wheeker and danced by The Colburn Dance Academy. The songs are bookended by Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet.

BONUS: This concert is part of the L.A. Phil’s “Sounds About Town” series, which means that tickets are very reasonably priced ($15-$44). So, if you’ve never heard a concert in Disney Hall, this is a great opportunity.

Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

8 p.m. at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts; La Mirada
The McCoy-Rigby mounting of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, his iconic retelling of Romeo and Juliet, moves to La Mirada for an extended run that lasts through May 14.

BONUS: Nice ticket prices: $14-$70.

Information: lamirdadatheatre.com

8 p.m. April 22 at Alex Theatre; Glendale
7 p.m. April 23 at Royce Hall, UCLA; Westwood
In his penultimate concert as LACO Music Director, Jeffrey Kahane leads the orchestra, soloists and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Information: www.laco.org

3 p.m. at The Huntington Library; San Marino
Harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon will play one of Bach’s most famous keyboard works as part of Camerata Pacifica’s 27th season.

Information: www.cameratapacifica.org

6 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA; Westwood
Music Director Carlos Izcaray leads his young musicians in a performance of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with Rachel Ostler as soloist.

BONUS: Tickets are free but should be reserved in advance (the concert is nearly sold out). The concert is followed by a ticketed gala dinner; reservations are required.

Information: aysymphony.org

7:30 p.m. at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Los Angeles
Sondra Radvanovsky returns to L.A. to reprise her role in Puccini’s tear jerker. James Conlon conducts and John Caird oversees his original LA Opera staging. Other performances are April 27, May 2, 5 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 and May 7 at 2 p.m.

BONUS: The Pavilion is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the Temple St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station, walk north to Temple and then west up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laopera.org


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

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ROUNDUP: Music Director carousel resumes

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Just when it seemed as if the orchestral music director carousel had spun to a stop comes word that the retirement of two leaders will crank up the engine again.

david-robertsonDavid Robertson, (right) the Santa Monica native who has led the St. Louis Symphony since 2005, has announced that he will step down from that post at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 season. In a STORY in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robertson said, “I think my sell-by date has come and I think it’s important not to overstay one’s welcome.”

Robertson continues as music director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia. He lives in New York City his wife, pianist Orli Shaham, and their 9-year-old twin sons, Nathan and Alex. SLSO officials must have breathed a sigh in relief last spring when the New York Philharmonic chose Jaap van Zweden as that orchestra’s next music director. A premature sigh, as it turned out.

A frequent collaborator with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Robertson will return to conduct the Phil on April 20, 22 and 23 in a program that will include music by Ives and Dvorak, as wall as the west coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto, with Paul Jacobs as soloist. INFO

Meanwhile, Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, is reporting HERE that Zubin Mehta will retire from his position as Music Director-for-life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2018. The decision will end a 55-year formal relationship between the now-80-year-old Mehta and the ensemble to which he was appointed music director in 1969 and lifetime music director in 1981.

Mehta was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978 and will return to lead the Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 13, 14 and 15 in a program of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben and the west coast premiere of the Sitar Concerto No. 2 Raga Mala by Ravi Shankar, with Shankar’s daughter, Ankoushka, as soloist. INFO

Tovey_2013One conductor coming to the end of a transition, Bramwell Tovey (right), returns to Disney Hall to lead the L.A. Phil in a typically cheeky program on January 5, 7 and 8. The program includes Sir William Walton’s Façadce Suite, No. 2, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (with Ray Chen as soloist) and the second act of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty. INFO

Tovey has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2000. In the fall of 2018, the VSO’s centenary year, he will become the orchestra’s Music Director Emeritus. He also served as Principal Guest Conductor of the LAPO at Hollywood Bowl for several years.

Tovey is a noted composer. In 2014 his trumpet concerto, Songs of the Paradise Saloon, was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Alison Balsom as soloist. The work ended up in Tovey’s opera, The Inventor, which commissioned by Calgary Opera and premiered in January 2011.

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

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“I’m back!”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

My “regular” job as Director of Administration and a member of the pastoral staff at Pasadena Presbyterian Church has caused me to lay aside my music critic/columnist role during an ultra-busy holiday season but I’m back on a semi-regular basis now.

During my hiatus, we’ve lost some musical giants to death — including Kurt Masur and Pierre Boulez — and retirement — Michelle Zukovsky (LINK).
In addition, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. has made a fascinating choice for its next music director in Gianandrea Noseda (LINK)

Meanwhile, our ultra-busy musical life plunges ahead here in Southern California.

During the past several seasons, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has played a single concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena (which long ago was its home). During these “Discover” concerts, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane takes the first half of the evening to explain a major work and then leads the orchestra in a complete performance of the work.

This year’s 8 p.m. concert tomorrow will feature Bach’s Cantata No. 140, known as Sleepers Awake because of the Advent-themed tune that dominates the work. For tomorrow night’s performance, LACO will be joined by the USC Thornton School Chamber Singers, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and three soloists.

Information: www.laco.org

For a choral experience of a totally different sensation, consider the Los Angeles Master Chorale performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” on January 30 at 2 p.m. and Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Artistic Director Grant Gershon will lead 110 choristers, four soloists and an orchestra in this monumental work with dynamics ranging from the softest solos to roof-rattling full-ensemble climaxes.

The latter will be accentuated by antiphonal trumpets placed around Disney Hall and a custom-built double bass drum to be used in the Dies Irae section. True confessions: while singing the Verdi Requiem would be a real treat, what I always wanted to do was whack that double bass drum.

Information: www.lamc.org

Speaking of rattling the Disney Hall rafters, organist Paul Jacobs and soprano Christine Brewer will make an unusual combination in a duo-recital at Disney Hall on this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Among the unusual choices of repertoire will be several pieces by Nadia Boulanger, who was better known as a teacher in the early 20th century than for her compositions.

The program comes from a recently released recording, “Divine Redeemer,” by the artists who will sign copies of the CD after the concert. For organ traditionalists, the evening will end with Jacobs playing the famous “Toccata” from the Symphony No. 5 by Charles-Marie Widor.

Information: www.laphil.com

Among the notable orchestral concerts coming up, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead his New West Symphony in concerts tomorrow night in Oxnard, Saturday night in Thousand Oaks and Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica. The program will feature music by George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel. Finnish pianist Denis Kozhukhin will be the soloist in Ravel’s G Major Concert.

Information: www.newwestsymphony.org

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor Laureate, returns to Disney Hall for a nearly month-long series of concerts that begins Jan. 29, 30 and 31 when he leads the Phil in performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with another familiar figure, pianist Yefim Bronfman as soloist.

It would be tempting to call this a program of “firsts,” except that the concerto was actually the second that Beethoven wrote. Since it was published before the B-flat major concerto, the C Major concerto became listed as No. 1.

Information: www.laphil.com

Salonen will return to lead the Phil during mid-February in two programs as part of his “City of Light” festival, which features French music spanning a century. Among the other programs in the festival will be Music Director David Robertson leading his St. Louis Symphony in a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles, a 90-minute work inspired by Utah’s national parks, including Bryce Canyon.

Information: www.laphil.com

Full information on the “City of Light” festival is HERE.


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

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