COMMENTARY AND LINK: On hearing pieces more than once

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

 

On Monday I uploaded a long post on the 2012-2013 Los Angeles
Philharmonic season at Walt Disney Concert Hall (HERE). In reading back over
the schedule, one concert stood out — but not, perhaps, for the reason you
might expect. It’s the program scheduled for Nov. 30-Dec. 2 when Esa-Pekka
Salonen will lead the LAPO in a concert that includes Witold Lutoslawski’s
Symphony No. 4.

 

It was an “aha” moment not because Salonen will be
conducting, although I always enjoy hearing what Esa-Pekka does with the Phil.
Moreover, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting just 10 subscription weeks next
season (barely more than a third of the schedule) the LAPO needs to have a very
strong core of guest conductors, and Esa-Pekka is one of those (as noted
yesterday, next season’s guest conducting list is quite strong).

 

Nor did I zoom in on these concerts because I’m in love with
Lutoslawski’s music. I acknowledge that he’s an important 20th
century composer but recordings of his music don’t fill my CD shelves. What I
appreciated was that Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 4 is coming back to the Phil’s
repertoire; the composer conducted the world premiere with the LAPO in 1994.

 

One reason that the L.A. Phil is a world-class orchestras is
its commitment to new music, which began during the tenure of Zubin Mehta
(1962-1978), really picked up steam during Salonen’s reign as music director
from 1992-2009, and has continued under Dudamel’s leadership. Next season the
Phil will present nine commissions, seven world premieres, three U.S. premieres
and four West Coast first performances in its 29-week season, and those numbers
are consistent with the past several seasons. Few, if any, orchestras in the
world can match that level of commitment to contemporary compositions.

 

However, what’s missing are second and third performances of
these works. A little over two years ago, for example, the Phil commissioned
John Adams’ City Noir as part of
Gustavo’s opening gala concert as LAPO music director. They played it again a
couple of months later on a subscription program and took it on the orchestra’s
cross-country tour the following May. I thought it was a terrific piece, but it
hasn’t shown up again on a Phil program (or anywhere else locally, for that
matter).

 

Obviously everyone’s tastes are different but as I think
back over the past decade or so, I remember Nave
and Sentimental Music
and Wing on
Wing
by Salonen as two examples of works that deserve multiple hearings (we
did get to hear his LA Variations in
2009). Salonen’s Violin Concerto just won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for
new compositions and his piano concerto was equally stunning. Have we have
heard them since their premieres? Don’t think so. Readers are invited to add
others to my list by commenting below.

 

AT&T once sponsored a program entitled the “American
Encore” series, which was designed to provide “second” hearings to works that
got premieres and then had languished in obscurity. One of those pieces was Symphony for Classical Orchestra,
written in 1947 by Harold Shapero. Andr Previn and the Phil played it in 1986
and I remember the reaction being “where has this piece been all along?”
Unfortunately, like the sunken cathedral that inspired one of Debussy’s
preludes, Shapero’s work fell back beneath the waves of newer compositions.
Let’s hope that City Noir, Nave and Sentimental Music and others
listed above don’t suffer the same fate.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere Shostakovich’s “Orango”

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Shostakovich: Prelude to Orango;
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43

Friday, December 2, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Information: www.laphil.com

______________________

 

The “sine qua non” of Ben & Jerry’s, the wildly popular
ice cream company based in Waterbury, Vermont, is known as the “Vermonster.” A
bucket contains 20 scoops of ice cream, a fudge brownie, four bananas, three
cookies, four toppings, four ladles of hot fudge, whipped cream and
marshmallows. Believe it or not, many people actually try to eat the whole
thing! That’s what I felt I had done after last night’s Los Angeles
Philharmonic concert. At least 110 minutes of Shostakovich didn’t come with the
“Vermonster’s” 14,000 calories and 500 grams of fat.

 

The impetus for this weekend’s gorge is the world premiere
of the Prologue to Orango, which
Shostakovich wrote in a few days midway between composing his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in
1932. To get a detailed account of the story, click HERE. The short version is
that the prologue was to have preceded three acts of this political-satire
about a half-human, half-ape, but the only thing Shostakovich finished was a
piano-vocal score of the prologue, and that lay undiscovered in the Glinka
Museum in Moscow until it was discovered by Dr. Olga Digonskaya in 2004.

 

Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow (who was in the
audience last night), commissioned British composer-writer Gerard McBurney to
orchestrate the Prologue’s sketches. The L.A. Phil, Esa-Pekka Salonen — its
former music director and now conductor laureate — and director Peter Sellars
eagerly signed on to present the first performances this weekend.

 

McBurney actually had more to work with than just the
piano-vocal score. Pressed for time, Shostakovich used the overture and the
ending to his ballet The Bolt to open
and close the Prologue and also included snippets from some of his other
compositions. “That,” said McBurney in the preconcert lecture, “provided a
template for the rest.” McBurney (who curates an ongoing series entitled
“Beyond the Score” for the Chicago Symphony) explained that he immersed himself
in every note that Shostakovich wrote during the 1930s time frame, especially
Shostakovich’s 12 music-theater scores. “What I hope,” he said, “is that this
is an approximation of what Shostakovich would have written.”

 

“Approximation” is a reasonable description. What McBurney
delivered is a mostly loud, mostly furious account of what Shostakovich might
have envisioned for his political satire (including what McBurney termed “an
outrageous parody of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4″). What it lacked was the
dark, sardonic wit that showed up later in the evening during the fourth
symphony. Nevertheless, while it was only an approximation of Shostakovich, it
was madcap — and marvelous — McBurney.

 

Last night’s production (for which Ben Zamora supplied
atmospheric lighting) used 10 soloists (four of whom come from the 24 singers
of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). Sellars planted the soloists throughout
Disney Hall (Jordan Bisch, whose booming basso was the first voice heard, began
in the Orchestra East seats) and those involved both sang and acted their roles
with power and exuberance (only one was overpowered by the gigantic orchestra.
Ryan McKinny served as The Entertainer (envision Joel Grey in Cabaret) and did a fine job of playing
to all four sides of the hall. Eugene Brancovenau was Orango, Michael Fabiano
was the zoologist, and Yulia von Doren was Susanna.

 

Sellars, being Sellars, wasn’t
content to let the music and performers stand on their own; the same thing
happened with the premiere of El Nino, John
Adams’ nativity opera. For Orango, Sellars
leapt at the concept of political satire like a wolf devouring a lamb chop,
projecting a dizzyingly rapid series of still images that juxtaposed “Occupy”
protesters, B-1 bombers, U.S. military and Pentagon personnel, tract houses
atomic bomb blasts, etc. — over and over and over again. If the idea was to get
you eventually to mostly ignore the images and concentrate on the music, I
suppose it was successful. Otherwise, I felt like I had undergone sensory
overload at the end of the 45 minutes.

 

Ironically, the most affecting
imagery came in the quietest moments: the black and white video images of a
ballerina performing while the orchestra played a “Dance of Peace.” The
Prologue’s ending seemed to arrive so suddenly as to leave the audience
befuddled, but the applause for all concerned was almost as deafening as the
music.

 

Salonen conducted the piece with
slashing flair and the orchestra — which revels in Shostakovich’s music –
played the Prologue superbly, treating it as if the piece was an old friend,
rather than something they were performing for the first time.

 

This is one of those works that needs to be seen and heard
several times to fully appreciate. In his program note, McBurney concluded by
calling the Prologue “a ghost from a lost era, the work of a young composer of
the utmost energy and brilliance, not yet cast down by history, ill-health, and
politics. …” It’s also a premiere that might not have happened without the
unique combination of McBurney, Salonen, Sellars and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic and for that, we should all be grateful.

 

According to Sellars, it was Salonen who elected to pair Orango with Shostakovich’s Symphony No.
4, and in many respects that decision made eminent sense. (To cite one example,
both pieces are in the key of C — major for Orango,
minor for the symphony.) However, the fourth is one of the thorniest of
Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, not least because of its construction: two
movements of nearly half an hour each surrounding a 10-minute middle section.
The composer also employed the largest orchestra for any of his symphonies: 20
woodwinds, 17 brass, two harps, celesta, double timpani, along with a plethora
of percussion instruments and full strings.

 

Shostakovich was writing the symphony in 1935 when he fell
afoul of the Soviet authorities over Lady
Macbeth of the Mtensk District
and withdrew the symphony on the eve of its
first performance in Leningrad. It would take 25 years for its first
performance (on Dec. 30, 1961 by the Moscow
Philharmonic Orchestra
led by Kyrill Kondrashin).
Although one of the work’s ardent early champions was Otto Klemperer, then LAPO
music director, the symphony didn’t make it to Los Angeles until 1989 when
Andr Previn conducted it.

 

Salonen conducted the piece last night with an insightful
sense of its overall architecture, bringing out all of the brooding, sardonic
nature was lacking in Orango. As it
had during Orango, the orchestra
played splendidly, tossing off the treacherous rhythmic sections of the first
and last movements as if they were child’s play. Among the soloists, Principal
Bassoonist Whitney Crocket stood out. At the conclusion, Salonen looked
ecstatic and exhausted. Ditto for this listener.

_______________________

 

Hemidemisemiquavers:

The preconcert lecture (with Digonskaya, McBurney, Sellars
and Laurel E. Fay, author of Shostakovich:
A Life
and the Symphony No. 4 program note) was informative but — like Orango — delivered what was almost a
surfeit of information. Sellars’ passion for the music in both pieces was
riveting.

A couple of items not in the program notes came out in the
lecture. Dr. Digonskaya said that when she stumbled across the manuscript
(which is 13 large sheets of paper crammed full of small notations), there were
no identifying marks as to its composer. However, she knew Shostakovich’s
handwriting and, by analyzing the paper and ink, knew that it was something
from the 1930s. Thus began what she and McBurney termed a detective story
worthy of Sherlock Holmes or an archaeological search.

The Phil printed the text translations in the program in
addition to the projected supertitles. Ask not why.

_______________________

 

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

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on Dec. 1, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

______________________

 

Sorry this post is late. We’ve been without power all day
due to the fierce winds in Southern California (I’m posting this from my local
McDonald’s).

 

Each Thursday morning, I list five events (six this week)
that peak my interest, including (ideally) at least one with free admission
(or, at a minimum, inexpensive tickets). Here’s today’s grouping:

______________________

 

Tomorrow and Saturday
at 8 p.m.;  Sunday at 2 p.m. at
Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Shostakovich

Frankly, it’s a little hard to assess what this concert will
bring — that’s one of the joys of live performances. The headline event on the
program is the world premiere of the Prologue to Orango by Shostakovich but how significant that will be is up in
the air. Asking one composer (in this case, Gerard McBurney) to complete another’s
work is always problematical (Mahler’s 10th symphony is one famous
example) but that’s what has happened here.

 

The Phil describes this work thusly: “Orango is an unfinished satirical opera
by Shostakovich, sketched [in 1932] while he was writing Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
He and his librettists conceived ‘a political lampoon against the bourgeois
press,’ concerning a human-ape hybrid. Of the projected Prologue and three
acts, only the 40-minute Prologue was completed, in piano vocal score, which
was just discovered in 2006.”  Read
the complete program note HERE.

  

The Prologue includes parts for 10 soloists and the Los
Angeles Master Chorale. It is being staged by Peter Sellars with lighting by
Ben Zamora. McBurney will offer a preconcert lecture an hour before each
program.  A Los Angeles Times article
on the piece is HERE.

 

The second half of the program will be Shostakovich’s
Symphony No. 4, which was composed just a few years after Orango. This was the symphony that was not played for 25 years
after it was written, a consequence of the composer’s run-in with Soviet
authorities over Lady Macbeth of the
Mtsensk District.
Laurel E. Fay’s program note says that one of the two
conductors who were eager to conduct the symphony was Otto Klemperer, who at
the time was the L.A. Phil’s music director. Whether the symphony would have
been played in L.A. isn’t spelled out; ultimately the LAPO premiere would not
take place until 1989 under the baton of Andr Previn. (Read the full program
note HERE).

 

By the way, expect this program to last a bit longer than a
normal concert. The Prologue to Orango
is 40 minutes long and the symphony, one of Shostakovich’s longest, takes an
hour. The orchestration for the symphony (2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (4th =
English horn), 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 8 horns, 4
trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets,
cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps,
celesta, and strings) is the largest of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. Information: www.laphil.com

 

Saturday at 2 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles Master
Chorale’s “Holiday Wonders: Festival of Carols”

Grant Gershon leads 62 members of the Master Chorale in a
program of carols and John Rutter’s Gloria
accompanied by John West on the Disney Hall Organ. The program repeats Dec. 10
at 2 p.m. Information: www.lamc.org

 

Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena

Pasadena Symphony
Holiday Program

Grant Cooper, artistic director and conductor of the West
Virginia Symphony, will conduct the PSO, vocalist Lisa Vroman, the Los Angeles
Children’s Chorus, Donald Brinegar Singers and L.A. Bronze (a handbell
ensemble) in an eclectic program of holiday music. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

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

Jacaranda presents
Anonymous 4

This world-renowned female vocal ensemble, celebrating its
25th anniversary, specializes in Medieval and Renaissance music but
this program features the first section of an evening-length work, The Wood and the Vine, by David Lang,
who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his composition, The Little Match Girl Passion. The evening will also include
selections from the ensemble’s CDs. Brian
in “Out West Arts” has one of his informative “Ten Questions” posts with the
ensemble’s Susan Hellauer HERE. Concert
info:
www.jacarandamusic.org

 

And the weekend’s “free admission” programs …

Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium

The Colburn Orchestra
plays Mahler’s Symphony No. 5

Be forewarned: the free tickets are listed as “add to wait
list” on the school’s Web site and the VIP tickets are sold out. Nonetheless,
the concert is worth mentioning because whenever a student orchestra — even one
as good as Colburn — tackles Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, it counts as both an
event and a challenge.

 

Guest Conductor Gerard Schwarz leads the ensemble in
Mahler’s fifth and Takemitsu’s From Me
Flows What You Call Time,
with a local percussion ensemble, Smoke and
Mirrors, as soloists in the Takemitsu piece. For Schwarz, it’s something of a
homecoming. Prior to becoming music director of the Seattle Symphony (from
which he retired earlier this year), Schwarz held a similar position with the
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which used to perform in Ambassador during
Schwarz’s tenure. Information: www.colburnschool.edu

  

Monday at 7:45 p.m.
at Pasadena Neighborhood Church

Los Angeles Chapter
of American Guild of Organists Holiday program

Organists Andrea Anderson and Nancy Ruczynski perform on the
church’s historic Bozeman organ, while Dr. Timothy Howard leads The Pasadena
Singers in holiday music from around the world (full disclosure: I sing with
The Pasadena Singers, so — as the late, great Molly Ivins was wont to say, take
the recommendation with a grain of salt or a pound of salt). Information: www.laago.org

_______________________

 

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

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NEWS AND LINKS: Esa-Pekka Salonen wins 2012 Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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56886-SalonenImage.jpg

When Esa-Pekka Salonen stepped down as music director of the
Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, it ostensibly was to devote more time to
composing. His output has been pretty meager in the last two years (just two
short pieces) but Salonen has won the 2012 University of Louisville Grawemeyer
Award for Music Composition for his Violin Concerto, which was premiered during
Salonen’s final weeks as LAPO music director that spring. The award, which
includes a $100,000 cash prize, is one of the most prestigious in classical
music.

 

The official release from the university is HERE. Mark Swed has an article on the Los Angeles Times Web site HERE. Among other things, Swed notes
that the L.A. Phil becomes the only orchestra to have commissioned and
premiered two Grawemeyer Award compositions (Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs in 2005 was the other) and
Salonen is the only conductor to have led the first performances of two winning
scores (Neruda Songs and his own
concerto, which featured Leila Josefowicz as soloist).

 

When the Violin Concerto was premiered in April 2009, I wrote
that it was  “a stunning violin
concerto, brilliant played by 31-year-old Leila Josefowicz, who was born in
Toronto but grew up in Los Angeles and studied with Ronald Lipsett at The
Colburn School.” (My entire review is HERE).

 

For what it’s worth I actually thought Salonen’s Piano
Concerto, written in 2007, was a better piece but both are terrific. They
joined a list of notable Salonen compositions that included L.A Variations (written in 1996) and Wing on Wing, which was composed for the
opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2004.

_______________________

 

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Orchestras in the holiday season

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

A shorter version of
this column published today in the above papers.

______________________

 

Because the holiday season is dominated by choral music,
orchestras have, in the past, tended to shy away from programs in December
unless they were holiday-theme oriented (e.g., Handel’s Messiah). This year, things are different.

 

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who music director of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic for 17 years, is in town for two weeks of concerts with his old
band (his L.A. Phil title is now Conductor Laureate). Today he’s leading
Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 2, with an old
friend, Emmanuel Ax, soloing in the concerto (which, despite its number, was
actually the first piano concerto that Beethoven wrote).

 

The second half of the program is Sirens by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Soprano Hila Plitmann
and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter join the orchestra and Los Angeles
Master Chorale in the work, which is based on The Siren Song from Homer’s The
Odyssey
and is receiving its world premiere this weekend. (Read my review
of Friday’s performance HERE.)

 

Salonen is leading another world premiere Friday, Saturday
and next Sunday: the Prologue to Shostakovich’s Orango, an unfinished satirical opera that the composer sketched in
1932 while he was writing his opera Lady
Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
. Only the 40-minute Prologue was
completed in piano vocal score, which was discovered in 2006. The Phil, a large
group of soloists, and the Master Chorale will present the work, orchestrated
by English composer Gerard McBurney and staged by Peter Sellars. The program
concludes with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4.  I have more on this concert at the bottom of the review
posted above and I’ll add more details on my “Five-Spot” post on Thursday.

 

On Dec. 8, 9 and 10, Thomas Wilkins — principal conductor of
the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra — leads the Phil in a program of movie music as
the orchestra’s contribution to the “Pacific Standard Time” series under the
auspices of the Getty Museum. Information: www.laphil.com

 

Elsewhere on the orchestral front:

The Pasadena
Symphony
will get into the holiday spirit with a candlelight program
Saturday at 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper, artistic
director and conductor of the West Virginia Symphony, will conduct the PSO,
vocalist Lisa Vroman, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Donald Brinegar
Singers and L.A. Bronze (a handbell ensemble) in an eclectic program of holiday
music. Information:
www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

The Colburn
Orchestra
continues its season next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Ambassador
Auditorium as guest conductor Gerard Schwarz leads the ensemble in Mahler’s
Symphony No. 5 and Takemitsu’s From Me
Flows What You Call Time,
with a local percussion ensemble, Smoke and
Mirrors, as soloists in the Takemitsu piece. For Schwarz, it’s something of a
homecoming. Prior to becoming music director of the Seattle Symphony, Schwarz
held a similar position with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which used to
perform in Ambassador. Information: www.colburnschool.edu

 

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will lead his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Dec.
10 at the Alex Theater in Glendale and 11 at Royce Hall, UCLA. Cellist Ralph
Kirshbaum will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra. The program
also includes music by Ravel, Respighi and Thomas Ads. Information: www.laco.org

_______________________

 

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

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