OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic end So Cal sojourn at VPAC

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic wrapped up a two-night Southern California tour last night at Cal State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center.

Once upon a time, before the advent of jet aircraft and more open national borders, many orchestras maintained a national sound — i.e., their playing reflected sounds that emanated from their nations’ unique musical traditions. Today few of those distinctive orchestra continue, but perhaps the most significant still working is the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

This ensemble is Russia’s oldest orchestra. Alexander III founded it in 1882 as the Imperial Music Choir, which then transformed into the Court Orchestra. Subsequently the orchestra’s name reflected the city’s name changes — e.g., State Philharmonic of Petrograd and Leningrad Philharmonic. In 1991, it became the St. Petersburg Philharmonic when the city resumed its historic name.

By whatever name, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic is recognized as one of the world’s great ensembles and last night performance showed why. A look at the orchestra’s roster shows it’s comprised almost entirely of Russian or Eastern European names, which is one big reason why it retains its distinctive national sound.

Another reason is Yuri Temirkanov (pictured left), who made his debut with the ensemble 50 years ago and almost immediately became Assistant Conductor to the orchestra’s legendary leader, Evgeny Mravinsky. Now age 78, Temirkanov has been the ensemble’s Artistic Director and Chief Conductor since 1978, and he was on the podium last night at Cal State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center.

For this second of two consecutive performances in Southern California Temirkanov constructed a quite different program than he conducted Wednesday night in Costa Mesa (my review is HERE). For VPAC he chose Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

What a difference a night made in terms of sound. At the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa the orchestra was seated on risers, with the string basses grouped in a tight bunch on a top riser at the back left of the orchestra. Last night all the musicians’ chairs were on the floor and the basses were in a single line to the back left of the orchestra. That made for a more balanced sound with the violins more prominent throughout the night than had been the case the night before.

Moreover, unlike Segerstrom’s enveloping acoustic, VPAC has a dryer sound, which may have helped the balance but also diminished the sense of deep bass sonority except in certain key portions of the Shostakovich.

There was heightened pre-performance interest in Shostakovich’s fifth for a couple of reasons.

First, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Jaap van Zweden, had just given an ultra-powerful performance of this best-known Shostakovich work last weekend in Walt Disney Concert Hall (REVIEW).

Second, Shostakovich’s music has been in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic’s DNA from the beginning. Mravinsky and the orchestra premiered five of Shostakovich’s symphonies (including the fifth in 1937) and the composer dedicated his eighth symphony to Mravinsky. Moreover, Temirkanov reportedly knew the composer.

The orchestra was absolutely at the top of its game in last night’s performance. The brass section was more prominent than in Segerstrom Hall and they sounded terrific, particularly in the Shostakovich. Everyone was locked in on Temirkanov, who — as always — conducted without a baton, using his hands and supple fingers instead to sculpture phrases and cue individuals with quiet gestures. He also invariably conducts with a score in front of him, a rarity in terms of conductors today.

The first movement was quite brisk and not as full of sturm und drang as one normally hears (although part of that may have been VPAC’s acoustics). The second movement featured razor-sharp precision from the strings’ pizzicato and the winds. In the third movement (in which the brass is silent throughout), the orchestra’s string sections unveiled that deep, sonorous Russian sound, with the cellos, in particular, digging deeply for their effects.

Much has been written about the symphony’s final movement — indeed, about the entire work. This was the piece with which Shostakovich regained favor with the Soviet government after a Pravda editorial (presumably authored by Joseph Stalin) had excoriated the composer for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. Whether that final movement did, indeed, represent a note of triumph or sarcasm toward the government has been debated and will continue to be debated forever.

Some conductors lead the final movement with increasing speed and force. It’s certainly a valid concept, one made famous by Leonard Bernstein, among others. On the other hand, Temirkanov’s tempos were more stately (even more so than van Zweden used in the L.A. Phil performance) and, rather than accelerating in the ending pages, Temirkanov held to his deliberate tempos to the very end, an equally defensible tactic that made for a spine-tingling conclusion.

Following the justifiably deserved standing ovation, Temirkanov and Co. responded with a luscious reading of the Amaroso from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella as an encore.

For whatever reason, several local orchestras have elected to begin their programs recently not with overtures and concertos but with major single works. To cite but two examples: the Pasadena Symphony recently began a program with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and last week the Los Angeles Philharmonic ‘s program opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Wednesday night in Costa Mesa the folks from Russia opened with a 35-minute suite from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet.

Neither Wednesday nor last night did Temirkanov pause to allow management to seat latecomers (Jaap van Zweden didn’t either after the first movement of the afore mentioned Beethoven’s 5th). Both conductors expected patrons to show up on time — what a concept!!! — although VPAC management did, regrettably, seat latecomers after the first movement

Garrick Ohlsson (pictured left), who has appeared quite frequently in these parts, was the soloist for last night’s performance of Brahms first piano concerto. As always, Ohlsson sat quietly as he waited while Temirkanov and his band essayed the stormy opening section of the concerto. Ohlsson then delivered a riveting, regal reading, alternating pulsating power and majesty with the most delicate playing in the soft sections.

I have always envisioned composers in heaven listening to people performing their music, and I like to think that Brahms would have turned to Mozart and said, “Now that’s exactly what I had in mind for this piece!”

As an encore, Ohlsson — who leaped onto the international scene when he won the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition — offered a playful, yet elegant rendition of Chopin’s Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3.

• There were no notes about the music in VPAC’s printed program book.
• Details about VPAC’s 2017-2018 season will be released May 5.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Garrick Ohlsson creates a magical Beethoven evening

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Ohlsson-2016I’ve never been big hearing on single-composer recitals — in fact, I can count on Mordecai Brown’s pitching hand the number of truly great concerts I’ve heard in this specialized genre. But Beethoven is no ordinary composer and Garrick Ohlsson is a uniquely gifted pianist, so his recital last night before a good-sized audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall proved to be the outlier to my listening history.

When my late wife (a concert pianist) was planning recitals she would often program a Beethoven sonata and it was usually the centerpiece of the evening. During her short career (cut short by MS) she played three of the four sonatas that Ohlsson performed last night but never would have conceived of programming four in one evening. Ohlsson made it work magnificently.

Strictly speaking, Ohlsson’s feat wasn’t a novelty. In recent years, pianists Paul Lewis and Andras Schiff have played the complete Beethoven sonata cycle over several programs.

However, so far as I can make out from his Web site, Ohlsson isn’t undertaking such a marathon He simply chose four of Beethoven’s best-known sonatas to make up this recital. All four have subtitles and all are in three movements (some of the composer’s efforts in this genre have four movements and a few have just two).

Dennis Bade, in his printed program essay, quoted Ohlsson as saying: “The great thing about the famous pieces of the repertoire is that they are famous because they are great! These sonata take no prisoners!” That, from Ohlsson’s perspective, was a good enough for his choices.

The Pathetique Sonata (Op. 11), which opened the evening, and the Moonlight (Op. 27, No. 2), which concluded the quartet were among Beethoven’s earlier efforts in this genre. The Appassionata (Op. 57) and Waldenstein (Op. 53) are from Beethoven’s middle period, and last night they formed the middle of a very tasty sandwich. Pathetique and Moonlight are the shortest of the four; thus the program formed a splendid arch.

Ohlsson is a joy to watch precisely because there is little to watch (compared to young pianist today, such as Yuja Wang and Lang Lang). He walks briskly on stage, sits quietly at the keyboard and plays magnificently. As I noted in my Hollywood Bowl review from this past summer, “There is a sense of serene calm to Ohlsson,” He emphasizes sonority in his bass notes and his right hand delivered pristine, pearly tones throughout the evening.

His Pathetique rendering was elegant, even in the stormy points, and Appassionata (which for most pianists would be the climax of the evening but here merely ended the first half) was appropriately passionate. The second half of the evening — featuring delicate swirling lines in Waldenstein and limpid serene pools in Moonlight — was even more satisfying than the pre-intermission performances.

In response to the thunderous standing ovation, Ohlsson announced he would play as an encore something that wasn’t Beethoven and needed no introduction: an exquisitely delicate performance of Debussy’s Clair du lune. The word breathtaking is often overused (including by me). In this case, it was exactly the appropriate description. What a gorgeous way to end the evening!


Ohlsson will appear May 11, 12 and 13 with the New West Symphony playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). Information

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

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Class Act: On Pacific Symphony labor issues and a grand slam Beethoven piano recital by Garrick Ohlsson

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Because some, but not all, of our online sites have my column from last Sunday up yet, I am posting a link HERE.

The top half of the column deals with the ongoing labor issues at the Pacific Symphony (along with those in Ft. Worth and Pittsburgh). As of this morning, there appears to be no update on the situation and the orchestra’s upcoming concerts — including the screenings tonight and tomorrow of the movie Home Alone, with the Pacific Symphony playing John Williams’ score live — appear to be still on. An orchestra spokesperson said that talks will resume on Tuesday — talking is always a good thing. Information: www.pacificsymphony.org

ohlsson-2016At the bottom of the column is a note on Sunday evening’s recital by pianist Garrick Ohlsson (pictured left) Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ohlsson will play four (!) of Beethoven’s best-known piano sonatas, all of which contain subtitles: Pathétique, Moonlight, Waldenstein and Appassionata. Information: www.laphil.com

Check print Sunday and online (probably next week) for my preview of the upcoming L.A. Phil movie nights, featuring performances of Rebel Without a Cause on Nov. 17, On the Waterfront Nov. 18 and Casablanca Nov. 20, all with the Phil playing the scores live. Information: www.laphil.com

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: McGegan, L.A. Phil explore “Romantic”-style music at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

McGegan-2016Nicholas McGegan (pictured right) has been coming to Hollywood Bowl as a valued guest conductor for 20 years and we have had the privilege of watching him grow during those two decades. Originally he was advertised as an early-music specialist and, indeed, his all-Handel concert Tuesday night reinforced that image.

However, in the past few years McGegan — especially in his role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Pasadena Symphony —has been pushing his own envelope, expanding his repertoire into the Romantic era, as last night’s program demonstrated.

On paper, the program of Weber’s Overture to Oberon,, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish) would seem to have a foot in both camps but the performances placed it squarely in the Romantic style.

That emphasis was aided by two short video conversations between McGegan and Scott Alan, curator of Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, an exhibit of Rosseau’s paintings showing through September 11 at the J. Paul Getty Museum. In the paintings and commentary — think of them as “preconcert lecture light” — McGegan and Alan discussed the musical pieces that might have influenced Rosseau whose time (1812-1867) almost exactly coincided with Schumann (1810-1856).

The Weber overture proved to be a sparkling opening to the evening, although the video interview — which was played while the piano was being moved onstage for the concerto — focused more on Der Freischutz as opposed to Oberon. Nonetheless, high marks to Jeffrey Fair’s horn solos that opening the evening, Burt Hara’s clarinet solo, and the rhythmic precision of the entire string section.

In the video clip, McGegan encouraged the audience to remember the dark, forest paintings of Rosseau as it listened to the transition from the Weber overture to Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto, one of the darkest in the composer’s repertoire.

Ohlsson-2016After a summer that featured both Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, it was a pleasure to watch and hear Garrick Ohlsson’s performance last night. Unlike his younger counterparts, there is a sense of serene calm to Ohlsson (pictured Left), who sits quietly on the bench while he plays, just letting the music weave its own magic spell. This was especially true in the famous “Romance” middle section, but even in the outer movements Ohlsson continued to project a sense of stillness during his pristine runs, trills and cadenzas.

That atmosphere of serenity was even more apparent in Ohlsson’s exquisite rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2. For the second night in a row the Bowl seemed like an intimate concert hall with the skies opened to the heavens, a rare moment indeed (high marks, also, to Ohlsson for clearly articulating through a microphone the entire title of the Nocturne prior to playing it).

Despite the fact that this was Mozart, the concerto’s performance had a very “Romantic” feel to it. The orchestra was larger than what Mozart used and, of course, the Steinway grand on which Ohlsson played was a long way from the pianofortes that Mozart would have used when he first performed the piece in 1785.

However by the time of Beethoven — according to Susan Key’s program notes this was the only Mozart concerto Beethoven played in public — the piece would surely have sounded different and so it did last night. McGegan emphasized the work’s sweeping lines and dark textures, and the orchestra — with basses placed to the far right of the ensemble and the cellos directly to McGegan’s right — played with its customary level of excellence.

Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony — the subtitle refers to the fact that the composer had just moved to Düsseldorf, a city on the Rhine, in 1850 — continued the Rosseau-inspired theme.

In one sense, the piece looks backward — like Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, Schumann’s “Rhenish” has five movements. However, the work clearly introduces the “Romantic” symphonic concept to the world and McGegan’s take on the piece was, for the most part, straight forward in its concept.

In particular, he invested the fourth movement, Feirlich (“Solemn”) — inspired by the composer’s trip to the recently completed and majestic Cologne cathedral — with the proper sense of brooding awe, which provided a perfect contrast to his perky take on the concluding section. The Phil’s brass section — particularly the horns — were in fine form throughout the performance.

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

• On Tuesday, Ken-David Masur — son of Kurt, former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra — makes his Bowl debut in a program of Beethoven (Overture to Fidelio and Symphony No. 5 — and Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as soloist. Masur is replacing Joana Carneiro, who was originally scheduled to conduct. INFO

• Then on Thursday, Bramwell Tovey returns for the first concert in a two-week stint on the podium, bringing a program of rarely performed movie music by Bernard Hermann, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin, along with Pas de deux, a new double concerto by James Horner to be played by Mari and Håkon Samuelsen, the Norwegian brother/sister duo that commissioned the piece.

Tovey — the British-born conductor who in 2018 completes a 19-year tenure as Music Director of the Vancouver (BC) Symphony — once held the title of Principal Guest Conductor at the Bowl. In reality, he still, has that now untitled position since he is the only conductor to lead more than a week of Bowl concerts. Expect some witty commentary along with the music. INFO

• McGegan will conduct two concerts with the Pasadena Symphony in the upcoming season at Ambassador Auditorium, leading a Baroque program on January 21 and a Schubert-Mozart-Mendelssohn program on March 18. INFO

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

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on February 23, 2012

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



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



Tonight at 8 p.m., Tomorrow
at 11 a.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Charles Dutoit, conductor

We’ll soon find out whether the Los Angeles Philharmonic has
jet lag after returning from Caracas following a very hectic week playing in
the Venezuelan portion of “The Mahler Project.” The Phil returns to be led by a
familiar guest conductor, Charles Duoit (currently finishing up his tenure as
chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and for 25 years music director
of the Montreal Symphony). This weekend’s program is mostly familiar Dutoit
fare: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Wind
Debussy’s La Mer, and
a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
Information: www.laphil.com


Tonight at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center (Cal State Northridge)

Wroclaw Philharmonic
Orchestra; Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk leads The National Forum of
Music Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra (to give the ensemble its formal name) at
VPAC on tour with a program that includes Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 and Chopin’s
Piano Concerto No. 2, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. Information: www.valleyperformingartscenter.org


Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Los Angeles Opera: Albert Herring

Los Angeles Opera brings this “coming of age” work by
Benjamin Britten, using a production from Santa Fe Opera that will be conducted
by James Conlon, who will also deliver a lecture one hour before each
performance. Tenor Alex Shrader makes his Los Angeles debut in the title role.
Brian in “Out West Arts” has one of his familiar “10 Questions” profile with
Shrader HERE. David Mermelstein previews the opera in his Los Angeles Times article HERE. Information: www.losangelesopera.com


Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Ambassador Auditorium

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor

For the past several years in what he calls the “Discover
Series,” Music Director Jeffrey Kahane has picked a single piece to first
discuss and then perform. The choice Saturday night is one of the landmarks of
choral repertoire: Bach’s Magnificat,
with a text drawn from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.


Joining Kahane and LACO are The University of Southern California
Thornton Chamber Singers, directed by Jo-Michael Scheibe; and five soloists:
Charlotte Dobbs, soprano, Zanaida Robles, soprano, Janelle DeStefano, mezzo
soprano, Ben Bliss, tenor, and Daniel Armstrong, baritone.


Information: www.laco.org


Two of the other
offerings are opera holdovers:

San Diego Opera’s production of Moby-Dick wraps up its
run on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the San Diego Civic Theatre. My
review is HERE. Information: www.sdopera.com


LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra plays Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion. My review is HERE. Information:


Also, the “encore performance” of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s Mahler 8 concert in
Caracas earlier this month will be shown Wednesday at 7 p.m. (local time) in
four Los Angeles-area theaters along with a couple in Orange County. Information: www.laphil.com


And the weekend’s
“free admission” program …


Tuesday at 7:30
p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Vor Frue Kirkes
Drenge-Mandskor and Vanse Guttekor-Deo Gloria

Two internationally renowned boys’ choirs appear as part of
a Southland tour with a selection of Norwegian, Danish and American music
concluding with Jonah — a Liturgical
Information: www.ppc.net



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

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