OVERNIGHT REVIEW: A musically and visually superb “Creation”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Alberto Arvelo, video artistdirector
James F. Ingalls, lighting designer
Rachele Gilmore, soprano
Joshua Guerrero, tenor
Johannes Kammler, baritone
Next performances: today at 2 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. (without videos)
Information: www.laphil.com

We are in the midst of a 10-day stretch when the Los Angeles Philharmonic has programmed three different oratorios, each performance with its own unique twist.

Next Thursday and Saturday, noted French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie is scheduled to lead the Phil in performances of Handel’s Messiah, with Labadie’s own choral ensemble, La Chapelle du Québec, singing the choral parts.

Next Friday and Dec. 18, the Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform a 21st century telling of the nativity story, El Niño, with the composer, John Adams, conducting both performances as part of the Phil’s year-long celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday, which actually occurs on Feb. 15.

Last night brought Haydn’s 1797 oratorio, The Creation, with LAPO Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting 62 members of the Master Chorale and an orchestra reduced to equally appropriate numbers — both ensembles performing with their customary excellence — and three superb vocal soloists: soprano Rachele Gilmore, tenor Joshua Guerrero and baritone Johannes Kammler.

However, what made the evening unusual were that Dudamel’s Venezuelan counterpart, Alberto Arvelo, and lighting designer extraordinaire James F. Ingals combined to create a highly evocative video accompaniment to Haydn’s musical-portrait music.

Only once or twice have I experienced a program where the visuals added measurably to the enjoyment; more often, they’ve been a detriment or, at best, a confusion. Last night was the exception.

It began with the setting. Orchestra and chorus members were dressed in all black, as was Dudamel. The choristers were seated not in the choral benches but on risers directly behind the back row of the orchestra. Lighting for all was subdued.

The soloists were in between the two ensembles and were dressed in all white. That allowed Ingals’ subtle lighting changes to gently spotlight the soloists without having to be overbearing. Throughout the evening, the lighting cast a provocative mood over the entire proceedings.

Meanwhile, Arvelo used the ceiling, sides, and the seats and organ pipes above the empty choral bench seats as the backdrop for his shifting images to illustrate the texts and, in the case of the opening orchestral movement, the earth before creation, or as Haydn called it The Representation of the Chaos. Throughout the evening Arvelo used creation images from cultures around the world, including Africa, Japan, South America and native Californians.

In the preconcert lecture, Arvelo (a film maker whose work includes The Liberator, for which Dudamel wrote the score) noted that the creative process was turned upside down from his normal working procedure. “Instead of creating the movie and adding in the music,” he said, “in this case I had the music and texts and added the visual metaphors; they became poetry of images.” However you describe it, the entire visual integration was exemplary from beginning to end.

By the way, if you are dead-set against the use of projections, Sunday afternoon’s performance will be without the visuals.

The texts were in English. Haydn used simultaneous English and German versions of the texts, which — as program annotator John Magnum — noted made this the first major work printed with bilingual texts. The words — from the first two chapters of Genesis in the Bible, portions of the Psalms and some sections from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, may have been intended originally for Handel.

Although the texts last night were projected on the edges of the front balconies, most of the time the supertitling was unnecessary as both chorus and soloists sang with excellent diction.

All three soloists were excellent individually and they blended well in their trios. Gilmore was impressive both for her tone and in her melissmas, Guerrero’s tenor line was clean and effortless and Kammler’s voice was bright throughout his many solos.

Dudamel conducted with a score but did not use a baton. Instead, he used his expressive hands to encourage his singers — if Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon ever decides to take a sabbatical, Dudamel would make an excellent replacement. Even for, or perhaps especially for, those of us who have sung this work, it was an impressive performance.

• The first LAPO performance of The Creation was conducted in 1960 by Sir Georg Solti in (I presume) Philharmonic Auditorium. It was probably one of Solti’s last performances with the Phil; a year later Dorothy Chandler named Zubin Mehta as assistant conductor without bothering to inform Solti ahead of time. Thus the Hungarian conductor’s appointment as LAPO Music Director ended before it even began and the Mehta era came to pass, instead.
• Information on the Phil’s Messiah performances is HERE. Information on the El Niño performances is HERE.

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

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Trifonov dazzles in Rach 3 with Dudamel and L.A. Phil

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

2014-03-31_trifLos Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Dec. 2; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite, Op. 20; Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; Daniil Trifonov, pianist
Next concerts: Today at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic first played Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto on Jan. 2, 1930 the soloist was Vladimir Horowitz, making his L.A. debut at the age of 26.

Writing about concert, Los Angeles Times critic, Isabel Morse Jones, called Horowitz “overrated.” She wrote: “He has been praised by the most discriminating and lauded as ‘the greatest,’ the most astounding, and all the rest of the superlatives press representatives overwork. After a first hearing of a concerto that makes tremendous technical demands upon the player but contains little that is emotional or poetic, my impression of Mr. Horowitz is that he has been overrated. He is, without question, one of the astounding piano talents in point of facility and, in what is better, musicianship. He lacks feeling and his truly marvelous ability and cleverness for effort does not compensate. He is yet too young in soul to be called a great pianist. The future will answer what he will become.”

The future did, indeed, pass judgment on Horowitz (and on Rachmaninoff’s third). To Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend comes another young (age 25) Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov, who has been proclaimed by many to be the next Horowitz since he captured both the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Israel in 2011 at the age of 20.

In his Hollywood Bowl debut in 2013, Trifonov soloed in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and his Disney Hall recital debut last February concluded with that composer’s first piano sonata. In March he played Prokofiev’s third piano concerto with L’Orchestre Symphonie de Montréal, led Kent Nagano, in Santa Barbara.

So there was tremendous anticipation for his Rach 3 performance this morning, which came less than 12 hours after playing the same piece the night before. This was also Trifonov’s first appearance with Dudamel (the Bowl concert was led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya). The house this morning was almost completely filled.

Based on my first experience with Trifonov, I’m certainly not going to call him “overrated.” Is he the “next Horowitz”? Only time will tell. For now I will happy to call him the first Trifonov — that’s more than enough!

He was fascinating to watch as well as to hear. He bounded on stage and sat quietly before melting his opening lines out of the orchestral introduction. At the meditative beginning of the second movement, he sat head bowed as if he was in prayer. But each time he dug into the meat of Rachmaninoff’s concerto, he gradually hunched over as he roared through the octaves and other pyrotechnic moments. In her preconcert lecture, Lucinda Carver said that Trifonov played thye “small notes” for the cadenzas, not the larger notes that most pianists use.

All of that was certainly thrilling to watch and hear. However, what I most remember were the quiet, poetic lines (yes, Ms. Jones, there is plenty that is emotional and poetic this gigantic work) that Trifonov played with exquisite delicacy.

Dudamel and the Phil gave Trifonov warm, supple support. Dudamel conducted using a score and he was extremely attentive to his soloist. Kudos, especially, to Principal Horn Roger Kaza and Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov for their contributions. Together they brought out all of Rachmaninoff’s long, soaring lines.

The finale brought the expected standing ovation but this one had even more excitement than most. Seemingly unfazed by the workout, Trifonov responded with a playful account of Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Gavotte from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006.

One of the problems with Rach 3 is what do you pair with this mammoth concerto? Indeed, one of the surprises of the day was that the concerto opened the program — how do you follow that? Rather than with a symphony, Dudamel elected to pair use strange works: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Op. 20 and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54. One reason might have been that the two works call for similar orchestration: both call for two harps and each piece has lots of percussion; one difference is that the Scriabin ends with full pipe organ.

The Scythian Suite was Prokofiev’s attempt to channel Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Like Rite, the Scythian Suite was originally conceived as a ballet by Diaghliev, but it never came to pass. Instead, Prokofiev fashioned the music into a four-movement, 22-minute orchestral suite.

Dudamel conducted without a score. The Phil played the raucous two opening movements with razor-sharp precision, the dreamy third movement unfolded gently and the final movement was majestic in Dudamel’s conception. Herbert Glass’ program note contained a quote from a cellist in the first performance: “I have a sick wife and three children; must I be forced to settle for this hell?” Half of the row in which I was sitting apparently agreed. They fled as the last notes finished.

I confess to never having heard Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. In his program note, Herbert Glass said that the premiere in New York City received “scathing reviews.” I’m not willing to go that far but I’m not looking forward to hearing it again.

The work is sort of a precursor of minimalism with a series of never-ending falling and rising motifs, often led with panache by Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan. Except for a few measures of calm, the work builds inexorably to a massive fortissimo. Dudamel and the Phil gave it all the gusto possible.

Fortunately, nothing could wipe out the excitement of Trifonov in Rach 3. We’ve now heard him in lots of Russian music — I can’t wait to hear him in some other genres. His bio says that during the past couple of seasons he has played Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and Schumann with other orchestras. Those will give us a better sense of what he can become in the next decades.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic opens subscription season in splendid fashion

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

johnadams2016John Adams (pictured right) turns age 70 on Feb. 15, 2017, and orchestras throughout the country — most notably the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic — are taking the opportunity to salute the man who is one of America’s most important composers, along with being a conductor and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair.

During this season the L.A. Phil will reprise two of Adams’ most important pieces, including El Niño and Nixon in China (but not two I would have expected to show up on the list: City Noir and Harmonielehre — perhaps early next season).

Last night as part of its opening subscription program the Phil offered the Los Angeles premiere of Adams’ Absolute Jest, a scintillating 25-minute sendup of Beethoven works, particularly two of his final string quartets.

Although there are folks who contend that you don’t need lots of information about a “new” work to enjoy it —Absolute Jest was originally composed for the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial season in 2012 and revised with 400 new bars of new opening music for a performance by the New World Symphony later that year — Adams came onstage to talk about his inspiration for the piece.

He enlisted the support of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, for whom the piece had been written, which played portions of Beethoven String Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131 and the F Major, Op. 135 as examples of themes that Adams employed in his work. That, along with a particularly well delivered preconcert lecture by Russell Steinberg, offered excellent insight into what is undeniably an Adams creation, particularly in its rousing finale (which ended abruptly and magically with single notes from a harp and piano (both tuned slightly off pitch).

The quartet, which was seated in front of the orchestra and to the right of Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, proved to be formidable as it weaved its solo lines into the orchestral fabric. For their part, Dudamel confidently the piece confidently, as if he had lived with it for years, and the orchestra played with its customary excellence, as if this was just another Beethoven work.

Absolute Jest definitely piece worth hearing again and you can do that either tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m. in Disney Hall (INFO) or online at KUSC.org, which broadcast last night’s concert live and will have it online for the next week.

bronfman2016Perhaps not surprisingly, Dudamel elected to surround Adams’ piece with two Beethoven works. He and the orchestra opened with a magisterial rendition of the Corolian Overture and concluded with the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, with Yefim Bronfman (pictured left) as soloist.

Last summer we heard an elegant rendition of this familiar work by Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (my review is HERE). Last night, Bronfman was equally mesmerizing in his performance, pairing a majestic opening movement and playful conclusion with a magical second movement that was absolutely exquisite, particularly in contrast to the powerful chords erupting from the orchestra.

Dudamel and the orchestra played with a passion and precision not always apparent when accompanying a soloist. Dudamel, in particular, was intensely involved although, paradoxically, that often translated into minimalist motions on the podium. It was a superb ending to a impressive opening concert, auguring well for the next eight months.

• Steinberg’s preconcert lecture was one of the best I have heard. He offered several insightful windows, particularly for Absolute Jest and the fourth concerto, which were helpful not only for the occasional attender but also for those who are Phil regulars. Steinberg, who is a composer and conducts the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra — is offering a series of eight lectures from January through March in Encino on the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. INFO: www.russelsteinberg.com
• Although the official unveiling isn’t until today, patrons entering Disney Hall from the parking garage got “sneak-preview” look at Nimbus, a series of cloud-like structures hanging from the ceiling accompanied by music played by the Phil’s musicians. Details are HERE.
• In addition to officially unveiling Nimbus, Saturday will be an 12-hour (noon to midnight) celebration of contemporary music, including the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO
• While Dudamel is in New York City leading his Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in three concerts at Carnegie Hall (INFO), Pablo Heras-Casado will be on the Disney Hall podium Oct. 7, 8 and 9 leading the Phil in Stravinsky’s complete Firebird and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist.

Oct. 7 is the season’s first “Casual Friday” concert. The Saturday and Sunday programs also include Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester), although if the Friday program started closer to on time, it could include the second Ravel work, which lasts all of eight minutes. INFO

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil open Disney Hall season with gala concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

dudamel2016Nearly every major American orchestra opens their season with some sort of gala concert in advance of their initial subscription programs. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is no different … except that it is.

Many of the L.A. patrons (most of whom have ponied up big bucks to attend the post-concert party on Grand Avenue) dress up in black tie or the female equivalent and amble up a red carpet. The concert is somewhat shorter than regular subscription programs, negated somewhat by the fact that most of the audience arrive very late (the downbeat last night was 21 minutes after the announced start time of 7 p.m.)

The evening, which ended with mylar shards floating down from the Walt Disney Concert Hall ceiling, also raises big bucks for the Phil’s education programs, including its Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), the local version of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, which begins its 10th anniversary this year. The orchestra donates its services for this annual event.

What makes the Phil galas different is that LAPO Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) takes these programs very seriously. True, last night ended with a repertoire staple — Gershwin’s An American in Paris — but that piece was a natural finish to an evening that focused on “Gershwin and the Jazz Age.”

In addition to music by Gershwin, Dudamel added selections from two other giants of the jazz age — Cole Porter and Duke Ellington — and a work by a composer whose work was heavily influenced by jazz: Leonard Bernstein.

Not only did Dudamel take the program seriously but so did the orchestra, which played at top form throughout the evening, not an easy thing to do when shifting from one style to another, in this case from jaunty jazz to sweeping symphonic.

The evening opened with Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations, which featured diminutive 21-year-old pianist George Li as the saucy soloist.

The orchestra’s Principal Clarinet, Boris Allakhverdyan, also proved to be a formidable soloist in Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, which, according to John Henken’s informative music notes, was written originally on a commission by Woody Herman in 1949. However, Herman’s band broke up before he could perform the piece and it wasn’t until 1955 the the piece was actually performed, with Benny Goodman as soloist, for the television series, Omnibus.

For these ears, the highlight of the evening was the second movement, Stalking Monster, of Ellington’s 1955 work Night Creature, with the trombone section setting an atmospheric mood and Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour adding a winsome solo. This would be a great encore piece on the Phil’s upcoming West Coast tour.

In between those opening and closing orchestral sections, singers Megan Hilty and Brian Stokes Mitchell offered solos and duets by Cole Porter (Always True to You in My Fashion and So in Love) and Gershwin (Someone to Watch Over Me and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off).

The highlight was Mitchell’s hilarious rendition of It Ain’t Necessarily So from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, although it took awhile for the audience to get in the swing of things as the “echo” part.

Now age 35 and beginning his eight season at the Phil’s helm, Dudamel was relaxed and poised on the podium and even joked about the silver strands creeping into his curly hair. It was a promising beginning to the orchestra’s 98th season.

• Although the official unveiling isn’t until Saturday, patrons entering Disney Hall from the parking garage got their first look at Nimbus, a series of cloud-like structures hanging from the ceiling accompanied by music played by the Phil’s musicians. Details are HERE.
• The orchestra’s 98th subscription season opens tomorrow night with Dudamel leading the Phil in Beethoven’s Corolian Overture, John Adams’ Strange Jest, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet as soloists, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The program repeats Friday and Sunday; KUSC will broadcast the Friday program. INFO
• The program officially kicks off the season-long 70th birthday celebration of Adams, who — in addition to being one of America’s most important composers — serves as the Phil’s Creative Chair.
• In addition to officially unveiling Nimbus, Saturday will be an 12-hour (noon to midnight) celebration of contemporary music, including the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, the Phil and dancers perform Tchaikovsky at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Every concert at Hollywood Bowl involves a roll of the dice because elements not present at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s indoor home, Walt Disney Concert Hall, often intrude at the Phil’s venerable outdoor venue. These vagaries include — among other things — weather, limited rehearsal time, adjusting to guest conductors quickly, aerial intrusions, and amplification.

Consider that latter element, for example. Thursday night I and others noted that the sound system, which has been mostly top-notch during the first four weeks of the Bowl’s classical programs, seemed out of sorts, distorting the brass sounds particularly. I wrote that this might have occurred, in part, because the orchestra seemed to be pushed farther back into the shell to accommodate the ballet floor installed for Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

However, last night — the first of two nights where dances from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake were the center point, figuratively if not actually, of the program and the orchestra was in the same location as Thursday — the sound system (and the folks operating same) were back to the high levels (pun intended) of the first eight concerts.

Friday’s high quality was undoubtedly aided by the fact that Gustavo Dudamel, the Phil’s music and artistic director, was back on the podium for his last program of the Bowl season. No offense to Ben Gernon, the British prize-winning conductor who makes the now-35-year-old Dudamel seem like a grizzled veteran, and who conducted a difficult program with aplomb Thursday night. It’s just that the Phil always elevates its playing another level when Dudamel bounces onto the podium — call it from A to A+.

Dudamel, of course, has Latin American music embedded in his DNA and is a Mahlerian of the highest order, but he seems to most enjoy conducting the music of Tchaikovsky. There’s a different swagger to Dudamel’s beats and gestures and his beaming smile is more infectious throughout the orchestra’s playing of this music, no matter the quality of the score.

This was immediately evident last night in Capriccio Italien, which opened the evening. Written in 1879 when Tchaikovsky was in Rome, the piece is a pastiche of Italian folk and carnival tunes with the composer’s sheen running throughout. Last night, the Phil’s strings ranged from crisply crackling incision to sweeping, lush tones, and the brass were beautifully burnished throughout the performance.

Dance has been center stage for each of the classical programs this week and last night it was Swan Lake that held that spot. In his program notes, Howard Posner wrote, “For more than a century Swan Lake has been the ballet, the source of the visual clichés that say ‘ballet’ to the non-ballet public.” Perhaps, although I think most Americans would vote for The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty for that role, in part because of Walt Disney’s movies Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty.

Nonetheless, even to non-ballet lovers (of which I am one), the dancing from four members of the American Ballet Theatre last night was mesmerizing, particularly the work of Hee Seo and Corey Stearns in the White Swan pas de duex in the first half, which reminded me of the sort of breathtaking moves we see during televised Olympic ice skating routines.

Gilliam Murphy and Alexandre Hammoudi were nearly as impressive in the Black Swan pas de deux in the post-intermission program, although — as with The Firebird Thursday night, I will leave it to others more versed in ballet to make definitive judgments about the quality of the four dancers.

It should also be noted that, as was the case Thursday night, the variable interior lighting in the Bowl shell (blue and red hues last night) provided different effects on the large video monitors to the side of the shell than we saw onstage, although the variance was not as pronounced as it was for The Firebird.

Dudamel and the orchestra accompanied skillfully. In particular Dudamel was noticeable (actually unnoticeable would be a better adjective) because of how little podium choreography he provided, leaving the focus on the dancers. The orchestra’s instrumental portions were exemplary.

The evening ended, of course, with the 1812 Overture, or as John Mangum noted in the printed program: The Year 1812, a Festival Overture to Mark the Consecration of the Cathedral of St. Stephen.

Although I was at the first “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts in 1969 (Zubin Mehta conducted), it’s been several years since last attended this program. The most obvious difference was that members of the USC Trojan Marching Band paraded out onto the curved back row of the first boxes (which was originally a reflecting pool) to play at the conclusion of the piece. Two band conductors synched admirably well with Dudamel, the sound was impressively balanced, and the pyrotechnics by Souza were — as always — impressively choreographed.

It could only happen at the Bowl, and a second performance takes place tonight.

• The second half (actually second 60%) of the season begins Tuesday and Thursday when early-music specialist Andrew Manze takes the Bowl podium. Tuesday’s concert is all-Mozart (INFO), while Thursday’s program pairs Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“Great C Major”) with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Francesco Piemontesi making his LAPO debut as soloist (INFO).
• Although the FAA seems to have done a good job getting the word out to fliers about avoiding the Bowl on concert nights (the giant crisscrossed search lights would be hard to miss), one obnoxious helicopter either hasn’t gotten the word, blithely ignores it, or doesn’t realize that helicopters are much louder than small planes. I’m glad I don’t live under his or her flight path!
• One other kvetch: people who are in the front rows of the stacked parking aisles need to remember that when they take an inordinately long time to reach their cars, that dalliance makes it very difficult for those behind them to leave (although last night’s auto choreography was impressive in its own right). Last night I definitively would gotten home faster if I had taken Metro (see my post from two weeks ago on this subject HERE).

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

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