CLASS ACT: The magic — and power — of Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Fireworks are just part of the magic of summertime concerts at Hollywood Bowl.

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Tonight and Tuesday night at 8 p.m. in Hollywood Bowl
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait

Most of the classical music world has a great appreciation for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and with good reason. Its instrumentalists play in top form virtually every night of their yearlong concert season. The Phil’s music and artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel, is one of the most charismatic conductors working today and he has matured significantly in his nine years with the orchestra. Moreover, he is signed through the 2021-22 season.

The orchestra’s management has been exemplary and visionary during the past three decades and even though its longtime President and CEO Deborah Borda left this summer to try and work her magic with the New York Phil, the orchestra’s board has two excellent in-house candidates — Gail Samuel and Chad Smith — to replace her, should it so choose.

However, one aspect of the Phil’s life remains unique among the nation’s orchestras: Hollywood Bowl, which this season celebrates its 96th year. Tuesday night Dudamel and the Phil opened their 10-week classical season, which contains concerts nearly every Tuesday and Thursday plus a couple of other days as well.

Many people, including me, got our first significant exposure to classical music from the Bowl’s “cheap seats.” As usual, the $1 seats are sold out but there are plenty of $8 seats available for some of the classical concerts this season, so that “first exposure” rule still holds true in many respects.

However, what makes the Bowl valuable for the Phil is the growing number of pops and movie nights that it hosts each season, numbers that dwarf most of the classical concerts in terms of crowd counts. This weekend Dudamel and the Phil will appear with Tony Bennett and many other pops-style programs will take place this summer. Most, if not all, will draw near the capacity of about 18,000 people. All of these provide a tremendous cash influx for the orchestra and help it to maintain a positive cash flow in its annual budgets while paying its musicians top dollar.

The Bowl’s central location is another bonus for the L.A. Phil. The Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Music Festival takes place each summer, but it 2-3 hours driving west of Boston (into one of the prettiest areas of the country, I’ll grant you). Moreover, its listed seating capacity in its main “shed” is just 5,700, less than a third of the Bowl.

If you haven’t visited the Bowl in a season or two, you’ll be surprised at the changes. Each year something is improved — this year it’s a new Main Plaza and enhanced picnicking areas, along with metal detectors to get into the main gate entrance (there’s also a new “mid-gate” entrance that let’s you avoid the crowd at the main gate). If you don’t enjoy the stacked parking on site, there are several alternative forms of transportation, including Park and Ride buses and a shuttle from the Red Line’s Hollywood/Highland station.

Particularly this summer when the nights have been unusually warm, it all makes for a quintessential summertime magical experience.

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

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REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil, Yuja Wang conclude Disney Hall season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

This past weekend Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pianist Yuja Wang concluded a mini-series that revolved around the three piano concertos of Hungarian composer Béla Bartok. The first concerto was the centerpiece of last week’s concerts (my review is HERE). The series — the second of two, following a Schubert-Mahler cycle earlier in May — also concluded the Phil’s 98th season and 15th in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The second and third Bartók piano concertos are quite different, in part because Bartók was suffering from incurable leukemia as he wrote his final concerto (in fact, the last 17 measures were orchestrated by Tibor Serly, one of Bartók’s friends and pupils).

Moreover, while Bartók wrote his second concerto knowing that he would be the soloist, he composed the third for his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, although she did not play it for nearly 20 years. György Sándor played the premiere on Feb. 8, 1946 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In an interesting historical twist, Sándor was the soloist when the L.A. Phil gave its first performance of the second concerto on December 20, 1962 with Zubin Mehta conducting.

Now age 30, Wang is one of the most dazzling pianists on the world stage today. After her performance of the second concerto Friday afternoon she encored with Bizet’s “Variations on a Theme From Carmen,” as arranged by Vladmir Horowitz, and her bravura rendition of that work was certainly reminiscent of the great Russian pianist.

For the record, she played three (!) encores on Thursday night: her own shared arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo “alla Turca” from Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331; the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118.

She added two more powerhouse encores Sunday afternoon — this curmudgeonly critic wishes she had played something akin to the Schubert simply for contrast, although Bartók’s third concerto is less an endurance contest for iron fingers and far more lyrically romantic than either of the first two.

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of moments for Wang to show off — quite the opposite. The audiences on Friday morning and this afternoon were enthralled both with her playing and her dress (what, you expected me to ignore the lime-green with the slit-all-the-way-up-the front on Friday and the shimmering black VERY short dress this afternoon? No chance).

Her virtuosity continues to be dazzling. It’s hard to believe that anyone could write anything as complex as what Bartók composed and that anyone could play it with the speed with which Wang negotiated the flying powerful octaves, runs and trills. Yet, again, for this critic, what was equally impressive was how Wang delivered the delicate, lyrical passages in the third concerto.

Dudamel surrounded both concertos with Stravinsky’s Symphonies for Wind Instruments and Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. The former is a nine-minute series of craggy fragments for the woodwinds balanced by melodic (for Stravinsky, at any rate) brass chorales. Dudamel, who conducted without a baton but with a score, led the meanderings with panache and the orchestra played it skillfully.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a 22-minute work comprised of five short movements, the first and last of which are brass fanfares played by 13 instrumentalists (11 trumpets and two Wagner tubas) that, on Friday, were arrayed along the front row of the choral benches. The performance proved to be a great showpiece for the entire brass section and Principal Timpanist Joseph Peirera.

Next stop: Hollywood Bowl, beginning (for classical music lovers) on July 9 with Dudamel leading the Phil and several dancers, including Missy Copeland, in selections from ballets by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Adolphe Adam. Information:

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

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FIVE SPOT: June 1-4, 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.

JUNE 1, 2, 3 and 4: BARTOK CYCLE
8 p.m. on June 1 and 3
11 a.m. on June 2; 2 p.m. on June 4
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conclude their 2016-17 subscription season by completing a cycle revolving around Bartók’s three piano concertos. Yuja Wang will be the soloist in the second concerto on Thursday and Friday and the third concerto Saturday and Sunday. On all four days, the accompanying pieces will be Stravinsky’s Symfonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. (The first concerto was last week — review link HERE).

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.


Various times and days, through June 25
at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts; La Mirada
The long-time Broadway hit musical is the final production in the 2016-2017 McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Davis Gaines — one of the most popular performers in the title role of ZZZPhantom of the Opera — stars as the chivalrous knight Don Quixote.


8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday
at La Cañada Presbyterian Church; La Cañada
Since I’m a member at LCPC (although I’m not singing in this concert) you can take this recommendation with a grain of salt or a pound of salt, as the late, great Molly Ivins used to write. This annual Pops program focues on music and films beloved by children of all ages, including Shrek, Mary Poppins, and Seussical the Musical, among others. The church’s choir and soloists are accompanied by the Jack Lantz Little Big Band; Jack Lantz conducts.


8 p.m. at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; Costa Mesa
Pacific Symphony Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman leads this program of music covering a healthy slice of Williams’ motion picture scoring career.


8 p.m. at Centennial Plaza; Pasadena
In advance of its summer season at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, the Pasadena Pops offers its annual free concert on the steps of the city’s iconic City Hall. Resident Conductor Larry Blank will lead music from Broadway, Hollywood and the “Great American Songbook,” accompanied by soloists Kiki Ebsen, Valerie Perri and Christina Saffran, as well as the JPL Chorus.

BONUS: Free admission; gates open at 6 p.m.

The Plaza is easily reachable via Metro’s Gold Line. Exit at the Memorial Park Station walk up three blocks east to reach the City Hall and Centennial Plaza.


7 p.m. at Wilshire United Methodist Church; Los Angeles
Music Director Sue Fink leads her choir of 160+ in a program that mixes music from several centuries and genres with elements of cyberspace. The program will feature the premiere of a new song, A Vibration, by Los Angeles-based composer and ACC choir member Andrew Cheeseman.


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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Bartók, Janáček dominate L.A. Phil’s Disney Hall concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Today and tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Yuja Wang was the soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

As we drove home following the concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, fireworks blazed in the sky over Dodger Stadium. They paled compared to the fireworks that exploded inside Disney Hall.

Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic began a two-week series last night that will conclude the Phil’s 2016-2017 indoor subscription season. The cycle revolves around the three piano concertos of Bela Bartók, with Yuja Wang as the soloist. Dudamel is surrounding each concerto with music by Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček — this weekend it’s two rarely heard and disparate pieces based on Roman Catholic liturgy: Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Since her Phil debut at Hollywood Bowl in 2011, Wang has been one of the most enjoyable pianists at Phil concerts and recitals both for her playing and what she wears. In her Los Angeles Times profile of Wang yesterday (LINK), Deborah Vankin wrote: “Wang says she has outgrown some lifestyle choices for which she’s known. Of fashion, once an obsession, she says, ‘Oh, it was a phase.’ ” Based on the long, purple slit dress she wore last night (see photo above), Wang clearly had her tongue in her cheek during the interview.

However, as usual, Wang playing was the real story. Although she has performed the Bartók concertos individually during this season, this will mark the first time she will play them in a cycle. Somewhat surprisingly, last night she used a score for the complex, percussive score (given the number of notes, I was glad I wasn’t turning pages). She tore through the music with the virtuosity for which she is well known, pausing along the way to let more delicate passages drip off of her fingers.

Dudamel, who also used a score — in fact, for the first time I can remember he used scores on all three of the evening’s pieces — and the Phil were on their rhythmic toes throughout the performance, for which all concerned received an especially lengthy standing ovation.

Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles was the last major work the composer wrote, five years before he died in 1971 (in what was probably a cut-and-past error, the printed program managed to bogey all of Stravinsky’s birth and death information).

Although scored for a massive orchestra, chorus and two soloists, Requiem Canticles is just 15 minutes long, uses only 24 lines of the Roman Catholic Requiem liturgy (Stravinsky termed it his “first mini- or pocket-requiem”), and never has the full orchestra playing — often just a few instruments cover the singers.

It remains a perplexing work for the hearer, full of the dissonances and serialism that Stravinsky was using at the time. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, which numbered 92 according to the printed program, sang with delicate precision, mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova delivered “Lacrimosa” lines with creamy, luxurious tones, and bass Stefan Kocan was properly stentorian in the “Tuba Mirum” section, aided expertly by Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten.

If Requiem Canticles is at the mini-end of the musical scale, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass stands at the opposite extreme. It was written in 1926 and revised in 1928, the same time frame as the first Bartók piano concerto. Janáček was age 73 at the time and his textual choice remains perplexing.

In his program notes: Herbert Glass wrote:

“ ‘The ageing composer [Janáček] had a positive aversion to organized religion, even to churches. He would not go into one even to get out of the rain,’ his niece wrote. ‘The church to me is the essence of death,’ Janáček observed, ‘graves under the flagstones, bones on the altars, all kinds of torture and death in the paintings. The rituals, the prayers, the chants – death and death again! I won’t have anything to do with it.

“Yet after the first performance of the Glagolitic Mass in Brno (in a church), in the composer’s native Moravia, in December of 1927, a Czech newspaper critic wrote: ‘The aged master, a deeply devout man, has composed this Mass out of passionate conviction that his life’s work would be incomplete without an artistic expression of his relation to God.’ Janáček was outraged and wrote in return a postcard with a four-word response: ‘Neither aged, nor devout.’ ”

Rather than religious, Janáček conceived the work as a pantheistic, patriotic work, using for the text — instead of Latin — Old Slavonic (whose written characters are in Glagolitic, thus the work’s title). The words were the same Missa Solemnis text used by Beethoven in his Op. 123 work written near the end of his life.

Like Requiem Canticles, the Glagolitic Mass is scored for giant-sized orchestra and full chorus, but unlike Stravinsky Janáček uses them in full-throated glory. Dudamel conducted the work with an irresistible swagger, the orchestra’s strings were notable for their lean sound, and the full brass section was glorious throughout. The Master Chorale sang the difficult text superbly. In addition to Kolosova and Kocan, soprano Angela Meade sang gloriously with full operatic fervor, while Ladislav Elgr’s clarion tenor voice soared over the orchestra and chorus with seeming ease.

The orchestral score includes a pipe organ and, after the final choral section, Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna put a virtuosic cap on the proceedings using the Disney Hall organ in the “Varhany” solo movement (the word means “organ” in Czech), which concludes with a pedal-solo flourish.

The 1928 version has Glagolitic Mass concluding with a short, dramatic orchestral movement, “Intrada,” which preconcert lecturer Eric Bromberger noted might be thought of as a recessional rather than an introit (the original 1926 version had the movement at the beginning). As an organ lover I might have opted for the earlier version.

• The two-week Bartok cycle concludes next week with the second piano concerto on June 1 and 2 and the third concerto on June 3 and 4. Both concertos are surrounded by Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Information:
• The final concert of the Disney Hall season is a “Green Umbrella” performance of Lou Harrison’s opera Young Caesar on June 13, with the L.A. New Music Group conducted by Mark Lowenstein, and the production staged by Yuval Sharon in collaboration with his group, The Industry. This year marks the centennial of Harrison’s birth. Information:

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

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