AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: A new direction for opera?

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

ARenée Fleming stars as Blanche DuBois in André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” being presented May 18, 21 and 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenburg, Lyric Opera, Chicago.

Los Angeles Opera: André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire
May 18 at 5 p.m.; May 21 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.org

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Mozart’s Così fan tutte
May 23 and 29 at 7:30 p.m.; May 25 and 31 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Information: www.laphil.com
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Although unintended, it’s ironic that as San Diego Opera continues to struggle with the question of how or even whether it should move forward, Los Angeles during the next couple of weeks offers two notable examples of what the future might look like not only for San Diego but for other opera companies, as well.

On May 18, 21 and 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles Opera presents an innovative staging of André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire with superstar soprano Renée Fleming in the role of Blanche DuBois. Then on May 23, 25, 29 and 31 the Los Angeles Philharmonic will conclude its three-year cycle of Mozart/Da Ponte operas when Gustavo Dudamel conducts Così fan tutte at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

On March 19 San Diego Opera’s board of directors voted to close the company following the completion of this, its 49th season, due to dwindling financial support. Since then plans are moving forward cautiously to (a) find a way to finance a 50th anniversary season and (b) discover a new future direction. Fundraising will be a key to both decisions. For the past year San Diego Opera’s budget was reportedly about $15 million annually and it presented four operas.

If San Diego Opera closes, it will follow in the footsteps of Opera Pacific in Orange County and New York City Opera, each of which shuttered its doors. If SD Opera continues, it will undoubtedly be as a different, probably smaller, company.

Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera’s chief executive officer, says he has no inside knowledge of the San Diego Opera struggles, but he can relate to them. “When the 2008 worldwide crisis hit,” he remembers, “we at LA Opera had to pivot to become a much different company, going from a $60 million budget to $40 million. It wasn’t easy.”

What’s important, say Koelsch and other arts organization leaders, is that companies must be in constant dialogue with their communities as organizations determine what programming can and should be presented. A key word that Koelsch uses frequently is “diversity,” a word that relates both to audiences and programming.

“The traditional subscription model of selling tickets is breaking down,” says Koelsch. “Instead of one large audience, we now have audiences breaking down into smaller niches. It’s not that we’re totally abandoning the idea of presenting grand operas in a house the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But we’re constantly trying find ways to demystify the art form so that we can broaden our overall appeal.”

Earlier this spring, LAO presented another in its family opera programs, the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels diagonally across the Temple St. and Grand Ave. corner from the Music Center. Thousands of people attended the free performances; many had never seen an opera before.

A Streetcar Named Desire is another example of reaching out to different audiences. The original work was a play written in 1947 by Tennessee Williams, for whom it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Three years later, Elia Kazan’s searing film adaptation won Academy Awards for Vivian Leigh (best actress), Karl Malden (best supporting actor) and Kim Hunter (best supporting actress). Marlon Brando, who played Stanley Kowalski, lost out to Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen) for the Best Actor Oscar.

Previn — who, although he has composed extensively, is better known for his work in motion pictures and as an orchestra conductor — used a libretto by Philip Littell to adapt the play into an opera; it was premiered in San Francisco in 1998. However, rather than using the elaborate original production, LAO is using Brad Dalton’s intriguing staging that puts the costumed cast at the front of the stage, with the orchestra on stage behind the action. The production has played to strong reviews at Carnegie Hall in New York City and Lyric Opera Chicago.

Koelsch cautions that creating a show with a “much smaller footprint” from a larger version may not always be feasible, but it’s one way for companies such as LAO to bring contemporary operas into the company’s increasingly large repertoire.

Of course it helps that Fleming is portraying the one of the starring roles in Streetcar. “I’ve been eager to bring Renée to Los Angeles as Blanche DuBois for more than a decade,” says LAO’s General Director Plácido Domingo, Fleming’s only rival for operatic superstar status. Ironically, Domingo is appearing onstage in Jules Massenet’s Thais, which is running in tandem with Streetcar. The opportunity to present Streetcar came together at the last minute, as least in opera company terms. It didn’t materialize until LAO had already announced its current season last year.

The L.A. Phil’s Così follows in the footsteps of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro to be presented on stage at Disney Hall during the past two years. In each case, the director and stage designer had to find innovative ways to cope with the fact that Disney Hall was built for orchestra and choral groups, not operas. That means there is no proscenium or ways to hang scenic backdrops. Overall, the two Mozart productions successfully managed that challenge.

Well-known opera director Christopher Alden will lead the Cosí fan tutte production, which has been created by architect Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 (the previous productions were also designed by architects; Frank Gehry handled Don Giovanni, while Jean Nouvel did the “installations” for The Marriage of Figaro). Hussein Chalayan has designed the Cosí costumes.

As is the case with LAO, the Phil is using this unique combination of talents to reach out to new audiences, as well as to traditional opera and symphony fans.

Next season LAO continues its broadening trend in two radically different ways. For its production of Hercules vs. Vampires in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the company will synchronize live music with the 1961 cult fantasy film. When actors on the screen open their mouths to speak, the audience will instead hear their lines sung by members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra.

The company’s final offering of the 2014-2015 season will be David T. Little’s Dog Days, which will be presented at Disney Hall’s The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), which seats less than 300 people.

This is definitely not your grandfather’s opera company.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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ANALYSIS: Doors close and open at local orchestras

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Like any business and top executives, orchestras and their music directors undergo cyclical lives — it’s just that when an orchestra changes its music director it’s newsworthy, at least in its hometown or region.

In Los Angeles, we’ve gotten a bit spoiled because both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have enjoyed great longevity in their musical leadership. Esa-Pekka Salonen served as the L.A. Phil’s music director from 1992 through 2009 and his successor, Gustavo Dudamel, came on board immediately after Salonen stepped down.
Kahane
Jeffrey Kahane (right) has been LACO’s music director since 1997 but recently announced that the 2016-2017 season will be his 20th and final season at LACO’s helm. Meanwhile, earlier this season, Enrique Arturo Diemecke announced that he would not return as the Long Beach Symphony’s music director.

On the other side of the coin, the Pasadena Symphony has now settled its musical leadership team. Michael Feinstein returns this summer for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, and Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will divide duties for the PSO’s upcoming season as they begin their tenures with the orchestra.

In some ways, Long Beach’s situation parallels the Pasadena Symphony when it severed relationships with its long-time music director, Jorge Mester, in 2010. The LBSO management situation appears more stable than the turmoil that had enveloped the PSO four years ago, so it may not take the length of time that it took the PSO to get its new Lockington-McGegan-Feinstein music leadership team on board but it will undoubtedly take some time to find the right replacement for Diemecke, who has led the LBSO for 10 years.

LACO has more than three years to find Kahane’s replacement but they may need every month . For one thing, Kahane brought unique combination of skills to the position. Among his predecessors, only Sir Neville Marriner and Christof Perick could have been classified as “pure” conductors. Gerard Schwarz was well known for his trumpet skills as for his conducting prowess and Iona Brown did most of her conducting from the first violin chair. Kahane came to LACO with a modest, albeit growing, reputation as a conductor but he was — and is — a high-profile pianist, something he hopes to continue in his post-LACO life.

Moreover, LACO has several musical streams beyond its orchestral series, including its “Baroque Conversations” and “Westside Connections” series. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer has curated the latter series; what influence or changes will a new music director want to make in either or both of these series will be part of the questions involved in naming Kahane’s successor.

In contrast to LACO and Long Beach, the Pasadena Symphony is looking forward eagerly to its new era. Some music directors come to new positions with great overarching themes, but Lockington’s first season as Pasadena Symphony music director has a series of themes interwoven throughout the five programs, each of which will be presented in two concerts at Ambassador Auditorium.

Lockington-small4Web“I suppose if I had to pick one adjective for the season,” said Lockington (right) recently, “it would be ‘colorful.’ “ The PSO’s 2014-2015 season includes a wide range of music, from Baroque to contemporary, with a healthy selection of American music sprinkled throughout the five programs.

Lockington and McGegan will alternate in leading the five programs. The opening concerts on Nov. 1 will feature an all-American program that says Lockington, “focuses on popular, virtuosic styles” using music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

The program opens with Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare, which Lockington wrote in 2009 for the Grand Rapids Symphony (where he remains music director) in conjunction with a project he championed entitled “ArtPrize.” “The piece features church bells,” says Lockington, “and when we performed it in Grand Rapids the city’s churches rang their bells to coincide with the music.” Unfortunately, Ambassador is too far from Pasadena’s churches to achieve the same effect.

The Nov. 1 concerts will also feature pianist Terrence Wilson as soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Lockington has never conducted the young African-American pianist but he likes what he has heard. “He plays with great panache,” says Lockington, “with a clear, precise king of brilliance.”

Perhaps the most interesting program is the Feb. 14 concerts, which will be the second that Lockington will conduct. It features Dylana Jenson (who is also his wife and mother of their four children) as soloist in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Lockington’s decision to feature his wife as soloist on Valentine’s Day may seem to smack of nepotism but nothing could be further from the truth. A Los Angeles native, Jenson was a child prodigy who studied under Nathan Milstein (among others), shared silver medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition, and made Carnegie Hall debut two years later with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Shostakovich first violin concerto is a work that Lockington and Jenson recorded in 2008 (along with the Barber Violin Concerto) with the London Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim several years ago.

The program will open with Enter Light, a work by Joel Scheckman, a California native who is a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony clarinet section. “It’s about an eight-minute piece that works beautifully as a lead-in to the violin concerto,” says Lockington. The concert concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Seminal works anchor McGegan’s two concerts: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). The cheeky January 17 concerts open with Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, and also feature Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Esther Keel and her mother, Mihyang Keel, as soloists.

So as LACO and the Long Beach Symphony move forward into uncertain futures, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops appear to be on the threshold of new chapters of stability. Just remember: in a few years (or, if the stars align, decades), the cycles will undoubtedly turn over again.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Jeffrey Kahane to retire as LACO music director

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Jeffrey Kahane has announced that he will step down as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the end of the 2016-2017 season, concluding a 20-year reign as the orchestra’s fifth and longest-serving music director. Kahane will assume the title of music director laureate and the orchestra has launched a search for his replacement.

“Twenty years is a very long tenure for any music director,” said Kahane in a statement. “I really felt it was time to pass the torch, as difficult as it is to move on, and 20 years seemed like a good round number.”

Although he had been music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, Kahane was far better known as a pianist than as a conductor when, at age 41, he replaced Iona Brown at LACO’s helm. It was a dark time for the orchestra, which only recently had emerged from bankruptcy. However in the succeeding 17 years, Kahane and the orchestra have grown and flourished together.

He expects to continue his burgeoning guest conducting, solo piano and chamber music careers, and said he has no plans at the present to take on another music director position.

LACO will be the second local ensemble in search mode. Earlier this season, Enrique Arturo Diemecke announced that this would be his last season as music director of the Long Beach Symphony. Given that LACO has a three-year lead-time before Kahane leaves, it’s possible that the transition to his successor might be virtually seamless.

The Pasadena Symphony, which knows quite a bit about the ins and outs of search processes, concludes its 2013-14 classics series on May 10 with concerts at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. If you like your music big and bold, this is the program for you. Jahja Ling, music director of the San Diego Symphony for 10 years, will lead Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner as soloist in the concerto. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• Speaking of pianists playing big concertos, the next two Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts fit that description. This Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Emmanuel Ax will be soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The Thursday and Saturday concerts also include Ax as soloist in the world premiere of Release, a LAPO commission by Andrew Norman, who happens to be LACO’s composer-in-residence. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel returns to town for the month of May; he opens this weekend’s concerts with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.

On May 8-11, Lang Lang comes to town to appear with the Phil as soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Dudamel leading the Phil in Ravel’s La Valse and Valses nobles et sentimentales, along with Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne’s Sinfonía Burocratica ed’ Amazzonica. Information: www.laphil.com

• Finally, continuing in the monumental-works mode, preeminent American organist Paul Jacobs comes to Disney Hall next Sunday at 7:30 p.m. to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete Clavier-Übung III, which begins and ends with one of Bach’s most famous works, the Prelude and Fugue in E-Flat Major, BWV 552 (St. Anne). Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 revived powerfully at Los Angeles Philharmonic concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. • Feb. 9 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced its 2013-2014 season last spring, I immediately put a big red circle around this weekend’s concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall because they featured John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 being played for only the second time in LAPO history. I remember hearing the first time when David Zinman conducted the Phil at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in January 1993 and being gobsmacked by the work’s power and anguish.

However, this is a different time. Gustavo Dudamel is a different conductor, and Walt Disney Concert Hall is a VERY different venue than the Pavilion. At the time of its composition, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 was triggered by the AIDS crisis that was sweeping the nation. Many people now view the work simply as a “tragic symphony,” a la Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique.” Either reaction, says Corigliano, is fine.

“At the time [the work was written],” said Corigliano in an e-mail interview just after his 76th birthday last month, “I had lost over 100 friends and colleagues. My closest friend (for three decades) was dying, and came to the performances, accepted the dedication to him, and passed away a week later. This was a horrible time and writing my symphony was all I could do. So my feelings at the premiere were enormously influenced by my friend, Sheldon [Shkolnik], his state and the world then around me.” Corigliano subtitled the first movement Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance.

Thanks to increase in medical treatments and national awareness, AIDS is no longer the scourge it was in 1990. “Many things have changed,” says Corigliano, “especially concerning the treatment of AIDS. So hearing the work now has been more of a nostalgic experience. The memories of my friends come back to me, and I feel grateful to be able to mourn them in this different way.”

Corigliano was age 48 and serving as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first Composer in Residence when in 1998 the CSO commissioned him to write a large work. The orchestra got more than it bargained for. It was Corigliano’s first large-scale symphonic work; the four-movement piece lasts a little over 40 minutes and the forces necessary to perform the piece are enormous.

There are extra players in every section last night, including 18 brass players in a ring behind the winds and strings. The percussion array includes two sets of timpani (Dudamel placed them on either edge of the back row); two sets of tubular chimes, placed behind the orchestra’s first and second violins; two pianos, one onstage and one off, along with two glockenspiels, crotales, two vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, snare drum, three tom-toms, three roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, three bass drums, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, three temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, ratchet, harp and four (!) mandolins. About the only instrument that Corigliano didn’t use was an organ — I think Chicago’s symphony hall didn’t have one at the time and where would they have put the console anyway?

Corigliano was on hand during rehearsals this week and attended last night’s performance. He also provided an emotional and extensive tour of the work at the preconcert lecture, far more detailed than either his original program notes or the truncated version in the L.A. Phil’s printed program. If you’re going to one of the remaining concerts, don’t miss the lecture.

Dudamel was conducting the work for the first time. He used a score, followed it carefully and brought out a great deal of both the anger and pathos in the work, along with much of the tragic lyricism. Following this weekend’s performances, the Phil will make this work a centerpiece of its North American tour beginning March 11 (DETAILS). They will perform it in six cities and, based on how splendidly Dudamel and the orchestra played last night, I would love to be in Montreal or Boston at the end of the tour to hear how everyone will have grown into this complex piece after another eight performance.

Among the highlights:
• The strings underlaying Joanne Pearce Martin’s wistful playing of measures from Albéniz’s Tango in the first movement. The effect was mesmerizing.
• The end of the second movement, described by the composer as “a brutal scream” with the overtones ringing throughout a silent Disney Hall for several seconds. Magical.
• The hauntingly soulful solos by Principal Cellist Robert deMaine and Assistant Principal Ben Hong in the third movement, Chaconne: Giulio’s Song. Sublime.
• The full-out orchestra in the many moments of rage that are embedded throughout the work. Shattering.

During the tour, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 will be paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which will make for an emotionally wrenching evening. This weekend, the companion piece is the much more pastoral Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which will be played as part of an alternate tour program in second concerts in San Francisco and New York City and in the single performance in Kansas City.

Compared to the Corigliano, the Phil seemed like a chamber orchestra in the Brahms: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons (the Corigliano had four, three, four and three, respectively); four horns instead of six, two trumpets (five), three trombones (four) and one tuba (2). On the back riser instead of that massive percussion array sat a lone set of timpani with Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira. Nonetheless, it was enough; all forces could produce a powerful, albeit sweet sound.

Freed from having a score on a music stand in front of him and leading a work he knows well, Dudamel was in his all-out “Showtime” conducting mode and the orchestra was right with him for the entire ride. Dudamel sculpted phrases throughout, often with big swooping movements, occasionally with the barest of gestures. The first movement began with unhurried lyricism, the second emphasized drama, the third was notable for its gentle opening, and the finale blazed in full glory. By March 12, everyone will be ready for Davies Hall in San Francisco.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• For my preview story including other comments from Corigliano, click HERE.
• Corigliano’s complete program notes for Symphony No. 1 are HERE.
• One of the interesting things to come out of the preconcert lecture was that all three of Corigliano’s symphonies were written for quite different ensembles. Symphony No. 2 (which won him the Pulitzer Prize after it was composed in 2000) was written for string orchestra, while Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Circus Maximus,” was written for concert band — brass and wind ensemble.
• Corigliano’s music will return next year when Los Angeles Opera presents The Ghosts of Versailles Feb. 7 through March 1 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. DETAILS
• Of the more than 100 works that Corigliano has published, arguably the best known is his score for the movie The Red Violin, for which he received an Oscar in 1999 and subsequently created a violin concerto and other versions.
• Corigliano is one of a very few composers to have won an Oscar, Grammy, Pulitzer and a Grawmeyer Award (he won the latter for Symphony No. 1).
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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