OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Susan Graham stars in Handel night at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

GrahamIn an article in the Hollywood Bowl program magazine, Nicholas McGegan — who is celebrating 20 years of conducting at the Bowl — told Dennis Bade: “We settled on Handel for this summer once we confirmed that Susan Graham was available.”

Good thinking, Nick. At age 56 the Roswell, NM native (pictured left) is at the peak of her career, which includes roles ranging from Monteverdi to Jake Hegge’s Dead Man Walking. She brought to the Bowl last night arias from two Handel operas and sang them magnificently. In the process she managed to make the cavernous Bowl seem like an intimate recital hall. It’s a shame more people didn’t attend.

Graham looked as gorgeous as she sang, wearing a multi-colored robe over a simple black dress in the first half when she sang Scherza infida and Dopo notte from Ariodante. Post intermission she switched to a stunning, shimmering turquoise robe and sang Ombra a mai fù and Se Bramate from Xerxes.

Throughout the performances, she held the audience spellbound with her amazing runs and melismas, but she did more than simply sing the parts. In the first half she was the title character, displaying a full range of emotions from despair to laughter; in the second half, she laid into Se Bramate with all the anger she could bring to a non-staged performance. However, for this listener, the highlight was the amazing pianissimo she dared to float at the beginning of Ombra a mai fù, the note hanging in the night air as clearly as if she was singing in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

McGegan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic accompanied Graham sensitively although — truth be told — she was, in every sense, the central focus. The ebullient McGegan surrounded Graham with several well-known Handel works, taking full advantage of 79 voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the opening work, Zadok the Priest (aka Celebration Anthem No. 1). The Chorale sang superbly and the amplification was so much on the singers as to virtually obliterate the orchestra, which was just fine by me.

The first half closed with Awake the Trumpet’s Lofty Sound from Samson, which found the chorus playing off beautifully against Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, although the work was so short that the audience didn’t realize it was over until McGegan turned around and indicated that it was okay to clap, which they did.

McGegan and the orchestra offered a spritely performance of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon to bring Graham onstage for her first-half numbers. Post intermission, McGegan used breathless tempos in the Suite No 2 from Water Music and Music from the Royal Fireworks, which the orchestra handled with its customary aplomb.

In past years, actual fireworks have accompanied that latter piece but, given the high fire danger and with news of the I-15 fire on people’s minds, it was probably just as well that the Phil elected to eschew the pyrotechnics. No need to repeat the premiere performance on April 27, 1749 when a 100-foot-high and 400-foot long tower burst into flames, causing the crowd to panic with, reportedly, at least two people killed.

Instead, McGegan closed the evening by leading the orchestra and Master Chorale in a lightning-fast rendition of the chorus, Hallelujah, from Messiah. Only ensembles as great as the Phil and Master Chorale could have handled these tempos, but McGegan added some nice dynamic layering to the performance just to keep everyone on their toes.

• Tomorrow’s program features McGegan leading the LAPO in Weber’s Oberon overture and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish), along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. The program is a collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is holding a retrospective of paintings by Théodore Roisseau through Sept. 11. Videos created in conjunction with The Getty will introduce much of the music. INFO
• 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

(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 offer evening of Tango-themed music

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Temperatures cooled off last night but the music making remained hot as Gustavo Dudamel began his final week this summer at Hollywood Bowl. A large, boisterous crowd was joined by at least one malodorous skunk in the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphiteatre. Several aerial intrusions — more than usual this summer — flew into the Bowl’s airspace (most, fortunately, at times when the orchestra was playing loudly). PBS was on hand to tape the proceedings for a future broadcast. The Bowl shell was bathed in rose and peach hues with alternating blue and green backgrounds. Nearly all of the first-chair players were back on stage. This was not your normal Bowl evening.

For the first of three programs this week infused by dance, Dudamel chose four works with the tango at their heart. The opening and closing works were by the Godfather of the Tango, Astor Piazzolla. In between were four familiar dance episodes from Estancia by Alberto Ginestera and the world premiere of a Concerto Guitar, subtitled Concierto de la Amistad (Concerto of Friendship) by Piazzolla’s friend and compatriot, Lalo Schifrin.

RomeroIn 1984 Schifrin — best known for his work in television and motion pictures — wrote a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, which was premiered by Angel Romero (pictured left) and the LAPO under the baton of Neal Stulberg at the Bowl. Thirty-two years later, Schifrin has written another concerto for Romero in order, as Schifrin explained in John Henken’s program notes, “to continue our musical journey together.”

Alternating touching lyricism with moments of playfulness, the 30-minute long, three-movement works is an important addition to the guitar-concerto literature, among other things, giving orchestras something besides the “standard” works by Joaquín Rodrigo to program when they’re looking for guitar music.

Romero — who turns age 70 in two weeks and was wearing a highly colorful shirt — was riveted to the score but delivered a gentle, soulful rendition of the piece, aided by Dudamel and the Phil, with standout solo work from Principal Harp Lou Anne Neill and Carolyn Hove on English horn. Schifrin was on hand to join Romero and Dudamel with joyful hugs and to receive thunderous applause from the audience.

Lush strings began the evening opening Piazzolla’s Tangazo, with the full orchestra — including Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov, Oboeist Marion Arthur Kuszyk and Principal Horn Andrew Bain — beautifully filling in the texture later on. Ginestera’s Four Dances from Estancia — a Phil and Dudamel speciality since the Venezuelan-born maestro took over the Phil — provided conductor and ensemble chances strut their collective stuff.

The evening concluded La muerte del Angel, from a series of “Angel” pieces written by Piazolla in the 1960s. This piece was written as an elegy to the composer’s father, who died in a bicycle accident in Argentina in 1959.

Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon (“button accordion”) and several dancers from Tango Buenos Aires joined Dudamel and the Phil in a spirited rendition of this four-movement work, rounding out the evening on an emphatic high note.

• Ben Gernon, who was a Dudamel Fellow during the 2013-2014 season and won the prestigious Nestlé and Salzburg Festival’s Young Conductor Award in 2013, returns to lead the Phil tomorrow night.

Continuing the week’s dance theme, the post-intermission work will be Stravinsky’s The Firebird, when Janni Younge and Jay Prather will use giant-sized puppets to reimagine the original 1910 ballet. Among other things, the setting has been shifted to contemporary South Africa and the production uses African dance forms.

Prior to intermission, Gernon leads the Phil in Debussy’s La Mer and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera, Peter Grimes. Much like Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Britten used these Interludes to allow for scene changes in his landmark opera. INFO

• On Friday and Saturday, Dudamel concludes his Bowl work for this summer by leading the annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts. In addition to the traditional 1812 Overture with the Bowl’s marvelous fireworks by Souza, Dudamel and the orchestra will be joined by four members of the American Ballet Theatre who will perform two pas de deux from Swan Lake. INFO

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Mirga wows another Bowl audience

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

For at least the last ¾ of a century, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has done an exemplary job of finding and nurturing young conducting talent. That list begins, of course, with former Music Director Zubin Mehta and includes two other MDs: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel. But the tally also includes young people who have held various subsidiary titles such as Principal Guest Conductor (Michael Tilson Thomas and Sir Simon Rattle) and Associate Conductor (Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Lionel Bringuier), along with others who have participated in the Dudamel Fellow program and similar efforts.

Three of those alumni are on the Hollywood Bowl roster this summer: former Dudamel fellow Ben Gernon (August 4), Joana Carneiro, a former American Symphony Orchestra League Conducting Fellow with the Phil who is now Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony and Principal Conductor of Orquesta Sinfonica Portuguesa (8/23); and Harth Bedoya, now music director of the Ft. Worth Symphony (9/6).

Mirga_2016_4_WebHowever, not since Rattle — the original frizzy haired tyro — has a LAPO conducting assistant caught the fancy of the music world as has Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (pictured left), who was a Dudamel Fellow in 2013-2014, became the Phil’s Assistant Conductor in 2014 and will become Associate Conductor this fall. More significantly, earlier this year she was named music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the England ensemble that Rattle led for 20 years.

Last night she returned to Hollywood Bowl just a few days shy of her acclaimed debut two years ago, and once again demonstrated the ability that has the music world abuzz. That Bowl concert two years concluded with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Last night she ended with Ravel’s second Daphnis and Chloe suite, which was a marvelous fusion of French impressionism and sweeping power.

Like the Mahler, Daphnis is a piece that is in the L.A. Phil musicians’ DNA but they played with the sort of freshness and attentiveness that means they were very much attuned to the conductor’s every desire. Kudos, in particular, to Principal Flute Dennis Bouriakov for his solo work.

Mirga (everyone seems to now call her simply by her first name, in part because her last name isn’t easy to pronounce) is quite something to watch, as the Bowl’s video screens amply demonstrated. She makes great use of her arms, her body moves lithely and, unlike some conductors, doesn’t seem to be inhibited by a music stand on the podium.

She also has a wonderfully expressive face, very much alike but in some ways different than we get from Dudamel. This was readily apparent in the evening’s opening work, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, where she appeared to be thoroughly enjoying herself during the five sections, but especially in Empress of the Pagoda and in The Fairy Garden. Top marks to the various wind principals in this performance, as well: Catherine Ransom Karoly, flute; Burt Hara, clarinet; Anne Marie Gabriele, oboe; and Shawn Mouser, bassoon, along with Concertmaster Nathan Cole.

The original program paired the two Ravel pieces together after intermission with two Beethoven works played before the break. As a slip sheet told the good-sized audience, Mirga (presumably) at the last minute decided to break the works up, placing the Leonore Overture No. 3 before Daphnis. This is another familiar work to the players but, as with Daphnis, they were on top of their game. Of course, the audience loved the stellar playing of Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, who was perched in a speaker tower midway up the Bowl (although it took awhile for the lighting folks to locate him).

Immediately prior to intermission came Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, that strangely quirky work that was premiered on December 22, 1808 in a concert that included the premieres of the composer’s fifth and sixth symphonies and the fourth piano concerto, along with an aria, two excerpts from his in-progress Mass in C, and a solo improvisation (the concert lasted four hours!). As program annotator Herbert Glass noted the debut was “a fiasco” — the composer’s secretary, Anton Schindler, said, that the Chorale Fantasy “simply fell apart” in performance.

No wonder. Why Beethoven called it a “Choral Fantasy” is a mystery. The piece actually begins as a piano concerto with a long solo introduction that is a precursor of the “Emperor” Concerto (and Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto). Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet sailed through the endless runs and trills with his customary skill and panache and Mirga and the orchestra gave the performance their fullest attention.

If, indeed, Beethoven had left the work as a concerto, things might have been all right. Instead, towards the end he brings in a chorus and no less than six soloists. Perhaps Beethoven felt the chorus being used in the two “Mass” pieces in that premiere concert needed something else to occupy its time. Naturally, the listener immediately thinks of the “Ode to Joy” ending of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 when hearing this work.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale sang last night with its customary brilliant power in both the Beethoven and Daphnis although the Bowl’s sound engineers had the orchestra somewhat overpowering the singers (listed as 81 in the program) at the beginning of their section.

The sextet was excellent but I was left wondering why the Phil bothered to bring in such big names as soprano Janai Brugger and mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell for such a small amount of work (for the record, the others were soprano Elizabeth Zharoff, tenors Rafael Moras and Kevin Ray and bass Colin Ramsay). Surely the soloists got their highest pay, at least on a per-minute basis, since they were starting out in the profession.

• The Bowl has taken to provide movement titles on the digital screens, which was particularly helpful to the casual observer in both Ravel pieces Daphnis is four connected movements, so it’s particularly helpful to know what is what.
• Tomorrow night’s concert is a mixture of old and new. Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru (Conductor-in-Residence of the Philadelphia Orchestra) returns to the Bowl with a program that opens with Aaron Copland’s An Outdoor Overture and concludes with Copland’s Symphony No. 3. In between is the West Coast premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto, written for violinist Nicola Benedetti, who will be the soloist.
• Always nice to have the Master Chorale aiding the audience in singing The Star-Spangled Banner. Even the high note at the end sounded beautiful.

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

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CLASS ACT: (Revised) Dudamel, L.A. Phil open Bowl classical season on July 12

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

NOTE: This column has been revised to include date changes and a link to an article on Solea Pfeiffer.

Dudamel-HB-2016Although Hollywood Bowl has been going strong for several weeks, its 10-week classical music season opens July 12 when Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a blockbuster program pairing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Chinese pianist Lang Lang as soloist in the concerto. (INFO)

Unlike most of his music director-predecessors — who, at best, tolerated the Bowl’s outdoor distractions — Dudamel revels in the opportunity to present music to great numbers of people, many of whom may be attending a classical concert for the first time. Beginning with this year’s opening night Dudamel will conduct eight programs during the season, concluding with the “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts on August 5 and 6. (INFO)

The July 14 and 19 programs will see Dudamel leading a work that is embedded in his DNA: Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. It was with the “Mambo” portion of “WSS” that Dudamel burst onto the scene with his Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Lucerne Festival and the London Proms in 2007 (LINK).

The two Bowl West Side Story performances are being billed as “concert performances,” with a cast of 12 soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale joining with Dudamel and the LAPO. Although some will miss Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking dance sequences, the concert performance will put the emphasis squarely on the music, instead. Solea Pfeiffer, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, will portray Maria and Jeremy Jordan, a Tony and Grammy-nominated actor and singer, will sing the role of Tony. A link to Catherine Womack’s Q&A with Pfeiffer in the Los Angeles Times is HERE. (INFO)

The July 21 concert features another superstar Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, in not one but two concertos: Ravel’s Concerto in G and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Dudamel and the Phil will open the evening with Gershwin’s “Symphonic Suite from Porgy and Bess” and conclude the proceedings with Ravel’s Bolero. (INFO)

The summer’s now-annual opera production will be Puccini’s Tosca on July 24, with Dudamel leading the LAPO, L.A. Master Chorale, L.A. Children’s Chorus and a cast of soloists headed by Santa Monica native Julianna Di Giacomo in the title role. (INFO)

What makes the Bowl classical season important? For many of us, Hollywood Bowl was among our first exposures to classical music. I remember being mesmerized by the gigantic Bowl with its thousands and thousands of seats under a canopy of stars (if they were visible through the smog) and for one of the first times hearing the L.A. Phil playing glorious music live.

Although each year I kvetch about the orchestra’s management not being more aggressive in making more seats in the upper tiers available at lower prices, you can buy seats at $8 and $12 for some concerts, which is cheaper than attending a movie these days. Moreover, the enhanced sound system and gigantic digital monitors make the experience far better than when I was a kid a half century ago. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.

Information on the entire summer schedule is HERE.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



Walt Disney’s Fantasia

Hollywood Bowl
Orchestra, John Mauceri, conductor

Friday, August 19 Hollywood Bowl

Next performances: Tonight at 8:30; tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com



John Mauceri returned to Hollywood Bowl last night leading
the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra — the ensemble he founded 20 years ago — in the
same program with which he left the HBO five years ago to become Chancellor of
the University of North Carolina School of the Arts: Walt Disney’s Fantasia.


Technically that’s not correct. Last night wasn’t Fantasia, nor was it what we saw five
years ago. Rather, it was an evening that used portions of segments from the
1940 movie that was originally a financial failure but is now considered a
landmark, along with other elements. They coalesced into a program that absolutely
honored Walt’s spirit, since Disney had envisioned Fantasia as a movie that, as Mauceri said last night, would always
be something new with segments being added and replaced each time it was shown.


One reason this program works so well is Mauceri, who
received a standing ovation when he came onstage from many of the 13,580 in
attendance. The 66-year-old New York native remains the platinum standard in
conductors who converse with the audience, delivering important information
with erudite wit. Throughout the evening his comments enlightened the audience
as to the movie’s importance in a multitude of areas (e.g., the fusion of music
and animation, the film’s technical achievements, and its history). He also offered
several interesting tidbits about conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was a major
contributor to the film and with whom Mauceri studied when he was 27 and
Stokowski was 90.


The most interesting parts of the evening were four segments
that didn’t make it into the 1940 movie.


Debussy’s Claire de
had been completed in 1942 and eventually appeared in a 1946 Disney
feature entitled Make Mine Music. The
original animation was discovered 50 years later and animators’ use of two
egrets in moonlit water combined with Debussy’s ethereal music proved to be
magical, although to these ears it might have been even more effective using
the composer’s original piano score rather than Stokowski’s orchestral


The animation for Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela was never completed but the chalk and pastel
storyboards, shown while the orchestra (with Cathy Del Russo on English horn)
played Sibelius’ tone poem with touching tenderness, were gorgeous and, as
Mauceri pointed out, demonstrated part of the pains-taking, hand-drawn
animation process employed in the era before computers.


The backstory to Destino
is even more convoluted. In 1946, Disney, Spanish surrealist painter Salvador
Dali and Disney artist John Hench collaborated on this project, using the music
of Mexican songwriter Armando Dominguez. The piece lay forgotten until Roy E.
Disney resurrected it and produced a six-minute film in 2003 that was nominated
for an Academy Award for “Best Animated Short Film.” As might be expected with
a Dali project, the art was, indeed, surreal but the music — which used the
soundtrack singing of Dora Luz while the orchestra played the accompaniment —
proved to be haunting.


The fourth segment came in the form of an encore: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblee, another of the shelved segments that was later
adapted into the Bumble Boogie
segment of the 1948 cartoon Melody Time.


To no one’s great surprise, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours seemed to be the most popular with the audience;
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were
truncated even more than the original film segments. The opening, Stokowski’s
bloated arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and
Fugue in D Minor,
appeared to be the hardest for Mauceri and the orchestra
to synch with the film; overall, however, they held together amazingly well
throughout the evening.


The printed program ended with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, with the final
segments accompanied (or, in the case of Waltz
of the Flowers)
overpowered by fireworks. I yield to no one in my
admiration for the Souza Group’s pyrotechnic wizardry, fireworks do sell
tickets, and much of the audience seemed to enjoy the aerial display thoroughly
but if you were interested in the music (and the animation), forget it. On the
other hand, there really isn’t a section that lends itself to fireworks with
the possible exception of Stravinsky’s Firebird
from Fantasia 2000. Even
Walt couldn’t envision Fantasia being
accompanied by fireworks at the Bowl in 1940.




When I first saw this program’s Sunday start time listed
at 7:30 p.m. start time, I wondered if it would be dark enough at the Bowl to
make it work. The answer is yes.

The often-changing hues of the Bowl’s iconic shell offered
a colorful backdrop to the program although, ironically, they made me think more of
Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, rather
than Disney.



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

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