OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Billy Budd” sets sail at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

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

Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Saturday, February 22 • Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Remaining performances: March 2 at 2 p.m. March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

Billy Budd _OT2 _February 16, 2014
Liam Bonner in the title role sings his final soliloquy in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd,” which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Robert Millard.

Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd can be approached from several — perhaps dozens of — perspectives: religious, political, sexual, etc. It has allusions to the operas of Verdi and Wagner who, like Britten, celebrated important birthdays last year (200 for the first two and 100 for Britten).

But first and foremost, Billy Budd is a gripping drama with a marvelous musical score. Liam Bonner, who made his role debut last night, told me last week that he believed most people would come to the opera first through the drama and then through the music.

Last night, in the first of six performances, Los Angeles Opera succeeded marvelously on both important points. I was on the edge of my seat right to the end and my wife stayed awake all evening — the highest of praise. Everyone involved — cast, orchestra and, in particular, the men of the LA Opera Chorus — sang, played and acted Britten’s music wonderfully. With this production, the company’s multi-year “Britten 100/LA” celebration is ending on an extremely high note.

Britten wrote the original version of Billy Budd in 1951, using a libretto written by E.M Forester and Eric Crozier. In 1960, Britten revised the opera from four acts to two acts plus a prologue and an epilogue. This later version is now standard and is being used here.

Billy Budd is unique in several ways. The cast of more than 20 and a chorus of 46 men and 10 boys (from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus), plus 14 fighters and supernumeraries, are all men. In his typically erudite pre-performance lecture, Music Director James Conlon noted nobody had every done that in an opera before. The orchestra of more than 70 was the largest Britten ever used, including in Peter Grimes.

However, Billy Budd has similarities to Britten’s other two big operas: Peter Grimes and Death in Venice. Most apparent is the fact that all three operas use the sea as their locale. In the case of Billy Budd, that’s literally true because the entire opera takes place on an English warship, the HMS Indomitable, sailing the Atlantic in 1797 in search of the French.

In Francesca Zambello’s spare but highly effective production — created in 1985 with sets and costumes by Alison Chitty and last seen in Los Angeles in 2000 — that ship is a large triangular plank that juts from the stage over the orchestra pit; part of the plank raises to form a battle station and the captain’s cabin. Ropes and a mast add verisimilitude to the atmosphere aided, particularly in the last scenes, by Allen Burnett’s lighting design. Director Julia Bevzner moved the action along smoothly.

Bonner, a baritone from Pittsburgh, is creating the title role for the first time and last night the world discovered it’s next great Billy Budd. At age 32 (and seeming much younger) Bonner really looks the part of the sweet, innocent young man. But this was no one-dimensional performance. Bonner sang with impressive power and pathos throughout the evening, particularly in his final soliloquy in which he praises Captain Vere, the man who ultimately condemned him. Equally important, his acting was subtle and thoughtfully conceived from beginning to end, and he deserves special kudos for dangling quietly for 10 minutes following his hanging near the opera’s end.
As Vere, veteran tenor Richard Croft (right) at times displayed the sort of gleaming voice Britten always favored in his tenors (particularly his life partner, Peter Pears) but in other scenes Croft’s voice turned appropriately steely. His anguish in the scene in which he must choose between enforcing the King’s strict justice over compassion for Billy Budd was heart-rending, as was his concluding epilogue.

Greer Grimsley, making his LAO debut as the evil John Claggart, a Britten-esque Iago, brought Wagnerian fervor to the role. As usual LA Opera has assembled a very strong ensemble cast; that ability has been one of the company’s strengths during its recent run of Britten operas, including The Turn of the Screw and Albert Herring.

Among the many cast members, special mention goes to James Creswell as Dansker, Keith Jameson as Novice and, in particular, Greg Fedderly as Red Whiskers. The men of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, a vital part of the opera, acted and sang splendidly throughout the evening while successfully negotiating steep stairs and scrambling up and down ropes.

Conlon has a deep and abiding love for Britten and that shows every time he steps into the pit for one of the composer’s operas. Last night was no different as Conlon and the orchestra played the score with equal portions of grandeur and grace. Never has a three-hour-long evening flown by so quickly.
Budd Crowd
The crew prepares for battle aboard the HMS Indomitable in Francesca Zambello’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd.” Photo by Robert Millard.

• LA Opera has a number of articles in the “Learn More” tab of the Billy Budd section of its Web site HERE. They and the synopsis provide good reading ahead of time, particularly if you’ve never seen the opera before. The opera portion of the printed program is also available for downloading. And, of course, don’t miss Conlon’s frenetic, pre-performance lecture.
• The final performance of Billy Budd overlaps the beginning of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which opens on March 15 in a new production that stars Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the title role. DETAILS.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: “Billy Budd,” L.A. Chamber Orchestra, L.A. Phil headline busy fornight + upcoming schedues

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.

Several significant events will take place during the next fortnight, headed by Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which opens next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the first of six performances running through March 16 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Four performances are in the evening while two are in the afternoon.

LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct this production and will offer one of his typically erudite lectures an hour before each performance. Billy Budd concludes the company’s celebration of the centennial of Britten’s birth on Nov. 22, 2013.

Baritone Liam Bonner performs the title role for the first time, joining with tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere and bass Greer Grimsley, making his company debut, as John Claggart, whose attraction to Billy is the pivot point of the opera. The production, by Francesca Zambello, originated in Geneva in 2004 and at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1995; it was first seen in L.A. in 2000.
Read my preview story HERE.
John Farrell’s story in the above newspapers is HERE
David Ng’s preview story in the Los Angeles Times is HERE.

Information: www.laopera.com

• The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presents its annual “Discover” concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena Saturday night at 8 p.m. The program this year focuses on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). In the first half of the program, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will lead the orchestra in a demonstration and discuss this pivotal work in classical music history. The second half will be a complete performance of the symphony.

Information: www.laco.org

• The Los Angeles Philharmonic begins its “TchaikovskyFest” series on Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a performance by the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra String Quartet and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Beginning Friday and continuing every night (and some days) except one through March 2, Gustavo Dudamel will lead his two orchestras, the Phil and SBSO, in performances of all six of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies plus other assorted works. Mark Swed has an interview with Gustavo in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

Information: www.laphil.com

• Muse/ique continues its “Uncorked” series with a performance on Feb. 24 at “The Noise Within,” the theatre/performing space located just north of the Gold Line’s Sierra Madre Villa station at the eastern edge of Pasadena.

Music Director Rachael Worby will lead 13 members of her ensemble in Aaron Copland’s original score for the ballet Appalachian Spring. However, in true Worby fashion, that’s just part of the evening. The 70-minute program will also feature Mike Simpson (aka EZ Mike of the Dust Brothers) and fits + starts for electronic music with live cello, a piece commissioned by L.A.’s Hysterica Dance Company from composer Anna Clyne. Kitty McNamee and members of Hysterica Dance Co. will supply choreography for the evening.

Information: www.muse-ique.org

* The 2014 summer schedule for Hollywood Bowl and 2014-2015 season schedules for L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale have been released. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information:
Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale (below the Hollywood Bowl blurb)

PREVIEW: “Walking the Plank” at “Billy Budd”

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

Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Feb. 22, March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 16 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

LA Opera will use Francesca Zambello’s striking production when it presents Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd beginning Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo from Washington National Opera.

As the clock ticks toward next Saturday, anticipation is beginning to mount as Los Angeles Opera prepares to present Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, the climax of the company’s nearly two-year-long “Britten 100/LA” celebration of the centennial of composer’s birth on November 22, 2013. Staging, lighting, orchestra and cast rehearsals are fusing into what the company hopes will be a seamless whole; dress rehearsals begin Sunday and the Feb. 22 opener will be the first of six presentations of an opera that many people consider Britten’s finest work, although it isn’t as well known as Peter Grimes.

This morning some media members and other guests got a backstage glimpse of the set for the production, which was created by a then-young New York City native named Francesca Zambello. Gary Murphy, LAO’s director of public relations wittily termed the morning “Walking the Plank.” As always, the perspective from the stage is radically different from the seats, although the morning began in the Founders Circle so that we could get front-facing perspective of a set that was still coming together.

This production debuted in Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1994 and opened the next year at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It played in Los Angeles in 2000 and has become, says Rupert Hemmings, LAO’s senior director of production, “THE iconic production of this opera.” Plácido Domingo, LAO’s general director, believes this is the Zambello’s best work. In fact, it is so popular that there are two versions in existence, one based in London (which LAO is using) and the other housed in Paris.

Despite the fact that the opera is set entirely on a British man-of-warship in 1797, the HMS Indomitable, Zambello specified to set and costume designer Alison Chitty that the production couldn’t include a ship and the sailors couldn’t wear military uniforms.

Instead, Chitty created a raked, triangular wooden plank that stretches the width of the Pavilion stage and comes to a point looming over the orchestra pit to symbolize the ship’s deck (rigging and other paraphernalia in the background add verisimilitude to the effect). The front 2/3 of the plank tilts up sharply to reveal the cabin below where much of the second act takes place; from the seats, the effect resembles a geometric “Jaws-like” shark.

Several of us “rode the plank” as it tilted up and down; others climbed warily down the ultra-steep stairs from the deck to the cabin (with my bad foot, I elected not to risk my neck on that trip — the all-male cast that numbers about 25 clearly has to be in great shape to maneuver on this set; no “Falstaffs” here).

What the audience will see is exactly what Zambello created, although Julia Pevzner is credited as the director. “When a company rents a production, as we are doing with this one,” explained Hemmings, “you are contractually obligated to produce what was originally created. Moreover, if the original director isn’t in charge, he or she has to sign off on the director. This production clearly has Zambello’s imprint.”

Zambello — now general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in England and artistic director of Washington National Opera — has, in fact, been in L.A. for what Hemmings described as a week of “intense” rehearsals. Liam Bonner, who is portraying the title character for the first time, remembers Zambello telling him, “You already look like Billy Budd; you don’t have to jump around a lot. Stand still!”

For L.A. Opera Music Director James Conlon, who is conducting Billy Budd for the first time, this production continues a life-long love affair with Britten. “When I was growing up,” Conlon wrote in an Opera News article, “Benjamin Britten was a contemporary composer.” As a high school student, he heard Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, perform two recitals in New York City.

Nonetheless, for Conlon, the complexity of Billy Budd makes it unique. “A universe within the universe,” writes Conlon in the LA Opera program, “it touches upon Britten’s recurrent themes: outrage for the destruction — not just the loss — of innocence; the abdication by civil authorities of their moral authority to the detriment of the weak; and the importance of compassion and its lamentable absence in the affairs of men.”

Written in 1951 and revised nine years later, the opera uses a libretto by E.M. Forster (who write A Passage to India and A Room With a View, among other works) and Eric Crozier from a novella by Herman Melville. “It is the second of three operas, along with Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, that play out in or around the powerful influence of the sea,” notes Conlon. “It is [also] the biggest of his large-scale works.” The orchestra (the largest Britten used in an opera) has more than 70 musicians, the L.A. Opera Chorus numbers 46 and there are 10 boys from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. Altogether, counting stagehands and lighting folks, more than 200 people will be involved in this production (“not counting ushers and ticket takers,” says Hemmings with a wry smile).
In the title role, Bonner (right) — a 32-year-old Pittsburgh native — steps into the shoes of Southern California native Rod Gilfry who created the part in the London production and played it here 14 years ago. Although new to this role, Bonner has an extensive background in Britten’s music; he played the role of Sid in LAO’s production of Britten’s Albert Herring in 2012.

“Britten does such a wonderful job of writing for the voice,” says Bonner. “What I’ve learned is that to sing his music well I have to be true to myself. The challenges are mainly that you have to be very strict with the rhythms and keep moving forward. There’s always an energy, a current that seems to keep running through the music; it never seems to stops. And yet, there are moments of stillness — in fact, stillness is an important part of the action.”

Although it’s by coincidence given the lengthy schedule times for operas, the revival of this production and the unveiling of an acclaimed 2010 production from Glyndebourne Festival Opera, directed by Michael Grandage, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, (LINK) are especially timely because of the mounting of Charles Wuorinen’s operatic version of Brokeback Mountain, which opened recently at Teatro Real Madrid. “Without Britten having introduced the issue of homosexuality in Billy Budd,” says Hemmings, ”Brokeback Mountain as an opera doesn’t get written.”

Britten’s homosexuality certainly played a role in the writing of Billy Budd, although how much is open to debate. “The homoerotic aspects are certainly a driving force in this piece,” said Bonner in an interview with Chris Carpenter in Rage Monthly, “but they have more do with Claggart than with Billy. Billy is too innocent and naïve, I think, to even realize the way Claggart is drawn to him … Billy is so real and so sincere in his answers, always.” This morning, Bonner summarized Billy as “an innocent. He cannot see the bad in anything.”

One of the critical elements to the role is that Billy stutters; in fact, the opera’s tragedy revolves around this impediment. “What makes that particularly difficult,” says Bonner, “is that Britten writes the stuttering into the music and no two times are the same. You really have to stay on your toes.” Especially when walking the plank.

• The opera runs about three hours with one intermission. It is sung in English with English supertitles (it will be interesting to see how much those are necessary).
• Conlon will deliver a pre-performance lecture an hour before each performance.
• The are several excellent articles in the “Learn More” tab of the LAO Web site.
• The sets nearly didn’t make to L.A. in time. Bad weather in London and then New York pushed things to nearly the breaking point.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: KUSC to air Disney Hall “War Requiem” concert on Sunday

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

If you weren’t able to attend the performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Sunday in Orange County or Monday in Walt Disney Concert Hall, KUSC (91.5 FM in Los Angeles and www.kusc.org) will air the L.A. performance on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Details: www.kusc.org

James Conlon conducted The Colburn Orchestra, members of the USC-Thornton Symphony, three soloists and more than 400 choristers ranging from local universities to the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in the performances.

Links to my preview story and my review are HERE and HERE.

BTW: A Caltech link has the complete text HERE so you can follow it. Although the diction was exemplary during the Disney Hall performance, being able to read Wilfed Owen’s gripping poetry would definitely be a plus.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Conlon leads combined forces in stunning performance of “War Requiem”

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

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)
New Zealand Youth Choir (David Squire, music director)
November 25, 2013 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the monuments of choral literature. It stands with the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms and Verdi and alongside other choral masterpieces such as Handel’s Messiah.

But there’s a catch. Britten’s magnum opus is so rarely performed that its emotional impact seems outsized when compared with the others on this list. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but it certainly lessens the effect of these better-known pieces.

At last night’s preconcert lecture immediately preceding a stunning performance of War Requiem at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when Conductor James Conlon asked how many people would be hearing the piece for the first time, nearly every hand was raised. Imagine how staggered you would feel if you were hearing, for example, Verdi’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah for the first time.

Thus it’s truly amazing that this rare performance of War Requiem, was sung and played not by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or one of our other professional ensembles but by about 400 instrumentalists and choristers, all college age or younger, along with three soloists. What could have been a train wreck was instead a vibrant, cohesive unified front, all under the steady hands and baton of Conlon, who somehow managed to sandwich this concert and last Sunday’s performance in Costa Mesa between conducting Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Los Angeles Opera.

The two local War Requiem concerts took place just days after the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth; the 50th anniversary of President John K. Kennedy’s assassination added to the emotional nature of the evening.

How Britten, a pacifist, came to write War Requiem is reasonably well known (you can read some of the details in my preview story HERE). The basics are that he was commissioned to write a piece of his choosing for the dedication of the new St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. The premiere took place on May 30, 1962.

Part of Britten’s genius in writing War Requiem was that he melded the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass text with gritty poetry written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. (Ironically, Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week — almost to the hour — before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war; he was awarded a posthumous Military Cross). As a preface to War Requiem, Britten quoted Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” That’s just a sample of the emotional impact of the poems.

Another aspect of the work’s greatness is how Britten deployed his forces. The adult choral forces (182 voices, if everyone listed in the printed program actually sang) join with the soprano soloist to sing the traditional Requiem text, accompanied by a full-sized orchestra. A children’s chorus, accompanied by an organist, adds a potent angelic element at key points, sung last night from the top rear balcony. Tenor and baritone soloists, simulating a German and English soldier, sing Owen’s poetry, accompanied by an ensemble of 13 instruments.

In some performances, the male soloists and chamber orchestra are separated from the main body and led by a second conductor (indeed, that’s how the premiere performance was played; Britten conducted the smaller contingent while Meredith Davies led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra).

However, Conlon chose to conduct the entire performance by himself, placing the chamber ensemble directly in front of him with the larger orchestra behind them. The male soloists — tenor Joseph Kaiser and baritone Phillip Addis — flanked the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamara Wilson sat in the middle of the front row of choristers on the choral benches. Conlon led some portions using a baton; for many of the choral sections, he laid down the stick and conducted with expressive hands.

The choral forces delivered a beautiful tone and were amazingly precise throughout the 84 minutes, but particularly in the extended fugal writing in the “Dies Irae” sections . The combined children’s choruses floated gorgeous sound with precise diction from their “heavenly” location in Disney Hall.

Soprano Tamara Wilson, symbolizing a Russian soldier, poured out rich opulent sounds that carried even over the combined choral and orchestral forces. Her melding with the chorus in the “Lacrimosa” was a highlight of the evening.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser, singing music written for Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears, delivered that bright tone so favored by English composers and Kaiser’s diction so precise that the projected supertitles were not needed. Baritone Phillip Addis’s voice turned gravely in the lower registers but he was emotionally strong in delivering some of Owen’s most poignant lines.

The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony played splendidly, especially given the fact that, according to one story, only Concertmaster Jeffrey Myers had ever played the work before. The 13-member ensemble (the same number that Britten used to accompany his three chamber operas) passed Britten’s melodies from hand to hand, as it were, while offering sympathetic accompaniment to Kaiser and Addis.

All forces eventually join in the final movement, “Libera Me,” in which Kaiser and Addis sang Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” a commentary on companionship between enemies after one has killed the other, interspersed with the final words of the Mass. Two bells — C and F-sharp — continue to toll as they have throughout the piece and the chorus finally dies away in a mysterious vapor. The capacity audience sat spellbound, silent for 20 seconds, before erupting in wave after wave of standing ovations for the performers — and, one thinks, also for the piece. Conlon appeared to be spent emotionally; for most of the audience, the feeling was the same.

• Conlon’s typically erudite preconcert lecture was particularly helpful in showing the influences of Verdi, Berlioz and Mozart on Britten’s writing.
• The organist last night was Christoph Bull, head of the organ department at UCLA, a nice — if somewhat ironic — touch to counterbalance the presence of the USC-Thornton Symphony and two USC choirs.
• In honor of the Britten centennial, Decca has released a newly remastered version of the original recording of War Requiem, featuring the three singers who Britten intended to sing the premiere: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). Because of international tensions, Vishnevskaya didn’t sing at the premiere (English soprano Heather Harper stepped in) but Vishnevskaya did perform in the original recording. The new version include a CD of War Requiem, , a Blu-Ray Audio format, which allows the recording to be heard at 24-bit, and a CD featuring Britten in rehearsal at the sessions in January 1963, which was produced by the legendary John Culshaw.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: Britten’s centennial to be remembered with two performances of “War Requiem”

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

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)

Today at 8:15 p.m. • Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by Dr. William Hall.
Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

Tomorrow at 8 p.m. • Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by James Conlon.
Information: www.laphil.com

Brittenr4WebWe’re in the penultimate two months of a year honoring birthdays of three of history’s most important composers: the bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the centennial of Benjamin Britten (right), which occurred on Friday (Nov. 22). The Britten centennial reaches its climax locally today and tomorrow with a massive collaboration on Britten’s most significant work: War Requiem.

These performances are among hundreds that have been part of Britten 100/LA, which has been spearheaded by LA Opera but which has involved hundreds of different organizations, large and small, throughout the Southland.

Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon takes a break from conducting the company’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to lead The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony (the work calls for a large main orchestra and a smaller-sized ensemble), organ, three soloists, five university choirs and the Pasadena-based Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in War Requiem tonight at 8:15 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“Break” may be a misnomer; Conlon leads a Falstaff performance beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, so he may be changing clothes as he drives/flies down the freeway.

War Requiem premiered on May 30, 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral in the center of England. The city’s 14th century Gothic cathedral, St. Michael’s, had been destroyed by a Nazi air raid on Nov. 14, 1940. Only the tower, spire, outer wall and the bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs, survived.

Following a competition that received entries from more than 200 architects, Basil Spence was selected to design a new cathedral. He insisted that the ruins of the old cathedral be kept as a stark memorial and his dramatic new cathedral was built alongside; a glass canopy connects the two buildings. For his stunning conception, Spence was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960.

Britten, a renowned pacifist, was 48 when the piece was first performed and was given free rein to compose the dedicatory work. He chose to interleave portions of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass with gritty poems written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. Britten used one of Owen’s poems as a preface to the work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war.

The piece lasts about 85 minutes (there is no intermission), and is considered by most to be a landmark 20th century composition. A unique part of the composition is that Britten wrote for soloists (soprano, baritone and tenor) who were meant to characterize individual Russian, German and English soldiers.

According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, “Britten intended that the soloists at the first performance should represent three of the nations involved in World War II: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). In the event, precisely because of this tri-national partnership of representatives, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to attend by the Russian Minister of Culture. Although she was later able to record the work, she did not sing it until 1963; her place at the première on 30 May 1962 was taken by Heather Harper.”

The Disney Hall performance is part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sounds About Town” series, which this season has dwindled to just two concerts, both by The Colburn Orchestra. One feature of this series has always been its low prices: tickets for “War Requiem” range from just $15.99 to $41.50. By contrast, the Segerstrom Concert Hall tickets are scaled from $20 to $150.

Conlon will give a preconcert lecture an hour before the Disney Hall performance. At Segerstrom Hall, Dr. William Hall, who led one of the first Southern California performances of War Requiem, will deliver the lecture at 7 p.m. In part because of the work itself and in part because it is so rarely performed, this is a “don’t miss” event.

• How rare are these concerts? According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, these concerts and a set by the San Francisco Symphony next weekend are the only North American performances of War Requiem for the balance of this year (performances have been held recently in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago — see below). The SFO schedule is somewhat odd: Nov. 27 and 30 with nothing between.
• It’s possible that this will be the only time that most of the instrumentalists and choristers will play and/or sing War Requiem in their lifetimes.
• The program notes for tonight’s Segerstrom Hall concert are HERE (they come courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony). Click on the note to make the type larger and click on the arrows to navigate the pages. These notes (actually pages from the program book) also include the text and performer bios.
• The program notes for the Disney Hall performance are HERE. These also include an iTunes link to the original cast recording with Britten conducting HERE.
• The writeup on War Requiem from the Britten-Pears Foundation is HERE.
• A fascinating interview in The Guardian with composer Oliver Knussen’s reflections on Britten is HERE.
• Anne Midgette, music critic of the Washington Post, and her husband and fellow critic, Greg Sandow (who is also a composer, consultant and educator) have written a series of articles on recent performances of War Requiem in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, including somewhat contrasting reviews of the same performances. If you’re interested, click HERE for an overview and follow the various threads to the relevant stories. However, you might want to wait until you’ve seen either of the local concerts.
• When Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony in War Requiem last week, he honored Britten by using Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, English tenor John Mark Ainsley and German baritone Matthias Goerne as the soloists. Nice touch.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: LA Opera’s production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” begins tomorrow night

Los Angeles Opera’s production of Rossini’s Cinderella
Opening night: Saturday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles
Other performances: March 28, April 3 and April 13 at 7:30 p.m., March 31 at 4 p.m. April 7 at 2 p.m. (Best seating availability: March 23 and 28)
Preconcert lecture by James Conlon one hour before each performance.
Tickets: $19-$287
Information: 213/972-7812; www.laopera.com

Kate Lindsey and her “magic rats” will be part of the joy infused in LA Opera’s production of Rossini’s Cinderella, which will open tomorrow night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Robert Millard.

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

This article was first published today in the above papers and in other LANG Papers.

The eyes of Kate Lindsey, the beautiful, young, American-born mezzo-soprano, sparkle at the question of whether as a child she wanted to be Cinderella. “What girl doesn’t dream of capturing a prince and living happily ever after?” she laughs heartily.

Beginning Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Lindsey gets her chance as she plays the lead role in Rossini’s Cinderella (or, more properly, La Cenerentola, since the performances will be sung in Italian with projected English supertitles). This time around, LA Opera is using a co-production from Houston Grand Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona, directed by Spaniard Joan Font in his LAO debut. LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct.

Lindsey is performing the role of Angelina (the name assigned by librettist Jacopo Ferretti to Cinderella) for the first three performances. Georgian soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze takes over after Lindsey departs to the Glyndebourne Festival in England where she will perform the role of the Composer in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.

That’s the sort of hectic, nomadic life the 31-year-old Lindsey has been leading since she “graduated” from the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program six years ago. Her meteoric rise has landed her roles in well-known houses worldwide, including the Met, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Aix-en-Provence festival in France, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Seattle Opera, where the created the title role in Daron Hagen’s Ameila. Her LAO debut came two years ago as Zaida in another Rossini opera, The Turk in Italy.

“That’s the way you build a career,” says Lindsey. “One step at a time, one building block at a time. Some of the roles are the kind of ‘hands-down-yes’ parts that you won’t turn down. For others, it’s a matter of the team with whom you’ll be working, the size of the house, and other things that factor into the decision.”

Saturday will be Lindsey’s first professional performance of Angelina, although she did play the role in a student production in 2005 at the Wolf Trapp Festival outside of Washington, D.C. “One thing that’s great is that I’m actually getting to play a girl,” she says with a chuckle. “So many of my parts have been ‘trouser roles’ “ [a male character sung by a female; the Composer in Ariadne is one example].

“Angelina is a hard character to portray,” she continues. “She’s the one normal character in the opera, the most morally centered person in a sea of insanity that surrounds her.”

Rossini was just 25 when wrote Cinderella in a mere three weeks, a year after he composed The Barber of Seville. Although not universally acclaimed at its Rome debut, Cinderella has since been established as one of the composer’s finest works. LA Opera created a sparkling production in 2000.

When Rossini operas work well, says Lindsey, they do so because the entire creative team is meshing well. “This isn’t grand opera, like Wagner,” she explains. “It’s rapid-fire comedy with split-second interactions. Every person on the team is important and the relationships we build during rehearsals are critical. Fortunately this production has been seen eight times around the world so that gives all us performing a real comfort level.”

The cast includes René Barbera as Prince Ramiro, Vito Priante as Dandini, Allesandro Corbelli, as Don Magnifico (the wicked stepfather) and Nicola Ulvieri as Alidoro — all in their company debuts — along with LAO “veterans” Stacey Tappan as Clorinda and Ronnita Nicole Miller as Tisbe.

Don’t forget the rats, says Lindsey. The cast includes dancers who perform the role of rodents. “I call them my ‘magic rats,’ “ she says fondly. “They are so cute!”

Having sung all around the world, both in operas and as a soloist with orchestras, Lindsey has had to learn to adapt to performance venues. One of her challenges in Cinderella is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which wasn’t designed primarily as an opera house when it opened nearly half a century ago. “When you sing at the Pavilion,” explains Lindsey, “you’re almost always facing forward so your voice can project throughout the house. Fortunately James [Conlon] is very aware of vocal balances, which is a great asset to a singer. He makes us all sound great.”

Lindsey learned as a youngster about musical teamwork. Her father is a retired Presbyterian pastor and she grew up singing in church choirs (“Children’s choirs, high school choir, bell choir — you name it and I was in it,” she recalls). When she returned home from Indiana University for breaks, she would drop in and sing with the choir — as an alto. She went on to receive a Bachelor of Music degree with distinction from IU before embarking on a professional career.

Now she’s flying around the world as she scales operatic mountains. Along the way, she even found her Prince Charming, marring Seattle optometrist Dr. Landon Jones in August 2011. They pick and choose their spots carefully when they can spend time together. “I’ll be at Glyndebourne for two months,” she says, “and he’ll come in when I have a five-day break. I don’t want him to see me in my ‘performance mode.’ “
• James Conlon article in the printed program discusses his re-kindled love affair with bel canto opera, of which Rossini’s Cinderella is but one example. Read it HERE.
• Tim Page, professor musicology and journalism at the USC Thornton School of Music, who won a Pulitzer Prize for music criticism in 1997, offers his take on Cinderella in a Los Angeles Times article HERE.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: LA Opera’s production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” sets sail Saturday in Los Angeles

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

Los Angeles Opera
Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

Opening night: Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Other performances: March 21, 27 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. March 17 and 24 at 2 p.m.
(Best seating availability: March 9, 17 and 27)
Preconcert lecture by James Conlon one hour before each performance.
Tickets: $19-$287
Information: www.laopera.com
To say that Los Angeles Opera’s decision to present Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman was the result of a perfect storm would be to use a perhaps-too-obvious metaphor. Nonetheless, the legendary captain and his ghost ship — doomed to sail the seas endlessly until a curse is lifted by a woman’s love — drop anchor Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the first of six performances.

James Conlon, who recently extended his contract as LA Opera’s music director through the 2017-2018 season, will conduct the production, which comes to Los Angeles via Lyric Opera Chicago and San Francisco Opera, where it was created by noted German director Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Daniel Dooner will direct this offering with sets by Raimud Bauer and costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (all three are making their company debuts).

Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson (pictured) will make his LAO debut in the title role. Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos will also appear with the company for the first time as Senta, the young woman whose devotion offers the Dutchman a hope for salvation. Tenor Corey Blix will portray Erik; he replaces Jay Hunter Morris, who had to pull out due to illness.

Given Conlon’s often-expressed desire to make LA Opera a Wagner mecca and the fact that 2013 marks the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth,The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer to be more accurate, since the work will be sung in German with English supertitles) was one of the obvious candidates to present this year.Dutchman will be the eighth Wagner opera that Conlon has conducted at LAO; the only missing link of the composer’s major works from LAO’s repertory isDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

MountingDutchman in 2013 also continues a company policy of presenting major works approximately every 10 years, explains Christopher Koelsch, LAO’s president and chief executive officer.

When LA Opera first presentedDutchman in 1993, Julie Taymor (in the days before she gained fame for her production ofThe Lion King) created a unique, albeit controversial production that the company revived a decade later.

This time around, says Koelsch, the opportunity to present Lenhoff’s production was too good to pass up. “I saw the original production in Chicago,” recalls Koelsch. “It was a powerful, moving experience. With this production, we continue a trend this year of presenting masters of the directing craft to our audiences, artists of great intellect and heft.”

Last fall, LAO eschewed a respectable homegrown production ofDon Giovanni to introduce director German Peter Stein to local audiences. Later this month when the company presents Rossini’sCinderella, it will lay aside its own colorful, playful production of a decade ago for an entirely new creative team (to local audiences, at any rate) headed by Director Joan Funt that will re-create what was originally a co-production of Houston Grand Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona.

Flying Dutchman marked a turning point in Wagner’s life when it debuted in 1843 in Dresden. Many of elements that would permeate his later operas first appeared inDutchman, including the use ofleitmotifsleading motives that allowed Wagner to delve deeply into psychological aspects of his characters and audiences with what amounted tosignature tunes.

Thoseleitmotifs show up immediately in the work’s overture, one of the great musical depictions of a storm at sea. Woven throughout the storm are motives for the Dutchman, Senta (the woman who can break the curse) and, finally redemption itself. This ability to weave motives into an extended orchestral writing would appear often in Wagner’s later operas.

Dutchman was revolutionary in another way. Although it contains three acts, Wagner’s concept was that all three should be performed as a single unit, and although some companies do insert one or two intermissions, LAO will honor the composer’s instructions by playing the entire work — two hours and 20 minutes — without a break.

The subject matter itself proved to be a prelude to themes that would emerge in Wagner’s later operas. Musicologist Thomas May writes, “Wagner discovered in the Dutchman the first of his mythic figures, ambivalent in nature, who have the flexibility to accommodate multiple meanings. His (unnamed) hero acquires the resonance of an archetype or myth as timeless as the wandering Odysseus and that, according to the composer, expresses ‘the longing for peace from the storms of life.’ “

In his official memoirs, Wagner wrote that the inspiration forDutchman came from a storm-tossed sea trip he made from Riga to Paris in 1838. However, the legend of the wandering, doomed sea captain was quite popular in the 19th century including an account by German poet Heinrich Heine who, like Wagner, was exiled from his homeland to Paris.

While Heine set his tale in Scotland, Wagner transplanted the locale to Norway. However, the essential elements of the myth — in particular, the concept of man’s redemption through love — would makeThe Flying Dutchman a major success for Wagner and point the way to his later operas, includingTristan und Isolde,Parsifal and, especially, his massive four-opera cycle,Der Ring des Nibelungen.

• James Conlon’s commentary in the printed program is HERE.
* Thomas May’s article in the printed program is HERE.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Two conductors make big news

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

Two conductor announcements thousands of miles apart made news this past week. One has immediate implications for Los Angeles and the other might. One thing’s for sure: the year 2018 has just gained significance in the classical music world.

The immediate impact story
James Conlon has extended his tenure as music director of Los Angeles Opera through the 2017-2018 season. Conlon joined LA Opera in 2006, succeeding Kent Nagano. Among his many accomplishments, Conlon led the company’s first production of Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen in 2010.

During his tenure with LAO, Conlon has conducted a total of 33 different operas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, including 18 company premieres and two U.S. premieres. To date, he has conducted 190 performances of mainstage LA Opera productions, more than any other conductor in the Company’s history. He returns to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion pit on March 9 to lead six performances of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and on March 23 to lead six performances of Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

It’s a measure of Conlon’s versatility that he could handle Wagner’s dramatic account of the sea captain doomed to wander the seas endlessly in his ghost ship and Rossini’s telling of the Cinderella story in the same month. In fact he conducts the two operas within 18 hours of each other on March 23 and 24.

He’s been a joy since he arrived and we’re lucky that this transplanted New Yorker has learned to love L.A. enough to sign on for another five years. Conlon’s commitment is also a reaffirmation of LAO’s continued rebound from the economic crash of 1998.

The longer-range story
Simon Rattle has announced that he will step down as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic when his contract expires in 2018. Sir Simon (he was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1994) will be 64 when he leaves the prestigious post; he was named to succeed Claudio Abbado in 1999 and began his tenure in 2002. When he retires, Rattle will have been in the post longer than all but two other conductors: Arthur Nikisch (1895-1922) and Herbert von Karajan (1954-1989).

In his announcement, Rattle said he gave a long lead-time to allow the orchestra time to name a successor. Most orchestras have a gap — sometimes a long gap — between the end of one tenure and the beginning of another; to cite one example, the Chicago Symphony went four years between the tine Daniel Barenboim left in 206 and Riccardo Muti arrived in 2012. Berlin has a chance to avoid what can be a major problem.

Speculation about Rattle’s successor will, inevitably, center on Gustavo Dudamel, whose contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic currently runs through 2018-2019 (which will be the Phil’s centennial season). Rattle, of course, has a history with the LAPO. He made his North American debut in 1976, conducting the London Schools Symphony Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. He first conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1979 and was the Phil’s Principal Guest Conductor from 1981╨1994. How ironic it would be if Rattle and Dudamel swapped posts.

The Grand Rapid Symphony apparently sounded like Southern California transplants this weekend. David Lockington — the group’s music director who was in town last year to conduct the Pasadena Symphony — led his orchestra in performances of John Adams’ City Noir, the work he wrote three years ago for Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural Disney Hall concerts as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director. Also on the GRS program was The Great Swiftness by Andrew Norman, a Grand Rapids native who is the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s composer-in-residence. LACO played The Great Swirtnexx earlier this season. You can read what a local music critic had to say about the GRS performance HERE.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, American Youth Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



Los Angeles
Children’s Chorus; American Youth Symphony

James Conlon, Anne
Tomlinson, Alexander Treger, conductors

Music by Vaughan Williams, Britten, Beam, Wilcocks and

March 4 at 7:30 p.m. Walt Disney Concert Hall.


NOTE: With this
review, I come violate one of my cardinal rules, which is to not review people
for whom I’ve sung or with whom I am well acquainted. Anne Tomlinson fits in
the latter category and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus is housed at my
church [Pasadena Presbyterian]. Thus, you can — as the late, great Molly Ivins
was often wont to say, take this review with “a grain of salt or a pound of
salt,” if you are so inclined.



We’ve just come off of six weeks that, among other things,
focused attention on Venezuela’s “El Sistema” music education system and the
Los Angeles Philharmonic’s attempt to reproduce — in some fashion — the success
of that endeavor locally.


Lost amid the Mahler, hoopla and acronyms such as YOLA and
HOLA is the fact that this region can boast of several ensembles that
demonstrate what happens when the musical cream rises to the top. Two of those
groups, the American Youth Symphony and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, combined
for a concert last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall that concluded with the
world premiere of an intriguing cantata, The
isle is full of noises
by Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason.


The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (which, despite its name
is based in Pasadena) was founded in 1986 and has become one of the nation’s
leading children’s choral programs. There are now more than 375 children, ages
6-18, participating in seven choirs and an extensive music education program.
Its artistic director, Anne Tomlinson, has been at the helm for 16 years and
LACC regularly performs with the L.A. Phil, Los Angeles Opera and other
professional groups, while also presenting its own programs. The group’s
Concert Choir recently sang for both Mahler Symphony No. 3 and No. 8.


Founded in 1964 by Mehli Mehta (father of former LAPO Music
Director Zubin Mehta), the American Youth Symphony has trained more than 200
musicians who now play in professional orchestras. Together the New York
Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra have eight AYS alumni in
principal posts, while the L.A. Phil, L.A. Chamber Orchestra and L.A. Opera
Orchestra use 32 members who worked with the AYS.


For their appearance on the Phil’s “Sounds About Town”
series this year, the two organizations combined to commission Bjarnason’s
14-minute, three-movement piece based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the preconcert lecture, Tomlinson identified a
significant problem of writing a big piece for a children’s chorus: the range
of the young singers is only slightly more than two octaves, far less than if a
composer were writing for adults.


Bjarnason, who at age 31 isn’t all that much older than some
of the AYS instrumentalists (that group’s upper age limit is 27), was equal to
the task. He chose the texts purposefully; his grandfather translated
Shakespeare’s sonnets into Icelandic, a project that was published just before
his grandfather’s death.


Deciding that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets weren’t
appropriate textually for children, Bjarnason instead turned to The Tempest and selected Miranda’s O I Have Suffered, Caliban’s Be Not Afear’d and Prospero’s The Cloud-Capp’d Towers as the texts for
the three movements. He reserved the loudest, richest orchestral moments for
when the children weren’t singing, creating massed clusters of sound with piano
and percussion punctuation. However, during the choral portions Bjarnason
skillfully cut back the orchestra so as not to overpower the 86 members of the
LACC Concert Choir, whom he challenged with close harmonies and tricky sliding
chromatic scales; the composition ranged from unison singing to as many as 12
parts. The result was often intriguing and occasionally riveting.


Conlon, who spends much of his life balancing orchestras
with singers, was the perfect choice to lead this premiere performance. He did
an expert job of balancing and supplied a supple hand to the score’s tone
painting. The orchestra — with Principal Flute Alexandra Walin standing out in
her solo turns — played with assurance and skill and the choristers sang with
compelling gracefulness and cohesion. Considering that the singers had
relatively little time to prepare owing to their work in the Phil’s “Mahler
Project,” their performance was particularly noteworthy.


Prior to the Bjarnason work, Alexander Treger, who has been
the orchestra’s music director since 1998, led his AYS in a polished
performance of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Last week, Charles Dutoit led the L.A. Phil in a
riveting performance of eight sections of the ballet and if Treger’s concept
(using just six sections) felt a little more episodic than Dutoit’s, this
performance had its exhilarating moments, as well.


In the first half of the program, three of the LACC choirs
began the Shakespearean theme by performing a series of short selections from
American and British composers. The 16 high-school girls of the Chamber Singers
made a block dividing the larger Intermediate and Apprentice Choirs.


The most impressive performance was the initial selection:
Douglas Beam’s Spirits, which
Tomlinson conducted and the combined choirs sang with impressive diction and


Individually, the Intermediate Choir (led by Mandy Brigham)
and the Apprentice Choir (led by Larissa Donnelly) sang Britten’s Fancie, Robert Johnson’s Where the Bee Sucks and Vaughan
Williams’ Orpheus with His Lute with
supple grace, although the diction was more muddied (part of which can be laid
at the hands of the composers). The Chamber Singers concluded the set with a
sweet performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sigh
No More, Ladies.
Among other things, the collection of choirs and songs
provided the audience with valuable lessons in how voices change as children
grow older and gain more experience in choral singing. Twyla Meyer accompanied
skillfully on the piano.


To conclude the first half, Tomlinson returned to the podium
to the lead the orchestra and Concert Choir (LACC’s flagship ensemble) in a
performance of David Wilcocks’ The
Glories of Shakespeare.
Actor Stuart W. Howard opened the piece by reciting
lines from uncredited, albeit familiar Shakespeare lines, and he and Lina Patel
added additional recitatives between each of the five selections in this


Unlike Bjarnason, whose orchestral writing covered a wide
range, Wilcocks’ orchestral accompaniments stayed mainly with the two-octave
treble-voice range, which made the work less interesting. Whether it was the
singers not projecting quite enough volume or the orchestra playing with two
much, Tomlinson had troubles with balances in the first piece but provided a
more integrated whole during the final four movements. Principal Flute Walin
again provided sparkling solo work.




Apparently bowing to complaints raised from opening night
onward about Disney Hall’s inability to adequately project spoken words, a
large horn cluster was suspended above the stage, which made diction from
Howard and Patel much clearer. It also looked ugly and overpowering but one can
hope that someone will figure out a way to cover the horns in a way that blends
more aesthetically with Frank Gehry’s wood walls and ceiling.

One thing the horn array did was eliminate the use
overhead projection of texts, which were, instead, in a printed-program insert.
Fortunately, house management left the lights up sufficiently for people to
follow the texts when that was necessary.



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