OVERNIGHT REVIEW: James McVinnie, L.A. Phil premiere Nico Muhly organ concerto

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; James Conlon, conductor
Nico Muhly: Register, for Organ and Orchestra (world premiere, LA Phil commission)., James McVinnie, soloist
Mussorgsky-Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
Tonight and Sunday: Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Walt Disney Concert Hall; 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2:00 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

To kick off a very busy music weekend in Southern California and to conclude one of the most significant months in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s long and storied history, LA Opera Music Director James Conlon walked across 1st St. to Walt Disney Hall to lead a “Casual Friday” L.A. Phil concert that paired the “old” with the new.

The “old” was Maurice Ravel’s ultra-familiar 1922 orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The new was the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Register, for Organ and Orchestra, with British organist James McVinnie (pictured left) as soloist on the Disney Hall pipe organ.

Because this was a “Casual Friday” concert (drinks in the WDCH Gardens ahead of time and craft beer afterwar with the audience encouraged to dress casually), the work that will open tonight’s and tomorrow afternoon’s program, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, was omitted and the two other works were played without intermission.

At age 36 Muhly is one of the busiest and most sought-after composers plying his trade today, so it was something of a coup for the Phil to get him to write his first organ concerto. He played the organ in high school but views the instrument as the companion to the synthesizer. The new work is one movement, with three sections, and sped by in a brief 20 minutes.

Muhly collaborated closely with McVinnie, who he met in 2004 at Cambridge and with whom he has maintained a close relationship. Their first musical experience was in a small chapel on Clare College in Cambridge, from where McVinnie went on to become assistant organist at Westminster Abbey and then organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, among other appointments.

As Muhly explained in the preconcert lecture, the title, “Register,” has several meanings but the principal one is the art and science that the organist employs to make the organ produce the sounds he (and the composer) wants, a practice that is called “Registration.” Organists register the instruments by pulling and pushing the draw knobs that are to each side of the organ console (along with those on the pedal board) and also uses switches, known as couplers, to create various combinations of sounds.

As McVinnie noted in that same lecture, each organ has a unique sound. What he produced on the Disney Hall organ will be quite different than when he plays the piece on the Harrison & Harrison organ in Royal Albert Hall in a summer Proms concert.

McVinnie made ample use of many of the Disney Hall organ sounds but what was unexpected was how well he and the orchestra blended together. Except for the extended cadenza in between sections 2 and 3, it was often hard to tell whether McVinnie was producing the sounds or whether they came from the orchestra, which had an oversized brass section as well as numerous percussionists. That cadenza, with two extended pedal solos, gave McVinnie a real chance to shine.

Conlon conducted the orchestra carefully, attentive to the score and to his soloist. The orchestra appeared to relish playing Muhly’s music and did so with a high degree of panache. The ending, based on a Pavane in G minor by 17th century composer Orlando Gibbons, was so mysterious that the audience didn’t quite know what to make of it. They will the next time they hear the concerto.

Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s famous piano piece is easily the best known of about two dozen different arrangements, but in a short talk before the performance Conlon noted that the French composer was working from a version of the piano score by Rimsky-Korskov, not the original music. Conlon said that, since he had access to that original score, he added in a couple of extra parts to the 14 movements. I was really only aware of one addition; they certainly didn’t detract from the original score, which was commissioned in 1922 by Serge Kousevitzky.

Conlon — who conducted without a score — took tempos were stately for the most part, and the orchestra — apart from a couple of scrappy entrances — delivered a sumptuous performance, with noteworthy performances particularly from the brass and winds sections. It made for a popular piece with which to accompany the organ concerto and the audience responded with a predictably raucous ovation.

In addition to the Phil subscription concerts this weekend, other significant programs are:
• The Phil’s Toyota Symphonies for Youth concert this morning will feature the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate (and former music director) Esa-Pekka Salonen leading his composition Wing on Wing, which was written for the opening of Disney Hall 14 years ago. Information: www.laphil.com

• The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by guest conductor Douglas Boyd, will play tonight at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and tomorrow night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The program will include the latest offering in LACO’s “Sound Investment” series — a work by Ellen Reid — Haydn’s Symphony No 104 in D Major, “London,” and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, with Thomas Cooley as soloist.Information: wwwlaco.org

• The Valley Performing Arts Center offers a screening tonight of the 1954 film On the Waterfront, with Richard Kaufman leading the New West Symphony as it plays the acclaimed Leonard Bernstein score live to accompany the film. Information: www.valleyperformingartscenter.org

• Carl St.Clair leads the Pacific Symphony tonight and Tuesday night in semi-staged performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the latest effort in the orchestra’s opera series. Information:www.pacificsymphony.org

• The next L.A. Phil subscriptions on March 2 and 3 features the U.S. premiere of A Trip to the Moon, another L.A. Phil commission, this time by Andrew Norman. Yuval Sharon will stage this piece and Teddy Abrams will conduct. The program also includes Holst’s The Planets. Information: www.laphil.com

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FIVE-SPOT: April 20-23, 2017

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending. Once again, Saturday will be a VERY busy day.

8 p.m. April 20 and 22; 2 p.m. April 23
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, returns “home” (he’s a Santa Monica native) to lead the Phil in a program that features the west coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto, with Paul Jacobs as soloist. The concerto is bookended by Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“from the New World”). The Rouse concerto, a L.A. Phil co-commission, debuted last fall in Philadelphia.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

1 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles (see “Additional Concert” below)
1,000 high school students from 30 Southland schools can be heard in a free concert when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presents the 28th Annual High School Choir Festival. The Festival choir will be led by LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon in a varied program that features works by this year’s guest artist singer/composer Moira Smiley. Smiley will also teach the massive choir body percussion to accompany one of her songs.

BONUS: Free admission, first come, first served (which means it’s a great — and cost effective — opportunity to hear choral music in Disney Hall).

ADDITIONAL CONCERT: Assistant conductor Jenny Wong will lead 16 members of the Chorale in a concert at 11 a.m. This one is also free but tickets must be arranged through the Master Chorale Web Site (see below).

Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Guest Conductor Christian Arming (music director of the Liège Royal Philharmonic) leads this top-notch conservatory orchestra in a program that features a collection of songs by Irving Berlin sung by tenor Joshua Wheeker and danced by The Colburn Dance Academy. The songs are bookended by Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet.

BONUS: This concert is part of the L.A. Phil’s “Sounds About Town” series, which means that tickets are very reasonably priced ($15-$44). So, if you’ve never heard a concert in Disney Hall, this is a great opportunity.

Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

8 p.m. at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts; La Mirada
The McCoy-Rigby mounting of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, his iconic retelling of Romeo and Juliet, moves to La Mirada for an extended run that lasts through May 14.

BONUS: Nice ticket prices: $14-$70.

Information: lamirdadatheatre.com

8 p.m. April 22 at Alex Theatre; Glendale
7 p.m. April 23 at Royce Hall, UCLA; Westwood
In his penultimate concert as LACO Music Director, Jeffrey Kahane leads the orchestra, soloists and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Information: www.laco.org

3 p.m. at The Huntington Library; San Marino
Harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon will play one of Bach’s most famous keyboard works as part of Camerata Pacifica’s 27th season.

Information: www.cameratapacifica.org

6 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA; Westwood
Music Director Carlos Izcaray leads his young musicians in a performance of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with Rachel Ostler as soloist.

BONUS: Tickets are free but should be reserved in advance (the concert is nearly sold out). The concert is followed by a ticketed gala dinner; reservations are required.

Information: aysymphony.org

7:30 p.m. at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Los Angeles
Sondra Radvanovsky returns to L.A. to reprise her role in Puccini’s tear jerker. James Conlon conducts and John Caird oversees his original LA Opera staging. Other performances are April 27, May 2, 5 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 and May 7 at 2 p.m.

BONUS: The Pavilion is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the Temple St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station, walk north to Temple and then west up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laopera.org


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

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CALENDAR ALERT: February 3 will be a big Leonard Bernstein bash

The year 2018 marks the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth (the actual date is August 25). For Angelenos, Feb. 3 will be a major celebration date.

Los Angeles Opera will present Bernstein’s Candide on Jan. 27, February 3, 8, 11 and 25 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center. James Conlon will conduct and Francesco Zambello will direct the production.

Meanwhile, Gustavo Dudamel will be leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in a staged performance of Bernstein’s Mass on Feb. 1, 2, 3 and 4 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Thus, both groups will be performing Bernstein on Feb. 3 across the street from each other! Fortunately as you can see, both performances have alternative dates but traffic around 1st and Grand Ave that night will probably be fierce.

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By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Allan Glassman as Herod and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera

Los Angeles Opera: Richard Strauss’ Salome
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Next performances: March 2 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. March 5 and 19 at 2:00 p.m.
Pre-performance lecture by James Conlon one hour before each performance.
NOTE: The opera runs 90 minutes without intermission, not counting the lecture.
Information: www.laopera.org

(With apologies to Peter King of SI.com, who runs “10 Things I Think I Think About” in his weekly “Monday Morning QB” column)

1. James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra are, once again, worth the price of admission. The orchestra occasionally swamped the singers but, in his pre-performance lecture, Conlon said that was the composer’s design (the Pavilion problems also accentuated that problem — see No. 7 below).

2. Strauss reportedly told the original portrayer of the title role in his version of this story that Salome was supposed to be a teenager who could sing the role of Isolde. The singer replied, “You can have one or the other, but not both.” Patricia Racette, singing the role during this production, came darn close to the ideal. As she cavorted about the stage, she gave a great approximation of a bratty teenager (quite a feat for someone who is age 52) and her singing was riveting all the way up to and through that ridiculously daunting final scene.

3. Racette’s early costume — a sort of tunic/pants suit — didn’t exactly look like something the original Salome would have worn (the story dates to Biblical times). On the other hand, Racette’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” would certainly have captivated the original tetrarch, Herod. Overall, the new costumes, by Sara Jean Tosetti (in her company debut), were striking.

4. Peggy Hickey — who made her company debut in 1989 as a dancer in Orpheus in the Underworld and her choreography debut in the company’s 1992 presentation of Don Giovanni — gets high marks her choreography for this Salome, her fifth LAO choreo job in the last three seasons.

5. The balance of the cast was uniformly strong, particularly Issachah Savage, making his company debut as Narraboth, and Allan Glassman as Herod. This was Savage’s second strong performance in a month; he was one of the stars of the production of Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, the final part of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Lift Every Voice” series in January.

6. The issue of the five Jews often causes some people heartburn but I thought this quintet did a fine job of elucidating the tensions that Jews struggled with about Jesus (and John the Baptist) in Palestine during the time of the Biblical story.

7. Once again, the Pavilion’s sound problems when it comes to singers were audible. The farther back onstage the singers are, the harder it is to hear them, even with the raked stage floor. This won’t ever be solved until there’s a major renovation of the Pavilion, which is now well into its second half century of usage, but — given the cost of such a project — I don’t expect to live long enough to see that happen.

8. This production was the third ever mounted by the company, in 1986 during its original season (see my preview article HERE). To my memory, the original lighting scheme had a richer blue cast, but the basics remained the same and quite effective.

9. Conlon revealed in his pre-performance lecture that he saw his first Salome performance at the age of 15 in the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Karl Boehm conducted (“for about the 150th time,” said Conlon). Birgit Nilsson sang the role for the first time, he remembered. It’s kind of hard to go anywhere up from there.

10. Conlon also told the pre-performance crowd that the first two notes of one of Salome’s theme were the same as the last two notes of Isolde’s “Liebestold” (in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). “It’s not crucial that you know this,” said Conlon with a chuckle. If you will be attending one of the final performances, don’t miss the lecture, which as usual is erudite and worth the time, even if you know the opera.

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

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PREVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Salome” marks a revival of an historically important production

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tomas Tomasson as John the Baptist and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s historic production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which opens tomorrow night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera

The story is legendary in the opera world; even those who weren’t in attendance (as I was) remember it. 1986 — the inaugural opening night for Los Angeles Opera: the curtain rising on the opening act of Verdi’s Otello pauses partway up before continuing its ascent a few seconds later. It was a “heart-in-the-throat” moment for those in attendance (particularly for those in company management, one suspects). It also provided a ready-made, humorous lead for critics (including me), leaning forward in anticipation.

That opening production was an exciting time for all concerned, but fewer people remember the third opera in that inaugural season.

Otello was followed by a very conventional presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring — somewhat implausibly — Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San.

However, it was the third offering — a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome — that in retrospect, put the company on the international opera map. It’s also the only production from that original season that remains in the LAO repertoire, 31 years later. The Met still has Franco Zeferelli’s iconic Madama Butterfly in its rep; Sir Peter Hall’s Salome is LAO’s equivalent.

Tomorrow night LAO revives that Salome production in the first of six performances, running through March 19. The big news has been that superstar American soprano Patricia Racette is portraying the title heroine; both Michelle Mills in our SCNG papers (LINK) and Catherine Womack in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) have focused on that story.

Yet, it’s not too big a stretch to say that without that 1986 production of Salome, there might be no LA Opera (as the company now calls itself). Thus the historical aspect of this opera deserves to be remembered.

That seems strange in retrospect because Salome wasn’t an easy sell in a city where opera was still working to establish a beachhead.

For one thing, LAO’s production of Salome was created by Sir Peter Hall, who was far better known for his work in the theatre than in the opera world, although, with conductor Georg Solti, he did direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1983 at Bayreuth for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Second, the opera (written by Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century using a libretto that he adapted from an infamous Oscar Wilde play) runs in a single act that lasts an hour and 40 minutes without intermission — although for those who don’t like long nights at the opera house, that’s a plus.

Another issue is that the character originates in synoptic Biblical gospels of Matthew and Mark, although in those accounts she is unnamed. Wilde’s and Strauss’ “scandalous” treatment of a Biblical character always caused ruffled feathers among conservative Christian folk.

A final (and related) problem was the opera’s most famous moment: Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she writhes before Herod in an erotic dance and where each of the veils are removed until she stands naked before the king. The scene so scandalized the performers and audiences that in earlier productions a dancer performed, and, later, singers used a body stocking for the dance. Even today the nude scene features prominently in almost any article, include those noted above.

Sir Peter would make no offering to modesty, in part because the Salome in that 1986 production — his wife, Maria Ewing — was good looking and was willing to end the dance naked. In addition, the production was notable because the performers were both compelling as singers and actors. It was, particularly, a hard role for Ewing, who was a mezzo-soprano rather than a sopranos, but she carried off the singing handsomely and her acting was riveting.

One other aspect of that LAO Salome premiere was the size of the orchestra: 92 players (much larger than either of the first two offerings), bulging the Pavilion pit and led by Henry Lewis. Hearing this luscious score played this by the now top-flight LAO Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon, should be one of the prizes of this year’s production.

Reports are that Sir Peter’s production has been refurbished for this run — not surprising given that it has been lent to companies around the world (a nice money-maker for the company). Sir Peter (who reportedly suffers from dementia) will not be on hand, although he continues to be listed for his production. Instead, David Paul makes his company debut as director and Duane Schuler will handle the crucial lighting details.

Like all productions of Salome, there’s a great deal of complexity and intrigue that will surround this revival. But there is also a great deal of history, which should not be forgotten. The L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Martin Bernheimer — not known for throwing around accolades lightly — wrote of that 1986 production: “This is what opera should be about.”

Information: www.laopera.org

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

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