OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic opens subscription season in splendid fashion

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

johnadams2016John Adams (pictured right) turns age 70 on Feb. 15, 2017, and orchestras throughout the country — most notably the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic — are taking the opportunity to salute the man who is one of America’s most important composers, along with being a conductor and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair.

During this season the L.A. Phil will reprise two of Adams’ most important pieces, including El Niño and Nixon in China (but not two I would have expected to show up on the list: City Noir and Harmonielehre — perhaps early next season).

Last night as part of its opening subscription program the Phil offered the Los Angeles premiere of Adams’ Absolute Jest, a scintillating 25-minute sendup of Beethoven works, particularly two of his final string quartets.

Although there are folks who contend that you don’t need lots of information about a “new” work to enjoy it —Absolute Jest was originally composed for the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial season in 2012 and revised with 400 new bars of new opening music for a performance by the New World Symphony later that year — Adams came onstage to talk about his inspiration for the piece.

He enlisted the support of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, for whom the piece had been written, which played portions of Beethoven String Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131 and the F Major, Op. 135 as examples of themes that Adams employed in his work. That, along with a particularly well delivered preconcert lecture by Russell Steinberg, offered excellent insight into what is undeniably an Adams creation, particularly in its rousing finale (which ended abruptly and magically with single notes from a harp and piano (both tuned slightly off pitch).

The quartet, which was seated in front of the orchestra and to the right of Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, proved to be formidable as it weaved its solo lines into the orchestral fabric. For their part, Dudamel confidently the piece confidently, as if he had lived with it for years, and the orchestra played with its customary excellence, as if this was just another Beethoven work.

Absolute Jest definitely piece worth hearing again and you can do that either tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m. in Disney Hall (INFO) or online at KUSC.org, which broadcast last night’s concert live and will have it online for the next week.

bronfman2016Perhaps not surprisingly, Dudamel elected to surround Adams’ piece with two Beethoven works. He and the orchestra opened with a magisterial rendition of the Corolian Overture and concluded with the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, with Yefim Bronfman (pictured left) as soloist.

Last summer we heard an elegant rendition of this familiar work by Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (my review is HERE). Last night, Bronfman was equally mesmerizing in his performance, pairing a majestic opening movement and playful conclusion with a magical second movement that was absolutely exquisite, particularly in contrast to the powerful chords erupting from the orchestra.

Dudamel and the orchestra played with a passion and precision not always apparent when accompanying a soloist. Dudamel, in particular, was intensely involved although, paradoxically, that often translated into minimalist motions on the podium. It was a superb ending to a impressive opening concert, auguring well for the next eight months.

• Steinberg’s preconcert lecture was one of the best I have heard. He offered several insightful windows, particularly for Absolute Jest and the fourth concerto, which were helpful not only for the occasional attender but also for those who are Phil regulars. Steinberg, who is a composer and conducts the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra — is offering a series of eight lectures from January through March in Encino on the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. INFO: www.russelsteinberg.com
• Although the official unveiling isn’t until today, patrons entering Disney Hall from the parking garage got “sneak-preview” look at Nimbus, a series of cloud-like structures hanging from the ceiling accompanied by music played by the Phil’s musicians. Details are HERE.
• In addition to officially unveiling Nimbus, Saturday will be an 12-hour (noon to midnight) celebration of contemporary music, including the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO
• While Dudamel is in New York City leading his Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in three concerts at Carnegie Hall (INFO), Pablo Heras-Casado will be on the Disney Hall podium Oct. 7, 8 and 9 leading the Phil in Stravinsky’s complete Firebird and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist.

Oct. 7 is the season’s first “Casual Friday” concert. The Saturday and Sunday programs also include Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester), although if the Friday program started closer to on time, it could include the second Ravel work, which lasts all of eight minutes. INFO

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: John Adams’ “Ceiling/Sky” finally makes it to Los Angeles

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.

I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky
Southern California premiere by Long Beach Opera
Aug. 23, 8 p.m.
John Anson Ford Theatre; 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East; Hollywood
Ticket prices: $60-$125
Information: www.longbeachopera.org

Ceiling:Sky imageJohn Adams is America’s foremost living composer and, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair, certainly looms large on the Southern California classical music scene. So it’s somewhat surprising that two of his major works have yet to be performed locally.

Adams’ Dr. Atomic debuted in 2005 in San Francisco, but the sheer size and scope of the opera will make it difficult to perform anywhere, let alone in Los Angeles. However there are different issues surrounding I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, which will make its Southern California debut courtesy of Long Beach Opera on August 23 at 8 p.m. in the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in the Cahuenga Pass (directly across the Hollywood Freeway from Hollywood Bowl).

Perhaps the biggest problem with “Ceiling/Sky” is “What exactly is it?” Using a libretto by the late poet June Jordan, Adams composed the work following the Northridge earthquake in 1994; the title (a quote from the Los Angeles Times) quotes someone who experienced the quake firsthand.

Even Adams isn’t sure how to describe his musical version of Jordan’s text. The work has variously been called an “earthquake romance,” a “song play” and an “opera-musical theatre hybrid.” Adams compares the spirit of the work — performed by several musical theater singers, accompanied by three keyboards and a rock band formation — to Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The Boston Globe described “Ceiling/Sky” as some of “the most successful crossover music written in our time.”

As Adams relates, “After composing two grand operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, I’d realized that the only truly indigenous form of American musical theater was what we call, for lack of a more precise term, the ‘musical.’ ‘Ceiling/Sky’ is essentially a polyphonic love story in the style of a Shakespeare comedy. The characters, all inner-city young people in their twenties, play out their personal dramas against the backdrop of specific social and political themes.”

For more, hear a 1995 podcast from WQXR in New York City where John Schaefer interviews Adams about his then-new work. LINK

“Ceiling/Sky” premiered in Berkeley in 1995 and later played in New York, Montreal, Helsinki, Paris, Hamburg and Edinburgh — everywhere but in Los Angeles where it is set. “We’re righting a wrong with this performance,” says Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek, who will conduct the Ford Theatre performance.

This marks the second local major Adams premiere for LBO in the past six months; the company presented Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer last March.

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: L.A. Phil and others fire up the “Minimalist Jukebox”

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.

Eight years ago the Los Angeles Philharmonic curated a landmark, multiweek festival entitled “Minimalist Jukebox,” devoted to the era of minimalism, the compositional genre that began in the 1960s and was led by composers including Terry Riley and John Adams.

“Over the past 40 years,” says Adams, “Minimalism has brought about a revolution in aesthetic sensibilities, changing the way we experience the flow of musical time and the feel of its rhythm. It has not only revitalized harmony and enabled composers to once again think big thoughts, but it has seen its influence felt in genres as far afield as rock, electronic, and film scoring.”

Whether you believe that to be the case or are among those who see Minimalism as a quarter-century-long genre now consigned thankfully to the history books, for the second incarnation of this festival concept the Phil and other local organizations will join forces for 14 programs (20 performances) from April 5 through May 4 at locations from the west side to downtown Los Angeles and into Pasadena.

Adams — the Phil’s creative chair and composer of operas such as “Dr. Atomic” and numerous other works — will be very much at the forefront of the entire month both as curator and conductor. Everyone will have their favorite concerts but here are two of my must-see events:

• April 6 at Walt Disney Concert Hall:
Grant Gershon conducts 32 singers of his Los Angeles Master Chorale and an instrumental ensemble in David Lang’s Pulitzer-Prize winning the little match girl passion and Steve Reich’s You Are (variations), which the Master Chorale premiered in 2004. Information: www.lamc.org

• April 11, 12 and 13 at Disney Hall:
Adams will conduct the Philharmonic in his own Naïve and Sentimental Music, Michael Gordon’s Sunshine of Your Love, and the world premiere of At the Royal Majestic, Riley’s new concerto with organist Cameron Carpenter as soloist.

Riley’s In C, written in 1964, is often considered the beginning of the minimalist movement. It was played during the 1986 “Minimalist Jukebox” festival and will be performed this time around on April 5 and 12 at The Hammer Museum in Westwood.

Naïve and Sentimental Music, a 45-minute symphony in all-but-name, was written by Adams on a L.A. Phil co-commission in 1999 and premiered by the Phil conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Ironically, it was the major work with which Adams liberated himself from the minimalist style that he had used in much of the music he had written before then. It remains one of most important and beautiful compositions.

Information: www.laphil.com

Several of the “Minimalist Jukebox” programs will involve portions of The CIVIL warS, an opera created by director Robert Wilson using music by Philip Glass, David Byrnes and others. The concept was for a daylong piece of music theatre. Six composers were to write sections and the entire work was to have been performed during the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. Funding woes derailed the complete presentation and only four sections ultimately were completed.

Details, schedules and other information on the entire “Minimalist Jukebox” series can be found HERE.

• Michael Feinstein will participate in four of the five Pasadena Pops concerts this summer, beginning on June 7 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Feinstein, beginning his second season as the Pops principal conductor, will lead that concert along with programs on August 16 and September 6, and will be the featured vocalist in an all-Gershwin program on July 19. Details are HERE.

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

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PREVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic unveils adventureous 2014-2015 season

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

For the past two decades (at least) the Los Angeles Philharmonic has led the world in creating innovative programs for orchestras, but the 2014-2015 schedule at Walt Disney Concert Hall — entitled, appropriately, “Moving Music Forward” and announced officially yesterday — takes that concept into stratospheres never before envisioned, at least in a single season.

The various initiatives are complex enough that they can’t be fully grasped in one reading. Following is my first take on what’s ahead. In addition to the chronological schedule (HERE), you may want to download much of the press kit (HERE) and take some time to study what it contains.

Several sets of programs feature multiple disciplines, including three that combine video with music. LA Phil Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen will combine with artist Refik Anadol in a program that incorporates a new video into Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet Nov. 6, 7 and 9. Salonen and the Phil will be joined by three soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The Friday program will inaugurate the Phil’s new “in/Sight” series of music and videos. The other programs include Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on Jan. 9, to be conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (part of a series of events celebrating MTT’s 70th birthday); a staged production of Unsuk Chin’s opera, Alice in Wonderland on Feb. 27 and 28, 2015; and a program featuring music by Steve Mackey and Steve Reich on May 29 and 31. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the last two programs; all four programs will be repeated on days surrounding Friday.

The Romeo and Juliet program will be one of three sets of concerts that Salonen will conduct during the upcoming season. On Oct. 24, 25 and 26, Salonen and organist Olivier Latry will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Disney Hall organ with a program that includes the U.S. premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Maan varjot (Earth Shadows).

The upcoming season will feature the largest emphasis on the Disney Hall organ since the instrument made its debut in 2004. Dudamel will conduct programs on Nov. 20, 21 and 22 that will feature organist Cameron Carpenter in the long-delayed world premiere of Stephen Hartke’s Symphony No. 4 (Organ), originally slated to debut in May 2010, along with Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (Organ). Carpenter will also play his own arrangement of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2. There will also be five organ recitals during the upcoming season.

Another new Friday series will be “Inside the Music with Brian Lauritzen,” four programs hosted by the KUSC radio personality. Each concert will include a Lauritzen-produced video sent to audience members ahead of time, along with pre- and post-concert discussions with the hosts and artists and an online forum. Dudamel will conduct two of the four programs, one of which will be the organ program noted above.

In his sixth season as the Phil’s music director, Dudamel will conduct 12 subscription programs during the upcoming season, along with the annual Opening Night gala concert, which will feature violinist Itzhak Perlman and the music of John Williams. In December Dudamel will lead a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Music Center that will include a performance of Salonen’s Helix, with the music being relayed live into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where it will accompany a world-premiere presentation from LA Dance Project.

Dudamel will also lead the orchestra on an Asian tour in March 2015 that will visit Hong Kong, Bejing, Seoul and Tokyo. The programs will include Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World), Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, and John Adams’ City Noir, which was composed for Dudamel’s inaugural gala program in 2009.

Another new series, “Next on Grand,” is being described as “a recurring festival that converges upon a creative force or cultural element.” Next season’s focus will be on contemporary Americans ranging from “old-timers” such as Phillip Glass, Adams and Reich to relative compositional newcomers such as Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the band, the National, and Chris Cerrone.

As part of this venture, the Phil will collaborate with L.A. Opera in a production of David T. Little’s Dog Days at REDCAT, the black-box theatre inside Disney Hall, and will also produce John Adams’ Available Light at Disney Hall with Frank Gehry designing the sets and Lucinda Childs creating choreography.

Overall the season will have 10 commissioned works, eight world premieres, five U.S. premieres and seven West Coast premieres. Orchestras along with the Phil will be the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas on March 24, 2015 and the Seoul Philharmonic, led by Myun-Whung Chun on April 15, 2015. The “Sounds About Town” series has been bumped back up to three local orchestras: The Colburn Orchestra (led by Sir. Neville Marriner), USC Thornton Symphony, and the American Youth Symphony. There are also numerous other programmatic genres; as noted at the top of this Blog, there’s almost too much to absorb in one reading.

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

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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.

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