OVERNIGHT REVIEW: A superb “Lost in the Stars” complete’s LACO’s “Lift Every Voice” festival

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Stars EnsembleEntrance scene of “Lost in the Stars,” the opera/musical theater piece by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, presented last night in UCLA’s Royce Hall as the conclusion of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Lift Every Voice” festival. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
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Perhaps the most amazing thing about Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, is that the searing work has been lost from Los Angeles for 67 years. The performances Saturday and last night in UCLA’s Royce Hall were the first professional presentations since Los Angeles Civic Light Opera mounted the work in 1950, a year after the piece’s Broadway debut and the year that Weill died of a heart attack at age 50.

Moreover, the opera/musical theater piece wasn’t presented this time by LA Opera, nor by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, nor even by the intrepid Long Beach Opera. Instead, it was mounted by a collaboration of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Center for the the Art of Performance at UCLA, and SITI Company. SITI’s leader, Anne Bogart, directed the production, with Jeffrey Kahane leading a trimmed-down LACO in the pit.

Lost in the Stars was the concluding program in “Lift Every Voice, LACO’s 15-day-long series about civil rights and injustice (LINK). The piece is based on Alan Paton’s famous anti-apartheid novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, which was published in 1948, four months before South Africa’s separatist National Party came into power and established the brutal system of apartheid.

Stars_Trial(Absalom Kuvalo [Samuel Stricken] on trial for murder in Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s opera/musical theater piece “Lost in the Stars,” presented at UCLA’s Royce Hall last night. Behind him is Lauren Michelle as his wife, Irina, and Christopher Hunter as the Judge. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.)

There are distinctive overtones of Porgy and Bess to Lost in the Stars. As was the case with Porgy, questions raged from the beginning as to whether Lost was an opera or Broadway musical. Weill believed that Porgy was musical theater and should be performed with spoken dialogue, rather than with sung recitatives and that’s how Lost in the Stars was conceived. Yet, when it opened on Broadway on Oct. 30, 1949 it was part of a season of “Opera on Broadway.”

That Lost in the Stars is rarely performed is no surprise, given its complexity. As is the case with Porgy and Bess, the principal singers and much of the chorus are African-American. The production was sung in English without captions or supertitles and the singers’ diction ranged from excellent to mostly understandable.

Lost has five principal singing roles, five principal actors (in this case) portraying 14 different roles, and 27 different singers from the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers and Los Robles Master Chorale who sang and dance various roles and acted as the chorus. Just to put the production together was a significant feat. The ensemble spent three weeks in rehearsals.

Although Weill scored the piece without violins and called for just 12 musicians in the pit (members of the woodwind section played several instruments in the original production), Kahane used 21 musicians in this production. They played superbly with verve and Kahane led a sensitive, yet spirited performance.

Stars_LeadsThe cast for this performance was dominated by Justin Hopkins (pictured left), who delivered an impassioned performance as The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, the black priest who travels from his hometown hundreds of miles to Johannesburg in search of his son, Absalom, and Lauren Michelle as Irina, the woman who is bearing his child. Meloney Collins sang and slinked the role of Linda and the clarion voice of Issachah Savage (pictured below) rang out as chorus leader/narrator.

Lost-SavageIssachah Savage and the chorus were an integral part of last night’s production of “Lost in the Stars.” Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

The plot synopsis is HERE. When Stephen Kumalo arrives in Johannesburg, he discovers that his son has been involved in a botched robbery-turned-murder and, unlike his two compatriots, refuses to lie by pleading not guilty (there were plenty of jibes at lawyers and the legal system — not much has changed in the last six decades).

Kumalo pleads with the murdered boy’s father to plead for Absalom’s mercy before the court, but the father refuses to do so. The play turns on how the two fathers find ways to reconcile their paths and forgive each other. The themes of anger, racial fear, murder and forgiveness are universal, which is why Lost in the Stars remains as relevant today as it was when it opened in 1949.

When Lost in the Stars went on a national tour following its Broadway run of 286 performances, the tour ended, in part, because African-American performers could not stay in the same hotels as the white cast. Although much has changed in the ensuing 60+ years in America, the thought-provoking story of this work deserves to be heard on a much broader scale than the 3,000 or so who heard this presentation at Royce Hall this weekend.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Weill songs, Adolphe violin concerto highlight LACO’s “Lift Every Voice” festival in Glendale

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
January 21, 2017; Alex Theatre, Glendale
Kurt Weill: Song Suite for Violin and Orchestra (arr. By Paul Bateman). Daniel Hope, violinist
Bruce Adolphe: Violin Concerto (I Will Not Remain Silent). Daniel Hope, violinist
Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins. Storm Large, vocalist; Hudson Shad, vocal quartet
Next performance: Tonight at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA
Next concert: Weill: Lost in the Stars. Royce Hall, UCLA
Information: www.laco.org
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KahaneWhen Jeffrey Kahane (pictured right) began planning “Lift Every Voice,” the two-week long festival that would be the centerpiece of his 20th and final season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he had no idea of the tumultuous times in which this nation now finds itself.

And when he chose the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto as the centerpiece of last night’s concert, which would mark the midpoint of the festival, he had no idea that last night’s performance of the concerto, subtitled, “I Will Not Remain Silent,” would come on the day when more than a million people marched and rallied for causes of justice — particularly women’s justice — and against what they see as the oppression of the newly inaugurated President of the United States, Donald Trump.

As Kahane has said in multiple interviews (including one with me — LINK), “Lift Every Voice” is about the concepts of civil rights and justice for all, although much of the focus is on what transpired in Nazi Germany. Moreover, as Kahane noted in a talk preceding the concerto’s performance, “The struggle goes on. The process is never finished.”

Adolphe’s 35-minute long concerto is a tribute to Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), who was a relative of Adolphe’s wife and foresaw the coming horrors of the Nazis. Prinz warned people to flee and ultimately (after being arrested three times) emigrated to the United States in 1937, where as a rabbi in Newark, New Jersey, he immersed himself in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“I Will Not Remain Silent” (which comes from Isaiah 62:1 in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible) was the title of the address Prinz gave at the 1963 March on Washington immediately preceding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Daniel HopeAgainst that backdrop, it’s no surprise that violinist Daniel Hope — whose parents fled South Africa due to their opposition to apartheid six months after he was born in 1973 and settled in England and who now lives in Germany — would give an impassioned performance of the two-movement work.

The first movement, meant to depict Prinz’s struggle’s in Nazi Germany, was ferocious in its concept with the orchestra’s percussion and brass sections adding weight to Hope’s fiery solo playing. The second movement, which describes Prinz’s fight for African-American civil rights in the U.S., gave Hope’s sweet, silky upper tones a chance to shine forth, then ended with a violin cadenza that leads to the piece’s dissolute ending.

Kahane and the orchestra offered impassioned support to Hope, who plays in nearly all of the 20 minutes of music. Hope encored with a rich, soulful rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Kaddish.

To open the concert, Kahane, Hope and LACO gave the U.S. premiere of English composer’s Paul Bateman’s arrangement of six Kurt Weill songs for violin and orchestra. Hope and Kahane danced playfully through the set, which began with Havanna Song from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and concluded with Weill’s most famous song, Mack the Knife from Three Penny Opera.

As Dr. Christine Lee Gengaro wrote in her music notes, this song suite was meant to represent the transition from Weill’s career in Germany to his time after he emigrated to the U.S. in 1933 (his Jewish roots and the nature of his music both made him an anathema to the Nazis). Hope and Kahane (who conducted without a baton and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself) both had a good time with Weill’s jazzy, syncopated music as interpreted by Bateman.

Storm_LargeAfter intermission, Kahane, LACO, vocalist Storm Large (pictured left) and the vocal quartet Hudson Shad delivered a mostly satisfying performance of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. As was the case with all three works, this was the first LACO performance of this piece, which received mixed reviews when it premiered in 1933 and only began to gain popularity after Weill died in 1950.

Weill combined with Maxwell Anderson and Berthold Brecht on this work, which tells the story of a woman with a split personality (Anna I and Anna II), who leaves her home in Louisiana and travels the country hoping to make enough money to send back to her parents to build a home in her native state. Along the way, the girl(s) are bedeviled by the seven deadly sins in the cities they visit (an unnamed town, Memphis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, an unnamed Tennessee town, and, finally, San Francisco), before finding their way back home.

In its original form Anna I was performed by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, with Tilly Losch dancing the role of Anna II. However, Large — with minimal props — did an excellent job of portraying both sides of Anna with the appropriate amount of sauciness and sexuality. Moreover (spoiler alert if you’re coming tonight), to keep the piece current, midway through the performance she donned a knitted, pink cap.

The male quartet acts as a sort of Greek chorus playing Anna’s family. Unlike Large, their diction was frustratingly uneven, except when Wilbur Pauley was singing his sonorous bass solos (that may have been the result of the music or the amplification in the Alex Theatre).

As an encore, Large and LACO presented a throbbing performance of Stand Up for Me, a piece Large wrote for marriage equality. Most of the audience stood during at least part of the moving rendition.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:

• Kahane and Hope were on hand Friday morning for a screening of Hope’s documentary Terezin — refuge in music before several hundred high school students and a few assorted others at the Mary Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study. The 70-minute documentary centered around two survivors (at the time of the filming) of the concentration camp, called Theresienstadt in German and known, ironically, as “The Paradise Ghetto.”

The documentary was filled mostly in the camp. The comments from the survivors — 104-year-old pianist Alice Herz-Sommer and 90-year-old jazz guitarist Coco Schumann — were poignant and the story was framed by music and readings from Hope and mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter. The students were spellbound, to judge by the lack of noise, and their questions of Hope and Kahane afterwards were thoughtful and probing.

• The festival concludes next weekend with a performance of Weill’s Broadway musical-theatre piece, Lost in the Stars, which is based on Alan Paton’s anti-apartheid novel, Cry the Beloved Country. Anne Bogart directs the production, which features members of her SITI Company, the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, members of the Renaissance Arts Academy, and others. This is the first time this work has been presented in Los Angeles since the 1950s. Information: www.laco.org

• Concertgoers got a first look at LACO’s 50th anniversary season, which begins on Sept. 30. With no one yet named to succeed Kahane, five of the eight orchestra concerts will be led by guests (some of whom are returnees). Kahane will come “home” to lead one concert set and Concertmaster Margaret Batjler will lead performances of Bach’s complete Brandenburg concerti. Provocatively, no one is listed as conducting the final concerts in May.

The season will spotlight Mozart’s final three symphonies and will include the world premiere of a new violin concerto written by Andrew Norman.

I’ll have more information on a post later this week.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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CLASS ACT: Some last-minute gift ideas for your classical music lover

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each year about this time, people call or email me asking what to get as a holiday present for their favorite classical music lover. My answer this year remains the same: tickets. Technological innovations notwithstanding, attending a concert in person is still the best way to experience the full scope of classical music.

If you plan ahead, you can obtain tickets at reasonable prices, especially if the recipient of your gift is a senior or student. Better still, plan on attending the concert with the person to whom you provide the tickets.

Here are a few opportunities among hundreds in genres ranging from orchestras to chamber music to choral programs and beyond:
Preu-2016
• Earlier this year the Long Beach Symphony named Eckart Preu (pictured) as its next music director. You will have a chance to experience his podium presence on Feb. 4 when Preu makes his only appearance this season with the LBSO (he takes over the orchestra’s podium next season). His all-French program concludes with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Information: www.longbeachsymphony.org

• This season is Jeffrey Kahane’s last as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and he’s going out with a bang, curating a two-week series in January entitled “Lift Every Voice.” I’ll detail the proceedings in my January 1 column (which includes an interview with Kahane) but there are several events worthy of your attention during this series that might make great gifts: Information: www.laco.org

• If sweeping Romantic music is your forte, consider the Pasadena Symphony’s Feb. 18 concerts. Music Director David Lockington will conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique) and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Natasha Paremski as soloist. On the other hand, if your tastes run to the baroque, the PSO’s January 21 concerts feature music of Bach and Handel led by Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
usc-st-clair
• Carl St.Clair (pictured), music director of the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, will lead the USC Thornton School of Music Symphony on Jan. 22 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program is micro and macro: Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos (with Bernadene Blaha and Kevin Fitz-Gerald as soloists) and Richard Strauss’ sprawling musical depiction of a day the country, An Alpine Symphony.

This appearance is part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sounds About Town” series, which offers top-quality student ensembles at reasonable prices: $30-$44 each. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing a concert in Disney Hall, this is a splendid opportunity for superb music in a great setting. Information: www.laphil.org
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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“I’m back!”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

My “regular” job as Director of Administration and a member of the pastoral staff at Pasadena Presbyterian Church has caused me to lay aside my music critic/columnist role during an ultra-busy holiday season but I’m back on a semi-regular basis now.

During my hiatus, we’ve lost some musical giants to death — including Kurt Masur and Pierre Boulez — and retirement — Michelle Zukovsky (LINK).
In addition, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. has made a fascinating choice for its next music director in Gianandrea Noseda (LINK)

Meanwhile, our ultra-busy musical life plunges ahead here in Southern California.

During the past several seasons, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has played a single concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena (which long ago was its home). During these “Discover” concerts, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane takes the first half of the evening to explain a major work and then leads the orchestra in a complete performance of the work.

This year’s 8 p.m. concert tomorrow will feature Bach’s Cantata No. 140, known as Sleepers Awake because of the Advent-themed tune that dominates the work. For tomorrow night’s performance, LACO will be joined by the USC Thornton School Chamber Singers, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and three soloists.

Information: www.laco.org

For a choral experience of a totally different sensation, consider the Los Angeles Master Chorale performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” on January 30 at 2 p.m. and Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Artistic Director Grant Gershon will lead 110 choristers, four soloists and an orchestra in this monumental work with dynamics ranging from the softest solos to roof-rattling full-ensemble climaxes.

The latter will be accentuated by antiphonal trumpets placed around Disney Hall and a custom-built double bass drum to be used in the Dies Irae section. True confessions: while singing the Verdi Requiem would be a real treat, what I always wanted to do was whack that double bass drum.

Information: www.lamc.org

Speaking of rattling the Disney Hall rafters, organist Paul Jacobs and soprano Christine Brewer will make an unusual combination in a duo-recital at Disney Hall on this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Among the unusual choices of repertoire will be several pieces by Nadia Boulanger, who was better known as a teacher in the early 20th century than for her compositions.

The program comes from a recently released recording, “Divine Redeemer,” by the artists who will sign copies of the CD after the concert. For organ traditionalists, the evening will end with Jacobs playing the famous “Toccata” from the Symphony No. 5 by Charles-Marie Widor.

Information: www.laphil.com

Among the notable orchestral concerts coming up, Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead his New West Symphony in concerts tomorrow night in Oxnard, Saturday night in Thousand Oaks and Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica. The program will feature music by George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel. Finnish pianist Denis Kozhukhin will be the soloist in Ravel’s G Major Concert.

Information: www.newwestsymphony.org

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor Laureate, returns to Disney Hall for a nearly month-long series of concerts that begins Jan. 29, 30 and 31 when he leads the Phil in performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with another familiar figure, pianist Yefim Bronfman as soloist.

It would be tempting to call this a program of “firsts,” except that the concerto was actually the second that Beethoven wrote. Since it was published before the B-flat major concerto, the C Major concerto became listed as No. 1.

Information: www.laphil.com

Salonen will return to lead the Phil during mid-February in two programs as part of his “City of Light” festival, which features French music spanning a century. Among the other programs in the festival will be Music Director David Robertson leading his St. Louis Symphony in a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles, a 90-minute work inspired by Utah’s national parks, including Bryce Canyon.

Information: www.laphil.com

Full information on the “City of Light” festival is HERE.

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

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L.A. Chamber Orchestra plumbs Mozart’s Requiem; L.A. Phil takes on “Alice in Wonderland”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

• When Jeffrey Kahane began his “Discover” series of one-off concerts with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Ambassador Auditorium several years ago, it was to examine Beethoven symphonies in depth. Having exhausted most of those works (at least the familiar ones), Kahane & Co. turn to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor on Thursday at 8 p.m. for the next installment.

There are plenty of opportunities for examination. Mozart left the piece unfinished and most conductors have used an ending supposedly finished by the composer’s friend, Franz Süssmayr. However in the 1990s, fortepianist and Mozart scholar Robert Levin published his own completion and this is the edition Kahane will use when he conducts the orchestra, Los Angeles Master Chorale and soloists in the second half of the program.

In the first half, actors John Sloan and JD Cullum from The Antaeus Company will join with Kahane to tell the Requiem’s story.

Single tickets are $25-$115. BTW: check the Web site for parking instructions, which are different than for Pasadena Symphony concerts.

Information: www.laco.org

• While Los Angeles Opera remains immersed in its “Figaro Trilogy” — The Ghost of Versailles continues its run through March 1, The Barber of Seville opens Feb. 28 and The Marriage of Figaro begins March 21 — the Los Angeles Philharmonic jumps into the operatic fray on Feb. 27 and 28 in Walt Disney Concert Hall with West Coast-premiere performances of Alice in Wonderland by Korean composer Unsuk Chin.

This is a new production by video artist Netia Jones who, in addition to being director, also designed the costumes and sets. She will use illustrations by Ralph Steadman (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and combine those with live action and interactive animated projections.

There’s a cast of 12 in the opera — many playing multiple roles — along with members of the L.A. Master Chorale and L.A. Children’s Chorus. The performances will be conducted by rising Finnish star Susanna Mälkki, who was recently named chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and has made a strong impression in previous L.A. Phil concerts.

Incidentally, LA Opera is listed as a “collaborator” on this production although the company has made no mention of this on its Web site or publicity materials. LAO reportedly has been miffed about the Phil invading its turf with opera productions at Disney Hall in recent years so perhaps this “collaboration” was a way to mollify hurt feelings.

Information: www.laphil.com

If Chin’s contemporary take on Lewis Carroll’s classic isn’t your cup of tea, another young woman conductor with a growing rep, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla — the Phil’s new assistant conductor — will lead a program of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio overture, Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 on March 1 at Disney Hall.

Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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