SAME-DAY REVIEW: “In America” — a stunning oratorio on Japanese-American WW II internment written by Van Nuys High School students and L.A. Master Chorale

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

“In America” — an oratorio written by Van Nuys High School students in conjunction with the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” artists-in-residency rogram
Sat., Feb. 18, 2 p.m.
Van Nuys High School
6535 Cedros Avenue
Van Nuys 91411
Free Admission
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Since September a group of 85 Van Nuys High School students have been learning about America’s Japanese internment camps during World War II. That’s not surprising given that Feb. 19 marks the 75th anniversary of the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the forced removal and incarceration of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the Pacific Coast. More than 60 percent of the internees were United States citizens.

What is surprising is what came out of this study at Van Nuys High School.

As part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 20-week-long “Voices Within” artists-in-residency program, the students — along with several LAMC members — have composed a stunning, emotionally powerful, 45-minute oratorio, In America, which will receive its first public performance in a free-admission concert on Saturday in the Van Nuys HS auditorium.

The work received its premiere this afternoon before a full auditorium of VNHS students. Brianne Arevalo, VNHS Choral Director, led the performance with conviction and skill.

The students — who range from ninth through 12th grades — will perform the work Saturday, along with eight LAMC members and other VNHS vocal ensemble members. They will be accompanied by seven instrumentalists: six students and, on piano, David O, the Master Chorale’s composer for the project.

Working with lyricist Doug Cooney, singer Alice Kirwan Miller and O, the students wrote the lyrics and the melodies to the nine movements of the work. As part of the project, the LAMC members mentored the students on how to use musical techniques to capture the voice of the characters they create, propel the momentum of the plot, and paint the mood of the scene. They succeeded wonderfully in all phases.

The students also wrote about half of the often-chromatic harmonies of the work. O filled in the balance of the harmonies and provided the orchestrations. Reflecting the work’s poignancy, much of the music was in minor keys.

The production uses slide images from Manzanar (along U.S. Highway 395 near Mammoth Mountain) and other internment camps to help illustrate the stories. The performance used supertitles although the students’ diction was so good as to often render the titles superfluous.

After the work was completed, students auditioned for the 15 solo roles, which included Shushanna Keymethlyan, who was particularly poignant in the “Exodus” movement. The other soloists were Morgan Hesen, Lucy White, Isaiah Yiga, May Ngyuen, Jamaia Concepcion, Rafael Gomez, Bianca Akibiyk, Aerein Gundayao, Sat Gasparyan, Olivia Rodrigues, Antonio Lewis, Nat Nario and Ian Foster.

As is evident from the names above, Van Nuys High School is a diverse multicultural, multiracial school. Many of the students are immigrants and are living the lyrics they were singing. The movement with the text, “We are citizens like you but suddenly we are not,” rang out with heartfelt conviction.

The oratorio did an excellent job of delving into many of the layers of the internment issue, beginning with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The scenes of people being sent to the camps and, later, from the camps back to a very uncertain future with only a bus ticket and $25 used the same musical motif and lyrics to great effect.

The clash between Issei (immigrants) and Nisei (U.S.-born Japanese Americans) was portrayed graphically, as were Questions 27 and 28 (the questions asked of those who volunteered to become soldiers in the U.S. Army, even as their families were interned). In addition, the angry back-and-forth section, “No-No, Yes-Yes” were gripping. (For more information on these two issues, click HERE).

Ultimately the oratorio poses the challenge, not just to those interned after WWII but to the U.S. today: “Where can I be an American if not in America? If I pledge to you, you must trust me.” One could only hope that one of those in attendance Saturday would be President Donald Trump. He needs to hear what these students have to say and the gripping immediacy with which the words are sung.

Background

Students from Van Nuys High School visiting the Japanese American National Museum as part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” project. (Photo by Gabriel Zuniga)

Now in it’s seventh year (and the first at VNHS), the LAMC “Voices Within” Project places teaching artists in the classrooms to work with students.

“A core value of the program is to encourage expression through collaboration,” said LAMC President & CEO Jean Davidson. “That this oratorio, In America, about the Japanese American incarceration camps can have so much contemporary relevance is somewhat of an accident of timing, but it speaks to the universality of music and how it can allow us to find our voice, while also illustrating that looking to the past can provide guidance for the present.”

To further enhance their understanding of the camps and the impact of Executive Order 9066 on the Japanese American community, the VNHS students visited the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles in November.

Many of the museum’s docents and their families were among those interned, providing valuable first-hand accounts of their experience. One of those in attendance today was a child in a camp and he watched the performance with tears in his eyes.

The museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Common Ground: The Heart of Community,” documents 130 years of Japanese American immigration and history and includes a barrack building from the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center near Cody, Wyoming. That camp was one of 10 on the U.S. mainland. Two of the camps, Manzanar and Tule Lake, were in California. Together, they held nearly 30,000 internees.

The museum will begin a new exhibition, “Instructions to All Persons: Reflection on Executive Order 9066” on Feb. 18. Information: www.janm.org A story in the Los Angeles Times on the exhibition is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: L.A. Master Chorale unveils 2017-2018 season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale perform in “Lagrime di San Pietro” last fall. A possible tour of the production, which received widespread critical acclaim, was part of the Master Chorale’s presentation of its 2017-18 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
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Once upon a time, not so many years ago, classical music organizations made a big deal of announcing their upcoming seasons. Most were a waste of time. The presentations weren’t well done (I can still remember Plácido Domingo reading the media release at one such occasion) and the news could have just as easily been disseminated by emailing a release, which is what usually happens these days.

This morning the Los Angeles Master Chorale revived the old tradition with a concise, informative event that included — for a change — some genuine news, well presented by Artistic Director Grant Gershon, President and CEO Jean Davidson and others who will be involved in the upcoming season, the Master Chorale’s 54th and Gershon’s 17th as the ensemble’s AD.

You can read the media release HERE but among the news items were:

• The Chorale has now remade itself as a fully professional ensemble. At 100 members it’s one of the largest fully professional choral groups in the world.

• Gershon will conduct six of the nine concerts (12 performances) in the upcoming season, which begins on Sept. 23 and 24 with Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Orff’s Carmina Burana and concludes on June 9 and 10, 2018 with Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem and works by Caroline Shaw and David Lang. The Bernstein piece is part of a world-wide celebration of the centennial of Lenny’s birthday (Aug. 25, 2018).

• In addition to the main season the LAMC will headline “Big Sing California,” a project led by LAMC Artist-in-Residence Eric Whitacre. The year-long event begins with a mass sing in Grant Park on June 24 as part of the 2017 Chorus America conference and will conclude in July, 2018 when people around the world will join together via a live stream to sing with the Whitacre and the Master Chorale performing in Disney Hall.

• The world premiere of dreams of the new world by Ellen Reid combined with one of the most iconic minimalist works: Terry Riley’s In C. Gershon and the Master Chorale will be joined by the “Wild Up” ensemble on May 13. It will be Reid’s second world premiere locally in 2018. She will be featured in Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concerts with a LACO “Sound Investment” commission on Feb. 24 and 25 (INFO)

• In the second installment of the LAMC’s “Hidden Handel” cycle, Gershon and 80 singers will sing Israel in Egypt in collaboration with visual artist Kevork Mourad. A clip on Mourad’s vision for this piece and his artistic style is HERE.

• Gershon will lead performances of Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 17 and the 27th annual “Messiah Sing-Along” on Dec. 18. This year is the 275th anniversary of the work’s premiere.

• Maria Guinand, conductor of Venezuala’s Schola Cantorum and head of the choral portion of the country’s El Sistema program, will lead a program on Oct. 29 of Latin American music as part of the annual “Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)” remembrance.

• Jenny Wong, the Master Chorale’s new assistant conductor, will lead a concert of Bach’s Six Motets on Dec. 10 and Whitacre will lead “Festival of Carols” concerts on Dec. 2 and 9.

Gershon ended the gathering by telling those assembled that plans are being developed to take the production of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter) on the road. My preview of the concert is HERE. Mark Swed’s L.A. Times review is HERE. Details to come, we are promised.
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(c) Copyright 2017, 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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CLASSICAL MUSIC: Another busy week with concerts by LACO, Master Chorale and L.A. Phil

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

My column on upcoming concerts by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Philharmonic is HERE. Incidentally, the composer of the Viola Concerto is Aaron Jay Kernis, not Arnold — mea culpa!

Performance details:
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and pianist
Rameau: Overture to Zaïs; Dances from Les Boréades & Dardanus
Kernis: Viola Concerto (LA premiere); Paul Neubauer, violist
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor
Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. in Alex Theatre, Glendale
Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. in Royce Hall, UCLA
Information: www.laco.org

• Los Angeles Master Chorale: Grant Gershon, conductor
Music by Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Josquin des Prez, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Orlando di Lasso and John Tavener.
Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.lamc.org

• Los Angeles Philharmonic; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole; Elgar: Enigma Variations
Penderecki: Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos. Claudio Bohórquez, Arto Novras and Li-Wei Quin, soloists
Nov. 14 and 15 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 16 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Indoor, outdoor concerts clash in first weekend of June

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

Style: "p25+-Ipro"
Michael Feinstein will open his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor on June 7 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
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We’re at that odd time of the year for classical music when seasons collide. In June we’re wrapping up indoor seasons and beginning the outdoor concerts that are so much a part of Southern California life and, unfortunately, they all collide next weekend.

On the indoor scene:
• The Pasadena-based Angeles Chorale will conclude its 2013-2014 season at UCLA’s Royce Hall on June 7 at 8 p.m. when long-time artistic director and now resident guest conductor Donald Neuen makes his final appearance with the Angeles Chorale. The ensemble will be joined by the UCLA Chorale, UCLA Philharmonia and piano soloist Neal Stulberg in an all-Beethoven program: Mass in C Major, Choral Fantasy and the “Hallelujah” chorus from Christ on the Mount of Olives. Soloists for the mass will be soprano Sarah Grandpre, alto Sarah Anderson, tenor Daniel Suk, and bass Michael Dean. Information: www.angeleschorale.org

• The Pasadena Master Chorale’s final concert this year will feature Carl Orff’s ever-popular Carmina Burana on June 7 at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein will conduct the work’s two-piano chamber version. Soprano Krystle Casey and Baritone Ryan Thorn will be the soloists. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

• On June 8, Pasadena Pro Musica concludes its 50th season at 4 p.m. at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church as Artistic Director Stephen Grimm leads a program of music by Mozart. Soloists include soprano Paula Rasmussen, who sang with PPM as a young chorister and has since gone on to an international opera career. Information: www.pasadenapromusica.org

• The Los Angeles Master Chorale wraps up its 50th season on June 8 at 7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall as Artistic Director Grant Gershon leads world premieres of pieces by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Conductor Laurate Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Lang, and the Chorale’s composer-in-residence, Shawn Kirschner, along with music by Gabriela Lena Frank and Francisco Nuñez. Gershon’s new title came with welcome news that he is extending his contract with LAMC through 2019-2020. Information: www.lamc.org

On the outdoor front, Michael Feinstein returns for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, leading the group’s opening concert on June 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The program will include a treasure trove of lost works that Feinstein has unearthed in places ranging from libraries to garages as he continues to build “The Great American Songbook.” Feinstein will conduct three of this summer’s concerts and sing in a fourth. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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