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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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil offer evening of Tango-themed music

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Temperatures cooled off last night but the music making remained hot as Gustavo Dudamel began his final week this summer at Hollywood Bowl. A large, boisterous crowd was joined by at least one malodorous skunk in the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphiteatre. Several aerial intrusions — more than usual this summer — flew into the Bowl’s airspace (most, fortunately, at times when the orchestra was playing loudly). PBS was on hand to tape the proceedings for a future broadcast. The Bowl shell was bathed in rose and peach hues with alternating blue and green backgrounds. Nearly all of the first-chair players were back on stage. This was not your normal Bowl evening.

For the first of three programs this week infused by dance, Dudamel chose four works with the tango at their heart. The opening and closing works were by the Godfather of the Tango, Astor Piazzolla. In between were four familiar dance episodes from Estancia by Alberto Ginestera and the world premiere of a Concerto Guitar, subtitled Concierto de la Amistad (Concerto of Friendship) by Piazzolla’s friend and compatriot, Lalo Schifrin.

RomeroIn 1984 Schifrin — best known for his work in television and motion pictures — wrote a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, which was premiered by Angel Romero (pictured left) and the LAPO under the baton of Neal Stulberg at the Bowl. Thirty-two years later, Schifrin has written another concerto for Romero in order, as Schifrin explained in John Henken’s program notes, “to continue our musical journey together.”

Alternating touching lyricism with moments of playfulness, the 30-minute long, three-movement works is an important addition to the guitar-concerto literature, among other things, giving orchestras something besides the “standard” works by Joaquín Rodrigo to program when they’re looking for guitar music.

Romero — who turns age 70 in two weeks and was wearing a highly colorful shirt — was riveted to the score but delivered a gentle, soulful rendition of the piece, aided by Dudamel and the Phil, with standout solo work from Principal Harp Lou Anne Neill and Carolyn Hove on English horn. Schifrin was on hand to join Romero and Dudamel with joyful hugs and to receive thunderous applause from the audience.

Lush strings began the evening opening Piazzolla’s Tangazo, with the full orchestra — including Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov, Oboeist Marion Arthur Kuszyk and Principal Horn Andrew Bain — beautifully filling in the texture later on. Ginestera’s Four Dances from Estancia — a Phil and Dudamel speciality since the Venezuelan-born maestro took over the Phil — provided conductor and ensemble chances strut their collective stuff.

The evening concluded La muerte del Angel, from a series of “Angel” pieces written by Piazolla in the 1960s. This piece was written as an elegy to the composer’s father, who died in a bicycle accident in Argentina in 1959.

Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon (“button accordion”) and several dancers from Tango Buenos Aires joined Dudamel and the Phil in a spirited rendition of this four-movement work, rounding out the evening on an emphatic high note.

• Ben Gernon, who was a Dudamel Fellow during the 2013-2014 season and won the prestigious Nestlé and Salzburg Festival’s Young Conductor Award in 2013, returns to lead the Phil tomorrow night.

Continuing the week’s dance theme, the post-intermission work will be Stravinsky’s The Firebird, when Janni Younge and Jay Prather will use giant-sized puppets to reimagine the original 1910 ballet. Among other things, the setting has been shifted to contemporary South Africa and the production uses African dance forms.

Prior to intermission, Gernon leads the Phil in Debussy’s La Mer and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera, Peter Grimes. Much like Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Britten used these Interludes to allow for scene changes in his landmark opera. INFO

• On Friday and Saturday, Dudamel concludes his Bowl work for this summer by leading the annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts. In addition to the traditional 1812 Overture with the Bowl’s marvelous fireworks by Souza, Dudamel and the orchestra will be joined by four members of the American Ballet Theatre who will perform two pas de deux from Swan Lake. INFO

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

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CLASS ACT: (Revised) Dudamel, L.A. Phil open Bowl classical season on July 12

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

NOTE: This column has been revised to include date changes and a link to an article on Solea Pfeiffer.

Dudamel-HB-2016Although Hollywood Bowl has been going strong for several weeks, its 10-week classical music season opens July 12 when Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a blockbuster program pairing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Chinese pianist Lang Lang as soloist in the concerto. (INFO)

Unlike most of his music director-predecessors — who, at best, tolerated the Bowl’s outdoor distractions — Dudamel revels in the opportunity to present music to great numbers of people, many of whom may be attending a classical concert for the first time. Beginning with this year’s opening night Dudamel will conduct eight programs during the season, concluding with the “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” concerts on August 5 and 6. (INFO)

The July 14 and 19 programs will see Dudamel leading a work that is embedded in his DNA: Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. It was with the “Mambo” portion of “WSS” that Dudamel burst onto the scene with his Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Lucerne Festival and the London Proms in 2007 (LINK).

The two Bowl West Side Story performances are being billed as “concert performances,” with a cast of 12 soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale joining with Dudamel and the LAPO. Although some will miss Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking dance sequences, the concert performance will put the emphasis squarely on the music, instead. Solea Pfeiffer, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, will portray Maria and Jeremy Jordan, a Tony and Grammy-nominated actor and singer, will sing the role of Tony. A link to Catherine Womack’s Q&A with Pfeiffer in the Los Angeles Times is HERE. (INFO)

The July 21 concert features another superstar Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, in not one but two concertos: Ravel’s Concerto in G and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Dudamel and the Phil will open the evening with Gershwin’s “Symphonic Suite from Porgy and Bess” and conclude the proceedings with Ravel’s Bolero. (INFO)

The summer’s now-annual opera production will be Puccini’s Tosca on July 24, with Dudamel leading the LAPO, L.A. Master Chorale, L.A. Children’s Chorus and a cast of soloists headed by Santa Monica native Julianna Di Giacomo in the title role. (INFO)

What makes the Bowl classical season important? For many of us, Hollywood Bowl was among our first exposures to classical music. I remember being mesmerized by the gigantic Bowl with its thousands and thousands of seats under a canopy of stars (if they were visible through the smog) and for one of the first times hearing the L.A. Phil playing glorious music live.

Although each year I kvetch about the orchestra’s management not being more aggressive in making more seats in the upper tiers available at lower prices, you can buy seats at $8 and $12 for some concerts, which is cheaper than attending a movie these days. Moreover, the enhanced sound system and gigantic digital monitors make the experience far better than when I was a kid a half century ago. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.

Information on the entire summer schedule is HERE.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Salonen, L.A. Phil premiere Saariaho’s organ work

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Janáček: Sinfionetta; Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite
Saariaho: Maan varjot (Earth’s Shadows) (U.S. premiere); Olivier Latry, organist
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

EThe Los Angeles Philharmonic has never seemed to quite know how best to use the pipe organ in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nonetheless, the orchestra is celebrating the instrument’s 10th anniversary throughout this season (it took all of the hall’s first season to fine-tune the organ; thus its debut was a year after the hall debuted). Perhaps after several orchestral concerts and recitals in 2014-2015, that best use will emerge. For now, we can simply delight that we are hearing a real pipe organ in a concert hall.

The first of several orchestral concerts this season celebrating the organ are being conducted by the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen (pictured above), who was instrumental (pun intended) in the design and creation of Walt Disney Concert Hall, including the imposing, intriguing instrument that was later nicknamed “Hurricane Mama” by organist and composer Terry Riley.

To celebrate the organ, it’s certainly no surprise that Salonen chose a work by Kaija Saariaho. She, like Salonen, is a Finnish composer and Salonen has conducted many of her works with the Phil. Her music is an acquired taste and I freely admit that I haven’t found the key to enjoying it fully yet.

Maan varjot (Earth Shadows) received its U.S. premiere last night at Disney Hall. The Finnish title comes from lines in Shelley’s ode to John Keats:
“The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly.”

The 15-minute work was commissioned the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and three European organizations. The world premiere took place in Montreal last May — like Disney Hall, that organ (created and built by Casavant Frères of nearby Saint-Hyacinthye, Quebec) was inaugurated in the second season of the city’s new concert hall. The soloist was French organist Olivier Latry and Kent Nagano conducted the OSM.

Latry was on hand here last night, as well; in fact, no other soloist has played the work, with good reason — the technical requirements for both organist and orchestra will probably limit its reception.

Although Saariaho grew up playing the organ, this is one of the first pieces she has written for the instrument. The three-movement work is not really an organ concerto, as she explains in the program note: “I didn’t want to create a duel of decibels. Rather, it is a work with a prominent solo organ part, some kind of a fruitful and inspiring companionship, in which two strong but civilized personalities can co-exist without having to fight too much for the place in the sun.”

The first movement featured mysterious, dissonant tones with Latry weaving the organ in and out of the orchestral fabric; deep organ bass notes resonated from the instrument’s distinctive wooden pipes throughout the building (see Hemidemisemiquavers below for info on the Disney Hall organ).

In the preconcert lecture Saariaho said the second movement is the heart of the piece and, consequently, this is the one section where the organ is most prominent.

The third movement wandered between the wild, the weird and the wacky as Sarriaho gave Latry the biggest opportunity to show off both his considerable technical skill and the instrument’s varied colors.

Salonen conducted the piece without a baton and the orchestra handled the difficult writing with aplomb. After its conclusion, much of the audience gave everyone involved — organist, composer, orchestra and conductor — effusive applause.

The organ work was bracketed by two muscular orchestral pieces from the early 20th century that rank high on my list of unjustly neglected works (technically Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite was begun in 1893 but it was revised several times up to its final version, which wasn’t published until 1954).

Leoš Janáček’s Sinfionetta is worth discovering if only for its and the composer’s backstories. Janáček wrote the piece at age 72, the result of a dozen-year correspondence of some 700 letters between Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman 38 years his junior, who would become his muse.

In 1925 they heard a military band concert in which the musicians played standing. So taken with the idea was Janáček that the first movement of this 25-minute work features 13 brass players (nine trumpets and four other horns) who for this concert were standing in the first row of the bench seats behind the orchestra. The balance of the work is, in effect, a standard four-movement symphony.

The Phil played with equal mixtures of rhythmically crispness and luxuriant tones and Salonen conducted exuberantly. Hearing Sinfionetta again was a genuine pleasure and the audience’s response was enthusiastic, particularly for the first work of a concert.

After intermission, Salonen turned to Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite. The story of Salonen resisting the music of his countryman early in his conducting career is well known but this four-movement, 50-minute work — based on portions of the Nordic legend, The Kalevala — was an exception. Salonen was age 22 when he led the first complete LAPO performance of the work in 1991, a year before he officially became the Phil’s 10th music director. He and the orchestra subsequently recorded it (amazingly for a 23-year-old recording, it’s still available).

Last night was a richly rewarding performance, demonstrating again the exquisite acoustics of Disney Hall and reinforcing the joy of hearing a work played live as opposed to a recording. This was particularly true in the work’s best-known section, The Swan of Tuonela, which featured a stunningly soulful performance by Carolyn Hove on English horn. We’ve become so used to hearing Hove’s beautiful playing since she joined the Phil in 1988 that we sometimes take it for granted but on this night she was extraordinary.

Salonen conducted this movement without a baton (he used a stick in the other three) and he and the orchestra rose to the heights of Hove’s gorgeous solo work. The audience responded with a thunderous, and well-deserved, standing ovation.

• This week’s preconcert lecture host was Eric Bromberger, a violinist with the La Jolla Symphony who writes program notes for several different organizations including the San Diego Symphony and the Washington Performing Arts Center at the Kennedy Center.

He began by interviewing Saariaho and Latry. I wished he had asked Latry the differences between the new Montreal organ and the Disney Hall instrument but no such luck. Latry did say that the Disney Hall instrument has grown in its 10 years of existence but didn’t elaborate on what he meant.

After the short interview Bromberger discussed the Janáček and Sibelius works with skill and enthusiasm. In part because he was wearing a headset microphone he was clearly understandable even in the back of BP Hall, and he handled the iPod technology smoothly (something that doesn’t always happen). Overall this was one of the best preconcert lectures I can remember attending.
• This week’s concerts are among those offering $20 seats for selected seats, in addition to student and senior rush tickets (INFO). The lower prices didn’t seem to help; there were more empty seats than at any LAPO Disney Hall concert I can ever remember.
• The next orchestra concerts in the organ celebration are Nov. 20, 21, and 22l, with LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting. These are also scheduled to feature a first hearing — this one the world premiere of the long-delayed Symphony No. 4 (“Organ”) by Stephen Hartke — along with the most famous work for organ with orchestra: Saint-Säens’ Symphony No. 3. Organist Cameron Carpenter will be the exemplary soloist. LINK
• After those three concerts Dudamel, Carpenter and the orchestra journey to Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa for what we used to call a “run-out” concert. This will give people a unique opportunity to compare the Disney Hall organ with the C.B. Fisk instrument in the Orange County hall. Incidentally, the Hartke symphony was commissioned by former Orange County Philharmonic Society Board Chairman Edward Halvajian (1935-2009). LINK
• In an organ concert of a different stripe, theatre organist Clark Wilson returns to Disney Hall for his annual Halloween concert on Oct. 31, this one with music accompanying the 1922 silent film landmark Nosferatu, the first film so-called Vampire film. Feel free to come in costume but take note of the restrictions outlined in the LINK
• The Disney Hall organ — 6,145 pipes (72 stops, 109 ranks), ranging in size from a pencil to a telephone pole — is one of the larger and most impressive instruments in Southern California. Frank Gehry, the Disney Hall architect, and organ builder Manuel Rosales, Jr. collaborated on the unusual visual design, including the curved wood façade pipes made of Douglas fir — I liken their look to an overturned bag of French fries. Rosales and Glatter-Götz Orgelbau of Germany built the mechanical design, construction, tuning and voicing. Behind the façade are three levels of pipes, including metal pipes made of tin and lead alloys and wood pipes made of Norwegian pine. (More info HERE)

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

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