OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Richard Strauss performed heroically by Harth-Bedoya and the L.A. Phil at the Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

With management and the musicians of his Ft. Worth Symphony locked an increasingly acrimonious labor dispute, Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s return last night to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl must have been especially sweet.

The 48-year-old Peruvian-born conductor — who has led the Ft. Worth ensemble since 2000 and is also Chief Conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra in Oslo — was the L.A. Phil’s assistant conductor and then associate conductor from 1998-2004. He returns periodically to lead our local band both at the Bowl and at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

He seemed particularly serene during moments of Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, which comprised the second half of the evening, and no wonder. Nearly all of the principal players were on hand for the performance and the ensemble — swelled by extra brass, horns and an additional harp — was the largest this summer. Even the cicadas seemed larger in number and volume. In addition to the high quality performance of the ensemble, the solo work by Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and Principal Horn Andrew Bain was breathtaking.

Of course, you couldn’t tell that by the obnoxiously restless audience. I’m always amazed when the Phil elects to program a long symphonic work at the Bowl how many people decide to leave part way through the piece, not to mention those who flee before the work even starts. You’d think their coaches were turning into pumpkins at 9:45 instead of midnight. Didn’t they know ahead of time that the work was 50 minutes long?

The capper for me was the woman with noisy clogs who clip-clopped down the concrete steps, intently gazing at her cell phone (as least she wasn’t talking on it and didn’t fall down the steps). Moments later she returned to her seat, seemingly oblivious to the orchestra’s playing. Oh, and I forgot to mention the foursome in the very front boxes who decided midway through the performance that it was okay to make their exit. Sheesh!

(Full disclosure: I inadvertently contributed to the obnoxiscity when, early on, I turned on my iPad to write a note and accidentally activated Siri — how embarrassing; mea culpa!)

There’s no denying that Ein Heldenleben is long. Most scholars consider the work to be autobiographical (the title translates as A Hero’s Life) and Strauss was a composer with plenty of ego, so one guess as to the Hero was. It’s also my favorite Strauss tone poem, so I confess to bias when I listen to it.

Some conductors like to wallow in the music’s excesses but Harth-Bedoya, thankfully, eschewed such a decision. Instead, he was content to let the music (and the magnificent orchestra) speak without excessive tempo extremes to over-emphasize Strauss’ intentions.

As I noted earlier, the performance by Chalifour of the themes representing Strauss’ wife was exemplary. This was his 49th Bowl solo appearance in his 20 years with the Phil and it was one of his best. In the first half of the evening, Chalifour brought his irresistibly sweet tone and superb musicality to seven short works by violinist Fritz Kreisler. The tone was especially noteworthy in Caprice vennois and when Chalifour was dancing on the E string during Tambourin chinois.

Preceding the music by the Vienna-born Kreisler were two works by that most Viennese of composers, Johann Strauss II: the Emperor Waltz and Thunder and Lightning Polka, both dispatched with panache by conductor and orchestra.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• The classical season wraps up beginning tomorrow, when Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot returns to the Bowl to lead a dance-themed program, with three L.A. dance companies accompanying the music. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring will conclude the evening. INFO
• Morlot also conducts the Sept. 13 program featuring French music. The final classical concert for the season, on Sept. 15, includes Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” not with a violin soloist as is customary but with Israeli-Moroccan mandolinist Avi Avital offering a different perspective on this familiar work. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: John Williams at Hollywood Bowl: the force continues to be with us

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

John-WilliamsIn the 55 years that I have attended Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts I cannot count the number of composers who have conducted the orchestra. However, only a few have carved major careers in both disciplines. Two of those were LAPO Music Directors: André Previn and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Two others in that multiple-category were Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez.

Over the weekend more than 50,000 people jammed Hollywood Bowl for three concerts conducted (in part) by another of those multiple-category icons: John Williams pictured above). He’s never held an official position, either conducting or composing, with the Phil but he long ago might as well have been named Principal Conductor of Movie Music Programs at the venerable Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre since, as he told the capacity crowd last night, this is his 38th year of conducting at the Bowl. David Newman — who is himself both a composer and conductor — told the audience early on that he believes Williams introduced the concept of leading an orchestra accompanying movie clips, and so he did last night.

At age 84, Williams was more than willing to share the podium with Newman, who — Williams told us — he met when Newman was a toddler and Williams was playing in the 20th Century Fox orchestra for the 1957 movie version of South Pacific (Newman’s father, Alfred, was the studio’s music director and a formidable composer in his own right).

Newman and the orchestra opened last night with a suite from Alan Silvestri’s score to Forest Gump, which accompanied a montage of clips saluting Paramount Pictures’ 114-year history.

Some of the remaining numbers — a suite from Franz Waxman’s score for Sunset Boulevard and Nino Rota’s score to The Godfather and Godfather II — were accompanied by montage clips from their respective films. Others — Williams’ theme from Sabrina and “The Wild Ride” from Bernard Hermann’s score for North by Northwest — were performed simply as music.

Newman’s commentary was intelligent but sounded somewhat frantic in delivery, especially considering that this was the third show of the weekend. It made me appreciate anew how good conductors such as Rachael Worby, John Mauceri and Bramwell Tovey are at this skill.

The formal first half (Newman and the orchestra encored with the Mission Impossible theme music) ended with the opening sequence from Star Trek: Into Darkness, with Newman leading the orchestra as it accompanied the action on screen.

During the intermission, I heard one teenager sum things up when he said, “The Star Trek was dorky but I thought North by Northwest was cool.” The kid’s got the makings of a critic!

Williams led his own music the second half of the concert. I was struck by how much more at ease and fluid he seems as a conductor from when I first remember seeing him on the podium. He still uses a score for everything but he was relaxed and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself, even adopting a few of Gustavo Dudamel’s sly mannerisms to keep things moving forward smartly.

About a quarter of the exuberant 17,000+ attendees came armed with light sabers, a phenomenon that Williams remarked is unique to the Bowl (my box mate brought a bottle of “Lord Vader” beer, instead).

After Williams and the orchestra teased the audience by playing “Flight to Neverland” from Williams’ score for Hook and a suite from The BFG, it was time for music from the Star Wars movies, starting with the latest incarnation, The Force Awakens, and continuing with music from the original trio of George Lucas-created films.

Film montages accompanied some — but not all — of the music, all of which the orchestra played with its customary panache. As he introduced various segments, Williams told the story of how, in 1977 while seeing rough cuts of the original Star Wars movie, he assumed that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia would eventually become lovers and so wrote the “Princess Leia” theme as sensuous love music, not realizing until later that they were, in fact, brother and sister. “Not exactly appropriate music,” he noted wryly.

The “Throne Room & Finale” from Star Wars: A New Hope had light sabers waving everywhere in time to the music, a truly amazing visual. Williams and the orchestra encored with the themes from Harry Potter and Superman and the “Flying Music” from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (heading home, many of us longed for those flying machines to leave the parking lots).

Although I saw and heard Bernstein conduct many times, rarely did he lead his own music. Ditto for Previn. With Salonen I’ve gotten to experience him conduct several of his own pieces. For 38 years John Williams conducting his movie music has been a part of our lives in Southern California and it never gets old.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Former LAPO Associate Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya returns to the bowl to lead the Phil Tuesday night in a program of music by waltzes by Johann Strauss II, Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and violin bon-bons by Fritz Kreisler, with the orchestra’s Principal Concertmaster, Martin Chalifour, as soloist. INFO
• Thursday night, Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot returns to the Bowl to lead a dance-themed program, with three L.A. dance companies accompanying the music. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring will conclude the evening. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: McGegan, L.A. Phil explore “Romantic”-style music at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

McGegan-2016Nicholas McGegan (pictured right) has been coming to Hollywood Bowl as a valued guest conductor for 20 years and we have had the privilege of watching him grow during those two decades. Originally he was advertised as an early-music specialist and, indeed, his all-Handel concert Tuesday night reinforced that image.

However, in the past few years McGegan — especially in his role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Pasadena Symphony —has been pushing his own envelope, expanding his repertoire into the Romantic era, as last night’s program demonstrated.

On paper, the program of Weber’s Overture to Oberon,, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish) would seem to have a foot in both camps but the performances placed it squarely in the Romantic style.

That emphasis was aided by two short video conversations between McGegan and Scott Alan, curator of Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, an exhibit of Rosseau’s paintings showing through September 11 at the J. Paul Getty Museum. In the paintings and commentary — think of them as “preconcert lecture light” — McGegan and Alan discussed the musical pieces that might have influenced Rosseau whose time (1812-1867) almost exactly coincided with Schumann (1810-1856).

The Weber overture proved to be a sparkling opening to the evening, although the video interview — which was played while the piano was being moved onstage for the concerto — focused more on Der Freischutz as opposed to Oberon. Nonetheless, high marks to Jeffrey Fair’s horn solos that opening the evening, Burt Hara’s clarinet solo, and the rhythmic precision of the entire string section.

In the video clip, McGegan encouraged the audience to remember the dark, forest paintings of Rosseau as it listened to the transition from the Weber overture to Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto, one of the darkest in the composer’s repertoire.

Ohlsson-2016After a summer that featured both Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, it was a pleasure to watch and hear Garrick Ohlsson’s performance last night. Unlike his younger counterparts, there is a sense of serene calm to Ohlsson (pictured Left), who sits quietly on the bench while he plays, just letting the music weave its own magic spell. This was especially true in the famous “Romance” middle section, but even in the outer movements Ohlsson continued to project a sense of stillness during his pristine runs, trills and cadenzas.

That atmosphere of serenity was even more apparent in Ohlsson’s exquisite rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2. For the second night in a row the Bowl seemed like an intimate concert hall with the skies opened to the heavens, a rare moment indeed (high marks, also, to Ohlsson for clearly articulating through a microphone the entire title of the Nocturne prior to playing it).

Despite the fact that this was Mozart, the concerto’s performance had a very “Romantic” feel to it. The orchestra was larger than what Mozart used and, of course, the Steinway grand on which Ohlsson played was a long way from the pianofortes that Mozart would have used when he first performed the piece in 1785.

However by the time of Beethoven — according to Susan Key’s program notes this was the only Mozart concerto Beethoven played in public — the piece would surely have sounded different and so it did last night. McGegan emphasized the work’s sweeping lines and dark textures, and the orchestra — with basses placed to the far right of the ensemble and the cellos directly to McGegan’s right — played with its customary level of excellence.

Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony — the subtitle refers to the fact that the composer had just moved to Düsseldorf, a city on the Rhine, in 1850 — continued the Rosseau-inspired theme.

In one sense, the piece looks backward — like Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, Schumann’s “Rhenish” has five movements. However, the work clearly introduces the “Romantic” symphonic concept to the world and McGegan’s take on the piece was, for the most part, straight forward in its concept.

In particular, he invested the fourth movement, Feirlich (“Solemn”) — inspired by the composer’s trip to the recently completed and majestic Cologne cathedral — with the proper sense of brooding awe, which provided a perfect contrast to his perky take on the concluding section. The Phil’s brass section — particularly the horns — were in fine form throughout the performance.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• On Sunday cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble returns to the Bowl for a program of music spanning the globe — no surprise, since the ensemble is comprised of performers and composers from more than 20 countries. INFO

• On Tuesday, Ken-David Masur — son of Kurt, former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra — makes his Bowl debut in a program of Beethoven (Overture to Fidelio and Symphony No. 5 — and Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as soloist. Masur is replacing Joana Carneiro, who was originally scheduled to conduct. INFO

• Then on Thursday, Bramwell Tovey returns for the first concert in a two-week stint on the podium, bringing a program of rarely performed movie music by Bernard Hermann, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin, along with Pas de deux, a new double concerto by James Horner to be played by Mari and Håkon Samuelsen, the Norwegian brother/sister duo that commissioned the piece.

Tovey — the British-born conductor who in 2018 completes a 19-year tenure as Music Director of the Vancouver (BC) Symphony — once held the title of Principal Guest Conductor at the Bowl. In reality, he still, has that now untitled position since he is the only conductor to lead more than a week of Bowl concerts. Expect some witty commentary along with the music. INFO

• McGegan will conduct two concerts with the Pasadena Symphony in the upcoming season at Ambassador Auditorium, leading a Baroque program on January 21 and a Schubert-Mozart-Mendelssohn program on March 18. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Susan Graham stars in Handel night at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

GrahamIn an article in the Hollywood Bowl program magazine, Nicholas McGegan — who is celebrating 20 years of conducting at the Bowl — told Dennis Bade: “We settled on Handel for this summer once we confirmed that Susan Graham was available.”

Good thinking, Nick. At age 56 the Roswell, NM native (pictured left) is at the peak of her career, which includes roles ranging from Monteverdi to Jake Hegge’s Dead Man Walking. She brought to the Bowl last night arias from two Handel operas and sang them magnificently. In the process she managed to make the cavernous Bowl seem like an intimate recital hall. It’s a shame more people didn’t attend.

Graham looked as gorgeous as she sang, wearing a multi-colored robe over a simple black dress in the first half when she sang Scherza infida and Dopo notte from Ariodante. Post intermission she switched to a stunning, shimmering turquoise robe and sang Ombra a mai fù and Se Bramate from Xerxes.

Throughout the performances, she held the audience spellbound with her amazing runs and melismas, but she did more than simply sing the parts. In the first half she was the title character, displaying a full range of emotions from despair to laughter; in the second half, she laid into Se Bramate with all the anger she could bring to a non-staged performance. However, for this listener, the highlight was the amazing pianissimo she dared to float at the beginning of Ombra a mai fù, the note hanging in the night air as clearly as if she was singing in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

McGegan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic accompanied Graham sensitively although — truth be told — she was, in every sense, the central focus. The ebullient McGegan surrounded Graham with several well-known Handel works, taking full advantage of 79 voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the opening work, Zadok the Priest (aka Celebration Anthem No. 1). The Chorale sang superbly and the amplification was so much on the singers as to virtually obliterate the orchestra, which was just fine by me.

The first half closed with Awake the Trumpet’s Lofty Sound from Samson, which found the chorus playing off beautifully against Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, although the work was so short that the audience didn’t realize it was over until McGegan turned around and indicated that it was okay to clap, which they did.

McGegan and the orchestra offered a spritely performance of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon to bring Graham onstage for her first-half numbers. Post intermission, McGegan used breathless tempos in the Suite No 2 from Water Music and Music from the Royal Fireworks, which the orchestra handled with its customary aplomb.

In past years, actual fireworks have accompanied that latter piece but, given the high fire danger and with news of the I-15 fire on people’s minds, it was probably just as well that the Phil elected to eschew the pyrotechnics. No need to repeat the premiere performance on April 27, 1749 when a 100-foot-high and 400-foot long tower burst into flames, causing the crowd to panic with, reportedly, at least two people killed.

Instead, McGegan closed the evening by leading the orchestra and Master Chorale in a lightning-fast rendition of the chorus, Hallelujah, from Messiah. Only ensembles as great as the Phil and Master Chorale could have handled these tempos, but McGegan added some nice dynamic layering to the performance just to keep everyone on their toes.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Tomorrow’s program features McGegan leading the LAPO in Weber’s Oberon overture and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish), along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. The program is a collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is holding a retrospective of paintings by Théodore Roisseau through Sept. 11. Videos created in conjunction with The Getty will introduce much of the music. INFO
• On Sunday cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble returns to the Bowl for a program of music spanning the globe — no surprise, since the ensemble is comprised of performers and composers from more than 20 countries. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pianist Francesco Piemontesi debuts at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Piemontesi_2016Francesco Piemontesi made a sparkling Los Angeles Philharmonic debut last night at Hollywood Bowl. Photo by Nikki Thomas.
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Francesco Piemontesi. Remember the name.

Under the less-than-ideal conditions ever present in Hollywood Bowl (lack of rehearsal time, outdoor amplification — although the sound engineers were in fine form last night — aerial intrusions —including a flight directly over the bowl — rolling wine bottles, etc.) Piemontesi offered a performance as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 that made even someone who has heard this piece dozens of times in performance sit up and take notice.

Born in 1983 in Locarno, Switzerland, Piemontesi sits in an unassuming manner at the keyboard (the antithesis of Lang Lang, to name but one). He counts as his mentors Murray Perahia, Cécelia Ousset, Alexis Weisenberg and, in particular, Alfred Brendel who, says Piemontesi, taught him “the love of details.”

Those influences were particularly evident in his limpid tone and in the grace and sensitive musicality he brought to the lyrical moments of this ground-breaking concerto, including the trills and runs that permeate much of the work. However, even in the bravura portions of this work there was a genuine sense of musicality to the performance. Rarely has the Bowl’s Steinway sounded so elegant. Someone needs to get Piemontesi back here — and indoors — quickly.

In response to a sustained ovation (lengthy, even by Bowl standards) and at Guest Conductor Andrew Manze’s urging, Piemontesi offered a graceful account of a work that a colleague identified as Au lac de Wallenstadt from the Suisse section of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Throughout its gentle elegance my mind flashed 40 years to when I first Murray Perahia in a solo recital — highest praise, indeed.

Manze and the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered vigorous, yet sensitive support of Piemontesi. We would get a better take on Manze from their performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”), which concluded the concert.

Manaze-2016At age 51 Manze (pictured left) is in that “no-man’s land” for conductors. He is too young to be thought of as one of the “old guard” (e.g., Riccardo Muti, Daniel Brenboim) but he’s too old for orchestras that are enamored with the marketing flash and sizzle of younger conductors such as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Pablo Heras-Casado and — yes — Gustavo Dudamel.

Balding and bespectacled, Manze looks like a genial professor and scholar (both of which he is). He is a former top-flight violinist who cut his conducting teeth in period-performance music, first as Associate Conductor of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and then of The English Consort.

He is quietly building his resume (and expanding his repertoire) with provincial European orchestras, including the Helsingborg Symphony in Sweden from 2006-2014 and since then as Principal Conductor of the NDR Radio-Philharnonic in Hannover. Think of him as a musical “cousin” to another British string player (in this case, a cellist) turned “under the radar” conductor: David Lockington, now Music Director of the Pasadena Symphony.

With Gustavo Dudamel leading only about 35% of LAPO concerts during any one season (typical for music directors of major orchestras these days), having a roster of solid, inspiring guest conductors is a must. Manze appears to be one of those.

He made his L.A. Phil in Feb. 2015 in a Haydn-Mozart concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall and his concert on Tuesday night in the Bowl was all-Mozart. Thus, last night’s program of Beethoven and Schubert can be termed pushing the envelope, somewhat.

Manze led an exuberant, vigorous account of Schubert’s Ninth and the orchestra responded with first-rate playing throughout, with particular shout-outs to the brass and to Oboeist Anne Marie Gabriele. Manze’s period-performance background was evident in his brisk, no-nonsense tempos led with a minimum amount of rubato. This performance of a work probably completed in 1826 looked backward to Beethoven, rather than forward to Brahms and Schumann, whose symphonic works were yet to come, which is a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable approach to take.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Speaking of conductor moving beyond their perceived specialty, Nicholas McGegan, Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco and Principal Guest Conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, will be on the Bowl podium Tuesday and Thursday.

Tuesday’s all-Handel program features, the LAPO, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as soloist and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. INFO

By contrast, Thursday’s program features Weber’s Oberon overture and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish), along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. The program will be a collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is holding a retrospective of paintings by Théodore Roisseau. Videos created in conjunction with The Getty will introduce much of the music. INFO

• On Aug. 21 cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble returns to the Bowl for a program of music spanning the globe — no surprise, since the ensemble is comprised of performers and composers from more than 20 countries.

• It would have been fun to meet Piemontesi. My wife and I have made several trips to his hometown, which is just north of the Italian border (thus, his Italian name) on the northern edge of Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore). We first visited when we were doing a Eurail trip through Europe and journeyed south through the Gotthard Pass Tunnel (the old one, not the one recently opened) to escape a rainy day in Lucerne. We were enchanted and returned several times to visit, so reading of Piemontesi’s hometown brought back a lot of pleasant memories.
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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