SAME-DAY REVIEW: Grimaud, Gaffigan, L.A. Phil make a potent combination

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Hélène Grimaud was the soloist today with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall (photo from a 2015 concert in Berlin).

Los Angeles Philharmonic; James Gaffigan, conductor
Today (March 24)
Walt Disney Concert Hall; 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m.
Preconcert lecture one hour before each performance.

Among other things this weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall offer some insight into the art of program design. Three pieces: one about 12 minutes, one about 15 and a third about 50.

Simple, right? The 50-minute piece — in this case, Brahms’ second piano concerto, with Hélène Grimaud as soloist — finishes the concert post-intermission, right? However, the 12-minute piece is a world premiere — Unchained by James Matheson — which means that opening the program with this work risks the possibility of plenty of folks waiting to show up until the other work: Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, Suite No. 2.

So, guest conductor James Gaffigan (pictured left) elected to open the program with the concerto, which created an additional problem: there was an uncomfortable pause between the first two movements to seat latecomers. In fact there were very few laggards this morning and the house was nearly full but, as I said in my review of last Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concert, there may come a day when some group will make those who can’t make the starting time (10 minutes after the appointed hour today) wait until the first piece is done, not just the first movement.

That pause is particularly egregious in Brahms’ second piano concerto because the first two movements have similar characteristics — in fact, I can remember a concert where the conductor paused just one second between movements. This morning, Gaffigan and Grimaud waited patiently and then plunged back into the music.

Grimaud, who recorded both of the Brahms concertos in 2013 and is touring currently with No. 2, offered a superb rendition this morning: a winning blend of majesty, subtlety and even a little humor (a couple of times Gaffigan grinned as she slipped in a sneaky little pause at the end of a phrase). More than anything, what impressed me was the sonorous tone she produced on the Phil’s Steinway, even in the rapid-fire Rondo movement that concludes the piece.

Gaffigan was equally impressive in shaping the accompaniment. This was a robust performance but it never seemed to be overly rushed, even in the finale. Now in his late 30s, Gaffigan — who recently extended his contract as Chief Conductor of Switzerland’s Lucerne Symphony until 2022 — continues to impress with his ability to bring out the best in the Phil, not an easy task for a guest conductor. Even in an ultra-familiar work like the Ravel, he seems to find a way to put his own stamp on the piece and that was also the case in the Brahms, a work in which the orchestra has as big a part as the pianist.

Of course it helps when the orchestra is playing as well as the Phil did this morning. Principal horn Andrew Bain began the concerto with an elegant solo (kudos, also, to third horn Amy Jo Rhine, who got in her own lovely solo licks later in the piece) and Principal Cellist Robert deMaine delivered an elegant solo in the concerto’s third movement. In the Ravel, Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov led the way, but the entire wind section was in top form throughout.

As it turned out, the backstory of Matheson’s premiere piece was more interesting than the work. He choked up during the pre-concert lecture when he explained to host Daniel Kessner and the audience that the work’s genesis began 21 years ago when he was studying with Steven Stucky at Cornell University. He befriended a young African-American resident of Ithaca, New York, which is home to Cornell and Ithaca College, but later — for unexplained reasons — had him arrested.

The outcome, which Matheson believes was a disproportionate sentence, and the composer’s own recent brush with the law, led him to write the single-movement work. The young man involved in the story is scheduled to be released Monday from a mental-health facility that has served as a halfway house to help him transition back into society. All of this, writes John Henken in his program note (LINK), gives the work “both its moments of release and its taut-but-unsettled forebodings,” as well as its title, Unchained.

Those “taut-but-unsettled forebodings” did permeate most of the work and it’s certainly accessible in terms of its musical style, but I was left with a sort of “meh” feeling at the conclusion. The audience gave the performance, which Gaffigan led without a baton, a tepid round of applause.

If you’re into compare and contrast, Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic will conclude their concert on March 15 in Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Concert Hall with Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, Suite No. 2. INFORMATION.
• Gaffigan will be on the run for the next few weeks. He returns to Europe for a month of concerts after his Phil performances, then conducts the Vancouver Symphony April 1, 2 and 3 in a program that concludes with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Why is that important? The Vancouver ensemble is searching for a replacement for its retiring Music Director, Bramwell Tovey. Earlier this year, Gaffigan conducted the San Diego Symphony, which is also in a Music Director search. Either would be lucky to nab Gaffigan.

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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ROUNDUP: Music Director carousel resumes

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Just when it seemed as if the orchestral music director carousel had spun to a stop comes word that the retirement of two leaders will crank up the engine again.

david-robertsonDavid Robertson, (right) the Santa Monica native who has led the St. Louis Symphony since 2005, has announced that he will step down from that post at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 season. In a STORY in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robertson said, “I think my sell-by date has come and I think it’s important not to overstay one’s welcome.”

Robertson continues as music director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia. He lives in New York City his wife, pianist Orli Shaham, and their 9-year-old twin sons, Nathan and Alex. SLSO officials must have breathed a sigh in relief last spring when the New York Philharmonic chose Jaap van Zweden as that orchestra’s next music director. A premature sigh, as it turned out.

A frequent collaborator with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Robertson will return to conduct the Phil on April 20, 22 and 23 in a program that will include music by Ives and Dvorak, as wall as the west coast premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto, with Paul Jacobs as soloist. INFO

Meanwhile, Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, is reporting HERE that Zubin Mehta will retire from his position as Music Director-for-life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2018. The decision will end a 55-year formal relationship between the now-80-year-old Mehta and the ensemble to which he was appointed music director in 1969 and lifetime music director in 1981.

Mehta was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978 and will return to lead the Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 13, 14 and 15 in a program of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben and the west coast premiere of the Sitar Concerto No. 2 Raga Mala by Ravi Shankar, with Shankar’s daughter, Ankoushka, as soloist. INFO

Tovey_2013One conductor coming to the end of a transition, Bramwell Tovey (right), returns to Disney Hall to lead the L.A. Phil in a typically cheeky program on January 5, 7 and 8. The program includes Sir William Walton’s Façadce Suite, No. 2, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (with Ray Chen as soloist) and the second act of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty. INFO

Tovey has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2000. In the fall of 2018, the VSO’s centenary year, he will become the orchestra’s Music Director Emeritus. He also served as Principal Guest Conductor of the LAPO at Hollywood Bowl for several years.

Tovey is a noted composer. In 2014 his trumpet concerto, Songs of the Paradise Saloon, was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Alison Balsom as soloist. The work ended up in Tovey’s opera, The Inventor, which commissioned by Calgary Opera and premiered in January 2011.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: A musically and visually superb “Creation”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Alberto Arvelo, video artistdirector
James F. Ingalls, lighting designer
Rachele Gilmore, soprano
Joshua Guerrero, tenor
Johannes Kammler, baritone
Next performances: today at 2 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. (without videos)

We are in the midst of a 10-day stretch when the Los Angeles Philharmonic has programmed three different oratorios, each performance with its own unique twist.

Next Thursday and Saturday, noted French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie is scheduled to lead the Phil in performances of Handel’s Messiah, with Labadie’s own choral ensemble, La Chapelle du Québec, singing the choral parts.

Next Friday and Dec. 18, the Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform a 21st century telling of the nativity story, El Niño, with the composer, John Adams, conducting both performances as part of the Phil’s year-long celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday, which actually occurs on Feb. 15.

Last night brought Haydn’s 1797 oratorio, The Creation, with LAPO Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting 62 members of the Master Chorale and an orchestra reduced to equally appropriate numbers — both ensembles performing with their customary excellence — and three superb vocal soloists: soprano Rachele Gilmore, tenor Joshua Guerrero and baritone Johannes Kammler.

However, what made the evening unusual were that Dudamel’s Venezuelan counterpart, Alberto Arvelo, and lighting designer extraordinaire James F. Ingals combined to create a highly evocative video accompaniment to Haydn’s musical-portrait music.

Only once or twice have I experienced a program where the visuals added measurably to the enjoyment; more often, they’ve been a detriment or, at best, a confusion. Last night was the exception.

It began with the setting. Orchestra and chorus members were dressed in all black, as was Dudamel. The choristers were seated not in the choral benches but on risers directly behind the back row of the orchestra. Lighting for all was subdued.

The soloists were in between the two ensembles and were dressed in all white. That allowed Ingals’ subtle lighting changes to gently spotlight the soloists without having to be overbearing. Throughout the evening, the lighting cast a provocative mood over the entire proceedings.

Meanwhile, Arvelo used the ceiling, sides, and the seats and organ pipes above the empty choral bench seats as the backdrop for his shifting images to illustrate the texts and, in the case of the opening orchestral movement, the earth before creation, or as Haydn called it The Representation of the Chaos. Throughout the evening Arvelo used creation images from cultures around the world, including Africa, Japan, South America and native Californians.

In the preconcert lecture, Arvelo (a film maker whose work includes The Liberator, for which Dudamel wrote the score) noted that the creative process was turned upside down from his normal working procedure. “Instead of creating the movie and adding in the music,” he said, “in this case I had the music and texts and added the visual metaphors; they became poetry of images.” However you describe it, the entire visual integration was exemplary from beginning to end.

By the way, if you are dead-set against the use of projections, Sunday afternoon’s performance will be without the visuals.

The texts were in English. Haydn used simultaneous English and German versions of the texts, which — as program annotator John Magnum — noted made this the first major work printed with bilingual texts. The words — from the first two chapters of Genesis in the Bible, portions of the Psalms and some sections from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, may have been intended originally for Handel.

Although the texts last night were projected on the edges of the front balconies, most of the time the supertitling was unnecessary as both chorus and soloists sang with excellent diction.

All three soloists were excellent individually and they blended well in their trios. Gilmore was impressive both for her tone and in her melissmas, Guerrero’s tenor line was clean and effortless and Kammler’s voice was bright throughout his many solos.

Dudamel conducted with a score but did not use a baton. Instead, he used his expressive hands to encourage his singers — if Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon ever decides to take a sabbatical, Dudamel would make an excellent replacement. Even for, or perhaps especially for, those of us who have sung this work, it was an impressive performance.

• The first LAPO performance of The Creation was conducted in 1960 by Sir Georg Solti in (I presume) Philharmonic Auditorium. It was probably one of Solti’s last performances with the Phil; a year later Dorothy Chandler named Zubin Mehta as assistant conductor without bothering to inform Solti ahead of time. Thus the Hungarian conductor’s appointment as LAPO Music Director ended before it even began and the Mehta era came to pass, instead.
• Information on the Phil’s Messiah performances is HERE. Information on the El Niño performances is HERE.

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

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CLASS ACT: New, old traditions highlight holiday music season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tradition permeates every facet of holiday celebrations, especially music. One has only to hear a measure of Silent Night or Jingle Bells to instantly recognize the song and, indeed, to sing it.

However, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic takes the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage on Dec. 16 and 18, they will be performing a work that is not a tradition … at least, not yet. When John Adams’ El Nino debuted in 2000, the composer (and others) hoped that this so-called “nativity oratorio” would become a Christmas season staple, a 20th century version of Handel’s famed work, Messiah.

One reason that might prevent such an acceptance is the forces required to perform Adams’ 90-minute work. In addition to a full orchestra — with a percussion section that includes a glockenspiel, triangles, gong, almglocken, guiro, maracas, crotales, high cowbells, temple block, tam-tam, chimes, claves and two temple bowls, along with guitars, harp, piano and a sampler — the work is scored for chorus (in this case, the Los Angeles Master Chorale), children’s choir (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus), and six vocal soloists, including three counter tenors.

Adams himself will be conducting the two L.A. performances and two of the counter tenors, Daniel Bubeck and Brian Cummings, sang in the world premiere in Paris. The performances will be part of the L.A. Phil’s season-long celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday (which will actually take place on Feb. 15).

For those who prefer a traditional telling of the nativity story, the Phil will intersperse El Nino with performances of Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 15 and 17. Noted French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie will lead the LAPO, his own chorus, La Chapelle de Quebec, and four soloists.


There will be plenty of other Messiah performances throughout the month. Among them will be Julian Wachner leading the Choir of Trinity Wall St. Church in New York City and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra on Dec. 7 at Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. Information:

Another performance will come from the Pasadena Master Chorale, led by Jeffrey Bernstein, performing on Dec. 11 at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Information:

Among the churches offering Christmas programs this year will be La Canada Presbyterian Church, on Dec. 18. The centerpiece of the program will be a performance of “Silent Night, Holy Night,” a piece commemorating the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I. Tony award- and Emmy-award winning actor Courtney B. Vance will narrate the work. Information:

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

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Trifonov dazzles in Rach 3 with Dudamel and L.A. Phil

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

2014-03-31_trifLos Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Dec. 2; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite, Op. 20; Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; Daniil Trifonov, pianist
Next concerts: Today at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2 p.m.

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic first played Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto on Jan. 2, 1930 the soloist was Vladimir Horowitz, making his L.A. debut at the age of 26.

Writing about concert, Los Angeles Times critic, Isabel Morse Jones, called Horowitz “overrated.” She wrote: “He has been praised by the most discriminating and lauded as ‘the greatest,’ the most astounding, and all the rest of the superlatives press representatives overwork. After a first hearing of a concerto that makes tremendous technical demands upon the player but contains little that is emotional or poetic, my impression of Mr. Horowitz is that he has been overrated. He is, without question, one of the astounding piano talents in point of facility and, in what is better, musicianship. He lacks feeling and his truly marvelous ability and cleverness for effort does not compensate. He is yet too young in soul to be called a great pianist. The future will answer what he will become.”

The future did, indeed, pass judgment on Horowitz (and on Rachmaninoff’s third). To Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend comes another young (age 25) Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov, who has been proclaimed by many to be the next Horowitz since he captured both the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Israel in 2011 at the age of 20.

In his Hollywood Bowl debut in 2013, Trifonov soloed in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and his Disney Hall recital debut last February concluded with that composer’s first piano sonata. In March he played Prokofiev’s third piano concerto with L’Orchestre Symphonie de Montréal, led Kent Nagano, in Santa Barbara.

So there was tremendous anticipation for his Rach 3 performance this morning, which came less than 12 hours after playing the same piece the night before. This was also Trifonov’s first appearance with Dudamel (the Bowl concert was led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya). The house this morning was almost completely filled.

Based on my first experience with Trifonov, I’m certainly not going to call him “overrated.” Is he the “next Horowitz”? Only time will tell. For now I will happy to call him the first Trifonov — that’s more than enough!

He was fascinating to watch as well as to hear. He bounded on stage and sat quietly before melting his opening lines out of the orchestral introduction. At the meditative beginning of the second movement, he sat head bowed as if he was in prayer. But each time he dug into the meat of Rachmaninoff’s concerto, he gradually hunched over as he roared through the octaves and other pyrotechnic moments. In her preconcert lecture, Lucinda Carver said that Trifonov played thye “small notes” for the cadenzas, not the larger notes that most pianists use.

All of that was certainly thrilling to watch and hear. However, what I most remember were the quiet, poetic lines (yes, Ms. Jones, there is plenty that is emotional and poetic this gigantic work) that Trifonov played with exquisite delicacy.

Dudamel and the Phil gave Trifonov warm, supple support. Dudamel conducted using a score and he was extremely attentive to his soloist. Kudos, especially, to Principal Horn Roger Kaza and Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov for their contributions. Together they brought out all of Rachmaninoff’s long, soaring lines.

The finale brought the expected standing ovation but this one had even more excitement than most. Seemingly unfazed by the workout, Trifonov responded with a playful account of Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Gavotte from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006.

One of the problems with Rach 3 is what do you pair with this mammoth concerto? Indeed, one of the surprises of the day was that the concerto opened the program — how do you follow that? Rather than with a symphony, Dudamel elected to pair use strange works: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Op. 20 and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54. One reason might have been that the two works call for similar orchestration: both call for two harps and each piece has lots of percussion; one difference is that the Scriabin ends with full pipe organ.

The Scythian Suite was Prokofiev’s attempt to channel Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Like Rite, the Scythian Suite was originally conceived as a ballet by Diaghliev, but it never came to pass. Instead, Prokofiev fashioned the music into a four-movement, 22-minute orchestral suite.

Dudamel conducted without a score. The Phil played the raucous two opening movements with razor-sharp precision, the dreamy third movement unfolded gently and the final movement was majestic in Dudamel’s conception. Herbert Glass’ program note contained a quote from a cellist in the first performance: “I have a sick wife and three children; must I be forced to settle for this hell?” Half of the row in which I was sitting apparently agreed. They fled as the last notes finished.

I confess to never having heard Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. In his program note, Herbert Glass said that the premiere in New York City received “scathing reviews.” I’m not willing to go that far but I’m not looking forward to hearing it again.

The work is sort of a precursor of minimalism with a series of never-ending falling and rising motifs, often led with panache by Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan. Except for a few measures of calm, the work builds inexorably to a massive fortissimo. Dudamel and the Phil gave it all the gusto possible.

Fortunately, nothing could wipe out the excitement of Trifonov in Rach 3. We’ve now heard him in lots of Russian music — I can’t wait to hear him in some other genres. His bio says that during the past couple of seasons he has played Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and Schumann with other orchestras. Those will give us a better sense of what he can become in the next decades.

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

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