OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra at Valley Performing Arts Center

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra. Valery Gergiev, conductor; Alexander Toradze, pianist

Stravinsky: Firebird
(1919); Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 Valley Performing Arts Center

56099-VPAC Interior 4:Web.jpg

 The Valley Performing Arts Center on the Cal State
Northridge campus fills a major cultural hole in the San Fernando Valley. It
hosted the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of Russia last night.



With about 1.75 million residents, the San Fernando Valley —
were it to be a city — would be the fifth-largest municipality in the United
States (can you name the other four? See the answer at the bottom of this post)
and the only one of the top five without a major concert hall … until this year,
when the Valley Performing Arts Center opened on the Cal State Northridge


Apparently not everyone in the Valley has gotten the word of
the new hall’s opening; last might’s concert by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
of Russia — one of the world’s great ensembles — didn’t fill all 1,700 seats in
what is known as the Great Hall.


Last night wasn’t the first orchestral concert at VPAC (the
China Philharmonic appeared last spring) but it certainly was a major test of
the auditorium’s acoustics, one that the Great Hall (as the main room is
called) passed with flying colors to these ears. Moreover, the hall is visually
striking inside and out (more on the hall later in this post).


The Mariinsky Orchestra and its music director, Valery
Gergiev, are in the midst of a grueling 17-concerts-in-20 days, coast-to-coast-to
coast trip that began October 4 in New Jersey, continued with three concerts to
open the season at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, then dropped down to Fairfax,
Virginia, before heading to California. In our state, they played Thursday in
Costa Mesa, last weekend (twice) in Berkeley, Monday back in Costa Mesa and
last night at VPAC. From here it’s on to Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal
and Ottawa in Canada before they return home (if they haven’t dropped dead from
exhaustion). Oh, and by the way, from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, the group was in


Most of the tour stops are getting some combination of the
six Tchaikovsky symphonies, but last night’s concert eschewed the popular
Russian composer; instead, it played all 20th century Russian fare,
opening with Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his ballet The Firebird.


Many people believe that the Mariinsky Orchestra (during the
Communist era it was known as the Kirov) is one of the last orchestras in the
world to retain some sort of nationalistic flavor in its playing. If that means
deep, resonant low strings and brass that manage to meld an interesting combination
of bite and mellowness, then they’re right. Last night’s performance wasn’t
always tidy but the sound was rich, the orchestra sounded better overall than I
remember from hearing it five years ago in Costa Mesa, and 2/3 of the concert
was top-notch.


One reason for the occasional untidiness is that Gergiev has
one of the most unusual conducting styles of anyone plying their craft these
days. He uses neither a podium nor a baton (but did use a score for all three
works last night). He stands on the floor and his hands are almost constantly
fluttering, so much so that it almost seems as if he’s afflicted with a tremor.
In many ways, he’s a minimalist with his gestures; there were times (e.g., in
the transition to the Infernal Dance in
The Firebird) when a more violent
gesture might have gotten a bit more bite from of his players.


Gergiev also likes to luxuriate in his orchestra’s rich
sound and his tempos can turn glacial, occasionally. That, of course, gives his
section leaders chances to spread their wings (so to speak) in The Firebird, with kudos going to the
oboe, cello, clarinet and, in particular, to the horn solo at the opening of
the Finale (the program lists individuals
by names in sections but doesn’t identify the winds, brass or percussion
section principals).


What was most impressive about The Firebird was how mellow everyone — but particularly the brass
sections — sounded in the majestic conclusion, even from a fifth-row orchestra
seat when one might have expected to be blown away. Nothing of the sort
occurred; an acid test for the hall, from my perspective.


After intermission, Gergiev and Co. closed with
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, which is a pretty gutsy (or foolhardy) choice
for a tour program.


Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1925 when he was 19 years
old as a graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory. Even for a world that
had been turned on its ear sonically by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring 12 years earlier, one wonders what faculty
members judging this precocious, 35-minute, four-movement must have thought.


From the perspective of time, we can see evidences of what
was to come from the composer, especially the first piano concerto (the piano
plays a prominent role in the symphony’s second movement). An occasional rough
patch notwithstanding, Gergiev and the orchestra played the symphony boldly and
brought out its occasionally sardonic, occasionally cheeky humor with panache.


Prior to intermission, Alexander Toradze was the soloist in
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The program bio lauds Toradze’s “unorthodox
interpretations, deeply poetic lyricism and intense emotional excitement.” To
my ears (a decidedly minority opinion, judging by the audience reaction), Toradze
bludgeoned the outer movements, displayed little, if any, poetic lyricism, and
his “intense emotional excitement” consisted of flexing his muscles before
launching into each of the many pyrotechnic sections and bouncing off of the
piano stool when he ended said portions. He made Lang Lang’s rendition in
Hollywood Bowl last summer seem positively elegant by comparison.


The orchestra’s accompaniment was the highlight of the piece
for me, although there were a couple of times when things slowed down so much
that the high strings turned squeaky in ultra-soft moments.


As noted, the audience was euphoric over the Prokofiev and The Firebird. It seemed less sure about
the Shostakovich but eventually brought forth enough enthusiasm so that Gergiev
and Co. offered a witty encore: Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba Yaga.


More on the VPAC:

56100-VPAC Exterior 4-Web.jpg

Set on the south side of the CSUN campus, the Valley
Performing Arts Center is a striking stainless steel and glass, four-story
structure surrounded on two sides by a fountain and a park in which 173 new
trees were planted (to go with 14 already in place). The outside concrete plaza
has lighted strips embedded and metal benches; the entire facility has an open,
pleasant feel especially on a balmy evening (as we had last night). The VPAC
cost $125 million and contains 166,000 square feet of space.


The inside lobbies use 6 million light beige floor tiles
that create a light, airy feel (although each of the four levels could use a
few more benches for seats). In addition to the multi-purpose main hall, the
facility has a 178-seat black box theater, 230-seat lecture hall and new
broadcast space for KCSN, the university’s public radio station.


The light feeling continues inside the Great Hall, which is
essentially a rectangle but the wooden sides gave me the feeling of sitting
inside of a Longaberger Basket — not unpleasant, just interesting. Since the
facility was built to handle all sorts of performances (upcoming events include
the New York City Ballet, CSUN Opera’s Cosi
Fan Tutte,
and The King’s Singers — links to all three HERE), the stage has
side and back walls and no rear seats, such as you find at Walt Disney Concert


The whole facility is a great addition to the Valley scene.
One hopes more people — including students — will learn about it in the months
to come.




Quiz answer: the top five cities by population are New
York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston (which are larger than the San Fernando
Valley) and Philadelphia — No. 5 on the list — which is smaller than the SFV.
If the Valley were subtracted from Los Angeles, L.A. would drop to third, just
above Houston.

The printed program included not a word about the new

Last night marked the third of at least four performances
of the Prokofiev third concerto that we will have heard or will be hearing
locally within a four-month period, beginning with Lang Lang to open the Bowl’s
classical season in July. Xiayin Wang played the piece with the St. Petersburg
Symphony earlier this month at the new Soka Performing Arts in Orange County
and Yuja Wang will be the soloist when James Conlon and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic perform the concerto at Walt Disney Concert Hall Nov. 4, 5 and 6



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Classical music schedule — overload or overjoy?

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily

A shorter version of this
article will be published tomorrow in the above papers.



In every classical-music season there are one or two weeks
where the operating word is “overload.” The upcoming fortnight counts as one of
those blocks, especially as it comes on the heels of an extremely busy weekend.
Chronologically, here are some of the major upcoming events (check my Blog for
additions, updates, more details and reviews):


Tonight (Saturday)
at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theater, Glendale; tomorrow (Sunday) at 7 p.m. at Royce
Hall, UCLA

Los Angeles Chamber

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane leads his ensemble in
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).
Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin will be the soloist in Britten’s Les illuminations and Now sleeps the crimson petal. Info: 213/622-7001; www.laco.org


Tomorrow (Sunday)
at 7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Los Angeles Master

Music Director Grant Gershon leads the Chorale in the
opening concert of its 48th season with the U.S. premiere of Music for a big church; for tranquility
by Swedish composer Thomas Jennefelt and Morton Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, one of the most popular
compositions of the last quarter century. Paul Meier accompanies on the Disney
Hall organ. Info: 213/972-7282; www.lamc.org


Tuesday at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge

Mariinsky Theater

Valery Gergiev leads this famed Russian orchestra (formerly
known as the Kirov) in a program of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Alexander
Toradze will be the soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Info: 818) 677-3000; www.valleyperformingartscenter.org


Thursday and Friday
at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles

Music Director Gustavo Dudamel conducts music by John Adams
and Prokofiev. Johannes Moser will be the soloist in the world premiere of Magnetar, concerto for electric cello by
Mexican composer/guitarist Enrico Chapela. “What,” you ask, “is an electric
cello?” Read all about it and the piece in the words of the composer HERE. Info: 323/850-2000; www.laphil.com


Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Cappella Gloriana

This San Diego professional chorale opens the church’s Friends of Music series of nine free
concerts performing music by its founder and director, Stephen Sturk, with
organist Martin Green and the San Diego Harmony Ringers Handbell Choir. Info: 626/793-2191; www.ppc.net


Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Ambassador Auditorium

The Colburn Orchestra

Music Director Yehuda Gilad leads his excellent ensemble in
Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and Shostakovich’s Festive
and Cello Concerto No. 1. Colburn student Estelle Choi will be the
soloist in the concerto. The concert is free but tickets must be downloaded
through the school’s Web site. Info: www.colburnschool.edu


October 23 at 6
p.m. at Royce Hall (UCLA)

American Youth

Music Director Alexander Treger leads another of the
region’s top-notch training orchestras in Bernstein’s Candide Overture and Tchaikovsky’s
Symphony No. 5. Rod Gilfry will be the soloist in selections from CarouselWest Side StorySweeney Todd and The Most Happy Fella. The concert is free (although a
$10 donation is suggested); make reservations through the orchestra’s Web site.
Info: aysmphony.org


October 28 and 29
at 8:30 p.m. and 30 at 7 p.m. at REDCAT (Walt Disney Concert Hall)

Southwest Chamber

The Golden Quartet helps SWCM open its 25th season
with Wadada Lee Smith’s Ten Freedom
which takes three evenings to perform and is inspired by the
1954-64 years of the Civil Rights Movement. Get details on the composition HERE.
Concert and ticket info: www.swmusic.org


Oct. 29 at 2 p.m.
and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena

Pasadena Symphony

Rising conducting star Mei-Ann Chen leads the PSO in its
opening concerts with a program that concludes with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.
5. James Ehnes will be the soloist in Korngold’s Violin Concerto. My profile of
Chen is HERE. Info: 626/793-7172;


Oct. 29 at 4 p.m.
at Downey Civic Theatre

Chorale Bel Canto and
Opera a la Carte

The Whittier-based chorus opens its 30th season
by joining with Opera a la Carte in an unusual program (for CBC, that is):
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of
. Richard Sheldon, who founded Opera a la Carte in 1970, stars as
the Modern Major General. Info:
562/861-8211; www.choralebelcanto.org



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on October 13, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



With the classical music season back in full swing, it’s
time to revive my “Five Spot” column. Each Thursday morning, I list five events
that peak my interest, Usually there’s at least one with free admission (or, at
a minimum, inexpensive tickets) but this week’s listing omits the free event
because (a) nothing in that category jumped out at me today and (b) of the
large number of important ticketed concerts. I’ll have a couple of
free-admission events next week.


Here is today’s grouping:



Today, Tomorrow and
Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic: Dudamel and and Bronfman

Life comes full circle, in a sense, for Gustavo Dudamel, who
made his American debut in 2005 conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at
Hollywood Bowl. That famous work concludes this weekend’s Phil concerts and is
one of several performances of this work being done locally within the next
fortnight (LINK).


Tonight, Saturday and Sunday, the program opens with
<EM>Orion </EM> by French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier and
includes Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2. The program was supposed to feature
Yefim Bronfman soloing in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 but he withdrew after
breaking a finger (presumably not when practicing the concerto, although it
would not be surprising if that were the case, since this a concerto often
described as “finger-busting”).

The choice of the Ravel is interesting; perhaps Gustavo will
explain it tomorrow, which is one of the highly popular “Casual Friday”
programs, The Orion gets deep-sixed in favor of a preconcert talk, usually by
an orchestra member, and an after-concert Q&A session that normally
features Dudamel and the preconcert lecture host, in this case, violinist Eric
Bromberger. Info: www.laphil.com


Tonight and Monday
night at 8 p.m. at Rene and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor

As part of a cross-country tour, one of Russia’s finest
ensembles (which used to be called the Kirov) makes appearances with two
different all-Tchaikovsky programs in Costa Mesa under the auspices of the
Orange County Philharmonic Society. Tonight is Symphonies Nos. 2 (Little Russian) and 5. Monday night
brings the third and fourth symphonies. Performances conducted by Gergiev can
be “wild and wooly” on occasion but they’re also full of electricity. See also
my Tuesday listing below for another Mariinsky concert. Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org


Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Alex Theater, Glendale; Sunday at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor

Kahane leads his band in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). This was one of the first
symphonies Kahane conducted with LACO which demonstrated that a chamber
orchestra could think outside the box (i.e., beyond music from the baroque and
early classical eras) when it comes to programming. The evening opens with
Dvorak’s Nocture in B Major, Op. 40
and includes Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin singing Britten’s Les Illuminations and Now sleeps the crimson petal. Info: www.laco.org


Sunday at 7 p.m. at
Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles Master
Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor

In the opening concert of the Chorale’s 48th season, Gershon
leads 115 singers and organist Paul Meier in a program that includes the U.S.
premiere of Music for a big church; for
by Swedish composer Thomas Jennefelt; Heavenly Home, a “bluegrass triptych” by Chorale member Shawn
Kirchner; and one of the landmark choral works of the last quarter century,
Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Info: www.lamc.org


Tuesday at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge

Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor

Gergiev and his busy band journey to Cal State Northridge
where the new VPAC will get its biggest acoustic test to date from the Russian
musicians in a program that includes Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite; Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1; and Prokofiev’s
Piano Concerto No. 3, with Alexander Toradze as soloist. Info: www.valleyperformingartscenter.org



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.



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