REVIEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops end season on upbeat

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Michael Feinstein’s season-ending concert with the Pasadena Pops Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum was appropriately titled “New York! New York!” Like some Broadway shows I have attended, it began tentatively, clicked in during the middle (thanks to a soloist’s star number) and ended with a flourish in a splashy production number.

Along the way the show demonstrated Feinstein’s strong and weakest points. The show was an artfully created set of songs written over more than a half-century that paid homage to the Big Apple with Feinstein’s typically erudite, witty commentary tying it all together. Moreover, the orchestra got much more time in the spotlight than has become customary in recent concerts.

However the latter meant that Feinstein’s still-evolving skills as the Pops Principal Conductor were also in the spotlight or, in this case, the headlights (think deer). When Resident Conductor Larry Blank led the encore with Feinstein belting out “New York, New York,” at least this critic wished that Feinstein had allowed Blank’s assured hand to lead more of the orchestral numbers.

The orchestra was in top form throughout the evening, with the numbers requiring musicians to switch styles from number to number. Notable soloists included Greg Huckins, saxophone, Chris Eble, trumpet, Alex Iles, trombone, Bryan Pezzone, piano and Albie Berk, drumset.

As is always the case Feinstein re-discovered a number of pieces that have lain fallow in places ranging from attics and garages to the Library of Congress. One of those was What More Do I Need? which was written by Stephen Sondheim in 1955 for his early musical Saturday Night but wasn’t actually sung until 1983. Liz Callaway sang it Saturday night (pun intended) lavishly and its gritty lyrics nicely contrasted with Cole Porter’s I Happen to Like New York from the 1930s musical The New Yorker.

Aaron Tveit followed stylishly with Conrad Sallinger’s arrangement of Autumn in New York. He then belted out Broadway Baby in the best “the show must go on” tradition because EMTs were taking away in an ambulance an audience member who had collapsed during the evening.

In the second half of the program, Patti Austin stole the spotlight with a melancholy, wistful performance of a Shirley Horn signature number Here’s to Life. She then joined with Feinstein and the “band” for a powerful medley of Duke Ellington songs.

All of that led to the final production number with soloists, the Donald Brinegar Chorus and dancers joining into the title number of 42nd Street (one of 82 film scores that Warren wrote). That and Feinstein’s joyous rendition of New York, New York as an encore made for a memorable conclusion to the season.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Acting as a bridge between seasons, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops presents its annual free concert on the steps of the Pasadena City Hall on Oct. 4. Blank will lead the ensemble, which will be joined by vocalists Valerie Perri, Christina Saffran, and David Burnham. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• The Pasadena Symphony’s 87th season opens November 1 at Ambassador Auditorium as Music Director David Lockington leads a program of music by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, with Lockington’s own Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare opening his first full season as the orchestra’s musical leader. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Winding down, ramping up as classical music seasons collide

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

We’ve arrived at that odd time of the classical music year when outdoor concerts are winding down while at the same time indoor seasons are beginning to ramp up.

• Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops Orchestra wrap up their 2014 summer season Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum with a program entitled, “New York! New York!” The evening will include music by Leonard Bernstein (Candide Overture, West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town), several songs by Duke Ellington, and works by Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter. As is usually the case with a Feinstein concert, there will be several revivals among the offerings. Vocalists Patti Austin, Liz Callaway and Aaron Tveit will join the fun.

Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• Hollywood Bowl wraps up its classical season during the next couple of weeks. Ludovic Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony since 2011, returns to the Cahuenga Pass amphiteatre this week. Tuesday’s concert combines Mendelssohn with Mozart. Thursday’s performance features Colburn Conservatory student Simone Porter, who made an impressive debut with the Pasadena Symphony earlier this year, soloing in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Jessica Gelt has a profile of Porter in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

The final Tuesday concert (Sept. 9) will be led by Vancouver Symphony Music Director Bramwell Tovey. The program will open with the world premiere of Erskine, a concerto for drum set and orchestra, written by English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage for percussionist Peter Erskine, who will appear as soloist. Holst’s The Planets will conclude the evening, accompanied — as is now almost “de rigueur” — by imagery from NASA and JPL rovers and satellites, despite the fact that Holst’s musical depiction was astrological rather than astronomical.

On Sept. 11, Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena will lead Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale joining the Phil to conclude the season.

Information: 323/850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com

• Meanwhile, the Angeles Chorale begins in 40th anniversary season on Sept. 13 at First United Methodist Church in Pasadena. Artistic Director John Sutton will lead his chorale in “Unbridled Joy: an Evening of Gospel, Spirituals and More,” which will feature a performance of Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass. Two vocal soloists and several instrumentalists will join the chorale in the concert.

The concert will spotlight the “Justin Carr Wants World Peace” Memorial Foundation, established in memory of the then-16-year-old Altadena resident who died of cardiac arrest during a swimming workout in 2013.

Information: 818/591-1735; www.angeleschorale.org

• First Congregational Church of Los Angeles kicks off its 46th annual organ concert series with a weekend devoted to its multiple organs, which together total 346 ranks, 265 stops, and 18 divisions — more than 20,000 pipes in several locations around the massive gothic sanctuary (modeled after Chartres Cathedral in France).

Fred Swann, former organist at First Congo and former president of the American Guild of Organists, will give a master class on Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. That evening at 8 p.m., three notable college grad students — Jaebon Hwang, Minh Ngyuen and Qi Zhang — will play a free recital. The following afternoon will be an “organ crawl,” a chance to get an up-close look at the workings of this massive instrument. Advance tickets at $25 are required for the organ crawl; the other events are free.

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

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REVIEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops present disjointed evening of Hollywood music

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

In the (nearly) two seasons of Michael Feinstein’s tenure as Principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, a pleasing pattern has developed: his program have been tightly constructed and innovatively curated, filled with erudite commentary and (mostly) with pieces unearthed by Feinstein’s sleuthing in garages, attics and other hiding places.

Last night’s program at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, entitled “Hooray for Hollywood,” promised more in that vein, but someone decided to throw into the mix a celebration of the 100th birthday of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Either would have made an intriguing program; together they were a disjointed mish-mash that never really jelled.

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t some compelling moment moments; things weren’t just as smooth as normal. Feinstein made a big deal of shuffling cue cards to introduce the 16 guests (plus Pops Resident Conductor Larry Blank) and he forgot to identify Maureen McGovern until she had sang the title song of The Sound of Music along with three Harold Arlen songs: The Man That Got Away, Stormy Weather and Blues in the Night.

Unlike other nights, Feinstein’s Jewish and peacock jokes sounded forced Saturday and he seemed unusually nervous conducting the orchestra, which, by the way acquitted itself quite admirably, swerving and swaying throughout the complicated evening.

The ASCAP portion of the program brought several composers to perform arrangements of their scores accompanied by film clips. The clips helped compensate for the less-than-stellar work by the camera operators throughout the evening.

The most poignant moment of the evening came when Alan Bergman (who will turn 89 next month) first explained the background of and then sang The Windmills of Your Mind, the iconic lyrics he and his wife, Marilyn, wrote for a tune composed by Michelle Legrand for the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Michael Giacchino provided a welcome light-hearted touch by conducting a suite from his musical score for Up, while Bruce Broughton was the most assured podium presence when he conducted the score from Silverado. Kevin Earley jetted in from Chicago where he is appearing in Brigadoon to power out The Way You Look Tonight and On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe (the latter backed up by the quintet Down for the Count).

Stylistic whiplash was the overriding theme of the evening. A rendition of Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek was followed by Debby Boone belting her arrangement of You Light Up My Life, while the Funny Girl Overture led immediately into vocalist Sheléa belting Pharrell Williams’ Happy to conclude the evening. In retrospect, it was all just a bit too much of a good thing.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The final concert of the season will be Sept. 6 with Feinstein leading a program entitled “New York, New York.” INFO: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Rachael Worby and Muse/ique offer the “keys” to music

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

• Pianos and summertime concerts are about as ubiquitous as picnics and concerts. So leave it to Rachael Worby to find a way to shake up the norm with her next Muse/ique concert Saturday night beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Caltech’s Beckman Hall lawn (where picnicking is encouraged).

For those not in the know, Muse/ique is the ensemble Worby formed after she parted ways with the Pasadena Pops several years ago. The new group has allowed Worby to indulge the madcap nature of her programming mind and Saturday night’s concert is merely the latest example.

Rather than have just one piano soloist, Worby has invited five of the Southland’s best-known keyboard artists: Joanne Pearce Martin (the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal keyboard player); her husband, Gavin Martin; Bryan Pezzone, Alan Steinberger and 12-year-old Ray Ushikubo. They will join the orchestra in music ranging from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Bugs Bunny on Film, Elton John and Chico Marx.

Information: 626/539-7085; www.muse-ique.org

Michael Feinberg and the Pasadena Pops resume their summer season on August 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Arboretum when they celebrate the music of motion pictures and the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

In typical Feinstein fashion, most of the music will be non-standard summer concert fare. The orchestra will be joined by composers Alan Bergman, perhaps best known for Windmills of Your Mind from the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair; Michael Giacchino (Up), Bruce Broughton (Silverado) and Paul Williams (A Star is Born).

Vocalists Maureen McGovern, Debby Boone and Kevin Earley will appear on the program and Feinstein will introduce a symphonic arrange of Pharrell Williams’ Happy created for the Pasadena Pops. The complete playlist is near the bottom of the link below.

Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

The Pops’ Web site has dates, program titles and principal performers for next season’s concerts. As is the case this year, Michael Feinstein will appear on four of the five concerts, once as vocalist and the other three times as Principal Conductor. LINK

• Among the upcoming Hollywood Bowl concerts worth noting are next Thursday’s program of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Brahms’ Double Concerto, with violinist Alina Pogostkina and LAPO Principal Cellist Robert deMaine as soloists. What makes the program particularly intriguing is that the conductor, 28-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, has just been named the Phil’s assistant conductor for the next two years.

Gražinytė-Tyla, who was a Dudamel Fellow with the orchestra in 2012 and 2013, won the 2012 Nestle and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award and has been named music director of Salzburg Landestheater beginning with the 2015/16 season. See more info on her HERE.

Information: 323/850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com

The following week two celebrated soloists grace the Hollywood Bowl stage. On Oct. 12, violinist Gil Shaham will join the Phil in Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, while on August 14 cellist Yo-Yo Ma will be the soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Leonard Slatkin leading the LAPO in both programs. Tuesday concludes with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade,; Thursday ends with Debussy’s La Mer.

Information: www.hollywoodbowl.com

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Michael Feinstein sings Gershwin with Pasadena Pops

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
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Pasadena Pops With Michael Feinstein
Saturday, July 19 • 7:30 p.m. (Gates open 5:30 p.m.)
Los Angeles County Arboretum; 301 North Baldwin Ave., Arcadia
Tickets: $20-$115
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Feinstein-singing

Michael Feinstein will sing songs of the Gershwins — an integral part of “The Great American Songbook” — with the Pasadena Pops on Saturday, July 19, at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
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When Michael Feinstein steps onto the stage Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, he will be in an unfamiliar role, at least for Pasadena Pops concerts. Rather than appearing as Principal Conductor (the orchestra’s Resident Conductor, Larry Blank, will be waving his baton, instead) Feinstein will spend the evening crooning music by George and Ira Gershwin, songs that are dear to his heart and an integral part of “The Great American Songbook” (LINK), a project on which Feinstein has focused his career and life for more than 20 years.

“I fell in love with the Gershwins’ music at a very early age,” said Feinstein in an interview recently, “and then had the opportunity of knowing and working with Ira Gershwin for six years. He taught me much of what I know about this music and how to perform it. This program will be an affectionate tribute to their collaboration, filled with anecdotes that are often humorous and illuminating.”

Feinstein has created some new arrangements for this concert; he will also include classic sets. “For example,” says Feinstein, “I will do one piece with lyrics by Ira and music by another composer, called Tchaikovsky. It was introduced by Danny Kaye and I perform it with Danny’s original orchestration. There will be a medley of songs that George put together for Fred Astaire that I have arranged. I perform different ‘chestnuts’ in different ways, with different styles. So this is a fresh look at this iconic music.”

Music of the Gershwins is a quintessential example of “The Great American Songbook,” believes Feinstein. ‘This is a body of work that began in the earlier part of the 20th century, crystalizing in the 1920s and continues today,” he explains. “It contains music and lyrics that transcend their time — they have a timeless quality that appeals to contemporary audiences.”

Feinstein isn’t the only person to work with this concept; three years ago Thomas Hampson traveled throughout the United State States and Europe performing recitals of music from this collection and as long ago as the 1950s Ella Fitzgerald was recording music by Rodgers and Hart that she termed a “song book.”

Nonetheless, “The Great American Songbook” is Feinstein’s passion. “There are a few songs from the early 1900s that survive — Stephen Foster and Victor Herbert, for example,” says Feinstein, “but the creations that began in the 1920s had a certain level of sophistication in the words, a clever turn of phrase, that not only has appeal today but continues to speak to the human condition. It is time that determines what lasts, not someone saying, ‘This is part of The Great American Songbook.”

Mining that collection produces consistently distinctive concerts for the Pasadena Pops (Feinstein is in his second year as the ensemble’s principal conductor). “Pasadena is an extension of my love for The Great American Songbook,” says Feinstein, “but the concerts a very different experience because it’s a symphony orchestra playing these arrangements. Often ‘pops’ concerts are dumbed-down arrangements of songs that are, for want of a better word, ‘schlocky,’ kind of generic and boring. Our programs are not elevator music; this is music of true harmonic substance, played by a great orchestra.

“Moreover,” he continues, “this is often ‘new music’ for the musicians. ‘Pops’ orchestras traditionally play certain pieces of music but there’s very little that the Pasadena Pops Orchestra is accustomed to in our concerts. That keeps things fresh. Things like Saturday’s Gershwin concert are fun for me and for the musicians, as well. I want to create programs that I would enjoy attending.”

For more on Michael Feinstein on “The Great American Songbook,” click HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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