Five-Spot: What caught my eye on February 23, 2012

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



Each Thursday, I list five events that pique my interest,
including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at a minimum, inexpensive
tickets). Here’s today’s grouping:



Tonight at 8 p.m., Tomorrow
at 11 a.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Charles Dutoit, conductor

We’ll soon find out whether the Los Angeles Philharmonic has
jet lag after returning from Caracas following a very hectic week playing in
the Venezuelan portion of “The Mahler Project.” The Phil returns to be led by a
familiar guest conductor, Charles Duoit (currently finishing up his tenure as
chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and for 25 years music director
of the Montreal Symphony). This weekend’s program is mostly familiar Dutoit
fare: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Wind
Debussy’s La Mer, and
a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.


Tonight at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center (Cal State Northridge)

Wroclaw Philharmonic
Orchestra; Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk leads The National Forum of
Music Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra (to give the ensemble its formal name) at
VPAC on tour with a program that includes Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 and Chopin’s
Piano Concerto No. 2, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. Information:


Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Los Angeles Opera: Albert Herring

Los Angeles Opera brings this “coming of age” work by
Benjamin Britten, using a production from Santa Fe Opera that will be conducted
by James Conlon, who will also deliver a lecture one hour before each
performance. Tenor Alex Shrader makes his Los Angeles debut in the title role.
Brian in “Out West Arts” has one of his familiar “10 Questions” profile with
Shrader HERE. David Mermelstein previews the opera in his Los Angeles Times article HERE. Information:


Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Ambassador Auditorium

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor

For the past several years in what he calls the “Discover
Series,” Music Director Jeffrey Kahane has picked a single piece to first
discuss and then perform. The choice Saturday night is one of the landmarks of
choral repertoire: Bach’s Magnificat,
with a text drawn from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.


Joining Kahane and LACO are The University of Southern California
Thornton Chamber Singers, directed by Jo-Michael Scheibe; and five soloists:
Charlotte Dobbs, soprano, Zanaida Robles, soprano, Janelle DeStefano, mezzo
soprano, Ben Bliss, tenor, and Daniel Armstrong, baritone.




Two of the other
offerings are opera holdovers:

San Diego Opera’s production of Moby-Dick wraps up its
run on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the San Diego Civic Theatre. My
review is HERE. Information:


LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra plays Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion. My review is HERE. Information:


Also, the “encore performance” of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s Mahler 8 concert in
Caracas earlier this month will be shown Wednesday at 7 p.m. (local time) in
four Los Angeles-area theaters along with a couple in Orange County. Information:


And the weekend’s
“free admission” program …


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

Vor Frue Kirkes
Drenge-Mandskor and Vanse Guttekor-Deo Gloria

Two internationally renowned boys’ choirs appear as part of
a Southland tour with a selection of Norwegian, Danish and American music
concluding with Jonah — a Liturgical



(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: “Moby-Dick” sails into San Diego

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



San Diego Opera: Moby-Dick

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 San Diego Civic Theatre

Next performances: Friday at 7 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.




Dazzling projections are part of the production of the opera
Moby-Dick, now playing at San Diego
Opera. Photo by Karen Almond (Dallas



Moby-Dick — a
stunning new opera by composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer and director
and dramaturg Leonard Foglia — has dropped anchor in San Diego this week (last
night I saw the second of four performances in San Diego’s Civic Theatre). Moby-Dick, the opera, comes with a
backstory worthy of novelist Herman Melville (who wrote the original story in
1851). It’s also a vision of what opera may look like from this time forward.


Heggie — who up to this time has been best known for his
2000 opera Dead Man Walking — first
considered Melville’s novel as a potential opera in 2005. It was originally
written to open Dallas Opera’s Winspear Opera House in 2010; eventually four
other companies signed on as co-commissioners. San Diego Opera is the fourth to
present the work; Australia Opera and Calgary Opera followed the Dallas
premiere last April; San Francisco Opera gets its turn this fall. Notably
absent from the list, of course, is LA Opera.


Playwright Terrence McNally originally collaborated with
Heggie on the libretto but dropped out for unspecified reasons. Enter Scheer,
who had worked with Heggie on a several projects. Although asked by Heggie to
retain some of McNally’s original suggestions, Scheer did an excellent job of
streamlining Melville’s novel and providing dialogue that brought all of the
major characters to life. Scheer also reordered the story; the book’s famous
opening line, “Call Me Ishmael,” is
at the end of the opera and Scheer has made Ishmael an older and wiser
Greenhorn instead of a separate character.


It’s also worth noting that Heggie and Scheer spent April
2008 in Nantucket, Mass., where the novel is based. They met with author
Nathaniel Philbrick, whose novel, The
Heart of the Sea,
related the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 (the tragedy
later inspired Meville’s epic tale).


Foglia — who directed Dead
Man Walking
for several companies — and his scenic designer, Robert Brill,
have created a stunning set for Moby-Dick
that, among other things, uses a floor that curves upward sharply at the
back (think of a skateboard ramp made of wood). Scrims and moving backdrops
helped focus the nine scenes and several characters (most notably, Pip), are
required to sing and act while suspended on wires hung from the ceiling.


About the only major problem wasn’t connected with the set.
The San Diego Civic Theatre was built long before supertitles came into being
and the house elected (for no good reason, that I can discern) to suspend the
supertitle monitor below the top of the proscenium. That meant that any time a
character ascended one of the ship’s masts (most critically, Ahab), he was
invisible to a large segment of those of us in the balcony (and the vocal
projections were hampered as well). Every director and stage designer should
remember to check the sightlines from the entire house, not just from the
orchestra seats.


The most impressive aspects of the scenic design, however,
are the projections (originally done by Elaine J. McCarthy and realized in San
Diego by Shawn Boyle), which create the heavens, seas, the Pequod, and the whaling boats with effects that would have been
worthy of George Lucas. The opening sequence, one of the most imaginative I’ve
ever seen and set to the opera’s overture, brought forth a salvo of applause
last night from the audience at the San Diego Civic Theatre. The effective
original lighting design was by Donald Holder and realized in San Diego by
Gavan Swift. Jane Greenwood designed the atmospheric costumes.


Not everyone is in love with Jake Heggie as a composer;
among other things, he’s often tarred with that worst of modern epithets, tonal (many similar kvetches were lobbed
at Daniel Catn after the premiere of his highly successful opera Il Postino last year at LA Opera). No
matter; like Catn, Heggie has created a gripping, dramatic, melodic score that
carries the story well for the three-hour production. His arias bring real
pathos and depth to the characters and there’s plenty of sweeping music and
hummable tunes to make most everyone leave the hall happy.


Just getting this production to the San Diego stage was a
triumph of perseverance, good company management, and luck. First, Resident
Conductor Karen Keltner had to pull out due to illness. In her place, the
company imported Joseph Mechavich, who had conducted the Calgary Opera
presentation last fall (a story about the switch is HERE). Mechavich led 85
members of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra (which doubles as the opera
company’s orchestra) in a committed performance that almost never flagged.
Moreover, even with that large an orchestra, the sound rarely overpowered the


The conductor switch was just the beginning. You can read
about the multiple machinations for the role of Ahab HERE (read the threads for
the full story) but in the final installment, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who
had created the role in Dallas, struggled with illness in Saturday night’s San
Diego opening performance. To the rescue came Jay Hunter Morris, who nine days
previously had been singing the role of Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s
new production of Gotterdamerung but
who had created the role of Ahab with Australia Opera last summer. Hunter will
finish out the San Diego run.


Despite the facts that no amount of makeup or costumes can
make Morris (he appears much younger than his 48 years) look like a
58-year-old, weather-beaten sea captain and that he had little, if any time, to
work with the current cast before last night, Morris cut a compelling figure as
Ahab. His gleaming tenor voice is a shade light for a role that really calls
for a heldentenor (one could easily
imagine Jon Vickers dominating this role), but Morris unraveled Ahab’s
complicated, tormented character and sang with alternating amounts of majesty
and pathos. His final duet with Starbuck when he laments on his 40 years at sea
and what that has cost him personally, was gripping.


To a degree, Starbuck dominates this opera and Morgan Smith,
who created the role in Dallas, made for a hunky Starbuck who sang with a rich,
resonant voice. His scene just before intermission when he contemplates killing
Ahab was profoundly moving.


Jonathan Lemalu reprised his role as Queequeg, Jonathan Boyd
sang the crucial role of Greenhorn with equal amounts of power and grace, and
Talise Trevigne, another original Dallas performer, displayed a rich soprano
voice and sharply delineated character in the “trousers role” of Pip. She was
particularly impressive singing as she hung suspended on a wire.


The other cast members were Matthew O’Neill (Flask), Robert
Orth (Stubb), Ernest Pinamonti (Tashtego), Kenneth Anderson (Daggoo), Chad
Frisque (Nantucket sailor), James Schindler (Spanish sailor) and Malcolm
MacKenzie, as the offstage Captain Gardiner). The crew of the Pequod made a might sound as a chorus
and the diction of the entire cast was exemplary; except for ensemble numbers,
supertitles were almost never needed.


Similar to Catn’s Il
Heggie’s Moby-Dick is a
crowd-pleasing opera but, again like Il
it’s richer and deeper than just that. Moreover, as companies plan
future performances of all operas, they’re going to have to think seriously
about what Foglia and his team created in terms of this production. It’s going
to be hard for many who will see Moby-Dick
to be satisfied with your standard painted backdrops again. And Morris, who has
cemented his reputation as the best pinch hitter since Manny Mota as playing
for the Dodgers, clearly has a role that he may be singing for many years to




Despite the fact that it’s not on the company’s Web site
(at least not that I could find), SD Opera does have a rush program with
tickets being offered two hours before each program. However ticket sales for
the final two performances are reportedly running very strong, so — especially
if you’re coming from a long distance — you may want to talk the box office
before you make the trip. (619) 533-7000, M-F, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Also not on the Web site is that there’s a lecture an hour
before each performance. Moreover, neither of the excellent articles by Heggie
or Scheer printed in the program are posted online, although there are videos
and podcasts available (believe it or not, SD Opera folks, some of us still

The production ran just under three hours last night,
including one intermission.

If you’re traveling from Los Angeles south, you can make
the trip on for Sunday’s 2 p.m. performance on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. You
can drive it faster, but if you’re traveling alone, the $72 RT fare is far less
than the real cost to operate your car for 250 miles RT, plus parking. You will
probably arrive in time for a quick bite before the performance; Downtown
Johnny Brown’s is a bar and restaurant across the plaza from the Civic Theatre
that, among other things, offers free Wifi and serves an excellent bacon
cheeseburger. (LINK). Unfortunately, you can’t make the train trip Friday night
because trains back to L.A. don’t run late enough.



(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 Feb. 16, 2012

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



Each Thursday, I list five events (six today) that pique my
interest, including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at a minimum,
inexpensive tickets). Here’s today’s grouping:



Tonight at 7:30
p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Los Angeles Opera:
Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra

As noted in my review (LINK), this is an excellent production
that features Plcido Domingo in his first true baritone role after more than
half a century as a tenor. There are other reasons to make the trip downtown,
especially soprano Ana Maria Martinez. Other performances are Feb. 21 and March
1 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 26 and March 4 at 2 p.m. Information:


Saturday at 2 p.m.
and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium

Pasadena Symphony

Bulgarian conductor Rossen Milanov leads the PSO in
Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances (from
which came the song Strangers in Paradise,
made famous in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet);
Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Scheherazade,
with concertmaster Aimee Kreston playing the solos that portray the Arabian
princess spinning tales for 1,001 nights; and Saint-Sans Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian), with Colburn School graduate
Esther Keel as soloist. Information:


Saturday at 2 p.m.
in local theaters

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

If you weren’t able to attend the performance of Mahler’s
Symphony No. 8 last week at the Shrine Auditorium, you can see and hear the
“Symphony of a Thousand” live in movie theaters from Caracas, Venezuela on Feb.
18 at 2 p.m. via the “LA Phil LIVE” series. Actually, this performance will
reportedly have more than 1,200 musicians as Gustavo Dudamel leads both the Los
Angeles Philharmonic and Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, eight
soloists and more than 1,000 choristers. Several local theaters will also show
an “encore” performance is set for Feb. 29.  Mark Swed of the Los
Angeles Times
is in Caracas and filed this preview story HERE. Telecast Information:


Saturday at 7 p.m.
at Civic Theatre, San Diego

San Diego Opera: Jake
Heggie’s Moby Dick

When Dallas Opera premiered this new operatic version of
Herman Melville’s famous novel in April 2010, it met with widespread audience
and critical acclaim (LINK). San Diego, one of the four commissioning
companies, gets its turn in the spotlight beginning Saturday night. Prior to Moby Dick, Heggie was best known for his
opera Dead Man Walking, written in


One of the world’s premiere tenors, Ben Heppner, who created
the title role in Dallas, is back on the deck of the Pequod again (and above it
— see HERE) but Karen Keltner, SD Opera’s Resident Conductor, has withdrawn due
to illness. Fortunately, Joseph Mechavich, who just finished conducting Calgary
Opera’s run of Moby Dick, was
available to step in, so things should be in good hands in the pit (LINK).
Other performances are Feb. 21 at 7 p.m., Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 26 at 2 p.m.  Information:


Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Olivier Latry,

Latry, who is titular organist at the Cathedral of Notre
Dame in Paris, returns to Disney Hall for a recital that will surely spotlight
the WDCH organ’s power and many colors. To conclude the program, Latry will be
joined by Korean organist Shin-Young Lee for a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, using an adaptation of
the composer’s four-hand piano arrangement of what was originally a ballet
score (when the ballet premiered on May 29, 1913, it caused a riot (literally)
in the concert hall). Information:


And the weekend’s
“free admission” program …


Saturday at 8 at La

La Mirada Symphony

Russian music seems to be everywhere this weekend. Robert
Frelly leads his ensemble in Tchaikovsky’s 1812
(presumably, since it’s indoors, sans fireworks) and Variations on a Rococo Theme, with Kihae
Kim DeFazio as soloist. Also on the program is Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. Information:



(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Look ahead to 2012

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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


Last week I looked back at some of the memorable events of
2011 (LINK). Today I look forward, and “bulging” is the most appropriate word I
can think of when describing the classical music calendar in the first quarter
of 2012 (I won’t even attempt to list everything that I think is important for
all of next year). Among the major programs scheduled in the next few months



The Mahler Project

The Los Angeles Philharmonic kicks off its nearly month-long
survey of Gustav Mahler’s music in mid-January. Gustavo Dudamel will lead two
of the orchestra he heads — the L.A. Phil and Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra
of Venezuela — in 17 performances from January 13 through February 4 at Walt
Disney Concert Hall and the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The sweeping
enterprise will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of
the great Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler (which actually took place
on May 18, 1911).


Dudamel (who turns age 31 on Jan. 26) will lead every
performance. The Bolivrs will play four of the symphonies, the Los Angeles
Philharmonic will play four, and the two ensembles will combine and join with
more 800 choristers and eight soloists for the Symphony No. 8 on Feb. 4 at the
Shrine Auditorium, one of the few times in history when that work’s subtitle, “Symphony
of a Thousand,” will be fact as
opposed to appellation.


Following the Los Angeles concerts, the entire cycle will be
performed again in Caracas, Venezuela; the Feb. 18 performance of “Symphony of
a Thousand” will be telecast live from the Venezuelan capital at 2 p.m. (PST)
in movie theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada (LINK). “Mahler Project” information:


Andrew Shulman
doubles down with PSO and LACO

Shulman is principal cellist of the Pasadena Symphony
Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. On Jan. 13 he will appear as
soloist with the PSO at Ambassador Auditorium playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
The following weekend (Jan. 20 and 21), he will conduct LACO in a program that
will include former Colburn School student Nigel Armstrong as soloist in
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 (Armstrong won fourth place in last June’s
Tchaikovsky Violin Competition.

PSO information:

LACO information:


The Colburn Orchestra

This top-notch student ensemble wraps up its season at
Ambassador Auditorium with concerts on Feb. 4 and March 3. The latter will be
led by Bramwell Tovey, music director of the Vancouver and principal guest
conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl for the past three
summers. The Colburn Orchestra’s free concerts go through their ticket
allotments quickly so now is the time to log on and secure your seats (you
print the tickets when you make the reservation).



San Diego Opera

San Diego Opera grabs the spotlight beginning Feb. 18 when
it presents the West Coast debut of Moby
by Jake Heggie (best known, until now, for his opera Dead Man Walking). This production got
mostly rave reviews when it debuted at Dallas Opera in May 2010 (LINK with
reviews) and the San Diego production includes Canadian tenor Ben Heppner
reprising his title role performance in San Diego. SD Opera Resident Conductor
Karen Keltner will conduct. It’s sung in English with supertitles. The company
will also present a production of Richard Strauss’ Salome beginning Jan. 28, with Lise Lindstrom in the title role. Information:


Los Angeles Opera

February will be a busy opera month. Los Angeles Opera
resumes its 2011-2012 season with productions of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra beginning Feb. 11 in the first of seven
performances and Britten’s Albert
which opens Feb. 25 and continues with five performances in March.
LA Opera Music Director James Conlon will conduct both operas.


Simon Boccanegra
is significant because Plcido Domingo is in the title role, a part that was
written for a baritone (Domingo, of course, has spent nearly all of his career
as a tenor, although he now appears to be more comfortable in lower ranges).
This production originated at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Information:


Albert Herring is
the latest in a string of Benjamin Britten operas that the company is
presenting in a lead-up to the composer’s birth centennial in 2013. Although
LAO mounted Albert Herring early in
the company’s history, this production originated at Santa Fe Opera. Alek
Shrader makes his LAO debut in the title role. Information:


Long Beach Opera

This intrepid company explores the world of the tango with a
production of Maria de Buenos Aires,
composed by Astor Piazzolla to a libretto by poet Hoarcio Ferrer. Sung in
Spanish with English supertitles, it plays Jan. 29 and Feb. 4 at the Warner
Theater in San Pedro. Information:


On the big screen, the Metropolitan Opera continues its High
Definition telecasts into movie theaters with three screenings in January and
February, including its new production of Wagner’s Gtterdmerung on Feb. 11. Information:



Although choral music concerts occur frequently, the
three-week span from March 17-April 6 has an unusually large number of notable


Chorale Bel Canto will
sing Bach’s Mass in B Minor on March 17 at Whittier College as the major event
in the 75th annual Whittier Bach Festival. Stephen Gothold conducts
the CBC (which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year),
soloists and orchestra in this monument of choral literature. Information:


Angeles Chorale
will celebrate what conductor John Sutton calls “America’s most significant
musical story — gospel and jazz; the stories of our lives; and musical depictions
of the human experience” on March 24 at First United Methodist Church,
Pasadena. The featured work will be Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass. Information:


Los Angeles Master
which will present a concert of Bruckner and Stravinsky on Feb.
12, returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 31 and April 1 for a
performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Grant
Gershon conducts both programs; the Bach features the area’s foremost
period-instrument ensemble, Musica Angelica. Information:


As an added note:
my weekly “Five Spot” posts will return on Jan. 5. Each week, I list five notable
concerts for the upcoming weekend including, ideally, one that is either free
admission or very low cost. Have a safe and happy new year.



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

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STORY AND LINKS: Harpooning the lead role in San Diego Opera’s “Moby Dick”

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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


Usually cancellations play havoc with performing arts
organizations but occasionally someone gets lucky. Count San Diego Opera in the
latter category. The backstory to Jake Heggie’s new opera, Moby Dick, is almost as compelling as the Melville novel.


Moby Dick — the
opera, not the novel — is a co-production between Dallas Opera, State Opera of
South Australia, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera and Calgary Opera. Dallas
gave the world premiere last April to highly laudatory reviews, with particular
notice going to tenor Ben Heppner starring in the title role (here’s a LINK to
my story on the opening reviews).


However, Heppner was not scheduled to repeat that role in
San Diego when the opera appears there next February because he was engaged
to perform the role of Siegfried in Gtterdmmerung,
the final installment of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of
Wagner’s Ring cycle. Instead,
American Jay Hunter Morris was going to portray Ahab. Enter the (in
this case, humorous) cancellation merry-go-round.


First, Heppner dropped out of the Ring last February because, as the Met said in a release, the
singer “has retired the role from his repertory.” Gary Lehman was signed
to replace Heppner at the Met but earlier this month, he cancelled from Gotterdamerung on Jan 27, Feb. 7 and 11
due to illness. SD Opera let Morris out of his Moby Dick contract to replace Lehman at the Met. And who will
replace Hunter in San Diego’s Moby Dick?
Why, Heppner, of course! You can’t make this up, folks.


BTW: the San Diego run of Moby Dick opens Feb. 18 and continues on Feb. 21, 24 and 26 at the
San Diego’s Civic Theatre. Info:


For the San Diego
story on the cast machinations, click HERE.



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

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