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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REVIEW: McGegan leads sparkling Pasadena Symphony concert

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

McGeganEvery time Nicholas McGegan (pictured right) conducts the Pasadena Symphony we learn something new about this 65-year-old native of England who last Saturday completed his first year as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.

From a witty, erudite Q&A with PSO President and CEO Laura Unger preceding Saturday afternoon’s concert at Ambassador Auditorium, we learned a good deal about the opening work, an 18th century ballet suite from the opera Naïs by Jean-Philippe Rameau, including how to recognize the work’s end. McGegan — ever beaming his cherubic smile — delivered a condensed version of the intro before leading a sparkling performance by the orchestra that featured Theresa Dimond grinding a massive wind machine and then ending the work with a tambourine smack.

One thing we had learned from previous concerts is that McGegan likes his tempos fast, and that was evident in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). Things quieted down in the second movement, which was notable for lyrical, silky strings. McGegan played a game of “How well do you know your Beethoven?” by adding a measure of music at the end that Beethoven wrote after the piece was en route to the printer.

Tempos picked up again in the third movement. Perhaps this wasn’t the best choice, as there was not as much contrast with the “Storm” section as at least this listener would like. Overall, this was a sunny, breezy performance of this much-loved work, notable particularly for smart playing from the winds.

Geneva_Lewis_WEBIn his preconcert remarks, McGegan noted that every time he sees the soloist, 16-year-old violinist Geneva Lewis (Ieft) she has grown an inch or two — “I need the podium to stand on,” he joked. Her PSO debut vehicle was Mozart’s third violin concerto, a piece written when the composer was age 19, which meant, said McGegan, that “we have music written by a teenager played by a teenager.”

Actually, Lewis played like someone much older than her 16 years. Using a 1991 violin made by Arkansas luthier Terry Borman, on loan from the Doublestop Foundation courtesy of acclaimed Chinese violinist Cho-Liang Lin, Lewis produced luxuriant tones in the middle and lower registers and a silky, sweet tone on top with remarkably consistent and lyrical runs and trills throughout the performance.

She maintained almost constant eye contact with McGegan (there were several sly grins between them in the third movement) and the two, along with the orchestra, combined for a gentle, graceful performance of this sunny work.

A student at The Colburn School with PSO Concertmaster Aimee Kreston (who didn’t join the orchestra for this piece), Lewis played cadenzas written by noted musicologist Robert Levin in the 1980s for Gidon Kremer and delivered them with aplomb. The future looks very bright for this young Irvine resident who looks to join the ranks of Midori and others as someone PSO patrons can say in years to come, “We heard her when.”
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HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• The final concert of the 2014-2015 classics series takes place on May 2 at Ambassador Auditorium. Music Director David Lockington will conduct Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, the two suites from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez as soloist. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Lora Unger named CEO of Pasadena Symphony Association

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

Unger2014-LRJust when we thoughts things had settled down at the The Pasadena Symphony Association the wheel turns again. The association, which, operates the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, today announced that it has tapped Lora Unger (right) as its new Chief Executive Officer, effective November 1. Read the Pasadena Star-News story HERE.

Unger replaces Paul Jan Zdunek, who has been named Chief Capital Development Officer with Singpoli Capital Corp. in Pasadena. For the past several years, Singpoli has sponsored the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor classics series.

Zdunek took over the association in December 2008 in the midst of a major financial crisis that resulted in part from financial losses incurred in the recession. One of his first moves was to hire Unger and together the two have worked with others to steer the PSA back to financial and artistic health.

Among the changes were moving the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor season from the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium into the more intimate Ambassador Auditorium, one of the world’s acoustic gems, in 2010. Two years later the Pops shifted into its summer home, the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The PSO also presents a holiday concert at All Saints Church, Pasadena.

Other changes were messier. Long-time PSO Music Director Jorge Mester left in acrimony and Pops leader Rachael Worby also stepped down. Eventually Zdunek and the association hired Marvin Hamlisch as the Pops’ principal conductors only to have him die suddenly in 2012. Despite the grief from Hamlisch’s death, Zdunek and the board took a gamble by hiring entertainer and historian Michael Feinstein to replace Hamlisch, a toss of the dice that has paid off well both artistically and financially.

The Pasadena Symphony’s music director, David Lockington, will lead his first concert in his new role on Nov. 1 at Ambassador Auditorium (LINK). Noted British conductor Nicholas McGegan will assume his new role as the symphony’s principal guest conductor January 17 (LINK).

In a media release, Lockington said he is “thrilled for Paul and absolutely delighted that Lora will be assuming the role of CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association.” Lockington pointed out that he has “worked with Lora for over four years. She is visionary, smart and an astute strategist. Her style is a stimulating blend of seriousness and humor which makes for a creative working environment.”

Unger, who is a trained violist, holds a BA in Music with a Minor in Business Administration from the University of Louisville, and received her MA in Arts Administration from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati College of Business Administration.

Prior to coming to Pasadena she worked with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as well as the Cincinnati, Modesto, and Jacksonville Symphony Orchestras in public relations, marketing and artistic operations. She was a League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Management Fellow with residencies at the Aspen Music Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. She is a member of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras and a presenter at their conferences

“Given the enormous contributions to our success that Lora has made for us, we’re delighted to elevate her to the position of CEO, following thoughtful deliberation by the Board,” said Kay Kochenderfer, president of the PSA Board of Directors, in the media release. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in Classics Series ticket sales, an astonishing 200% increase in POPS sales, and an 85% subscription retention rate.

Read the full media release HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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