REVIEW: Pianist Zee Zee shines in sparkling Pasadena Symphony program

Music Critic

Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor>
Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Next performance: Dec. 16 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
All Saints Church; Pasadena

My former wife, who died decades ago from Multiple Sclerosis, was a concert pianist. There are a handful of piano concertos that I consider “Jennifer concertos” (concertos she played), which means when they show up on a schedule I draw a big circle around the particular date.

One of those is the Saint-Saéns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, which was (for me, at any rate), the centerpiece — both literally and figuratively — of the Pasadena Symphony’s concert yesterday afternoon and evening in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium (I saw the afternoon performance).

The soloist was the young, award-winning Chinese-born pianist now known as Zee Zee, pictured at the top of this post (I assume she changed from Zhang Zuo because Zee Zee is easier to spell and pronounce). Unlike her compatriot, Yuja Wang, Zee Zee came on stage wearing a blue formal gown — she preferred to let the music and her music making speak for itself. And speak it did, wonderfully.

Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto was once a staple on concert programs but it has fallen into neglect these days. Zee Zee argued a persuasive case for its reintroduction. Her rendition of the lengthy solo fantasia that opens the work was both powerful and musical and those qualities permeated the balance of the concerto, as well. She sailed through the work’s numerous flying octaves with aplomb while at the same time playing trills and runs with effortless pearl-like delicacy. It was a tour de force in the best use of that phrase, and she is somebody the PSO should re-engage as soon as possible.

Music Director David Lockington elected to construct yesterday’s program in an old-fashioned manner: 18th century overture, followed by the concerto and then a Mozart symphony. In doing so, he reminded all in attendance why this format and this music has remained so popular for nearly two centuries.

Lockington opened the program with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, leading a striking performance that melded extraordinary precision with sensitive musicality. Those qualities were also evident in the concerto accompaniment and in the concluding Mozart symphony (No. 41, Jupiter). The Pasadena Symphony usually offers excellent programs — especially when you consider it plays just seven sets of concerts during the season — but yesterday they pushed their level of excellence up a notch or two with their performances.

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REVIEW: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony offer differing was to hear Beethoven’s Ninth

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

This review ran in print editions on Sunday, May 7.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is one of his best-loved works. It would probably be his most-performed piece if it didn’t require a choir and four soloists, along with the orchestra. As a testament to its popularity, even with four performances of this “Choral” symphony within the span of a week all were nearly sold out.

On April 22 and 23 the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra used Beethoven’s Ninth as the penultimate concerts in Jeffrey Kahane’s 20th and final season as LACO music director. On April 29 at Ambassador Auditorium, David Lockington programmed the work in the final two concerts of the Pasadena Symphony’s 88th season.

Although the symphony was the same, there were significant differences in how the famous piece was presented.

For several years Kahane curated an annual non subscription “Discover” concert at Ambassador Auditorium where he spent the first half of the program analyzing the chosen work (usually a Beethoven symphony) with snippets played by the orchestra and the second half conducting the work in its entirety.

LACO’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at the Alex Theatre in Glendale turned into such an evening, but apparently no one outside of the organization was told ahead of time (it certainly never appeared in any of the marketing materials).

The post-intermission performance at the Alex was stunning. Kahane balanced his forces (57 instrumentalists, 48 choristers and four soloists) expertly and his conducting reflected the passion of his lecture, especially in the “Adagio” movement that he conducted without a baton and used his hands to sculpt phrases lovingly.

There was a sense of urgency to nearly all of his tempos and the entire work clocked in at just 65 minutes (about 10 minutes less than some conductors use). The Master Chorale sang with precise diction and uniformly excellent tone. The orchestra’s reduced numbers enabled many of the inner instrumental voices to shine clearly.

The four soloists were also balanced expertly and placed on the front of the stage. Justin Hopkins’ clarion baritone voice was perfectly matched to the O Freunde opening, soprano Kathryn Mueller delivered a clean, bright sound and elegant, tenor Paul Appleby rose above the orchestra clearly, and mezzo-soprano Susanna Guzmán filled out the quarter expertly.

Lockington elected to pair two choral works in the first half of the Pasadena Symphony concert, which I heard in the afternoon. In the first piece, the Donald Brinegar Singers and JPL Chorus joined the orchestra for Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music.

The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus then took to the risers and, with the help of a quartet of instrumentalists (including Lockington playing cello) sang Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op. 26, Group III. Led by LACC Artistic Director Anne Tomlinson the chorus produced its typically sweet tone and sensitive musicality, but its positioning at the rear of the stage occasionally made the choristers almost inaudible from a mid-orchestra level seat.

Lockington’s concept of Beethoven’s ninth was more low-key than Kahane’s but was, nonetheless, propulsive — it clocked in at just a minute more than the LACO performance. Aside from a few articulation issues, the Pasadena Symphony delivered a brisk, first-rate account of the work but no sparks flew for this listener.

The stage was packed (the violins teetered at the very front edge of the stage). The combined Brinegar/JPL choristers were placed in the rear and they often seemed to be singing from another county in the “Ode to Joy” section. However, they warmed to their task and reached an appropriately majestic conclusion.

The soloists — bass Steve Pence, soprano Summer Hassan, mezzo-soprano Tracy Van Fleet and tenor Arnold Livingston Geis — were positioned to the left and behind the orchestra and thus were at the disadvantage of trying to be heard over the instrumentalists.

The one unusual touch in the performance was to have the LACC choristers file in during the fourth movement and line up on the floor in front of the stage to sing one of the “Ode to Joy” verses. It made for a nice generational touch.

If you’re not totally worn out from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, there are two other performances on the horizon. Joseph Modica will lead music students from the University of Redlands in a performance on May 21 at 7 p.m. in the school’s Memorial Chapel. The performance will serve as a benefit concert for homeless services in Redlands and in Hollywood. Information:

At Hollywood Bowl this summer, Gustavo Dudamel will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L.A. Master Chorale and soloists in performances on July 13 and 18. Dudamel is pairing the symphony with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, with no details as to other pieces, intermission, etc. Information:

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

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FIVE-SPOT: April 27-May 3, 2007

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending. As usual, Saturday requires tough choices this week but Sunday is also chock-full (and I didn’t even include LA Opera’s “Tosca” performance on that afternoon).

8 p.m. at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; Costa Mesa
Two French Canadians are on the program. Jean-Marie Zeitouni leads music by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. Louis Lortie will be the soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2


11 a.m. April 28, 8 p.m. April 29 and 2 p.m. April 30
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Swiss conductor Phillipe Jordan will join with soprano Iréne Theorin and the Phil for an evening of portions of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung. Jordan seems like a natural choice for this program, since he is music director of the Paris Opera where he succeeded James Conlon, and has recorded a CD with his Paris forces of this program.

The L.A. Phil concerts will include the excerpts from all four “Ring” operas that one would expect in this type of program. However, because the program also includes the Prelude and Orchestra Interludes from Das Rheingold, the orchestration includes six anvils, six harps, nine horns, two timpani and one hammer.

The climax, literally and figuratively, will find Theorin singing “Brunhilde’s Immolation” scene, the conclusion of Götterdämerung and the entire cycle. Hearing this music with the L.A. Phil on stage at Disney Hall should be one of the season’s highlights, at least for Wagner lovers.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.


2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Music Director David Lockington will be on the podium for the final concerts in the PSO’s season. The first part of the program includes music by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The second half is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with the Donald Brinegar Singers, JPL Chorus and four soloists joining the orchestra in this monumental work.


8 p.m. at Terrace Theatre; Long Beach
Robert Istaad, incoming music director of the Pacific Chorale, leads an evening of Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute; Symphony No. 25; and Requiem, with the Long Beach Camerata Singers and soloists Elissa Johnston, soprano, I-Chin Lee, alto, Nicholas Preston, tenor, and Randall Gremillion, bass.

BONUS: The Terrace Theatre is easily accessible via the Metro Blue Line. Exit at 1st St. in Long Beach, walk a block south and cross the street to reach the plaza where the theatre is located..


3 p.m. at Soka University; Aliso Viejo
Music Director Carl St.Clair leads his ensemble in an all-Beethoven program: Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), with Joyce Yang as soloist; and the Triple Concerto, with the Faktura Piano Trio (HyeJin Kim, piano, Fabiola Kim, violin and Ben Solomonow, cello) as soloists.

BONUS: This is a great chance to experience one of the region’s unsung concert halls.


7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs an eclectic collection of spirituals and other music on April 30 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Artistic Director Grant Gershon and Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong will conduct 48 LAMC singers in a program entitled “Wade in the Water” (the title comes from the spiritual of the same name by Moses Hogan that will be on the program). The program ranges far and wide, including Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.


7 p.m. at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts; Beverly Hills
The British pianist plays sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Scriabin and other works.

BONUS: Grosvernor also appears with the same program on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa (

Information for April 30:

7 p.m. at Redondo Union High School; Redondo Beach
The orchestra continues its 50th anniversary season as Music Director Gary Berkson leads a program of suites by Grieg, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams and Ravel. Baritone Vladimir Chernov will be the soloist in Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kïjé suite.

BONUS: Free admission.


8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Three of the world’s most celebrated soloists play a series Bach Trios, arranged for cello, string bass and mandolin.

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.


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

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony takes patron on a world tour

Music Critic

Pasadena Symphony, Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena
Next performance: Tonight at 8:00 p.m.

Publicity for today’s Pasadena Symphony’s concerts proclaimed it as “Mozart and Mendelssohn.” That was an accurate, if incomplete, title, since the program also began with a Schubert overture.

However, Rachel Barton Pine (pictured right), the afternoon’s soloist, had a better description, “Musical Tourism,” as the program began in Italy and continued through Turkey to Scotland, with a detour into Ireland.

Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan was on the podium, conducting as usual without a baton but with his bouncy, ebullient personality and occasionally humorous gestures. Moreover, as usual, the PSO was in top form for him throughout the program, which began with a sparkling account Schubert’s Overture in C Major, D. 591, the second of two that Schubert wrote “In the Italian Style” (the other, D. 590, is in D Major). Principal Clarinet Donald Foster was in the spotlight throughout the performance.

Pine, now 42, has rebounded from a gruesome accident on a Chicago Metra train to become one of the nation’s foremost violin soloists. She demonstrated her prodigious capabilities in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219,, known as the “Turkish” for its final-movement rondo.

Playing on the “ex-Bazzini ex-Soldat,” a 1742 violin crafted by Joseph Guarneri “del Gesu,” Pine poured out a lovely, sweet tone throughout the performance, although her desire to create ultra-quiet moments came across as almost too precious in its concept. She reportedly creates her own cadenzas for Mozart concerti and those today were wonderfully suited to the music and the overall performance.

As an encore, Pine introduced to most in the audience Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s Concert Etude No. 6, which is based on the Irish tune, The Last Rose Of Summer. The work wraps the tune in an introduction and a set of variations and, although somewhat lengthy for an encore, was a big hit with the audience as Pine dazzled with her intricate melding of bowing and pizzicato.

After intermission, McGegan led a vigorous account of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish.”) This is actually the last of five symphonies that Mendelssohn wrote, but like Beethoven’s first and second piano concertos and Chopin’s two piano concertos, it is numbered in terms of its publishing date, not the date in which it was written — in fact, it took 12 years from when this symphony was begun, in 1830, until it was finished.

As Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn wrote in their program notes, “While the music has an undeniably Scottish flavor, it does not quote any authentic folk melodies, a device that Mendelssohn despised. Writing to his father from Wales, he commented: ‘…anything but national music! May ten thousand devils take all folklore… a harpist sits in the lobby of every inn of repute playing so-called folk melodies at you — dreadful, vulgar, fake stuff; and simultaneously a hurdy-gurdy is tooting out melodies — it’s enough to drive you crazy…’ That being said, it’s difficult to distinguish Mendelssohn’s invented Scottish style melodies from the kind of musical nationalism he so despised.”

Whether it was the gloomy opening, redolent of the dank weather in the Scottish Highlands, or the Scottish-like tunes in the second movement, McGegan bounced things along smartly and the orchestra responded with first-rate playing throughout, sending the audience out into the warm afternoon in the spirit of pleasant joy.

• The season’s final concert, on April 29, blends choral music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with its “Ode to Joy” choral ending. In addition to the orchestra, the program will include four soloists, the Donald Brinegar Singers, JPL Chorus and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.
• Given that the last three programs have been virtual sellouts, if you want to hear this program you may want to buy tickets in advance. Information:

Robert D. Thomas is a freelance music writer. Email him at: More of his reviews, columns and features can be found at


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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony delivers strong performance before sold-out house

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Music Director David Lockington’s decision to pair Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for today’s Pasadena Symphony concerts proved to be boffo box office as both concerts at Ambassador Auditorium were virtually sold out. Moreover, based on this afternoon’s first-rate performance, most of those new to the PSO (as well as regular attenders) should have gone home pleased.

Using what he called the Beethovian philosophy of darkness to light, Lockington elected to open the concert with the symphony and leave the concerto and its upbeat ending for after intermission.

For whatever reason, the orchestra’s playing in the symphony’s first movement seemed almost understated and, prior to the second movement, there was a pause to seat latecomers. Some day an orchestra will have the courage to insist that people who arrive well after the starting time wait until the first piece — not just the first movement — has concluded. After that long pause, the entire mood changed: the strings had more weight and the entire performance seemed more energized.

In his preconcert lecture and remarks to everyone before he began the performance, Lockington said — with a tone of resignation — that even if people applauded after the thunderous conclusion to the third movement, he and the orchestra would, in fact, play the concluding movement. Many people (of course) did applaud, and the orchestra did resume, finishing with impressive intensity. In a nice touch, Lockington not only asked principals stand to acknowledge the applause, he asked each section to stand, as well.

After intermission Natasha Paremski (pictured left), a 29-year-old Moscow native who now lives in New York City, displayed impressive technical prowess in her performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. She also seemed occasionally to bring a hard edge to her tone, although this may have been more to do with the piano and wasn’t as apparent during her encore, one of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux.

In the preconcert lecture, Paremski said that in recent years she had gone back to scrutinize the score and from that examination had acquired a new interpretative slant to this familiar work. She and Lockington were not always in synch in the opening movement, as Paremski often seemed to leap slightly ahead of Lockington, but eventually they locked in together during the balance of the performance.

The second movement was the most impressive as Paremski delivered long, singing lines in the opening and closing parts of that section. Kudos, also, to Donald Foster, whose plaintive clarinet solos were a marvelous match for Paremski’s ruminations. Paremski then blazed through the final movement while Lockington and the orchestra hung on for dear life. Predictably — and deservedly — all forces earned a standing ovation.

• Prior to the concert, the Pasadena Symphony Women’s Association presented a check for $119,000 from its Holiday Look-in project to CEO Laura Unger.
• Paremski’s bio says she made her professional debut with the El Camino Youth Symphony in Palo Alto at the age of 8.
• Emulating Yuja Wang, Paremski was wearing bright red stiletto heels — I have no idea how she can pedal in them!
• Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will lead the next concerts on March 18, a program of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (“Scottish”) and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major (“Turkish”) with Rachel Barton Fine as soloist. INFORMATION
• Season-ticket holders got a first look at the 2017-2018 season, which begins on Oct. 14 and concludes on April 28. Lockington will lead five of the six concerts (McGegan leads the other one) and the season will feature two world premieres, including one by a composer yet to be named that is a co-commission with the Huntington Library. Among the soloists will be violinist Dylana Jensen, who is also Lockington’s wife. More on the season in a later post.

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

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