OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony concludes season with scintillating Shostakovich 5th

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

jahjaconduct “Going out in a blaze of glory” may be a hackneyed phrase but it was applicable to yesterday afternoon’s concert at Ambassador Auditorium that concluded the Pasadena Symphony’s 86th season. Guest conduct Jahja Ling (left) and the musicians ended the program with a scintillating and superbly played performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor.

And yet it wasn’t the brass blazing or percussion thundering in the final measures that was the highlight for this critic. Instead, it was the expansive “Largo” movement, a symphony for strings with occasional woodwind and harp interjections that Ling and the orchestra delivered sumptuously. Shostakovich divided each of the string sections into two components (three for the violins) and Ling expertly delineated each of the sections in a way that was unusually comprehensible to those in the auditorium.

Surrounding that languid third movement, Ling — who just completed his 10th season as music director of the San Diego Symphony — drove the opening and closing movements forward with relentless urgency and caught all of the sardonic, lurching humor in the “Allegretto” second movement.

The orchestra, which always seems to relish playing music by this 20th century composer, was in top form again in yesterday’s performance. Although Ling singled out many individuals in the winds and brass sections during the bows, he asked the strings to stand en masse, which was a pity because he might well have asked the split sections to take their own bows.

Pairing Shostakovich’s fifth symphony with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 turned out to be an excess of bombast. There were, of course, dangers of over-exposure. If Tchaikovsky’s first isn’t the most-played concerto ever written, it’s No. 1A to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, especially in Southern California where, because of outdoor and indoor concerts, we hear several performances of each most years. Nonetheless, the combination proved to be a savy marketing move. Yesterday afternoon’s audience appeared to easily be the largest this season and the evening concert was nearly sold out.

The soloist yesterday was 38-year-old Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner, who has made quite a good reputation recently playing Schubert and Mozart, but has come very late to this famous work, which he was performing in public for just the third time. In his preconcert Q&A yesterday, Wosner admitted candidly, “I’m still unwrapping this work and trying to get my mind around it. Perhaps by the 150th time I will fully understand it.”

His inexperience showed. Wosner delivered an ultra-cautious performance that had only the minimum amount of dazzle, although his decision to focus on sensitive nuance at the expense of bravura had its compensations. In the end, however, at least this listener wished he had elected to program a Mozart concerto instead for his PSO debut.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• In that preconcert session, Wosner — who studied at The Juilliard School with Emmanuel Ax — said that famous mentor taught him that “what you hear onstage may be different that what they [the audience] hear. The best performances are when those two views come together.”
• This was the last concert of a four-year-run to be led by guest conductors. PSO management said that ticket sales for the 2013-2014 season exceeded goals by 30%.
• Beginning Nov. 1, the 2014-2015 season will have either Music Director David Lockington or Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan on the podium. My preview is HERE.
• Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn’s program notes yesterday called the first piano concerto and violin concerto “Tchaikovsky’s two most popular works,” a questionably sweeping statement that tosses aside the 1812 Overture, the Nutcracker, and the composer’s fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies.
• The PSO takes a four-week break before reincarnating as the Pasadena Pops, which performs a five-concert summer series at the Los Angeles County Arboretum under the baton, keyboard and vocals of Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein. Info: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

ANALYSIS: Doors close and open at local orchestras

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

Like any business and top executives, orchestras and their music directors undergo cyclical lives — it’s just that when an orchestra changes its music director it’s newsworthy, at least in its hometown or region.

In Los Angeles, we’ve gotten a bit spoiled because both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have enjoyed great longevity in their musical leadership. Esa-Pekka Salonen served as the L.A. Phil’s music director from 1992 through 2009 and his successor, Gustavo Dudamel, came on board immediately after Salonen stepped down.
Kahane
Jeffrey Kahane (right) has been LACO’s music director since 1997 but recently announced that the 2016-2017 season will be his 20th and final season at LACO’s helm. Meanwhile, earlier this season, Enrique Arturo Diemecke announced that he would not return as the Long Beach Symphony’s music director.

On the other side of the coin, the Pasadena Symphony has now settled its musical leadership team. Michael Feinstein returns this summer for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, and Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will divide duties for the PSO’s upcoming season as they begin their tenures with the orchestra.

In some ways, Long Beach’s situation parallels the Pasadena Symphony when it severed relationships with its long-time music director, Jorge Mester, in 2010. The LBSO management situation appears more stable than the turmoil that had enveloped the PSO four years ago, so it may not take the length of time that it took the PSO to get its new Lockington-McGegan-Feinstein music leadership team on board but it will undoubtedly take some time to find the right replacement for Diemecke, who has led the LBSO for 10 years.

LACO has more than three years to find Kahane’s replacement but they may need every month . For one thing, Kahane brought unique combination of skills to the position. Among his predecessors, only Sir Neville Marriner and Christof Perick could have been classified as “pure” conductors. Gerard Schwarz was well known for his trumpet skills as for his conducting prowess and Iona Brown did most of her conducting from the first violin chair. Kahane came to LACO with a modest, albeit growing, reputation as a conductor but he was — and is — a high-profile pianist, something he hopes to continue in his post-LACO life.

Moreover, LACO has several musical streams beyond its orchestral series, including its “Baroque Conversations” and “Westside Connections” series. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer has curated the latter series; what influence or changes will a new music director want to make in either or both of these series will be part of the questions involved in naming Kahane’s successor.

In contrast to LACO and Long Beach, the Pasadena Symphony is looking forward eagerly to its new era. Some music directors come to new positions with great overarching themes, but Lockington’s first season as Pasadena Symphony music director has a series of themes interwoven throughout the five programs, each of which will be presented in two concerts at Ambassador Auditorium.

Lockington-small4Web“I suppose if I had to pick one adjective for the season,” said Lockington (right) recently, “it would be ‘colorful.’ “ The PSO’s 2014-2015 season includes a wide range of music, from Baroque to contemporary, with a healthy selection of American music sprinkled throughout the five programs.

Lockington and McGegan will alternate in leading the five programs. The opening concerts on Nov. 1 will feature an all-American program that says Lockington, “focuses on popular, virtuosic styles” using music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

The program opens with Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare, which Lockington wrote in 2009 for the Grand Rapids Symphony (where he remains music director) in conjunction with a project he championed entitled “ArtPrize.” “The piece features church bells,” says Lockington, “and when we performed it in Grand Rapids the city’s churches rang their bells to coincide with the music.” Unfortunately, Ambassador is too far from Pasadena’s churches to achieve the same effect.

The Nov. 1 concerts will also feature pianist Terrence Wilson as soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Lockington has never conducted the young African-American pianist but he likes what he has heard. “He plays with great panache,” says Lockington, “with a clear, precise king of brilliance.”

Perhaps the most interesting program is the Feb. 14 concerts, which will be the second that Lockington will conduct. It features Dylana Jenson (who is also his wife and mother of their four children) as soloist in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Lockington’s decision to feature his wife as soloist on Valentine’s Day may seem to smack of nepotism but nothing could be further from the truth. A Los Angeles native, Jenson was a child prodigy who studied under Nathan Milstein (among others), shared silver medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition, and made Carnegie Hall debut two years later with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Shostakovich first violin concerto is a work that Lockington and Jenson recorded in 2008 (along with the Barber Violin Concerto) with the London Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim several years ago.

The program will open with Enter Light, a work by Joel Scheckman, a California native who is a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony clarinet section. “It’s about an eight-minute piece that works beautifully as a lead-in to the violin concerto,” says Lockington. The concert concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Seminal works anchor McGegan’s two concerts: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). The cheeky January 17 concerts open with Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, and also feature Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Esther Keel and her mother, Mihyang Keel, as soloists.

So as LACO and the Long Beach Symphony move forward into uncertain futures, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops appear to be on the threshold of new chapters of stability. Just remember: in a few years (or, if the stars align, decades), the cycles will undoubtedly turn over again.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Jeffrey Kahane to retire as LACO music director

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.

Jeffrey Kahane has announced that he will step down as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the end of the 2016-2017 season, concluding a 20-year reign as the orchestra’s fifth and longest-serving music director. Kahane will assume the title of music director laureate and the orchestra has launched a search for his replacement.

“Twenty years is a very long tenure for any music director,” said Kahane in a statement. “I really felt it was time to pass the torch, as difficult as it is to move on, and 20 years seemed like a good round number.”

Although he had been music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, Kahane was far better known as a pianist than as a conductor when, at age 41, he replaced Iona Brown at LACO’s helm. It was a dark time for the orchestra, which only recently had emerged from bankruptcy. However in the succeeding 17 years, Kahane and the orchestra have grown and flourished together.

He expects to continue his burgeoning guest conducting, solo piano and chamber music careers, and said he has no plans at the present to take on another music director position.

LACO will be the second local ensemble in search mode. Earlier this season, Enrique Arturo Diemecke announced that this would be his last season as music director of the Long Beach Symphony. Given that LACO has a three-year lead-time before Kahane leaves, it’s possible that the transition to his successor might be virtually seamless.

The Pasadena Symphony, which knows quite a bit about the ins and outs of search processes, concludes its 2013-14 classics series on May 10 with concerts at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. If you like your music big and bold, this is the program for you. Jahja Ling, music director of the San Diego Symphony for 10 years, will lead Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner as soloist in the concerto. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• Speaking of pianists playing big concertos, the next two Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts fit that description. This Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Emmanuel Ax will be soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The Thursday and Saturday concerts also include Ax as soloist in the world premiere of Release, a LAPO commission by Andrew Norman, who happens to be LACO’s composer-in-residence. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel returns to town for the month of May; he opens this weekend’s concerts with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.

On May 8-11, Lang Lang comes to town to appear with the Phil as soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Dudamel leading the Phil in Ravel’s La Valse and Valses nobles et sentimentales, along with Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne’s Sinfonía Burocratica ed’ Amazzonica. Information: www.laphil.com

• Finally, continuing in the monumental-works mode, preeminent American organist Paul Jacobs comes to Disney Hall next Sunday at 7:30 p.m. to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete Clavier-Übung III, which begins and ends with one of Bach’s most famous works, the Prelude and Fugue in E-Flat Major, BWV 552 (St. Anne). Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Grams, Porter make impressive debuts at Pasadena Symphony concert

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

Andrew GramsOne of the advantages of the long interregnum between Pasadena Symphony music directors is that local audiences have heard a number of young conductors who are forging strong careers with orchestras in the United States and abroad. Saturday brought the last of those young maestros as Andrew Grams (right) took the podium at Ambassador Auditorium.

The 36-year-old Baltimore native was recently named music director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in suburban Chicago, an ensemble that is similar in size to the PSO. Grams reportedly was the unanimous choice of the ESO’s musicians and it’s easy to see why. He has an enthusiastic, energetic conducting style and, as he showed in the opening piece Saturday night, a cheeky sense of humor, as well.

For William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra Grams tucked a trio of string soloists high on the back row of the orchestra, where percussionists would normally sit. Midway through their first solo lick, Grams turned to the audience and pointed to the soloists with a sly smile, as if to say, “Did you find them?” It was an appropriately light touch to Bolcom’s mashup of styles that range from Baroque to Mahler to slapstick.

Grams was all business in the final piece for the evening, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, although at the end of the first movement he peeked over his shoulder and smiled as if to say, “It’s okay to applaud.” Overall, Grams took things at a brisk pace, although he also found time to luxuriate in the woodwind solos that permeate the uber-familiar work. The orchestra was in top form throughout most of the performance.

In between those two pieces came Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with 17-year-old Simone Porter as the soloist. A native of Seattle, Porter studies with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. She is also part of Colburn Artists, a program created in 2012 by The Colburn School to provide professional management services to its most-accomplished students, and Saturday night Porter validated her selection.

Playing a 1742 Camillus Camilli violin, Porter displayed a sweet, yet rich tone throughout the concerto, not just in the low notes but on the upper strings as well. She attacked this familiar work with exuberant, youthful gusto and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the moment, listening and bouncing along with the orchestral accompaniment when she wasn’t playing. It was an impressive performance; she is clearly someone to keep an eye and ear on.

Grams and the orchestra offered rich, luxuriant accompaniment, particularly during the broad, romantic moments of this familiar work. I hope that representatives of the Long Beach Symphony, which is searching for a new music director, were in the audience. Grams should be on their candidates list.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Porter’s PSO appearance is one of several important local concerts for her this year. On April 27 she will play Beethoven’s Romances 1 & 2 with the Pacific Symphony, led by Carl St.Clair, at the SOKA Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. On Sept. 4 she will make her Hollywood Bowl debut as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.
• The final concert of the PSO’s 2013-2014 classics season will be held May 10. Jahja Lang, long-time music director of the San Diego Symphony, will lead a program of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Shai Posner as soloist. Information.
• Audience members got the first public look at the PSO’s 2014-02015 season. Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will alternate leading the five classics series concerts, with Lockington conducting the first, third and final program and McGegan leading Nos. 2 and 4. Opening night is Nov. 1. I’ll have more on this tomorrow in a Blog post.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Pasadena Symphony resumes youth movement

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this story was printed today in the above newspapers.
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Pasadena Symphony; Andrew Grams, conductor, Simone Porter, violin
March 29 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preview one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 South St. John Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$105.
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Simone_Porter_4_WebFor more than a quarter-century the Pasadena Symphony has distinguished itself by discovering young, talented soloists. Earlier this year 13-year-old pianist Umi Garrett soloed in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. For the PSO’s programs on March 29 at Ambassador Auditorium, a “grizzled veteran,” 17-year-old violinist Simone Porter (pictured right), will join the orchestra and guest conductor Andrew Grams for a performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The concerts will open with William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra and will conclude with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Porter’s PSO appearance is one of several important local concerts for her this year. On April 27 she will play Beethoven’s Romances 1 & 2 with the Pacific Symphony, led by Carl St.Clair, at the SOKA Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. On Sept. 4 she will make her Hollywood Bowl debut as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.

A native of Seattle, Porter studies with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. She is also part of Colburn Artists, a program created in 2012 by The Colburn School to provide professional management services to its most-accomplished students.

The PSO’s “youth movement” also includes its guest conductor. Grams, a 36-year-old Maryland native, last fall became music director of the Elgin Symphony just outside of Chicago, an ensemble that is similar in many respects to the Pasadena Symphony. In January he conducted the Baltimore Symphony in a concert that elicited from Tim Smith, music critic of The Baltimore Sun, the following: “The year is not even a week old, and there’s a contender for highlight of the 2014 music season in Baltimore.”

Meanwhile, two area choral groups resume their seasons this week.

• Jeffrey Bernstein leads the Pasadena Master Chorale in “The Voice of California” on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday at 4 p.m. at Altadena Community Church. The program features music by Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, along with premieres by Los Angeles-based composers Matt Brown and Reena Esmail. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

• Artistic Director John Sutton will lead his Angeles Chorale in “Romancing the Soul,” an evening of Brahms love songs on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena’s First United Methodist Church and March 30 at 4 p.m. at Northridge United Methodist Church. Information: www.angeleschorale.org

• This evening at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Grant Gershon leads 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in music by famed Southern California composer Morten Lauridsen. The program will include Mid-Winter Songs, Ave Dulcissima Maria, Canticle/O Vos Omnes, O Magnum Mysterium, , Madrigali, Nocturnes and Les Chansons des Roses (Lauridsen will accompany the last two pieces on the piano). Ironically, the only major piece the Chorale won’t be singing is Lux Aeterna, which has become a choral landmark since it was premiered and recorded by the Master Chorale in 1997. Information: www.lamc.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Pasadena Symphony to pair Beethoven with Morten Lauridsen Feb. 15

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Pasadena Symphony, soloists and Donald Brinegar Singers; Kazem Abdullah, conductor
Sat., Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preconcert lecture one hour ahead of each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. St. John Ave.
Tickets: $35-$105. Student and senior rush tickets available
Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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The Pasadena Symphony finishes its 2013-2014 season in a somewhat strange way as three guest conductors mount the Ambassador Auditorium to conduct the PSO during the next four months.

Symphony schedules are typically planned years in advance and the current list was created before David Lockington was named PSO music director and Nicholas McGegan was tapped as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor last year. As fate would have it, that duo led the opening concerts for this season, leaving each of the three remaining guests to lead programs centered on war-horse blockbusters.

On Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Kazem Abdullah will conduct the orchestra and Donald Brinegar Singers in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, along with two works by noted Southern California composer Morten Lauridsen: Midwinter Songs and Nocturnes. Soloists in the final movement of the Beethoven, “Ode to Joy,” will be Tracy Cox, soprano; Laura Harrison, mezzo-soprano; Casey Candebat, tenor; and Andrew Craig Brown, bass

You would think that in the 21st century it wouldn’t be necessary to note the obvious: Abdullah is one of the few African-American conductors working today. Of course, he had to go to Europe to find a regular job, in this case, Generalmusikdirektor of the City of Aachen, Germany, a post he assumed in 2012. Abdullah, who was born on July 4, 1979 studied, among other places, at USC.

Although many people will come to Ambassador for Beethoven’s 9th, the two pieces by Lauridsen are intriguing. Lauridsen, who lives in Hollywood and has been a professor of music at USC for 40 years, is one of the most important choral composers in the world today. Although best known for his later works, including Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium, Lauridsen’s unique style was first fully shown off in Midwinter Songs, which is based on a text by English poet Robert Graves. Midwinter Songs was written in 1980 and orchestrated in 1983.

Nocturnes was written in 2005 and is based on texts from poets Rainier Maria Rike, Pablo Neruda and James Agee. A highlight of the piece is Sure on This Shining Night, based on an Agee poem. That piece is also featured in a 2012 documentary on Lauridsen’s life, Shining Night, which will be shown on March 14 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale (INFO). That program is sponsored by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which will sing a concert of Lauridsen’s music two nights later in Walt Disney Concert Hall (INFO)
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Back to work

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 Symphony; Nicholas McGegan, conductor; Umi Garrett, pianist
Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Concert preview with Nicholas McGegan one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 South St. John Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$105.
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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As Christmas and the holiday season fade into pleasant memories, the classical music season begins to ramp up again for what will be a busy 2014.

• The Pasadena Symphony resumes its season next Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. Nicholas McGegan begins his tenure as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor by leading a program of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with 13-year-old Umi Garrett as soloist.

McGegan, who turns 64 three days after these concerts, has built an illustrious career leading ensembles that perform baroque and older music on period instruments. Since 1985, he has been artistic director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco. However in recent years he has expanded his repertoire to include conducting music from later eras. Two years, he made his Pasadena Symphony debut leading Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”). Last season he and the orchestra played Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.

Last year, the PSO announced that McGegan would join its new music director, David Lockington, and Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein, in leading the orchestra’s musical future (LINK). McGegan expects to conduct two classical concerts a year in the next two seasons (Lockington will lead the other three). They make a potent trio for PSO audiences.

Garrett will be making her PSO concert debut in Saturday’s concerts. She appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” at age 8 and last year won first prizes in several competitions, including the 13th Osaka International Music Competition in Japan. She has also won top prizes in two different competitions bearing Chopin’s name, one in Budapest and the other in Hartford, CT (it should be noted that neither are the more prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition, which since 1927 has been held approximately every five years in Warsaw, Poland).

• The Pasadena Master Chorale continues a recent tradition as it joins forces with Los Angeles Daiku and the city of Naruto, Japan, to present a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 next Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Aratani Theatre in Little Toyko (244. S. San Pedro St. in downtown Los Angeles). Jeffrey Bernstein will lead the PMC and LA Daiku, orchestra and soloists, along with singers from Japan who will travel to Pasadena to join this performance. Performances of Beethoven’s 9th are a staple around New Year’s in Japan. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

BTW: if you are into comparisons, guest conductor Kazem Abdullah will lead the Pasadena Symphony and Pasadena Singers in performances of Beethoven’s 9th on Feb. 15 at Ambassador Auditorium. The concert will also include a performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Midwinter Songs. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• The Los Angeles Philharmonic returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday and Saturday evenings and next Sunday afternoon. Christoph Eschenbach, music director Washington D.C.’s National Symphony, will lead Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, with Christian Tetzlaf as soloist.

The following weekend (Jan. 17-19), young English conductor Robin Ticcati returns to lead the Phil in music by Ligeti, Schumann and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, with Emmanuel Ax as soloist. The concerts are part of what’s being termed as Ax’s “Brahms Project.” Friday is a “Casual Friday” concert to Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 will be omitted.

Information: www.laphil.com

In case you are wondering, Music Director Gustavo Dudamel returns to the LAPO podium on Feb. 21 as the Phil and Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra perform “TchaikovskyFest,” a 10-day long orgy of Tchaikovsky symphonies, concertos and other music. Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Make your holiday season a musical one

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.

Few things better symbolize the Christmas season than music and this year brings an unusually rich assortment of concerts and recitals, beginning with the world-renowned Los Angeles Children’s Chorus presents its midwinter concerts Dec. 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. On Saturday, LACC’s Concert and Apprentice Choirs and its Young Men’s Ensemble will perform; the following evening, it’s the Concert and Intermediate Choirs and the Chamber Singers. Info: www.lachildrenschorus.org

The LACC also appears in several other concerts this season, including four performances of the orchestral score for The Nutcracker played by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Dec. 12-15 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is the first time that Dudamel has conducted the Phil in December concerts.

For those looking for something other than holiday music, the Phil has two offerings. Next weekend (Thursday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon), Rafael Frubeck de Burgos returns to the Phil podium with two symphonies by Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Dudamel will lead the Phil in four concerts (Dec. 19-22) that will feature Yuja Wang as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Stravinsky’s score for the ballet Petrushka and Blow bright, a world premiere by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason, are also on the program. Info on the Phil programs above: www.laphil.com

As usual, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will have an ultra-busy holiday season at Disney Hall beginning on Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. with its “Festival of Carols, with 115 singers and organ performing traditional holiday works. This program repeats Dec. 14 at 2 p.m., but as you will see below that’s a really jam-packed day so you might want to consider the first program instead. Info: www.lamc.org

Other LAMC holiday programs are
• “Rejoice! Ceremony of Carols” on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m., when Music Director Grant Gershon leads a program of music by Respighi, Vaughan Williams and Stephen Paulus, along with Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, performed as part of the Southland’s “Britten 100/LA” tribute to the centennial of Britten’s birth. Info: www.lamc.org
• Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 15 and 22 at 7 p.m. Gershon leads 48 singers, soloists and a chamber orchestra in this most familiar of Christmas oratorios. Info: www.lamc.org
• “Messiah Sing-Along” on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Grab your score (or buy one at the door) and join with the Master Chorale and other audience members in singing Handel’s memorable score. Info: www.lamc.org

As noted above, Dec. 14 will be one of those jam-packed evenings that cause concertgoers indigestion because they have so much from which to choose. In addition to the Master Chorale’s “Festival of Carols” listed above, consider:
• The Pasadena Symphony’s Holiday concerts on Dec. 14 at 4 and 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper leads the program that will also feature vocalist Lisa Vroman, members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and the handbell choir, LA Bronze. Info: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
• The Pasadena Master Chorale will offer its Christmas concert of Vivaldi’s Gloria and Bach’s Magnificat at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Info: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org
Pasadena Presbyterian Church will present the 69th annual rendition of its free-admission “Candlelight and Carols” program at 7:30 p.m. The concert will feature the church’s six choirs, two organists and an instrumental ensemble, and will include plenty of audience caroling. The featured work will be On Christmas Night by English composer Bob Chilcott. Info: www.ppcmusic.org
Angeles Chorale will present “Divine Joy: a Christmas Celebration in Music” at 7:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, Pasadena. Artistic Director John Sutton will conduct the program, which will feature the first part of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Info: www.angeleschorale.org

One organization that chose not to join the Dec. 14 clog is Pasadena Pro Musica, which continues its 50th season the following afternoon at 4 p.m. in Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church. Artistic Director Stephen Grimm leads a program of music by Benjamin Britten and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Info: www.pasadenapromusica.org

In addition to what’s listed above, Disney Hall offers a number of varied holiday programs; my favorite would be “A Chanticleer Christmas,” which features the renowned San Francisco-based all-male a cappella choral ensemble. Info: www.laphil.com

And this list doesn’t include the ongoing Los Angeles Opera’s ongoing production of Verdi’s Falstaff, which concludes its run today at 7 p.m., nor the company’s presentation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which runs through Dec. 15. My preview story on The Magic Flute is HERE and a followup article is HERE. Info the operas: www.laopera.org
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony opens 86th season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Igor Stravinsky’s score to the ballet, The Rite of Spring, is 100 years and five+ months old but it remains one of the most unsettling works ever written, no matter how often you’ve heard it. Pairing “Rite” with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture made for a formidable opening concert to the Pasadena Symphony’s 86th season Saturday afternoon at Ambassador Auditorium.

The program —David Lockington’s first as the PSO’s fifth music director — offered major challenges for the players, conductor and the audience; the latter included a sizeable number of children and young people (always a healthy sign for an orchestra).

The 57-year-old, British-born Lockington’s conducting style seems precise (judged from an audience seat) and he generates a great deal of energy on the podium. As we learned from when he first conducted the PSO in 2012, the orchestra clearly responds well to his leadership. Lockington also delivered erudite comments in the preconcert lecture and prior to the playing of Serenade.

In The Rite of Spring Principal Bassoonist Rose Corrigan spun an appropriately ominous line at the beginning and Lockington and the orchestra built the tension until the first driving, rhythmic section exploded. The orchestra’s winds and the percussion section, headed up by Timpanist Wade Culbreath, were in top form throughout the afternoon. The overall performance was solid, but not breathtaking and the audience responded with a generous standing ovation.

Lockington chose Bernstein’s Serenade as a companion piece because, in his words, “I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.” The rarely played 30-minute work, written in 1954, was inspired by Plato’s dialogue “Symposium” and is the most un-Bernstein sounding piece he ever wrote, although his familiar snappy, jazzy motifs (think West Side Story) do finally emerge in the final movement.

Anne Akiko Meyers gave a superbly virtuosic performance, playing on a 1741 Guarneri del Gesu violin, “Ex-Vieuxtemps,” for which she recently received lifetime performance rights (details HERE) Her lyrical portions sang sweetly (her pianissimos were particularly striking) and she sailed through the thorny sections as if they had been written for her instead of for violinist Issac Stern. Lockington and the orchestra provided supple support.

The program opened with a sizzling rendition of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. Lockington took tempos that were just short of frenetic but not over the top and the PSO was at its razor-sharp best.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Because orchestra schedules are planned well in advance, this was the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. Beginning next season, he’s expected to lead at least three of the classical concerts. Read my story on Lockington HERE).
• The Pasadena Symphony’s holiday concerts are Dec. 14 at 4 and 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper conducts the orchestra, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, vocalist Lisa Vroman and the L.A. Bronze handbell choir. INFO.
• Nicholas McGegan (LINK) makes his first appearance as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the orchestra on Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. The program is scheduled to be Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E minor, with 13-year-old (yes, you read that right) pianist Umi Garrett (LINK) as soloist. Info on the concert is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony, David Lockington open new chapters in their lives

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A version of this article will be published Friday in the above papers.
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Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor
Shostakovich: Festive Overture
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato’s “Symposium”); Anne Akiko Meyers, violinist
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. • Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Lockington-pensive4WebWhen David Lockington (right) takes the podium Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium, it will mark a new chapter in the 86-year history of the Pasadena Symphony, as he becomes the orchestra’s fifth music director and the first to hold the position since Jorge Mester in 2010.

However, it will also mark a new chapter in the life of the 57-year-old Lockington, a career that has spanned two continents and carried him from coast to coast in the United States. Although he was born in England, in a sense he’s returning to family roots because his wife, acclaimed violinist Dylan Jenson, was born in Los Angeles and has many family members in Southern California.

Saturday’s programs, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. will include Shostakovich’s Festive Overture; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers as soloist. This marks the second consecutive concert Meyers has soloed for a conductor making his PSO debut; in 2010 it was James DePreist leading his first concert as the orchestra’s Music Advisor.

Meyers (below, right) will also be playing an historic instrument: the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. Earlier this year, Meyers received lifetime use of the “Vieuxtemps” for concerts and recitals thanks to an unnamed benefactor who purchased it at a Chicago auction (read more about the story of Meyers and her violin HERE).

Lockington has served as the Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra since 1999 and has held the same position with the Modesto Symphony since 2007 (where he worked with current Pasadena Symphony Association Executive Director Paul Jan Zdunek). He is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias in Spain.

However, when he was named PSO Music Director last March his focus changed. He’s not yet certain whether he and his family, which includes three grown children and a daughter in middle school, will relocate from Grand Rapids to Southern California. Nonetheless, he says, “I’ve always had a strong belief that if I can’t literally live where I’m working that it’s important for me to have a strong presence in the community, and that certainly will be the case with Pasadena.”

Since he first conducted the Pasadena Symphony in January 2012, Lockington has been in the city five times, meeting people and planning for the future. “The Pasadena Symphony musicians are so quick and so responsive and so professional, says Lockington. “They want to be led but they have a strong desire to make it work and are willing to go wherever you take them, However, if we don’t reach people, if I’m not strongly enough here as the face of the orchestra, then we won’t be doing our job.”

One thing that Lockington has learned is the Pasadena Symphony musicians’ high quality. “Southern California is a London sort of situation with this incredible pool of musicians,” notes Lockington from first-hand experience. Over the years, he has collaborated with several London orchestras; a new recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons he and Meyers made with the English Chamber Orchestra (the first with Meyers playing the “Vieuxtemps” violin) is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Although Lockington will continue to conduct the Modesto Symphony, he will end his relationship with the Grand Rapids Symphony after next season. “That will be 16 years with the orchestra and will mark its 85th season,” explains Lockington. “It was an appropriate time to move on to another chapter.”

He remains unsure about the Spanish job. “My contract is through end of next year (he has led up to 10 concerts a year) and after that we’ll see,” he says. “I love going there,” he says with a chuckle. “Among other things, I can take a long weekend to visit my mother, who still lives on the outskirts of London.”

That kind of innovative planning characterizes Lockington’s musical life, as is evidenced by Saturday’s program. The Rite of Spring was an obvious gift,” says Lockington, “because this year is its 100th birthday. I suppose virtually every orchestra has programmed it (Lockington opened the current Grand Rapids Symphony season with the work).

“Gustav Mahler said of his music, ‘My time will come.’ You wonder whether Stravinsky could have imagined the vast number of performances of “Rite of Spring that have taken place this year and how it has become a staple of orchestral repertoire. It doesn’t have the same shock value as when it premiered, but when you look at the audience attendance numbers every time it’s played it draws well. That shows how more sophisticated audiences have become.”

MyersWebBernstein’s Serenade is much less known than The Rite of Spring Nonetheless, says Lockington, “I love this piece. It’s not typical of Bernstein; it’s so different than West Side Story, which was composed in 1957, three years after Serenade. There are measures that sound sort of Russian. There’s something knotty about it that reminds me of the Russian school. I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.”
Although this is the only PSO concert that Lockington will conduct this season (orchestra schedules are typically planned several years in advance), he will lead three of the five classical concerts beginning next year; the other two will be led by newly named Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan.

Lockington also indicated he would be open to conducting a summer concert at the Los Angeles County Arboretum; he has led outdoor concerts in Grand Rapids and Modesto and attended two concerts at the Arboretum last summer. “The setting is great and the programs are so diverse, always interesting,” he marvels. “I think it’s amazing so see so many people sitting at so many tables; it was mind-boggling! I loved the atmosphere and the peacocks in the background.”

Like many conductors, Lockington was an instrumentalist before he took up the baton. In his case, he played the cello, first in a youth orchestra conducted by his father and later for two years in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (where one of his colleagues was Andrew Shulman, now the PSO’s principal cellist).

Lockington came to the U.S. to earn a Master’s degree at Yale University (he is now a U.S. citizen). He played cello in the New Haven Symphony and was assistant principal cellist for the Denver Symphony for three years before turning to conducting.

“I spent a lot of time observing conductors and what worked with them,” says Lockington. “As a cellist and sitting up front, I had a perfect nest-eye view of what was going on. Being unencumbered by my instrument was also important. If I’d been a violinist, I would have had my instrument in my ear but sitting with my head free couldn’t have been a better way to learn.

“Because I played the cello in an orchestra, I know first-hand what being an orchestra musician is like,” continues Lockington. “I realize it’s a stressful life and I know from experience the precision that’s required, the preparation, the emotional, mental and physical energy it takes to be engaged for long periods of time. So I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for musicians.

“I’m still a practicing cellist,” notes Lockington. “It keeps me honest. I’m asking people to do things every single day that I do when I practice. I know the process and efficiency that’s required to keep in shape and to be able to pull something off in a short period of time. So, in a funny sort of way, I feel like it gives me a license, the right to demand these sorts of things of people because I’m doing it every day.”

Lockington believe there’s another advantage that he has as a cellist. “Being in touch with the string family, the main sound producer of the orchestra, means that the sound I can draw out of the strings affects the total sound of the orchestra,” he believes. “Being a string player means that the sound I listen for and the sound that I draw out is different than if I were a pianist or a horn player for example; not necessarily better, just different. I hope it’s colorful and I hope it’s beautiful. The music has to be special and we have the musicians to do that here.”
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.