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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Season schedules — Part 1: Pasadena Symphony and Hollywood Bowl

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

It’s that time of the year when schedules for 2015 and 2016 begin to appear in mailboxes (electronic and USPS). Read my story about the 2015-2016 PASADENA SYMPHONY season published in the above papers HERE.

Among other schedules that have popped up:

HAVING ESTABLISHED A PATTERN that seems to provide maximum variety and healthy income to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl’s 2015 summer schedule offers more of the same for the season that begins June 13 and extends through September 27.

The bulk of the season features popular and movie fare but the 10-week classical season, with concerts on Tuesday and Thursday, features a number of interesting programs. Among those that caught my eye:
• Composer/conductor Tan Dun conducts a program of his own “Martial Arts Trilogy” on Aug. 13, including his Crouching Tiger concerto and his Triple Concerto, which had its West Coast premiere last week at Walt Disney Concert Hall The Bowl concerts will include film clips.

• Now Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Lionel Bringuier returns to conduct the L.A. Phil (where he served for six years in various conducting capacities) to open the 2015 Bowl classical season. The July 7 concert will include Yuja Wang as soloist in Prokofiev’s second concerto, while Thursday’s program will pair Tchaikovsky’s and Prokofiev’s takes on Romeo and Juliet themes along with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, with Narek Hakhnazaryan — gold medalist in the 2011 Tchaikovsky International Competition — as cello soloist.

• LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel has several program scheduled. On July 21 and 23, he conducts the orchestra, L.A. Master Chorale, L.A. Children’s Chorus and three soloists in performances of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and music by Eric Whitacre.

On that weekend, Dudamel leads the annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” for the first time. The program will include Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Swan Lake excerpts and, of course, the 1812 Overture, with fireworks, cannon shots and the USC Marching Band in accompaniment. The 5th Symphony was the vehicle with which Dudamel made an electrifying Bowl and L.A. Phil debut in September 2005 (see this review by the late, great critic Alan Rich HERE).

The following week Dudamel leads an all-Mendelssohn program on July 28 and an all-Mozart program on July 30.

• Other guest conductors are James Gaffigan; Joshua Bell, also soloing on the violin; Daniel Harding; Nicholas McGegan leading a program with Cameron Carpenter soloing in the Poulenc Organ Concerto on Carpenter’s International Touring Organ INFO); Bramwell Tovey; Lahav Shani; and Pablo Heras-Casado. LAPO Assistant Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will also lead a program.

http://www.sgvtribune.com/arts-and-entertainment/20141114/organist-cameron-carpenter-la-philharmonic-to-celebrate-walt-disney-concert-hall-pipe-organ

• The “Sing-Along Sound of Music” program on June 26 will celebrate the movie’s 50th anniversary. Other programs with either the L.A. Phil accompanying films and/or film clips are Back to the Future on June 30 (this year is BTF’s 30th anniversary), the 25th anniversary of Bugs Bunny at the Movies on Aug. 14 and 15. 2001: A Space Odyssey on Aug. 18, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on Sept. 4, 5 and 6.

Live performances of Monte Python’s Spamalot will take place July 31, August 1 and 2, while — for something completely different — the annual opera night will be Verdi’s La Traviata on Aug. 9 when Daniel Harding leads the L.A. Phil and an as-yet-unnamed cast.

Information: www.hollywoodbowl.com
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Violinist Dylana Jenson: the backstory to an upcoming concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Violinist Dylana Jenson will appear as soloist with the Pasadena Symphony on Feb. 14 — read my preview story HERE.

Jenson’s struggles to find a violin that sings to and through her soul have been detailed in several postings. One is Jenson’s interview with Pasadena-based violinist and blogger Laurie Niles HERE. Another is an interview with violinist Robert L. Jones HERE.

An article by Donald Rosenberg in the Cleveland Plain Dealer is particularly illuminating because details the struggles of violinists to find just the right instrument — as Rosenberg puts it, “a cautionary tale for anyone in search of the instrument that best reflects his or her artistic soul” — Read it HERE.

As I read Rosenberg’s article, I was struck by the similarities between Jenson and organist Cameron Carpenter, who grew so frustrated with the organs on which he has played throughout his career that he built his own instrument. Read my story HERE.

My late wife was a concert pianist and I remember our long search for exactly the “right” piano for her. I was struck by the differences between the many instruments that she played, which included several Steinways. Finally when she sat down at a Baldwin L, she (and I) could hear that this was “Jennifer’s piano.”

FURTHER NOTES:
Jenson’s recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra is still available on compact disc. The recording of the Shostakovich and Barber Violin Concertos she made in 2008 with David Lockington and the London Symphony Orchestra is available as a download through cdbaby.com HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Last-minute Christmas gift needs? Tickets are the best choice

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

Even at this late date I get someone asking me what to give to a classical-music loving friend. Earlier this month Mark Swed, in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) offered a well-researched compendium of new recordings. However, with all due respect to my esteemed colleague I think he missed the boat. The best gift you can give to a classical music lover isn’t a recording. It’s tickets.

There’s no denying that technology has produced some stupendous recordings, both audio and visual. Nonetheless, music resonates best when it is performed — and heard — live. The interplay between artist and audience cannot be duplicated on a recording, no matter the technological marvels. So give your recipient tickets instead.

You can start with the obvious: the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There’s still half a season left for the Phil but one of my choices would be the concerts on March 12 and 13 when Music Director Gustavo Dudamel will lead the Phil in John Adams City Noir and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World), just before they will take off on an Asian tour with these pieces.

If you have never heard City Noir, which was written for Dudamel’s inaugural Disney Hall concerts, I think you’ll find it to be a terrific piece of music that would be enjoyed by almost anyone. Of course, the New World symphony is one of the most beloved works ever written. INFO

One reason to attend L.A. Phil concerts is the chance to hear music inside Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the world’s great venues from an acoustical and visual point of view. However, there are other groups appearing throughout the year where prices are lower than those for the Phil. One is The Colburn Orchestra, one of the nation’s premiere conservatory ensembles, which will appear Jan. 18 when Sir Neville Marriner leads performances of Holst’s The Planets and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with Blake Pouliot as soloist. INFO

Other ensembles appearing on the Phil’s “Sounds About Town” series (with reasonably priced tickets) are the USC Thornton Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 24, the American Youth Symphony on March 7, and The Colburn Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, on April 24. All offer fine music at a great value.

This is the first season for David Lockington as music director of the Pasadena Symphony and their concert on Valentine’s Day at Ambassador Auditorium will be particularly appropriate because the soloist will be Lockington’s wife, Dylana Jensen. Before you dismiss this ss pure nepotism, know that Jensen is a superb violinist who in 1978 was the first American to win a silver medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition. With the PSO she will solo in Shostakovich’s lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1; the program will include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. INFO

One of the great benefits to tickets in Southern California is that price is no barrier. Because of the amazing depth and breadth of musical talent in Southern California there are wonderful concerts throughout the year, many of which are free or modestly priced. Among the groups that perform free concerts are the Peninsula Symphony in Redondo Beach, the Rio Hondo Symphony in Whittier, and the American Youth Symphony at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

There are other groups where tickets are either modestly priced or free; do a little Internet sleuthing to uncover them. Just remember that “free concerts” are not really free; someone is footing the bill so donations are always gratefully appreciated.

Finally, when you give tickets, don’t just provide pieces of paper or cardboard. Take the time to make the concert an event. Take your friend to dinner beforehand or dessert afterwards. Arrange to pick them up and drive them. Dress up — whatever that means to you. Make it all special — as it should be!

Finally get a head start on Christmas giving by attending one of the Christmas Eve concerts discussed in my post HERE. Oh, any by the way; Merry Christmas!
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony opens 87th season with dazzling concert

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

My review from last Saturday’s concert is online HERE and has been published in the print editions of the above newspapers.

Additional Thoughts and Musings:
• While I was looking at the piano Saturday afternoon, it appeared to have a fabric cover on top of the lid. Since neither Terrence Wilson nor David Lockington took it off, I assumed that it was on intentionally. Correct, says President/CEO Lora Unger, who reported that the cover was on because the light reflecting on the wood (ebony) results in a glare in the orchestra members’ eyes, which prevents them from seeing.

• I’m still processing the wealth of emotions that I experienced during the superb performance of the West Side Story Symphonic Dances delivered by David Lockington and the PSO.

For someone who grew up during the time that West Side Story came to fruition, the work remains a seminal moment in my musical life. From the passage of time many historians realize that WSS was a landmark in musical theatre but those of us who lived the experience knew it from the start. “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr in his New York Herald Tribune review after the official premiere. I was 12 at that time and even living in the “foreign country” of Los Angeles I knew what was happening. I was 16 when the movie version appeared and, like many teenagers, was entranced by the great love songs: Maria, One Hand, One Heart and Tonight. You can get some background from a recent New York Philharmonic program note HERE.

Although Lockington didn’t explain the history of why Bernstein wrote the West Side Story Symphonic Dances (nor did the printed program), the backstory of West Side Story that he offered was fascinating.

In 1961, the New York Philharmonic was planning a pension fund benefit concert entitled “A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein” on the day before Valentine’s Day. The program was to celebrate Bernstein’s tenure as NYPO music director, which began in 1958, and also the fact that he had just signed a contract to renew that position for another seven years. Lukas Foss conducted the premiere.

Bernstein pulled together nine dances from his iconic musical, which had debuted on Broadway in 1957 and ran there for nearly two years. WSS was made into a movie in 1961. It won 10 Academy Awards out of 11 nominations, including Best Picture, and also won a special award for choreographer Jerome Robbins. BTW: the one nomination that didn’t turn into an award was Best Adapted Screenplay, where Ernest Lehman’s work lost out to Abby Mann for Judgment at Nuremberg.

As nearly everyone knows, West Side Story was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What isn’t as well known is the backstory: in 1947, Robbins approached Bernstein and author Arthur Laurents about a Romeo and Juliet-style work. Robbins wanted it to be about an Irish-Catholic family and a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and its original title was to be East Side Story.

The idea never got any traction but, according to Lockington, Laurents met Bernstein when the latter was conducting at Hollywood Bowl in 1956 and tried to re-pitch the idea. Someone suggested moving the locale to Los Angeles but Laurents was more familiar with Puerto Rican turf wars in New York, so eventually the setting was shifted back to New York City, but this time on the west side of Manhattan — in fact, the setting was in the area now occupied by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“Casting was another problem,” wrote Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn in their program notes. “The perfectionist Robbins wanted a cast of 38 who could both dance and sing — a nearly impossible demand in those days, but now the rule rather than the exception. A choreographer first and foremost, Robbins finally settled on dancers who could sing — as opposed to singers who could dance.”

Ultimately Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins and Stephen Sondheim (who wrote the lyrics) became the creative team and, after nearly every Broadway producer turned down the project, Harold Prince and Robert Griffiths took it on.

Lockington brought out two other points in his preconcert talk. Tonight, which became the famous balcony-scene song, was not the original choice for that pivotal moment. The original idea choice was One Hand, One Heart but that was ultimately moved to the wedding scene. And because the musical leaned so heavily on the tragic nature of the work, the creative team swiped a song from another Bernstein musical, Candide, and turned it into Officer Krupke.

What the West Side Story Symphonic Dances showed was the fragility of Bernstein’s score. The dance suite left out Tonight, Maria, Something’s Coming and Officer Krupke — the “happiest” parts of the musical — and also the sardonically witty America. What emerged was a suite that, while powerful, emphasized the work’s “darker” side. As I noted in the review, the audience didn’t know how to respond to what was a wonderful performance.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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