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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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