PROFILE: New Pasadena Symphony Pres/CEO Lora Unger takes the next step in a storybook career

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

Unger2014-LRIf Lora Unger seems like she’s riding a whirlwind this weekend, you might want to cut her some slack. In addition to presiding over the opening concerts of the Pasadena Symphony’s 87th season today at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium (LINK), Unger also takes over today as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Pasadena Symphony Association, which runs both the PSO and the Pasadena Pops.

Unger replaces Paul Jan Zdunek, who has been named Chief Capital Development Officer with Singpoli Capital Corp. in Pasadena. Zdunek took over the PSA in December 2008 in the midst of a major financial crisis that resulted in part from financial losses incurred in the recession. One of his first moves was to hire Unger and together the two have worked with others since then to steer the PSA back to financial and artistic health.

If the transition seemed sudden, it was — in retrospect — anything but. “Our board has been working on a succession plan for several months,” explains Unger. “As any healthy organization should it was looking for what would be the next step should one become necessary. The board wanted to be in a position where it had a plan in place before it had to make a decision and I went through a very thorough process of interviewing with various committees. I have a huge amount of love for this organization and was honored and happy that, when Paul decided to step down, the board unanimously voted that I should succeed him.”

If at age 36 Unger seems young to be leading one of the nation’s premiere regional orchestras (although remember that we live in an area where 33-year-old Gustavo Dudamel is in his fifth season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), her new position merely represents the latest in a series of almost preordained steps since she was a sophomore at the University of Louisville.

“I went to Louisville on scholarship as a violist,” she explains, “and while I was certainly a capable violist I wasn’t a very good violist. Nonetheless, I was very, very lucky because the viola paid for my education. I was like a basketball player who earns a college scholarship but isn’t good enough to go on to the NBA.

“Halfway through my sophomore year,” she continues, “my teacher was so kind to me because he said, ‘Laura, you know how to play the viola, but I really think you should go take some business classes and find out what else you want to do in life because I don’t think playing the viola is what’s going to be your life.’

“That idea was frightening to me,” she remembers. “My parents are immigrants from Russia and they’ve always had to earn money to take care of us but they were never passionate about their jobs. I knew that if I was going to have to work, I wanted it to be something I was passionate about. Even though I wasn’t a great musician I was extremely passionate about music: about music history, learning music, orchestras, etc. and I had already invested so many years into it. I’m an extrovert, a people person. The idea of sitting alone for five hour a day practicing was killing me. I hate practicing. The business side of music turned out to be absolutely liberating.”

That first, hesitant step was an accounting class. “I found that every business class I took came so much easier than music,” she recalls with wonderment. “At the same time I thought ‘I’ve spent so much of my life in classical music, it’s what I know and love,’ so on a whim a clarinet teacher suggested that I reach out to the executive director of the Louisville Orchestra just to get some experience doing anything in the business.

“My first job was in “the dungeon” organizing the orchestra’s extensive collection of first-edition records [EDITOR’S NOTE: if you don’t know what a record is, ask your parents or grandparents]. I still consider my cough that recurs occasionally to be from the nine months I spent in that record collection! In my junior year because of that job — because I had paid my dues, so to speak — I was able to intern in the orchestra’s marketing and public relations department.”

Like so many who have done unpaid internships, Unger used that as a building block. “I had just enough time with the Louisville Orchestra to put it on my resume when I applied to be the artistic liaison with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival,” she says. “When I got that job I thought ‘this is going to be the thing that will make me decide whether want to do arts administration or not’ and I fell in love with it hook, line and sinker. In some ways that was the best job I have ever had because I was able to experience 5-12 concerts a week, with 60 to 90 of the best musicians in the world. Moreover, I got such an amazing education because everybody allowed me to poke around in every department and find out about every aspect of the business.”

Unger went on to get a Master’s degree in Arts Administration at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “It’s one of the few schools in the country where half the classes are MBA students and half the conservatory students,” she explains. As an aside she notes, “I’ve always preferred to be in an urban environment.” During her graduate studies she also worked in public relations department of Cincinnati Symphony.

Unger then became a Fellow with the League of American Orchestras, which she describes as “a breeding ground for potential executive directors.” She spent six months working with the New Jersey Symphony and then with the Aspen Music Festival, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony, learning all aspects of the business side of music.

“After that,” she laughs, “I needed a ‘real’ job.” She started her professional career at the Modesto Symphony where she worked four years and first teamed up with Zdunek. They were part of the team that helped hire Lockington as music director, and they also hired him to become the Pasadena Symphony’s fifth music director beginning, officially, today.

“There was a lot of turnaround work in Modesto,” explains Unger “but eventually I got the itch to go on to a bigger orchestra. That’s the way it is when you’re an orchestra manager ‘brat.’ It’s ‘how am I going to grow to a bigger orchestra?’ I don’t enjoy cold climates so I went to the Jacksonville Symphony for two years. There were a lot challenges there, as well, including cost restructuring and difficult labor negotiations, but, again, it was a great learning experience.

“However,” she wraps up her travelogue by noting, “I needed to come back to the west coast. When Paul got the job here I was only supposed to come help on a temporary basis but it became one of those things where you’re in so deep you can’t leave until its fixed.”

As she moves into PSA’s the top executive role, Unger has a vision for the association’s future. “For the last five years,” she notes, “we’ve redefined our concert experience, of who we are, which has meant growing and building our base. During that time, we’ve demonstrated that there is a concrete demand for our product. People are buying tickets.” In the media release announcing Unger’s appointment, Kay Kochenderfer, President of the PSA Board of Directors, said, “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in Classics Series ticket sales, an astonishing 200% increase in POPS sales, and an 85% subscription retention rate.”

Now comes the next step, says Unger. “My vision for this orchestra,” she says, “is to take that community momentum and support and critical acclaim of which we are so very proud of and move to a higher level of growing the philanthropic support and reputation of the Pasadena Symphony. We’re an 87-year-old organization that when I came here five years ago had elements of a small club. In a robust city like Pasadena where you have a philanthropic commitment and stature of organizations like Caltech, the Norton Simon, the Huntington Library and Pasadena Playhouse, the Pasadena Symphony is an equal pillar of arts and culture. So my goal is to help this organization grow and thrive so we will never again be put in a position where we could ever be in position of vulnerability as we were in 2008.

“We know that our product is great,” continues Unger, “because people are buying tickets. That’s great and we deeply appreciate them. Now we need to turn that excitement into meaningful and priority philanthropic support. We need to be just as top-of-mind for philanthropists who have an inclination for arts and culture as the city’s other pillars so we bring them closer into our symphony and pops family.”

It starts with building the board, believes Unger. “We’ve brought on 13 new board members in the past three years,” she reports, “and it’s more diverse than ever before. We need to have the board be advocates for this organization. They need to bring in their networks and then diversify those networks, as well, so that new networks keep expanding. When your board is just one network, you’re limited by how much money you can raise. Networks need to keep growing and expanding for an organization to be successful.”

The leadership of Lockington, Feinstein and the Pasadena Symphony’s new principal guest conductor, Nicholas McGegan, will also be a critical factor in a successful future, says Unger. And she’s in it for the long haul.

“Coming to Pasadena has been really synergistic for me,” says Unger. “A lot people in our industry have to bounce around a lot and make many sacrifices to get to where they really want to live. I’ve lived in many parts of the country but when I moved to Pasadena I had this exhale, of saying to myself, ‘there is nowhere else I would rather live!’ I really mean that! I fell in love with this community so quickly and completely. I feel so at home and connected here. You’ve got the craziness and grandeur of L.A. eight minutes away and the ocean 30 minutes away. I can stay here in Pasadena and have everything my heart desires. It’s a great Midwestern town with a California feel. I want to grow roots here.”

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony to open 87th season with Bernstein-Gershwin program Saturday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
This article was first published today Sunday in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News.

Read my preview of the Pasadena Symphony’s season-opening concert on Saturday HERE.

Performance details:
Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor
Nov. 1; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preconcert discussion one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 S. St. John St., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$110
Information: 626/793-7172;

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Lora Unger named CEO of Pasadena Symphony Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full media release HERE.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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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.

• 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:

(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.
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.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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