OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Berlin Philharmonic dazzles in Orange County

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

rattleSir Simon Rattle led his Berlin Philharmoniker yesterday in Rénee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. 2013 photo by Monika Ritterhaus.

My review of the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert Sunday in Costa Mesa, published online on the County Register’s Web site, is HERE. The story will run in the Register’s print editions tomorrow.

Following are some additional notes that fell on the cutting room floor:

• The BPO’s appearances in Walt Disney Concert Hall Saturday and Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Sunday was part of a cross-continent tour that began in New York City’s Carnegie Hall on Nov. 9 and 10 and continued in Boston, Toronto and Ann Arbor, Michigan before heading to the west coast. The tour concludes tonight and tomorrow in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.

• The alternate tour program, which was played in Disney Hall, was equally challenging to that we heard Sunday: Pierre Boulez’s Éclat and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7.

• Sunday’s concert was the Berlin Philharmonic’s appearance in Orange County in 15 years. It came back then to the original Segerstrom Hall when Claudio Abbado led the ensemble in two all-Beethoven programs, featuring the third, fifth and sixth symphonies. This was also, of course, the BPO’s first time in Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this season.

• The OC program booklet contained the longest set of music notes than I can ever remember, stretching more than seven pages (although, thankfully for us older folks, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County uses nice large type for its notes). The one paragraph about Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 was dwarfed by the copious notes on the three pre-intermission works: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b, by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, and Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 by Alban Berg.

• The orchestra’s rehearsal schedule created some serious problems for the PSOC and Segerstrom Concert Hall. The orchestra’s desire to rehearse in the main auditorium right up to the concert time meant that the preconcert lecture by Christopher Russell had to be switched into a smaller room that didn’t have nearly enough seats to handle the crowds. I arrived five minutes after the posted start time and people were already standing around and behind the chairs. I suspect that more folks than usual came hoping to learn something about the first half of the program, only to be turned away.

Segerstrom isn’t alone in this type of problem. At least with BP Hall in Disney, people can stand on the balconies and hear the lecture, if necessary. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion uses the second-floor lobby for its lectures and that has the capacity for extra seating, if necessary. Ambassador Auditorium has nothing other than the main hall with which to handle lectures. Offhand I can’t think of another hall that could deal with the problem that cropped up Sunday.

Moreover, Segerstrom Concert Hall has only minimal seating in its lobbies, a fact that was exacerbated by the light rain that was falling as folks were arriving. Sir Simon Rattle, the BPO’s chief conductor and artistic director, called it “British weather.” He should know. Rattle returns top his native England to become Music Director of the London Symphony beginning in 2017.

• PSOC President and Artistic Director John Magnum welcomed the orchestra by announcing that the Society is halfway to its goal of $10 million endowment campaign that will enhance the group’s programming efforts.

• The next orchestra on the PSOC series is the Taiwan Philharmonic, which appears on Dec. 12 with violinist Cho-Liang Lin. The program includes two works including a violin concerto by Taiwanese composer Tyzen Hsiao along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Information: https://philharmonicsociety.org/

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Britten’s centennial to be remembered with two performances of “War Requiem”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was published today in the above papers.

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)

Today at 8:15 p.m. • Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by Dr. William Hall.
Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

Tomorrow at 8 p.m. • Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by James Conlon.
Information: www.laphil.com

Brittenr4WebWe’re in the penultimate two months of a year honoring birthdays of three of history’s most important composers: the bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the centennial of Benjamin Britten (right), which occurred on Friday (Nov. 22). The Britten centennial reaches its climax locally today and tomorrow with a massive collaboration on Britten’s most significant work: War Requiem.

These performances are among hundreds that have been part of Britten 100/LA, which has been spearheaded by LA Opera but which has involved hundreds of different organizations, large and small, throughout the Southland.

Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon takes a break from conducting the company’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to lead The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony (the work calls for a large main orchestra and a smaller-sized ensemble), organ, three soloists, five university choirs and the Pasadena-based Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in War Requiem tonight at 8:15 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“Break” may be a misnomer; Conlon leads a Falstaff performance beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, so he may be changing clothes as he drives/flies down the freeway.

War Requiem premiered on May 30, 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral in the center of England. The city’s 14th century Gothic cathedral, St. Michael’s, had been destroyed by a Nazi air raid on Nov. 14, 1940. Only the tower, spire, outer wall and the bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs, survived.

Following a competition that received entries from more than 200 architects, Basil Spence was selected to design a new cathedral. He insisted that the ruins of the old cathedral be kept as a stark memorial and his dramatic new cathedral was built alongside; a glass canopy connects the two buildings. For his stunning conception, Spence was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960.

Britten, a renowned pacifist, was 48 when the piece was first performed and was given free rein to compose the dedicatory work. He chose to interleave portions of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass with gritty poems written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. Britten used one of Owen’s poems as a preface to the work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war.

The piece lasts about 85 minutes (there is no intermission), and is considered by most to be a landmark 20th century composition. A unique part of the composition is that Britten wrote for soloists (soprano, baritone and tenor) who were meant to characterize individual Russian, German and English soldiers.

According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, “Britten intended that the soloists at the first performance should represent three of the nations involved in World War II: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). In the event, precisely because of this tri-national partnership of representatives, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to attend by the Russian Minister of Culture. Although she was later able to record the work, she did not sing it until 1963; her place at the première on 30 May 1962 was taken by Heather Harper.”

The Disney Hall performance is part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sounds About Town” series, which this season has dwindled to just two concerts, both by The Colburn Orchestra. One feature of this series has always been its low prices: tickets for “War Requiem” range from just $15.99 to $41.50. By contrast, the Segerstrom Concert Hall tickets are scaled from $20 to $150.

Conlon will give a preconcert lecture an hour before the Disney Hall performance. At Segerstrom Hall, Dr. William Hall, who led one of the first Southern California performances of War Requiem, will deliver the lecture at 7 p.m. In part because of the work itself and in part because it is so rarely performed, this is a “don’t miss” event.

• How rare are these concerts? According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, these concerts and a set by the San Francisco Symphony next weekend are the only North American performances of War Requiem for the balance of this year (performances have been held recently in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago — see below). The SFO schedule is somewhat odd: Nov. 27 and 30 with nothing between.
• It’s possible that this will be the only time that most of the instrumentalists and choristers will play and/or sing War Requiem in their lifetimes.
• The program notes for tonight’s Segerstrom Hall concert are HERE (they come courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony). Click on the note to make the type larger and click on the arrows to navigate the pages. These notes (actually pages from the program book) also include the text and performer bios.
• The program notes for the Disney Hall performance are HERE. These also include an iTunes link to the original cast recording with Britten conducting HERE.
• The writeup on War Requiem from the Britten-Pears Foundation is HERE.
• A fascinating interview in The Guardian with composer Oliver Knussen’s reflections on Britten is HERE.
• Anne Midgette, music critic of the Washington Post, and her husband and fellow critic, Greg Sandow (who is also a composer, consultant and educator) have written a series of articles on recent performances of War Requiem in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, including somewhat contrasting reviews of the same performances. If you’re interested, click HERE for an overview and follow the various threads to the relevant stories. However, you might want to wait until you’ve seen either of the local concerts.
• When Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony in War Requiem last week, he honored Britten by using Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, English tenor John Mark Ainsley and German baritone Matthias Goerne as the soloists. Nice touch.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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