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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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: LACO to open 46th season next weekend

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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• Next weekend might seem like a typical season-opening set of concerts by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and in one sense it is. Jeffrey Kahane and LACO begin the ensemble’s 46th season Saturday at 8 p.m. in Glendale’s Alex Theatre and next Sunday at 7 p.m. in UCLA’s Royce Hall with, what for them, is a typical Kahane-planned program.

However, what makes the concerts different is a clicking clock. Kahane, who turned 58 on Friday, announced in April that he would retire at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season, which will be his 20th with the orchestra. Consequently, every move LACO makes in the coming years will be scrutinized as to its future direction.

Perhaps with a nod to continuity, this weekend’s program is quintessential Kahane. It opens with a world premiere — the first performance of Lines of the Southern Cross, a work for strings and percussion by young Australian-born composer Cameron Patrick — and concludes with a Beethoven’s most famous symphony, the fifth. In between comes a less-than-frequently played concerto — Saint-Säens’s fifth (the Egyptian) — with Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen as soloist

Throughout his career, Kahane has championed the orchestra’s commissioning of new works and Patrick’s is the latest in a long line of premieres. Moreover, when Kahane began his tenure 18 years ago, one of his goals was to expand the orchestra’s repertoire beyond the then-traditional baroque-era pieces to include larger works, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Information: www.laco.org

• If you’re looking for a great concert at an affordable price, consider The Colburn Orchestra, which opens its season on Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Music Director Yehuda Gilad leads his young but talented ensemble in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and Brahms’s Double Concerto, with Colburn School faculty members violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith as soloists.

Tickets are just $10 each. Metro riders get a $5 discount if they present their Metro TAP card. Information: www.colburnschool.edu

• The Pasadena Master Chorale will use a unique twist on a familiar pricing strategy when it opens its season Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday at 4 p.m. in Altadena Community Church. Although tickets are required, they are free but those attending are asked to pay what they think the concerts are worth following the performance, a variation on freewill offerings that many groups use to help defray costs.

Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein will conduct an eclectic program with music ranging from Hildegard of Bingen and Giovanni da Palestrina to Eric Whitacre Randall Thompson and PMC composer-in-residence Reena Esmail. Soloists will include pianist Crystele Rivette and percussionists from LaSalle High School.

Information: www.pasdenamasterchorale.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: KUSC to air Disney Hall “War Requiem” concert on Sunday

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

If you weren’t able to attend the performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Sunday in Orange County or Monday in Walt Disney Concert Hall, KUSC (91.5 FM in Los Angeles and www.kusc.org) will air the L.A. performance on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Details: www.kusc.org

James Conlon conducted The Colburn Orchestra, members of the USC-Thornton Symphony, three soloists and more than 400 choristers ranging from local universities to the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in the performances.

Links to my preview story and my review are HERE and HERE.

BTW: A Caltech link has the complete text HERE so you can follow it. Although the diction was exemplary during the Disney Hall performance, being able to read Wilfed Owen’s gripping poetry would definitely be a plus.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Conlon leads combined forces in stunning performance of “War Requiem”

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

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)
New Zealand Youth Choir (David Squire, music director)
November 25, 2013 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.
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Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the monuments of choral literature. It stands with the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms and Verdi and alongside other choral masterpieces such as Handel’s Messiah.

But there’s a catch. Britten’s magnum opus is so rarely performed that its emotional impact seems outsized when compared with the others on this list. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but it certainly lessens the effect of these better-known pieces.

At last night’s preconcert lecture immediately preceding a stunning performance of War Requiem at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when Conductor James Conlon asked how many people would be hearing the piece for the first time, nearly every hand was raised. Imagine how staggered you would feel if you were hearing, for example, Verdi’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah for the first time.

Thus it’s truly amazing that this rare performance of War Requiem, was sung and played not by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or one of our other professional ensembles but by about 400 instrumentalists and choristers, all college age or younger, along with three soloists. What could have been a train wreck was instead a vibrant, cohesive unified front, all under the steady hands and baton of Conlon, who somehow managed to sandwich this concert and last Sunday’s performance in Costa Mesa between conducting Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Los Angeles Opera.

The two local War Requiem concerts took place just days after the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth; the 50th anniversary of President John K. Kennedy’s assassination added to the emotional nature of the evening.

How Britten, a pacifist, came to write War Requiem is reasonably well known (you can read some of the details in my preview story HERE). The basics are that he was commissioned to write a piece of his choosing for the dedication of the new St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. The premiere took place on May 30, 1962.

Part of Britten’s genius in writing War Requiem was that he melded the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass text with gritty poetry written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. (Ironically, Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week — almost to the hour — before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war; he was awarded a posthumous Military Cross). As a preface to War Requiem, Britten quoted Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” That’s just a sample of the emotional impact of the poems.

Another aspect of the work’s greatness is how Britten deployed his forces. The adult choral forces (182 voices, if everyone listed in the printed program actually sang) join with the soprano soloist to sing the traditional Requiem text, accompanied by a full-sized orchestra. A children’s chorus, accompanied by an organist, adds a potent angelic element at key points, sung last night from the top rear balcony. Tenor and baritone soloists, simulating a German and English soldier, sing Owen’s poetry, accompanied by an ensemble of 13 instruments.

In some performances, the male soloists and chamber orchestra are separated from the main body and led by a second conductor (indeed, that’s how the premiere performance was played; Britten conducted the smaller contingent while Meredith Davies led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra).

However, Conlon chose to conduct the entire performance by himself, placing the chamber ensemble directly in front of him with the larger orchestra behind them. The male soloists — tenor Joseph Kaiser and baritone Phillip Addis — flanked the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamara Wilson sat in the middle of the front row of choristers on the choral benches. Conlon led some portions using a baton; for many of the choral sections, he laid down the stick and conducted with expressive hands.

The choral forces delivered a beautiful tone and were amazingly precise throughout the 84 minutes, but particularly in the extended fugal writing in the “Dies Irae” sections . The combined children’s choruses floated gorgeous sound with precise diction from their “heavenly” location in Disney Hall.

Soprano Tamara Wilson, symbolizing a Russian soldier, poured out rich opulent sounds that carried even over the combined choral and orchestral forces. Her melding with the chorus in the “Lacrimosa” was a highlight of the evening.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser, singing music written for Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears, delivered that bright tone so favored by English composers and Kaiser’s diction so precise that the projected supertitles were not needed. Baritone Phillip Addis’s voice turned gravely in the lower registers but he was emotionally strong in delivering some of Owen’s most poignant lines.

The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony played splendidly, especially given the fact that, according to one story, only Concertmaster Jeffrey Myers had ever played the work before. The 13-member ensemble (the same number that Britten used to accompany his three chamber operas) passed Britten’s melodies from hand to hand, as it were, while offering sympathetic accompaniment to Kaiser and Addis.

All forces eventually join in the final movement, “Libera Me,” in which Kaiser and Addis sang Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” a commentary on companionship between enemies after one has killed the other, interspersed with the final words of the Mass. Two bells — C and F-sharp — continue to toll as they have throughout the piece and the chorus finally dies away in a mysterious vapor. The capacity audience sat spellbound, silent for 20 seconds, before erupting in wave after wave of standing ovations for the performers — and, one thinks, also for the piece. Conlon appeared to be spent emotionally; for most of the audience, the feeling was the same.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Conlon’s typically erudite preconcert lecture was particularly helpful in showing the influences of Verdi, Berlioz and Mozart on Britten’s writing.
• The organist last night was Christoph Bull, head of the organ department at UCLA, a nice — if somewhat ironic — touch to counterbalance the presence of the USC-Thornton Symphony and two USC choirs.
• In honor of the Britten centennial, Decca has released a newly remastered version of the original recording of War Requiem, featuring the three singers who Britten intended to sing the premiere: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). Because of international tensions, Vishnevskaya didn’t sing at the premiere (English soprano Heather Harper stepped in) but Vishnevskaya did perform in the original recording. The new version include a CD of War Requiem, , a Blu-Ray Audio format, which allows the recording to be heard at 24-bit, and a CD featuring Britten in rehearsal at the sessions in January 1963, which was produced by the legendary John Culshaw.
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(c) Copyright 2013, 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
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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.

Coventry_Ruins
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.

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

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