OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Master Chorale concludes season with “Lux Aeterna” and other works at Disney Hall

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. (part of Gala Dinner program)
Thursday at 8 p.m. (part of Chorus America conference)
Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, rightfully so, is celebrated for its commitment to new music, both the pieces performed and even more for the pieces it commissions each season (next season the Phil will offer 23 commissions, 22 world premieres, six U.S. premieres and two west coast premieres).

However, many of the finest new compositions are in the realm of choral music and nobody celebrates this music joyously as Artistic Director Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which closed its 53rd season yesterday at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a concert of works written within the past 20 years.

If the Chorale’s splendid performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna was the afternoon’s highlight (I’ll discuss it in a few paragraphs from now) then the revelations were the seven a cappella pieces written by five composers integrally linked to the Master Chorale.

All of the composers either studied or were otherwise influenced by Lauridsen, who has been a professor of music at the USC Thornton School of Music for more than 50 years but always reserves the summer to do his composing on an isolated retreat in the San Juan Islands outside of Washington. Several of the works chosen yesterday played off of themes expressed in Lux Aeterna: hope, illumination and reassurance.

The most moving work was Angel Band, part of Heavenly Home: Three American Songs, by Shawn Kirchner, a member of the choir’s tenor section, who served for three years as Master Chorale Composer in Residence (as did Lauridsen before him).

The choir’s intonation of the moving Angel Band text was mesmerizing and Grant Gershon segued without pause into a rollicking version of Unclouded Day (although I’m not sure that a day without puffy clouds would be my idea of paradise).

Two of the pre-intermission works were world premieres: In Gratitude by Billy Childs, which the choir sang with diction so precise that the supertitles were not needed; and Time in Our Voices by Moira Smiley, which grew out of the Chorale’s Oratorio Project at Van Nuys High School (REVIEW LINK) and was conducted expertly by Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong.

The concert opened with Iri Da Iri, a work with slowly shifting chords that former L.A. Phil Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote on a commission from the Master Chorale members for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary in 2014.

Current LAMC Composer in Residence Eric Whitacre conducted the west coast premiere of I Fall, a piece with texts by Charles Anthony Silvestri that came 12 years after his wife’s untimely death. It’s a melancholy work that the Chorale sang with elegance. The piece will be part of an evening-long work Whitacre expects to complete next year entitled The Sacred Veil.

When Lux Aeterna was premiered by the Master Chorale on April 13, 1997 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I was in attendance. I’ve since heard it many times and sung it several more. My opinion hasn’t changed since that first hearing: it’s one of the landmark compositions of the late 20th century.

It’s also one of the most popular major choral pieces right now; the composer’s publishes says that the choral/orchestra version is performed about 50 times per year in the U.S. That doesn’t count the organ/choral version performances nor concerts outside the U.S., nor does it count the numerous church choirs who have the work’s third movement, O Nata Lux, in their libraries.

Lauridsen wrote Lux Aeterna for the Chorale’s makeup at the time. Prior to Lux Aeterna he had written another landmark piece, O Magnum Mysterium, for the Chorale and Lux Aeterna proved to be a natural successor.

The Master Chorale’s music director, Paul Salamunovich, loved Gregorian chant and he built his chorale forces from the bottom up, with men’s sections that produced particularly rich, deep sound; both factors have been clearly in evidence throughout the past 20 years.

The ensemble that Gershon has built is a more flexible force, even with 132 singers on the stage. Gershon emphasizes diction and projecting the meaning of texts and the Chorale has a somewhat leaner sound than was apparent under his predecssor. All of that was clearly in evidence Saturday as Gershon led Lux Aeterna’s first performance with choir and orchestra in Disney Hall — he had programmed the organ/choral version for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary season.

Gershon led an unhurried performance but one that never lost the sense of line. The Chorale sang as a marvelously flexible unit throughout, but particularly in O Nata Lux, which is the work’s central point both literally and figuratively.

Even with Lux Aeterna’s hushed ending, the performance brought forth an instantaneous standing ovation from the near-capacity crowd, applause which reached its apex when Lauridsen came on stage to join Gershon, the chorus and orchestra for the celebration. I wished I had been singing.

• Although this concert represented the formal ending of the Master Chorale’s season (the performance tonight is part of a gala dinner honoring Lauridsen) and Thursday’s performance is the closing performance at the Chorus America national conference taking place in Los Angeles.
• The MC will sponsor “Big Sing L.A.,” a large group sing on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Grand Park (south of the Music Center). Five conductors will lead the songs (song sheets will be provided). Information: www.lamasterchorale.org
• The Chorale will perform five times this summer at Hollywood Bowl and on July 31 with the New York Philharmonic in Santa Barbara, before opening its 54th season Sept. 23 and 24 with a concert that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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FIVE SPOT: June 8-13, 2017

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending.

8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. 3 p.m. Sunday
at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; Costa Mesa

Music Director Carl St.Clair leads the Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale and soloists in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, his massive tribute to eternal life. The concert also honors Pacific Chorale Artistic Director John Alexander, who is retiring after 45 years (but only from the Pacific Chorale, as Timothy Mangan notes — see below).

BONUS: Read Paul Hodgins’ article in the Orange County Register HERE. Timothy Mangan, the Pacific Symphony’s Writer-in-Residence, has an appreciation for Alexander HERE.

Information: www.pacificsymphony.org

7 p.m. at Wilshire Ebell Theatre; Los Angeles

Vladimir Spivakov conducts the orchestra he has led since 1979 in a varied program that includes music by Mozart, Shostakovich, Bruch, Poppers, Grieg and others. Israeli cellist Danielle Akta and soprano Hibla Gerzmava will be the soloists.

Information: www.mvco.ru

7:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church; Pasadena

John Sutton leads his ensemble in a program of American music entitled “A Musical Bite of the Big Apple: from Broadway to Bernstein,” which includes Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and selections from West Side Story.

Information: www.angeleschorale.org

7:30 p.m. at Kirk Douglas Theatre; Culver City

Frank Fetta leads the Culver City Symphony in a program that includes Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, William Grant Still’s Danzas de Panama, Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A Major, and Haydn’s Cello Concerto, with Leah Hansen as soloist.

Information: www.culvercitysymphony.org

8 p.m. at Terrace Theatre; Long Beach

Former Long Beach Symphony Music Director JoAnn Falletta returns “home” for the first time to conduct the orchestra that she led from 1989-2000. The program begins with four movements from Shostakovich’s The Gadfly Suite, arranged for the 1955 Soviet film The Gadfly, based on the novel of the same name by Ethel Lilian Voynich. LBSO Concertmaster Roger Wilkie will be the soloist.

The evening continues with Falletta’s own compilation of Prokofiev’s Suites 1-3 from his ballet Cinderella. After intermission, 21-year-old pianist George Li will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

BONUS: The Terrace Theatre can be reached easily via Metro’s Blue Line. Exit at 1st Street, walk two blocks south and cross Ocean Blvd. to reach the theatre.

Read Richard Guzman’s article in the Long Beach Press Telegram HERE.

Information: www.longbeachsymphony.org

8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Group joins with The Industry to conclude the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series with a performance of this work by Lou Harrison, whose 100th birthday would have been May 14. Harrison was a composer whose works have been celebrated by a few hardy souls (mostly on the west coast where studied and later taught) if not always elsewhere.

This production — the first since the work was premiered in 1971 at Caltech — will be directed by Yuri Shuval, the Phil’s new Artist-Collaborator, in conjunction with his company, The Industry. Marc Lowenstein will conduct members of the Phil

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil, Yuja Wang conclude Disney Hall season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

This past weekend Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pianist Yuja Wang concluded a mini-series that revolved around the three piano concertos of Hungarian composer Béla Bartok. The first concerto was the centerpiece of last week’s concerts (my review is HERE). The series — the second of two, following a Schubert-Mahler cycle earlier in May — also concluded the Phil’s 98th season and 15th in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The second and third Bartók piano concertos are quite different, in part because Bartók was suffering from incurable leukemia as he wrote his final concerto (in fact, the last 17 measures were orchestrated by Tibor Serly, one of Bartók’s friends and pupils).

Moreover, while Bartók wrote his second concerto knowing that he would be the soloist, he composed the third for his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, although she did not play it for nearly 20 years. György Sándor played the premiere on Feb. 8, 1946 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In an interesting historical twist, Sándor was the soloist when the L.A. Phil gave its first performance of the second concerto on December 20, 1962 with Zubin Mehta conducting.

Now age 30, Wang is one of the most dazzling pianists on the world stage today. After her performance of the second concerto Friday afternoon she encored with Bizet’s “Variations on a Theme From Carmen,” as arranged by Vladmir Horowitz, and her bravura rendition of that work was certainly reminiscent of the great Russian pianist.

For the record, she played three (!) encores on Thursday night: her own shared arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo “alla Turca” from Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331; the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118.

She added two more powerhouse encores Sunday afternoon — this curmudgeonly critic wishes she had played something akin to the Schubert simply for contrast, although Bartók’s third concerto is less an endurance contest for iron fingers and far more lyrically romantic than either of the first two.

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of moments for Wang to show off — quite the opposite. The audiences on Friday morning and this afternoon were enthralled both with her playing and her dress (what, you expected me to ignore the lime-green with the slit-all-the-way-up-the front on Friday and the shimmering black VERY short dress this afternoon? No chance).

Her virtuosity continues to be dazzling. It’s hard to believe that anyone could write anything as complex as what Bartók composed and that anyone could play it with the speed with which Wang negotiated the flying powerful octaves, runs and trills. Yet, again, for this critic, what was equally impressive was how Wang delivered the delicate, lyrical passages in the third concerto.

Dudamel surrounded both concertos with Stravinsky’s Symphonies for Wind Instruments and Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. The former is a nine-minute series of craggy fragments for the woodwinds balanced by melodic (for Stravinsky, at any rate) brass chorales. Dudamel, who conducted without a baton but with a score, led the meanderings with panache and the orchestra played it skillfully.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a 22-minute work comprised of five short movements, the first and last of which are brass fanfares played by 13 instrumentalists (11 trumpets and two Wagner tubas) that, on Friday, were arrayed along the front row of the choral benches. The performance proved to be a great showpiece for the entire brass section and Principal Timpanist Joseph Peirera.

Next stop: Hollywood Bowl, beginning (for classical music lovers) on July 9 with Dudamel leading the Phil and several dancers, including Missy Copeland, in selections from ballets by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Adolphe Adam. Information: www.hollywoodbowl.com

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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FIVE SPOT: June 1-4, 2017

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending.

JUNE 1, 2, 3 and 4: BARTOK CYCLE
8 p.m. on June 1 and 3
11 a.m. on June 2; 2 p.m. on June 4
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conclude their 2016-17 subscription season by completing a cycle revolving around Bartók’s three piano concertos. Yuja Wang will be the soloist in the second concerto on Thursday and Friday and the third concerto Saturday and Sunday. On all four days, the accompanying pieces will be Stravinsky’s Symfonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. (The first concerto was last week — review link HERE).

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.

Information: www.laphil.com

Various times and days, through June 25
at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts; La Mirada
The long-time Broadway hit musical is the final production in the 2016-2017 McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Davis Gaines — one of the most popular performers in the title role of ZZZPhantom of the Opera — stars as the chivalrous knight Don Quixote.

Information: lamiradatheatre.com

8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday
at La Cañada Presbyterian Church; La Cañada
Since I’m a member at LCPC (although I’m not singing in this concert) you can take this recommendation with a grain of salt or a pound of salt, as the late, great Molly Ivins used to write. This annual Pops program focues on music and films beloved by children of all ages, including Shrek, Mary Poppins, and Seussical the Musical, among others. The church’s choir and soloists are accompanied by the Jack Lantz Little Big Band; Jack Lantz conducts.

Information: www.lacanadapc.org

8 p.m. at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; Costa Mesa
Pacific Symphony Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman leads this program of music covering a healthy slice of Williams’ motion picture scoring career.

Information: www.pacificsymphony.org

8 p.m. at Centennial Plaza; Pasadena
In advance of its summer season at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, the Pasadena Pops offers its annual free concert on the steps of the city’s iconic City Hall. Resident Conductor Larry Blank will lead music from Broadway, Hollywood and the “Great American Songbook,” accompanied by soloists Kiki Ebsen, Valerie Perri and Christina Saffran, as well as the JPL Chorus.

BONUS: Free admission; gates open at 6 p.m.

The Plaza is easily reachable via Metro’s Gold Line. Exit at the Memorial Park Station walk up three blocks east to reach the City Hall and Centennial Plaza.

Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

7 p.m. at Wilshire United Methodist Church; Los Angeles
Music Director Sue Fink leads her choir of 160+ in a program that mixes music from several centuries and genres with elements of cyberspace. The program will feature the premiere of a new song, A Vibration, by Los Angeles-based composer and ACC choir member Andrew Cheeseman.

Information: angelcitychorale.org

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil conclude Schubert symphony cycle elegantly

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

In his nine years as Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel has led several symphony cycles. The most famous was his “Mahler Project” in 2012, when Dudamel conducted the L.A. Phil and his Simón Bólivar Symphony Orchestra in all nine symphonies by Gustav Mahler (plus assorted other works). During his tenure, Dudamel has also led cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies.

However, when Dudamel programmed the entire symphonic output of Franz Schubert for this season, many were left scratching their collective heads. How many Schubert symphonies have you heard before this month? Two, of course — Nos. 8 and 9. No. 5, perhaps. Beyond that? In her preconcert lecture this afternoon, Dr. Lorraine Byrne Bodley, one of the world’s foremost Schubert experts, made a point of saying how impressed she was that Dudamel and the Phil would program all eight Schubert symphonies in a two-week stretch. “Some of the early works, in particular,” she noted, “are almost never played.”

The cycle concluded this afternoon at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the two most famous Schubert symphonies: No. 8 (“Unfinished”) and No. 9 (“The Great C-Major”). What made the day special was not just the orchestra’s superb playing nor Dudamel’s sensitive conducting. Instead, it was the fact that those who have been in attendance for the first three programs over a two-week period got to hear these last two within the context of what had come before.

In the space of just 11 years, beginning in 1813 when Schubert was age 16, he grew from teenage prodigy to the harbinger of the Romantic era to come, in particular the music of Brahms, Schumann and, yes, even Gustav Mahler whose song cycles Dudamel programmed in between each pair of Schubert’s works. Next season Dudamel tackles Robert Schmann’s symphonies, plus the composer’s concertos and a rarely performed stage work. It’s a fitting follow up to this cycle.

The gap between 1818, when Schubert completed his sixth symphony, and 1822, when No. 8 was “finished” was curiously wide, yet the maturity, complexity and brilliance of No. 8 stands worlds apart from his first six efforts (a seventh symphony was begun, but apparently never completed).

Yet, as the Phil’s cycle showed us, the eighth was, indeed, an outgrowth of his earlier works, albeit richer than the first six. The orchestral scoring for each symphony grew gradually and for the eighth symphony he added three trombones, which made for greater sonority. Moreover, in the Phil’s performances Principal Timpanist Joseph Periera eschewed the bright kettledrums he had used for the early symphonies in favor of the now-standard timpani used in the Mahler songs.

The eighth continues Schubert’s penchant of playing the winds against the strings. Dudamel — conducting without a score as he has done for all the symphonies — began the proceedings with a brisk tempo but relaxed as the measures spun out and highlighted that nearly constant dialogue between winds and strings. He received elegant playing from Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan and the entire cello section in the two principal themes. The second movement, particularly the horns, had a sonorous, rich feeling with Dudamel quietly urging the work forward to its ambiguous end.

Much continues to be made as to why Schubert left this work unfinished — if, indeed, he did. There are piano sketches of a third movement and many scholars believe that the intra-act music of the opera Rosamunde may have been originally intended as a fourth movement for this symphony. Some believe that Schubert simply laid the work aside to continue other compositions. Others postulate that his battle with the effects of syphilis caused him to lay aside the 8th.

Yet every time I hear a performance as loving and lovely as we heard today, I remain tantalized by the thought that for Schubert the work was finished. He must have realized how great piece it was, although it’s inconceivable that he could have dreamed that 100 years after its composition it would be his most famous work.

As was the case on Thursday and Friday, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was the soloist today, this time in four of Mahler’s songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. As was the case Thursday night she sang with a luxurious tone and she was more animated and even playful in the first song than had been the case Thursday. As has been the case with all four song cycles, the last movement — this time with limpid oboe and trumpet solos — held the audience spellbound.

Symphony No. 9, which was completed in 1826, three years after the eighth, was yet another quantum leap forward in Schubert’s symphonic style. Schubert’s first six symphonies, in large measure, look backwards to his great idols: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. His ninth, as I wrote earlier, looks forward, although Jeffrey Kahane made an impressive case last night for looking backwards, as well, when he led the Symphony No. 9 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LINK).

Partly due to the wonderful resonance of Disney Hall, the almost inaudible opening measures set the bar high for this superb performance. The Phil produced a deep luxuriant tone throughout the opening movement, aided immeasurably by burnished playing from horn player Amy Jo Rhine.

The second movement featured elegant solo work from Associate Principal Oboe Marion Arthur Kuszyk and the entire cello section.

The third movement was the one section in the entire cycle when Dudamel indulged his penchant for dancing on the podium, although as I have often noted he never makes a sway, swoop or gesture that doesn’t serve the music.

The final movement was taken at a majestic tempo. Dudamel built the performance inexorably to a grand conclusion that brought forth a fully justified standing ovation. He seemed particularly pleased with the playing today but really the smiles were for the entire two-week cycle.


• As if the Schubert cycle wasn’t enough, Dudamel and the Phil conclude their 2016-2017 indoor season with a cycle of the three Bartok piano concertos, with Yuja Wang as soloist.

The concerts this Friday, Saturday and Sunday include the first piano concerto, paired with Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. The latter two pieces feature the Los Angeles Master Chorale, soloists and organist Ivet Apkalana. Informatioon: www.laphil.com

The concerts on June 1 and 2 feature Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, while the programs on June 3 and 4 revolve around his Piano Concerto No. 3. Both programs include Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Information: www.laphil.com

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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