OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil open Disney Hall season with gala concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

dudamel2016Nearly every major American orchestra opens their season with some sort of gala concert in advance of their initial subscription programs. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is no different … except that it is.

Many of the L.A. patrons (most of whom have ponied up big bucks to attend the post-concert party on Grand Avenue) dress up in black tie or the female equivalent and amble up a red carpet. The concert is somewhat shorter than regular subscription programs, negated somewhat by the fact that most of the audience arrive very late (the downbeat last night was 21 minutes after the announced start time of 7 p.m.) The evening ends with mylar shards floating down from the Walt Disney Concert Hall ceiling.

What makes the Phil galas different is that LAPO Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) takes these programs very seriously. True, last night ended with a repertoire staple — Gershwin’s An American in Paris — but that piece was a natural finish to an evening that focused on “Gershwin and the Jazz Age.”

In addition to music by Gershwin, Dudamel added selections from two other giants of the jazz age — Cole Porter and Duke Ellington — and a work by a composer whose work was heavily influenced by jazz: Leonard Bernstein.

Not only did Dudamel take the program seriously but so did the orchestra, which played at top form throughout the evening, not an easy thing to do when shifting from one style to another, in this case from jaunty jazz to sweeping symphonic.

The evening opened with Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations, which featured diminutive 21-year-old pianist George Li as the saucy soloist.

The orchestra’s Principal Clarinet, Boris Allakhverdyan, also proved to be a formidable soloist in Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, which, according to John Henken’s informative music notes, was written originally on a commission by Woody Herman in 1949. However, Herman’s band broke up before he could perform the piece and it wasn’t until 1955 the the piece was actually performed, with Benny Goodman as soloist, for the television series, Omnibus.

For these ears, the highlight of the evening was the second movement, Stalking Monster, of Ellington’s 1955 work Night Creature, with the trombone section setting an atmospheric mood and Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour adding a winsome solo. This would be a great encore piece on the Phil’s upcoming West Coast tour.

In between those opening and closing orchestral sections, singers Megan Hilty and Brian Stokes Mitchell offered solos and duets by Cole Porter (Always True to You in My Fashion and So in Love) and Gershwin (Someone to Watch Over Me and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off).

The highlight was Mitchell’s hilarious rendition of It Ain’t Necessarily So from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, although it took awhile for the audience to get in the swing of things as the “echo” part.

Now age 35 and beginning his eight season at the Phil’s helm, Dudamel was relaxed and poised on the podium and even joked about the silver strands creeping into his curly hair. It was a promising beginning to the orchestra’s 98th season.

• Although the official unveiling isn’t until Saturday, patrons entering Disney Hall from the parking garage got their first look at Nimbus, a series of cloud-like structures hanging from the ceiling accompanied by music played by the Phil’s musicians. Details are HERE.
• The orchestra’s 98th subscription season opens tomorrow night with Dudamel leading the Phil in Beethoven’s Corolian Overture, John Adams’ Strange Jest, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet as soloists, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The program repeats Friday and Sunday; KUSC will broadcast the Friday program. INFO
• The program officially kicks off the season-long 70th birthday celebration of Adams, who — in addition to being one of America’s most important composers — serves as the Phil’s Creative Chair.
• In addition to officially unveiling Nimbus, Saturday will be an eight-hour (noon to 8 p.m.) celebration of contemporary music, followed by the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO

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

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PREVIEW: London Symphony comes to Disney Hall Tuesday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Juja_Wang-WebThe London Symphony has been in the news lately for its announcement that Sir Simon Rattle will become the ensemble’s Music Director in September 2017 (LINK). Michael Tilson Thomas, one of orchestra’s former Principal Conductors (1988-1995), has continued his relationship with the orchestra as its Principal Guest Conductor, and brings the LSO to Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night.

The concert, which is part of a cross-country U.S. tour that concludes Wednesday night in Santa Barbara, also celebrates Thomas’ 70th birthday. The Disney Hall program is Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Yuja Wang (pictured right) as soloist. In Santa Barbara, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 replaces the Sibelius. Both are in the “don’t miss” category.

• L.A. concert information HERE.
• Santa Barbara concert information HERE.
• Read a New York Times review of a New York performance of the program to be played at Disney Hall HERE. David Allen, the reviewer, noted that Wang used in iPad instead of a paper score during her encore.

(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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L.A. Phil to spotlight Chinese New Year with Disney Hall concerts

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

One of the advantages of living in Southern California’s multicultural society is the chance to sample a wider range of holidays than folks in other, more homogenous societies. Case in point: Chinese New Year, which begins tomorrow and runs for 15 days. This is the Year of the Sheep,

zhangcolorThe Los Angeles Philharmonic will celebrate the festival for the first time with concerts on Feb. 19, 20 and 21 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Rising conductor star Xian Zhang leads a program that mixes music by Chopin, Saint-Säens and Tchaikovsky with selections by Li Huanzhi and Tan Dun.

The latter is represented by the West Coast premiere of Dun’s The Triple Resurrection, the fourth installment in Dun’s “Martial Arts Cycle,” a set of concertos based on his famous film scores. The work uses themes and musical characters (violin, cello, and piano) from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and The Banquet. Soloists will include Jin Wang, cello, Ning Feng, violin, and Haochen Zhang, piano, gold medalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The Triple Resurrection will also be presented at Hollywood Bowl on August 13 when the composer will conduct his own works accompanied by film clips.

The Disney Hall concerts are part of the Phil’s $20 ticket offer and traditional Chinese New Year celebrations will follow each concert.

Information: www.laphil.com

(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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COMPENDIUM: Happy Birthday “Hurricane Mama!”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles News Group
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This weekend marks the official celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ, dubbed “Hurricane Mama” by organist and composer Terry Riley after he first played it. The Los Angeles News Group has published several of my articles on the organ and upcoming concerts and following are the links:

• First, my review of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s concert on Nov. 20, one of the major events celebrating the organ, is HERE.
• My preview of organist Cameron Carpenter’s appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is HERE. I have an additional article on Cameron at the bottom of this post HERE.
• My profile of composer Stephen Hartke, whose Symphony No. 4 is receiving its world premiere this weekend, is HERE.

• What’s behind the façade of the Disney Hall organ? Published online HERE. Additional notes on the WDCH organ stories are at the bottom of this post HERE.

• Timothy Mangan, music critic of the Orange County Register, has a sparkling interview with Cameron HERE.

Concert performance details:

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor.
Barber: Toccata Festiva; Cameron Carpenter, organist
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”); Cameron Carpenter, organist
Hartke: Symphony No. 4; Joanne Pearce Martin, organist, Heidi Stober, soprano
• Nov. 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. Nov. 22 at 2 p.m.
NOTE: In place of a preconcert recital, Cameron Carpenter will play a recital at 6:45 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Information: 323/850-2000; www.laphil.com
• Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa
Same program; Rich Capparella will give a preconcert lecture at 1 p.m.
Information: 949/553-2422; www.philharmonicsociety.org

Happy Birthday “Hurricane Mama”: Pulling Out all the Stops
Organ recital by eight different organists; hosted by Michael Barrone of “Pipedreams”
Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: 323/850-2000; www.laphil.com

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

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PREVIEW: Cameron Carpenter, L.A. Philharmonic, to celebrate Disney Hall Organ

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

My preview article on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s concerts next weekend (Nov. 20-23) with organist Cameron Carpenter is published on Los Angeles News Group Web sites HERE. It will be published in the above papers Sunday.

Carpenter-w-ITOCameron Carpenter poses in front of his International Touring Organ, on which is now playing nearly of his solo recitals.

Cameron Carpenter’s digital revolution

Wacky and Wonderful. Goofy and Genius. There are more nicknames attached to organist Cameron Carpenter than his age (33). The Los Angeles Philharmonic, on its Web site, terms Carpenter a “subversive organ virtuoso” and an “audacious arranger.”

Finding a single descriptive word or phrase is impossible. Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times has written: “Carpenter is one of the rare musicians who changes the game of his instrument… He is a smasher of cultural and classical music taboos. He is technically the most accomplished organist I have ever witnessed… And, most important of all, the most musical.”

Carpenter has been a lightning-rod figure in the world of classical music since he emerged onto the scene as a pre-teen. He was born in rural northwestern Pennsylvania and home schooled by his parents (who he described in one article as “ex-hippies”). He began playing the piano at age 4 and at the same age fell in love with the organ, not because he heard one but because of a photo he saw in a music encyclopedia of someone playing the cinema organ from the 1920s. “I was immediately mesmerized by the glamour of the instrument,”

Carpenter continued his piano lessons and performed Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at age 11 before joining the American Boychoir School in 1992 as a boy soprano, where he again became interested in the organ. He made his European debut as an organist when he was 13.

During his four years of high school studies at The North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, Carpenter played for the First Baptist Church and was resident organist at the Reynolda House of American Art. While in high school, Carpenter also studied orchestration and orchestral composition and transcribed for the organ more than 100 major works, including Gustav Mahler’s complete Symphony No. 5.

Carpenter went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The Juilliard School where he studied with such organ luminaries as Gerre Hancock, John Weaver and Paul Jacobs; the latter has been chair of the organ department at Juilliard since 2004, despite being just four years older than Carpenter.

Carpenter also continued composing at Juilliard: art songs; the symphonic poem Child of Baghdad for orchestra, chorus and Ondes Martenot; his first substantial works for solo organ; and numerous organ arrangements of piano works by Chopin, Godowsky, Grainger, Ives, Liszt, Medtner, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and others.

Carpenter has played pipe organs throughout the world, growing increasingly dissatisfied with the limitations each instrument places on the performer. Those limitations include where the console is located, often hidden from the audience. For make no mistake, Carpenter is, first and foremost, a performer. He often strolls into the hall an hour before each recital talking and shaking hands with friends and strangers alike.

Cameron_CarpenterThe performing environment is critical to Carpenter and it’s one reason he loves playing the organ in Walt Disney Concert Hall. “I believe that music is both an aural and a visual art and the entire look of Disney Hall and its organ exemplifies that,” he told me. But asked how long it would take to register the Disney Hall organ for this weekend’s programs (Barber’s Toccata Festiva, Carpenter’s transcription of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 and a preconcert recital), he groaned, “Too long!”

That was one of the frustrations that led him to Marshall & Ogletree, of Needham, Mass. Together they have built what he calls the International Touring Organ, a massive, innovative digital instrument that Carpenter now uses for his recitals. The ITO (which nearly fills a concert hall stage) has a console that is 9’ x 7’ and 10, and gigantic speakers, each 2.5 x 4.5 feet.

Unlike violinists, who travel with and plays their personal instruments, organists (and pianists) are at the mercy of the instrument in the hall or church. Vladimir Horowitz, who had a reputation for eccentricity similar to Carpenter’s, traveled with his own Steinway piano. Until now an organist could not do this, except for one: Virgil Fox, who in the 1970s traveled with an analog Rodgers Touring (electronic) organ and then an Allen Organ.

However, comparing those instruments to the ITO is to compare, well, analog and digital formats. Among other advantages, the digital age enables Carpenter to program thousands of sounds from the organs that he has most admired into the ITO. One way to hear just how amazing the instrument sounds is on his newly released SONY CD, If You Could Read My Mind. If you have a top-notch sound system in your car or at home, the music will rattle your windows.

Remarkably the ITO takes far less time to set up than it takes Carpenter to register a pipe organ. The entire instrument fills a single truck. Load in begins at 9 a.m. on the day of the recital and by about 11:15 a.m. the instrument is set up and ready for testing. Carpenter spends five hours in the afternoon testing, checking the hall’s acoustics and rehearsing. Load out after the concert takes a mere two hours.

The ITO made its debut in New York last March and in Europe two months later. Carpenter already has 90 performances booked for next year. Identical European and American sound systems (housed in Berlin and Needham, MA) make this truly an “international” touring organ.

Moreover, the ITO opens up thousands of venues that don’t have a pipe organ and he will even use the ITO in places where a pipe organ exists, such as the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia next January and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in February.

Thus, the Disney Hall recital in which he will play this Sunday and the preconcert recitals before the Thursday, Friday and Saturday concerts will be increasingly rare events: hearing Cameron Carpenter playing a recital an actual pipe organ. “It has,” says Carpenter, “taken far less time than I would have imagined to eradicate any solos on pipe organs from my itinerary.”

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

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