OVERNIGHT REVIEW: A musically and visually superb “Creation”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Alberto Arvelo, video artistdirector
James F. Ingalls, lighting designer
Rachele Gilmore, soprano
Joshua Guerrero, tenor
Johannes Kammler, baritone
Next performances: today at 2 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. (without videos)
Information: www.laphil.com

We are in the midst of a 10-day stretch when the Los Angeles Philharmonic has programmed three different oratorios, each performance with its own unique twist.

Next Thursday and Saturday, noted French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie is scheduled to lead the Phil in performances of Handel’s Messiah, with Labadie’s own choral ensemble, La Chapelle du Québec, singing the choral parts.

Next Friday and Dec. 18, the Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform a 21st century telling of the nativity story, El Niño, with the composer, John Adams, conducting both performances as part of the Phil’s year-long celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday, which actually occurs on Feb. 15.

Last night brought Haydn’s 1797 oratorio, The Creation, with LAPO Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting 62 members of the Master Chorale and an orchestra reduced to equally appropriate numbers — both ensembles performing with their customary excellence — and three superb vocal soloists: soprano Rachele Gilmore, tenor Joshua Guerrero and baritone Johannes Kammler.

However, what made the evening unusual were that Dudamel’s Venezuelan counterpart, Alberto Arvelo, and lighting designer extraordinaire James F. Ingals combined to create a highly evocative video accompaniment to Haydn’s musical-portrait music.

Only once or twice have I experienced a program where the visuals added measurably to the enjoyment; more often, they’ve been a detriment or, at best, a confusion. Last night was the exception.

It began with the setting. Orchestra and chorus members were dressed in all black, as was Dudamel. The choristers were seated not in the choral benches but on risers directly behind the back row of the orchestra. Lighting for all was subdued.

The soloists were in between the two ensembles and were dressed in all white. That allowed Ingals’ subtle lighting changes to gently spotlight the soloists without having to be overbearing. Throughout the evening, the lighting cast a provocative mood over the entire proceedings.

Meanwhile, Arvelo used the ceiling, sides, and the seats and organ pipes above the empty choral bench seats as the backdrop for his shifting images to illustrate the texts and, in the case of the opening orchestral movement, the earth before creation, or as Haydn called it The Representation of the Chaos. Throughout the evening Arvelo used creation images from cultures around the world, including Africa, Japan, South America and native Californians.

In the preconcert lecture, Arvelo (a film maker whose work includes The Liberator, for which Dudamel wrote the score) noted that the creative process was turned upside down from his normal working procedure. “Instead of creating the movie and adding in the music,” he said, “in this case I had the music and texts and added the visual metaphors; they became poetry of images.” However you describe it, the entire visual integration was exemplary from beginning to end.

By the way, if you are dead-set against the use of projections, Sunday afternoon’s performance will be without the visuals.

The texts were in English. Haydn used simultaneous English and German versions of the texts, which — as program annotator John Magnum — noted made this the first major work printed with bilingual texts. The words — from the first two chapters of Genesis in the Bible, portions of the Psalms and some sections from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, may have been intended originally for Handel.

Although the texts last night were projected on the edges of the front balconies, most of the time the supertitling was unnecessary as both chorus and soloists sang with excellent diction.

All three soloists were excellent individually and they blended well in their trios. Gilmore was impressive both for her tone and in her melissmas, Guerrero’s tenor line was clean and effortless and Kammler’s voice was bright throughout his many solos.

Dudamel conducted with a score but did not use a baton. Instead, he used his expressive hands to encourage his singers — if Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon ever decides to take a sabbatical, Dudamel would make an excellent replacement. Even for, or perhaps especially for, those of us who have sung this work, it was an impressive performance.

• The first LAPO performance of The Creation was conducted in 1960 by Sir Georg Solti in (I presume) Philharmonic Auditorium. It was probably one of Solti’s last performances with the Phil; a year later Dorothy Chandler named Zubin Mehta as assistant conductor without bothering to inform Solti ahead of time. Thus the Hungarian conductor’s appointment as LAPO Music Director ended before it even began and the Mehta era came to pass, instead.
• Information on the Phil’s Messiah performances is HERE. Information on the El Niño performances is HERE.

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

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PREVIEW: Dueling Chinese orchestras come to Southland Dec. 5 and 11

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Although it wasn’t intended that way, President-elect Donald Trump’s (perhaps) ill-advised contact with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has put an unexpected spotlight on two orchestra concerts this month.

The China Philharmonic, which was founded in 2000, will appear tonight (Dec. 5) at Walt Disney Concert led by its founder and music director, Long Yu. The program opens with Qigang Chen Enchantements oubliés and continues with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World). The concerto soloist will be 12-year-old Serena Wang, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Information: www.laphil.com

Meanwhile, the Taiwan Philharmonic, which dates from 1986 when it was known as the National Symphony Orchestra, makes its U.S. debut on Dec.11 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

Shao-Chia Lü leads the ensemble in the world premiere of Taiwanese composer Chun-Wei Lee’s The Last Mile and Tyzen Hsiao’s Violin Concerto, with Cho-Liang Lin as soloist in the concerto. The evening concludes with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

My suggestion: ignore the politics and enjoy the music.

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

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Trifonov dazzles in Rach 3 with Dudamel and L.A. Phil

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

2014-03-31_trifLos Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Dec. 2; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite, Op. 20; Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; Daniil Trifonov, pianist
Next concerts: Today at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic first played Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto on Jan. 2, 1930 the soloist was Vladimir Horowitz, making his L.A. debut at the age of 26.

Writing about concert, Los Angeles Times critic, Isabel Morse Jones, called Horowitz “overrated.” She wrote: “He has been praised by the most discriminating and lauded as ‘the greatest,’ the most astounding, and all the rest of the superlatives press representatives overwork. After a first hearing of a concerto that makes tremendous technical demands upon the player but contains little that is emotional or poetic, my impression of Mr. Horowitz is that he has been overrated. He is, without question, one of the astounding piano talents in point of facility and, in what is better, musicianship. He lacks feeling and his truly marvelous ability and cleverness for effort does not compensate. He is yet too young in soul to be called a great pianist. The future will answer what he will become.”

The future did, indeed, pass judgment on Horowitz (and on Rachmaninoff’s third). To Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend comes another young (age 25) Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov, who has been proclaimed by many to be the next Horowitz since he captured both the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Israel in 2011 at the age of 20.

In his Hollywood Bowl debut in 2013, Trifonov soloed in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and his Disney Hall recital debut last February concluded with that composer’s first piano sonata. In March he played Prokofiev’s third piano concerto with L’Orchestre Symphonie de Montréal, led Kent Nagano, in Santa Barbara.

So there was tremendous anticipation for his Rach 3 performance this morning, which came less than 12 hours after playing the same piece the night before. This was also Trifonov’s first appearance with Dudamel (the Bowl concert was led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya). The house this morning was almost completely filled.

Based on my first experience with Trifonov, I’m certainly not going to call him “overrated.” Is he the “next Horowitz”? Only time will tell. For now I will happy to call him the first Trifonov — that’s more than enough!

He was fascinating to watch as well as to hear. He bounded on stage and sat quietly before melting his opening lines out of the orchestral introduction. At the meditative beginning of the second movement, he sat head bowed as if he was in prayer. But each time he dug into the meat of Rachmaninoff’s concerto, he gradually hunched over as he roared through the octaves and other pyrotechnic moments. In her preconcert lecture, Lucinda Carver said that Trifonov played thye “small notes” for the cadenzas, not the larger notes that most pianists use.

All of that was certainly thrilling to watch and hear. However, what I most remember were the quiet, poetic lines (yes, Ms. Jones, there is plenty that is emotional and poetic this gigantic work) that Trifonov played with exquisite delicacy.

Dudamel and the Phil gave Trifonov warm, supple support. Dudamel conducted using a score and he was extremely attentive to his soloist. Kudos, especially, to Principal Horn Roger Kaza and Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov for their contributions. Together they brought out all of Rachmaninoff’s long, soaring lines.

The finale brought the expected standing ovation but this one had even more excitement than most. Seemingly unfazed by the workout, Trifonov responded with a playful account of Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Gavotte from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006.

One of the problems with Rach 3 is what do you pair with this mammoth concerto? Indeed, one of the surprises of the day was that the concerto opened the program — how do you follow that? Rather than with a symphony, Dudamel elected to pair use strange works: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Op. 20 and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54. One reason might have been that the two works call for similar orchestration: both call for two harps and each piece has lots of percussion; one difference is that the Scriabin ends with full pipe organ.

The Scythian Suite was Prokofiev’s attempt to channel Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Like Rite, the Scythian Suite was originally conceived as a ballet by Diaghliev, but it never came to pass. Instead, Prokofiev fashioned the music into a four-movement, 22-minute orchestral suite.

Dudamel conducted without a score. The Phil played the raucous two opening movements with razor-sharp precision, the dreamy third movement unfolded gently and the final movement was majestic in Dudamel’s conception. Herbert Glass’ program note contained a quote from a cellist in the first performance: “I have a sick wife and three children; must I be forced to settle for this hell?” Half of the row in which I was sitting apparently agreed. They fled as the last notes finished.

I confess to never having heard Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. In his program note, Herbert Glass said that the premiere in New York City received “scathing reviews.” I’m not willing to go that far but I’m not looking forward to hearing it again.

The work is sort of a precursor of minimalism with a series of never-ending falling and rising motifs, often led with panache by Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and Principal Clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan. Except for a few measures of calm, the work builds inexorably to a massive fortissimo. Dudamel and the Phil gave it all the gusto possible.

Fortunately, nothing could wipe out the excitement of Trifonov in Rach 3. We’ve now heard him in lots of Russian music — I can’t wait to hear him in some other genres. His bio says that during the past couple of seasons he has played Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and Schumann with other orchestras. Those will give us a better sense of what he can become in the next decades.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Phil screens “On the Waterfront” with live orchestra accompaniment

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

on-the-waterfront-4-blogMarlon Brando (left) won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” Karl Malden should have won the Best Supporting Actor for the role of Father Barry but didn’t (he was one of three men nominated — the others were Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger. They undoubtedly split the vote and the statuette went to Edmond O’Brien won for “The Barefoot Contessa”).

The Los Angeles Philharmonic screened the 1954 film classic On the Waterfront last night in Walt Disney Concert Hall with composer David Newman conducting the orchestra as it played Leonard Bernstein’s score live.

If your goal was to hear Bernstein’s gritty, dramatic music full throat while, incidentally, seeing director Elia Kazan’s gripping treatment of crime and mob influence on the New York docks, then the evening was a rousing success. If, on the other hand, you wanted to see the film with the score integrated into the movie, the evening was probably less successful.

The film is one of three being screened this weekend as part of the orchestra’s in/SIGHT series. It also marked the beginning of a three-year collaboration between the Phil and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the orchestra playing the scores live while the movies are shown on a large screen suspended above the ensemble. My preview story is HERE.

Owing to previous commitments I was unable to see Rebel Without a Cause Thursday night and won’t be at Casablanca tomorrow afternoon, either. Others who are seeing all three films will have to judge as to whether the issues that emerged last night will also appear in the other two films. My guess is they will.

In one sense On the Waterfront was a perfect choice for this format, since Bernstein’s 50-minutes of music is less than half of the picture’s 108-long run time (there was also an intermission last night). Long stretches of the movie, therefore, have no music underlay. However, when the orchestra was playing the score it so overpowered the actors onscreen that captions were not only welcome, they were a necessity.

Although On the Waterfront was released by Columbia Pictures, it was an independent film produced by Sam Spiegel, one of many he made in the 1950s and 1960s (others included Bridge On the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, all of which won Oscars for Best Picture, making Spiegel the only person to win three Best Picture statuettes).

Needing a big name for the box office, Spiegel tapped Bernstein, who wrote what would be his only score composed expressly for a movie, although On the Town and West Side Story were adapted for the big screen. Rumor exists that Bernstein was disenchanted with the fact that director Kazan excised two segments of the score and that led to the composer’s decision to forego writing for another motion picture.

In the preconcert lecture last night, composer Laura Karpman — who has written for film, television, video games, theater, and the concert hall — said that’s the way films work; the director has the ultimate say and you know that going in.

Newman and the orchestra played the score powerfully and with their customary excellence last night. What Bernstein wrote was typical of Lenny: jazz and blues influenced, gripping, craggy and sweeping in its scope and the orchestra put all of that front and center.

As Karpman noted, seeing a movie like On the Waterfront with an orchestra playing the score live is similar to seeing a Wagnerian opera where the music often overpowers whatever is on stage. That was the case last night. However, for those who have seen On the Waterfront only on a television screen, viewing it in Disney Hall with a live orchestra was surely a revelation on several levels.

Moreover, whether Bernstein was, indeed, disenchanted with not having control of the score in the final movie or whether he feared what happened to Leonard Rosenman after the latter scored Rebel Without a Cause (“Back in the day when you went to Hollywood — for whatever reason,” said composer-conductor Scott Dunn in the Phil’s program notes for Thursday night’s screening, “you were just labeled and that was it”), Bernstein’s one film score was a masterpiece, as last night demonstrated anew.

• Eva Marie Saint, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Edie Doyle, introduced the film last night, reminiscing about how she felt as she made what was her film debut. It was Saint’s only Oscar and was one of eight the movie captured that year. We should all look and sound as good as Saint when we are 92 years old.
Casablanca screens tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Disney hall with Newman conducting the L.A. Phil as it plays Max Steiner’s score. Noted film music author Jon Burlingame delivers a preconcert lecture at 1 p.m. Information: www.laphil.com

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Garrick Ohlsson creates a magical Beethoven evening

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Ohlsson-2016I’ve never been big hearing on single-composer recitals — in fact, I can count on Mordecai Brown’s pitching hand the number of truly great concerts I’ve heard in this specialized genre. But Beethoven is no ordinary composer and Garrick Ohlsson is a uniquely gifted pianist, so his recital last night before a good-sized audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall proved to be the outlier to my listening history.

When my late wife (a concert pianist) was planning recitals she would often program a Beethoven sonata and it was usually the centerpiece of the evening. During her short career (cut short by MS) she played three of the four sonatas that Ohlsson performed last night but never would have conceived of programming four in one evening. Ohlsson made it work magnificently.

Strictly speaking, Ohlsson’s feat wasn’t a novelty. In recent years, pianists Paul Lewis and Andras Schiff have played the complete Beethoven sonata cycle over several programs.

However, so far as I can make out from his Web site, Ohlsson isn’t undertaking such a marathon He simply chose four of Beethoven’s best-known sonatas to make up this recital. All four have subtitles and all are in three movements (some of the composer’s efforts in this genre have four movements and a few have just two).

Dennis Bade, in his printed program essay, quoted Ohlsson as saying: “The great thing about the famous pieces of the repertoire is that they are famous because they are great! These sonata take no prisoners!” That, from Ohlsson’s perspective, was a good enough for his choices.

The Pathetique Sonata (Op. 11), which opened the evening, and the Moonlight (Op. 27, No. 2), which concluded the quartet were among Beethoven’s earlier efforts in this genre. The Appassionata (Op. 57) and Waldenstein (Op. 53) are from Beethoven’s middle period, and last night they formed the middle of a very tasty sandwich. Pathetique and Moonlight are the shortest of the four; thus the program formed a splendid arch.

Ohlsson is a joy to watch precisely because there is little to watch (compared to young pianist today, such as Yuja Wang and Lang Lang). He walks briskly on stage, sits quietly at the keyboard and plays magnificently. As I noted in my Hollywood Bowl review from this past summer, “There is a sense of serene calm to Ohlsson,” He emphasizes sonority in his bass notes and his right hand delivered pristine, pearly tones throughout the evening.

His Pathetique rendering was elegant, even in the stormy points, and Appassionata (which for most pianists would be the climax of the evening but here merely ended the first half) was appropriately passionate. The second half of the evening — featuring delicate swirling lines in Waldenstein and limpid serene pools in Moonlight — was even more satisfying than the pre-intermission performances.

In response to the thunderous standing ovation, Ohlsson announced he would play as an encore something that wasn’t Beethoven and needed no introduction: an exquisitely delicate performance of Debussy’s Clair du lune. The word breathtaking is often overused (including by me). In this case, it was exactly the appropriate description. What a gorgeous way to end the evening!


Ohlsson will appear May 11, 12 and 13 with the New West Symphony playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). Information

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

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