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!

Hemidemisemiquaver:

Ohlsson will appear May 11, 12 and 13 with the New West Symphony playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). Information
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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ADD: More info on L.A. Phil movie nights this week

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will screen three classic movies this weekend (here’s a LINK to my story on these sites) and it won’t be a one-off programming concept. Last Friday, the Phil and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the folks who bring us the Oscars) announced that this weekend would kick off a three-year collaboration between the two groups.

rebel-4-blogNo details were announced on what might come in future years; some of that will, undoubtedly, depend on what transpires this weekend, which opens with Rebel Without a Cause on Thursday, continues with On the Waterfront on Friday and concludes with Casablanca on Sunday. INFORMATION

The media release on the new venture is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Class Act: On Pacific Symphony labor issues and a grand slam Beethoven piano recital by Garrick Ohlsson

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Because some, but not all, of our online sites have my column from last Sunday up yet, I am posting a link HERE.

The top half of the column deals with the ongoing labor issues at the Pacific Symphony (along with those in Ft. Worth and Pittsburgh). As of this morning, there appears to be no update on the situation and the orchestra’s upcoming concerts — including the screenings tonight and tomorrow of the movie Home Alone, with the Pacific Symphony playing John Williams’ score live — appear to be still on. An orchestra spokesperson said that talks will resume on Tuesday — talking is always a good thing. Information: www.pacificsymphony.org

ohlsson-2016At the bottom of the column is a note on Sunday evening’s recital by pianist Garrick Ohlsson (pictured left) Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ohlsson will play four (!) of Beethoven’s best-known piano sonatas, all of which contain subtitles: Pathétique, Moonlight, Waldenstein and Appassionata. Information: www.laphil.com

Check print Sunday and online (probably next week) for my preview of the upcoming L.A. Phil movie nights, featuring performances of Rebel Without a Cause on Nov. 17, On the Waterfront Nov. 18 and Casablanca Nov. 20, all with the Phil playing the scores live. Information: www.laphil.com
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic opens subscription season in splendid fashion

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

johnadams2016John Adams (pictured right) turns age 70 on Feb. 15, 2017, and orchestras throughout the country — most notably the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic — are taking the opportunity to salute the man who is one of America’s most important composers, along with being a conductor and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair.

During this season the L.A. Phil will reprise two of Adams’ most important pieces, including El Niño and Nixon in China (but not two I would have expected to show up on the list: City Noir and Harmonielehre — perhaps early next season).

Last night as part of its opening subscription program the Phil offered the Los Angeles premiere of Adams’ Absolute Jest, a scintillating 25-minute sendup of Beethoven works, particularly two of his final string quartets.

Although there are folks who contend that you don’t need lots of information about a “new” work to enjoy it —Absolute Jest was originally composed for the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial season in 2012 and revised with 400 new bars of new opening music for a performance by the New World Symphony later that year — Adams came onstage to talk about his inspiration for the piece.

He enlisted the support of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, for whom the piece had been written, which played portions of Beethoven String Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131 and the F Major, Op. 135 as examples of themes that Adams employed in his work. That, along with a particularly well delivered preconcert lecture by Russell Steinberg, offered excellent insight into what is undeniably an Adams creation, particularly in its rousing finale (which ended abruptly and magically with single notes from a harp and piano (both tuned slightly off pitch).

The quartet, which was seated in front of the orchestra and to the right of Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, proved to be formidable as it weaved its solo lines into the orchestral fabric. For their part, Dudamel confidently the piece confidently, as if he had lived with it for years, and the orchestra played with its customary excellence, as if this was just another Beethoven work.

Absolute Jest definitely piece worth hearing again and you can do that either tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m. in Disney Hall (INFO) or online at KUSC.org, which broadcast last night’s concert live and will have it online for the next week.

bronfman2016Perhaps not surprisingly, Dudamel elected to surround Adams’ piece with two Beethoven works. He and the orchestra opened with a magisterial rendition of the Corolian Overture and concluded with the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, with Yefim Bronfman (pictured left) as soloist.

Last summer we heard an elegant rendition of this familiar work by Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (my review is HERE). Last night, Bronfman was equally mesmerizing in his performance, pairing a majestic opening movement and playful conclusion with a magical second movement that was absolutely exquisite, particularly in contrast to the powerful chords erupting from the orchestra.

Dudamel and the orchestra played with a passion and precision not always apparent when accompanying a soloist. Dudamel, in particular, was intensely involved although, paradoxically, that often translated into minimalist motions on the podium. It was a superb ending to a impressive opening concert, auguring well for the next eight months.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• Steinberg’s preconcert lecture was one of the best I have heard. He offered several insightful windows, particularly for Absolute Jest and the fourth concerto, which were helpful not only for the occasional attender but also for those who are Phil regulars. Steinberg, who is a composer and conducts the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra — is offering a series of eight lectures from January through March in Encino on the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. INFO: www.russelsteinberg.com
• Although the official unveiling isn’t until today, patrons entering Disney Hall from the parking garage got “sneak-preview” 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.
• In addition to officially unveiling Nimbus, Saturday will be an 12-hour (noon to midnight) celebration of contemporary music, including the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO
• While Dudamel is in New York City leading his Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in three concerts at Carnegie Hall (INFO), Pablo Heras-Casado will be on the Disney Hall podium Oct. 7, 8 and 9 leading the Phil in Stravinsky’s complete Firebird and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist.

Oct. 7 is the season’s first “Casual Friday” concert. The Saturday and Sunday programs also include Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester), although if the Friday program started closer to on time, it could include the second Ravel work, which lasts all of eight minutes. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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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, which ended with mylar shards floating down from the Walt Disney Concert Hall ceiling, also raises big bucks for the Phil’s education programs, including its Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), the local version of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, which begins its 10th anniversary this year. The orchestra donates its services for this annual event.

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.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• 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 12-hour (noon to midnight) celebration of contemporary music, including the opening program in the Phil’s “Green Umbrella” series. INFO
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(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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