OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Salonen, L.A. Phil premiere Saariaho’s organ work

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Janáček: Sinfionetta; Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite
Saariaho: Maan varjot (Earth’s Shadows) (U.S. premiere); Olivier Latry, organist
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

EThe Los Angeles Philharmonic has never seemed to quite know how best to use the pipe organ in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nonetheless, the orchestra is celebrating the instrument’s 10th anniversary throughout this season (it took all of the hall’s first season to fine-tune the organ; thus its debut was a year after the hall debuted). Perhaps after several orchestral concerts and recitals in 2014-2015, that best use will emerge. For now, we can simply delight that we are hearing a real pipe organ in a concert hall.

The first of several orchestral concerts this season celebrating the organ are being conducted by the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen (pictured above), who was instrumental (pun intended) in the design and creation of Walt Disney Concert Hall, including the imposing, intriguing instrument that was later nicknamed “Hurricane Mama” by organist and composer Terry Riley.

To celebrate the organ, it’s certainly no surprise that Salonen chose a work by Kaija Saariaho. She, like Salonen, is a Finnish composer and Salonen has conducted many of her works with the Phil. Her music is an acquired taste and I freely admit that I haven’t found the key to enjoying it fully yet.

Maan varjot (Earth Shadows) received its U.S. premiere last night at Disney Hall. The Finnish title comes from lines in Shelley’s ode to John Keats:
“The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly.”

The 15-minute work was commissioned the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and three European organizations. The world premiere took place in Montreal last May — like Disney Hall, that organ (created and built by Casavant Frères of nearby Saint-Hyacinthye, Quebec) was inaugurated in the second season of the city’s new concert hall. The soloist was French organist Olivier Latry and Kent Nagano conducted the OSM.

Latry was on hand here last night, as well; in fact, no other soloist has played the work, with good reason — the technical requirements for both organist and orchestra will probably limit its reception.

Although Saariaho grew up playing the organ, this is one of the first pieces she has written for the instrument. The three-movement work is not really an organ concerto, as she explains in the program note: “I didn’t want to create a duel of decibels. Rather, it is a work with a prominent solo organ part, some kind of a fruitful and inspiring companionship, in which two strong but civilized personalities can co-exist without having to fight too much for the place in the sun.”

The first movement featured mysterious, dissonant tones with Latry weaving the organ in and out of the orchestral fabric; deep organ bass notes resonated from the instrument’s distinctive wooden pipes throughout the building (see Hemidemisemiquavers below for info on the Disney Hall organ).

In the preconcert lecture Saariaho said the second movement is the heart of the piece and, consequently, this is the one section where the organ is most prominent.

The third movement wandered between the wild, the weird and the wacky as Sarriaho gave Latry the biggest opportunity to show off both his considerable technical skill and the instrument’s varied colors.

Salonen conducted the piece without a baton and the orchestra handled the difficult writing with aplomb. After its conclusion, much of the audience gave everyone involved — organist, composer, orchestra and conductor — effusive applause.

The organ work was bracketed by two muscular orchestral pieces from the early 20th century that rank high on my list of unjustly neglected works (technically Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite was begun in 1893 but it was revised several times up to its final version, which wasn’t published until 1954).

Leoš Janáček’s Sinfionetta is worth discovering if only for its and the composer’s backstories. Janáček wrote the piece at age 72, the result of a dozen-year correspondence of some 700 letters between Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman 38 years his junior, who would become his muse.

In 1925 they heard a military band concert in which the musicians played standing. So taken with the idea was Janáček that the first movement of this 25-minute work features 13 brass players (nine trumpets and four other horns) who for this concert were standing in the first row of the bench seats behind the orchestra. The balance of the work is, in effect, a standard four-movement symphony.

The Phil played with equal mixtures of rhythmically crispness and luxuriant tones and Salonen conducted exuberantly. Hearing Sinfionetta again was a genuine pleasure and the audience’s response was enthusiastic, particularly for the first work of a concert.

After intermission, Salonen turned to Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite. The story of Salonen resisting the music of his countryman early in his conducting career is well known but this four-movement, 50-minute work — based on portions of the Nordic legend, The Kalevala — was an exception. Salonen was age 22 when he led the first complete LAPO performance of the work in 1991, a year before he officially became the Phil’s 10th music director. He and the orchestra subsequently recorded it (amazingly for a 23-year-old recording, it’s still available).

Last night was a richly rewarding performance, demonstrating again the exquisite acoustics of Disney Hall and reinforcing the joy of hearing a work played live as opposed to a recording. This was particularly true in the work’s best-known section, The Swan of Tuonela, which featured a stunningly soulful performance by Carolyn Hove on English horn. We’ve become so used to hearing Hove’s beautiful playing since she joined the Phil in 1988 that we sometimes take it for granted but on this night she was extraordinary.

Salonen conducted this movement without a baton (he used a stick in the other three) and he and the orchestra rose to the heights of Hove’s gorgeous solo work. The audience responded with a thunderous, and well-deserved, standing ovation.

• This week’s preconcert lecture host was Eric Bromberger, a violinist with the La Jolla Symphony who writes program notes for several different organizations including the San Diego Symphony and the Washington Performing Arts Center at the Kennedy Center.

He began by interviewing Saariaho and Latry. I wished he had asked Latry the differences between the new Montreal organ and the Disney Hall instrument but no such luck. Latry did say that the Disney Hall instrument has grown in its 10 years of existence but didn’t elaborate on what he meant.

After the short interview Bromberger discussed the Janáček and Sibelius works with skill and enthusiasm. In part because he was wearing a headset microphone he was clearly understandable even in the back of BP Hall, and he handled the iPod technology smoothly (something that doesn’t always happen). Overall this was one of the best preconcert lectures I can remember attending.
• This week’s concerts are among those offering $20 seats for selected seats, in addition to student and senior rush tickets (INFO). The lower prices didn’t seem to help; there were more empty seats than at any LAPO Disney Hall concert I can ever remember.
• The next orchestra concerts in the organ celebration are Nov. 20, 21, and 22l, with LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting. These are also scheduled to feature a first hearing — this one the world premiere of the long-delayed Symphony No. 4 (“Organ”) by Stephen Hartke — along with the most famous work for organ with orchestra: Saint-Säens’ Symphony No. 3. Organist Cameron Carpenter will be the exemplary soloist. LINK
• After those three concerts Dudamel, Carpenter and the orchestra journey to Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa for what we used to call a “run-out” concert. This will give people a unique opportunity to compare the Disney Hall organ with the C.B. Fisk instrument in the Orange County hall. Incidentally, the Hartke symphony was commissioned by former Orange County Philharmonic Society Board Chairman Edward Halvajian (1935-2009). LINK
• In an organ concert of a different stripe, theatre organist Clark Wilson returns to Disney Hall for his annual Halloween concert on Oct. 31, this one with music accompanying the 1922 silent film landmark Nosferatu, the first film so-called Vampire film. Feel free to come in costume but take note of the restrictions outlined in the LINK
• The Disney Hall organ — 6,145 pipes (72 stops, 109 ranks), ranging in size from a pencil to a telephone pole — is one of the larger and most impressive instruments in Southern California. Frank Gehry, the Disney Hall architect, and organ builder Manuel Rosales, Jr. collaborated on the unusual visual design, including the curved wood façade pipes made of Douglas fir — I liken their look to an overturned bag of French fries. Rosales and Glatter-Götz Orgelbau of Germany built the mechanical design, construction, tuning and voicing. Behind the façade are three levels of pipes, including metal pipes made of tin and lead alloys and wood pipes made of Norwegian pine. (More info HERE)

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

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REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic open 2014-2015 season with scintillating Mahler

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

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Oct. 2 at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Lang: man made; Sō Percussion, soloists
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

My review of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season-opening concert is online at our papers’ Web site HERE.

Following are some of my additional thoughts on the concert:
• Taking bows continues to be an art form for Dudamel at Disney Hall, but each concert is different. Last night he waded into the orchestra and shook Neil’s hand first. In a later bow, he asked Hooten, Bain and other principals to stand, then sections — even some of the string sections were singled out (an unusual touch). Of course, Dudamel and the orchestra turned to those in seats behind the stage; the audience always loves that.

• Mark Swed’s review in the Los Angeles Times is HERE and Timothy Mangan’s take in the Orange County Register is HERE. Obviously they liked David Lang’s piece more than I did. That’s the fun of reading multiple reviews.

• Dudamel will lead the second week of concerts on Oct. 9, 10, 11 and 12 in a program of John Adams’ Harmonium, along with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the Los Angeles Master Chorale will be the soloists. INFORMATION: www.laphil.com

• Following those concerts Dudamel, who had an extremely busy summer, apparently will take a vacation from conducting for a month before returning to lead the Phil Nov. 20-23 (His Web site lists no concerts between the LAPO programs). INFO

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

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PREVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic unveils adventureous 2014-2015 season

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

For the past two decades (at least) the Los Angeles Philharmonic has led the world in creating innovative programs for orchestras, but the 2014-2015 schedule at Walt Disney Concert Hall — entitled, appropriately, “Moving Music Forward” and announced officially yesterday — takes that concept into stratospheres never before envisioned, at least in a single season.

The various initiatives are complex enough that they can’t be fully grasped in one reading. Following is my first take on what’s ahead. In addition to the chronological schedule (HERE), you may want to download much of the press kit (HERE) and take some time to study what it contains.

Several sets of programs feature multiple disciplines, including three that combine video with music. LA Phil Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen will combine with artist Refik Anadol in a program that incorporates a new video into Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet Nov. 6, 7 and 9. Salonen and the Phil will be joined by three soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The Friday program will inaugurate the Phil’s new “in/Sight” series of music and videos. The other programs include Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on Jan. 9, to be conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (part of a series of events celebrating MTT’s 70th birthday); a staged production of Unsuk Chin’s opera, Alice in Wonderland on Feb. 27 and 28, 2015; and a program featuring music by Steve Mackey and Steve Reich on May 29 and 31. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the last two programs; all four programs will be repeated on days surrounding Friday.

The Romeo and Juliet program will be one of three sets of concerts that Salonen will conduct during the upcoming season. On Oct. 24, 25 and 26, Salonen and organist Olivier Latry will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Disney Hall organ with a program that includes the U.S. premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Maan varjot (Earth Shadows).

The upcoming season will feature the largest emphasis on the Disney Hall organ since the instrument made its debut in 2004. Dudamel will conduct programs on Nov. 20, 21 and 22 that will feature organist Cameron Carpenter in the long-delayed world premiere of Stephen Hartke’s Symphony No. 4 (Organ), originally slated to debut in May 2010, along with Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (Organ). Carpenter will also play his own arrangement of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2. There will also be five organ recitals during the upcoming season.

Another new Friday series will be “Inside the Music with Brian Lauritzen,” four programs hosted by the KUSC radio personality. Each concert will include a Lauritzen-produced video sent to audience members ahead of time, along with pre- and post-concert discussions with the hosts and artists and an online forum. Dudamel will conduct two of the four programs, one of which will be the organ program noted above.

In his sixth season as the Phil’s music director, Dudamel will conduct 12 subscription programs during the upcoming season, along with the annual Opening Night gala concert, which will feature violinist Itzhak Perlman and the music of John Williams. In December Dudamel will lead a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Music Center that will include a performance of Salonen’s Helix, with the music being relayed live into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where it will accompany a world-premiere presentation from LA Dance Project.

Dudamel will also lead the orchestra on an Asian tour in March 2015 that will visit Hong Kong, Bejing, Seoul and Tokyo. The programs will include Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World), Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, and John Adams’ City Noir, which was composed for Dudamel’s inaugural gala program in 2009.

Another new series, “Next on Grand,” is being described as “a recurring festival that converges upon a creative force or cultural element.” Next season’s focus will be on contemporary Americans ranging from “old-timers” such as Phillip Glass, Adams and Reich to relative compositional newcomers such as Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the band, the National, and Chris Cerrone.

As part of this venture, the Phil will collaborate with L.A. Opera in a production of David T. Little’s Dog Days at REDCAT, the black-box theatre inside Disney Hall, and will also produce John Adams’ Available Light at Disney Hall with Frank Gehry designing the sets and Lucinda Childs creating choreography.

Overall the season will have 10 commissioned works, eight world premieres, five U.S. premieres and seven West Coast premieres. Orchestras along with the Phil will be the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas on March 24, 2015 and the Seoul Philharmonic, led by Myun-Whung Chun on April 15, 2015. The “Sounds About Town” series has been bumped back up to three local orchestras: The Colburn Orchestra (led by Sir. Neville Marriner), USC Thornton Symphony, and the American Youth Symphony. There are also numerous other programmatic genres; as noted at the top of this Blog, there’s almost too much to absorb in one reading.

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

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Los Angeles Master Chorale celebrates 50th anniversary season with Bach’s B Minor Mass

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

Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
Saturday at 2 p.m. (note the unusual start time)
Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. Preconcert lecture with Grant Gershon and Alan Chapman one hour before each performance
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 1st St. and Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Tickets: $29-$129 (student rush seats may be available at the box office two hours before performance)
Information: www.lamc.org

Forty-nine years almost to the day (Jan. 27, 1965) from when Roger Wagner stepped onto a podium in the newly minted Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to conduct Los Angeles Master Chorale in its inaugural concert, a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass, the Chorale will celebrate that first concert with a performance of Bach’s masterpiece on Saturday afternoon and next Sunday evening in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Grant Gershon, who became the Chorale’s fourth music director in 2001, will lead 115 singers including 12 soloists (all Chorale members) plus a symphonic orchestra in what turned out to be one of the final pieces that Bach completed, a work considered to be a pinnacle of choral music. The Mass contains music that Bach had composed over a quarter-century, although most of it was revised for the final work. The B-Minor Mass was never performed in totality during Bach’s lifetime; the first documented complete performance took place in 1859.

The performance marks the Chorale coming full circle from when famed conductor Roger Wagner founded the chorus in 1964. Wagner — who had created his own small group, the Roger Wagner Chorale, in 1945 — formed the Los Angeles Master Chorale as one of three resident groups of the Music Center of Los Angeles. For the first 39 years, it performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Since the completion of Walt Disney Concert Hall 11 years ago, the LAMC has joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as resident groups at that iconic hall.

In addition to presenting history’s major choral works, the Master Chorale has commissioned 39 and premiered 88 new works, of which 57 were world premieres. The Master Chorale has half-dozen of its own CDs, most notably the first CD of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. The group will be featured on an upcoming CD of John Adams’ oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, scheduled to be released March 10 by Deutsche Grammophon. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Master Chorale and soloists in this live recording at Disney Hall.

Next weekend’s concerts are among the 14 programs on the Master Chorale’s 50th anniversary season, along with its extensive work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The weekend will include a gala celebration entitled “Golden on Grand,” which will take place at 6 p.m. in the Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall of the Pavilion. Tickets for that event are $650 per person. Information: www.lamc.org

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

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