PREVIEW: KUSC to air Disney Hall “War Requiem” concert on Sunday

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

If you weren’t able to attend the performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Sunday in Orange County or Monday in Walt Disney Concert Hall, KUSC (91.5 FM in Los Angeles and www.kusc.org) will air the L.A. performance on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Details: www.kusc.org

James Conlon conducted The Colburn Orchestra, members of the USC-Thornton Symphony, three soloists and more than 400 choristers ranging from local universities to the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in the performances.

Links to my preview story and my review are HERE and HERE.

BTW: A Caltech link has the complete text HERE so you can follow it. Although the diction was exemplary during the Disney Hall performance, being able to read Wilfed Owen’s gripping poetry would definitely be a plus.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Conlon leads combined forces in stunning performance of “War Requiem”

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

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)
New Zealand Youth Choir (David Squire, music director)
November 25, 2013 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.
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Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the monuments of choral literature. It stands with the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms and Verdi and alongside other choral masterpieces such as Handel’s Messiah.

But there’s a catch. Britten’s magnum opus is so rarely performed that its emotional impact seems outsized when compared with the others on this list. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but it certainly lessens the effect of these better-known pieces.

At last night’s preconcert lecture immediately preceding a stunning performance of War Requiem at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when Conductor James Conlon asked how many people would be hearing the piece for the first time, nearly every hand was raised. Imagine how staggered you would feel if you were hearing, for example, Verdi’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah for the first time.

Thus it’s truly amazing that this rare performance of War Requiem, was sung and played not by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or one of our other professional ensembles but by about 400 instrumentalists and choristers, all college age or younger, along with three soloists. What could have been a train wreck was instead a vibrant, cohesive unified front, all under the steady hands and baton of Conlon, who somehow managed to sandwich this concert and last Sunday’s performance in Costa Mesa between conducting Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Los Angeles Opera.

The two local War Requiem concerts took place just days after the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth; the 50th anniversary of President John K. Kennedy’s assassination added to the emotional nature of the evening.

How Britten, a pacifist, came to write War Requiem is reasonably well known (you can read some of the details in my preview story HERE). The basics are that he was commissioned to write a piece of his choosing for the dedication of the new St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. The premiere took place on May 30, 1962.

Part of Britten’s genius in writing War Requiem was that he melded the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass text with gritty poetry written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. (Ironically, Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week — almost to the hour — before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war; he was awarded a posthumous Military Cross). As a preface to War Requiem, Britten quoted Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” That’s just a sample of the emotional impact of the poems.

Another aspect of the work’s greatness is how Britten deployed his forces. The adult choral forces (182 voices, if everyone listed in the printed program actually sang) join with the soprano soloist to sing the traditional Requiem text, accompanied by a full-sized orchestra. A children’s chorus, accompanied by an organist, adds a potent angelic element at key points, sung last night from the top rear balcony. Tenor and baritone soloists, simulating a German and English soldier, sing Owen’s poetry, accompanied by an ensemble of 13 instruments.

In some performances, the male soloists and chamber orchestra are separated from the main body and led by a second conductor (indeed, that’s how the premiere performance was played; Britten conducted the smaller contingent while Meredith Davies led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra).

However, Conlon chose to conduct the entire performance by himself, placing the chamber ensemble directly in front of him with the larger orchestra behind them. The male soloists — tenor Joseph Kaiser and baritone Phillip Addis — flanked the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamara Wilson sat in the middle of the front row of choristers on the choral benches. Conlon led some portions using a baton; for many of the choral sections, he laid down the stick and conducted with expressive hands.

The choral forces delivered a beautiful tone and were amazingly precise throughout the 84 minutes, but particularly in the extended fugal writing in the “Dies Irae” sections . The combined children’s choruses floated gorgeous sound with precise diction from their “heavenly” location in Disney Hall.

Soprano Tamara Wilson, symbolizing a Russian soldier, poured out rich opulent sounds that carried even over the combined choral and orchestral forces. Her melding with the chorus in the “Lacrimosa” was a highlight of the evening.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser, singing music written for Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears, delivered that bright tone so favored by English composers and Kaiser’s diction so precise that the projected supertitles were not needed. Baritone Phillip Addis’s voice turned gravely in the lower registers but he was emotionally strong in delivering some of Owen’s most poignant lines.

The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony played splendidly, especially given the fact that, according to one story, only Concertmaster Jeffrey Myers had ever played the work before. The 13-member ensemble (the same number that Britten used to accompany his three chamber operas) passed Britten’s melodies from hand to hand, as it were, while offering sympathetic accompaniment to Kaiser and Addis.

All forces eventually join in the final movement, “Libera Me,” in which Kaiser and Addis sang Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” a commentary on companionship between enemies after one has killed the other, interspersed with the final words of the Mass. Two bells — C and F-sharp — continue to toll as they have throughout the piece and the chorus finally dies away in a mysterious vapor. The capacity audience sat spellbound, silent for 20 seconds, before erupting in wave after wave of standing ovations for the performers — and, one thinks, also for the piece. Conlon appeared to be spent emotionally; for most of the audience, the feeling was the same.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Conlon’s typically erudite preconcert lecture was particularly helpful in showing the influences of Verdi, Berlioz and Mozart on Britten’s writing.
• The organist last night was Christoph Bull, head of the organ department at UCLA, a nice — if somewhat ironic — touch to counterbalance the presence of the USC-Thornton Symphony and two USC choirs.
• In honor of the Britten centennial, Decca has released a newly remastered version of the original recording of War Requiem, featuring the three singers who Britten intended to sing the premiere: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). Because of international tensions, Vishnevskaya didn’t sing at the premiere (English soprano Heather Harper stepped in) but Vishnevskaya did perform in the original recording. The new version include a CD of War Requiem, , a Blu-Ray Audio format, which allows the recording to be heard at 24-bit, and a CD featuring Britten in rehearsal at the sessions in January 1963, which was produced by the legendary John Culshaw.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Britten’s centennial to be remembered with two performances of “War Requiem”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was published today in the above papers.

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony; James Conlon, conductor

Tamara Wilson, soprano, Joseph Kaiser, tenor, Phillip Addis, baritone
USC Thornton Chamber Singers (Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe, conductor)
USC Thornton Concert Choir (Dr. Christian Grases, conductor)
Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir from CSU-Long Beach (Dr. Jonathan Talberg, director)
CSU-Fullerton University Singers (Dr. Robert Istad, conductor)
Chapman University Singers (Dr. Stephen Coker, director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)

Today at 8:15 p.m. • Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by Dr. William Hall.
Information: www.philharmonicsociety.org

Tomorrow at 8 p.m. • Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. by James Conlon.
Information: www.laphil.com
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Brittenr4WebWe’re in the penultimate two months of a year honoring birthdays of three of history’s most important composers: the bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the centennial of Benjamin Britten (right), which occurred on Friday (Nov. 22). The Britten centennial reaches its climax locally today and tomorrow with a massive collaboration on Britten’s most significant work: War Requiem.

These performances are among hundreds that have been part of Britten 100/LA, which has been spearheaded by LA Opera but which has involved hundreds of different organizations, large and small, throughout the Southland.

Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon takes a break from conducting the company’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to lead The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC-Thornton Symphony (the work calls for a large main orchestra and a smaller-sized ensemble), organ, three soloists, five university choirs and the Pasadena-based Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in War Requiem tonight at 8:15 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“Break” may be a misnomer; Conlon leads a Falstaff performance beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, so he may be changing clothes as he drives/flies down the freeway.

Coventry_Ruins
War Requiem premiered on May 30, 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral in the center of England. The city’s 14th century Gothic cathedral, St. Michael’s, had been destroyed by a Nazi air raid on Nov. 14, 1940. Only the tower, spire, outer wall and the bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs, survived.

Following a competition that received entries from more than 200 architects, Basil Spence was selected to design a new cathedral. He insisted that the ruins of the old cathedral be kept as a stark memorial and his dramatic new cathedral was built alongside; a glass canopy connects the two buildings. For his stunning conception, Spence was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960.

Britten, a renowned pacifist, was 48 when the piece was first performed and was given free rein to compose the dedicatory work. He chose to interleave portions of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass with gritty poems written by Wilfred Owen during World War I. Britten used one of Owen’s poems as a preface to the work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn.” Owen died on Nov. 4, 1918, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war.

The piece lasts about 85 minutes (there is no intermission), and is considered by most to be a landmark 20th century composition. A unique part of the composition is that Britten wrote for soloists (soprano, baritone and tenor) who were meant to characterize individual Russian, German and English soldiers.

According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, “Britten intended that the soloists at the first performance should represent three of the nations involved in World War II: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). In the event, precisely because of this tri-national partnership of representatives, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to attend by the Russian Minister of Culture. Although she was later able to record the work, she did not sing it until 1963; her place at the première on 30 May 1962 was taken by Heather Harper.”

The Disney Hall performance is part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sounds About Town” series, which this season has dwindled to just two concerts, both by The Colburn Orchestra. One feature of this series has always been its low prices: tickets for “War Requiem” range from just $15.99 to $41.50. By contrast, the Segerstrom Concert Hall tickets are scaled from $20 to $150.

Conlon will give a preconcert lecture an hour before the Disney Hall performance. At Segerstrom Hall, Dr. William Hall, who led one of the first Southern California performances of War Requiem, will deliver the lecture at 7 p.m. In part because of the work itself and in part because it is so rarely performed, this is a “don’t miss” event.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• How rare are these concerts? According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, these concerts and a set by the San Francisco Symphony next weekend are the only North American performances of War Requiem for the balance of this year (performances have been held recently in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago — see below). The SFO schedule is somewhat odd: Nov. 27 and 30 with nothing between.
• It’s possible that this will be the only time that most of the instrumentalists and choristers will play and/or sing War Requiem in their lifetimes.
• The program notes for tonight’s Segerstrom Hall concert are HERE (they come courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony). Click on the note to make the type larger and click on the arrows to navigate the pages. These notes (actually pages from the program book) also include the text and performer bios.
• The program notes for the Disney Hall performance are HERE. These also include an iTunes link to the original cast recording with Britten conducting HERE.
• The writeup on War Requiem from the Britten-Pears Foundation is HERE.
• A fascinating interview in The Guardian with composer Oliver Knussen’s reflections on Britten is HERE.
• Anne Midgette, music critic of the Washington Post, and her husband and fellow critic, Greg Sandow (who is also a composer, consultant and educator) have written a series of articles on recent performances of War Requiem in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, including somewhat contrasting reviews of the same performances. If you’re interested, click HERE for an overview and follow the various threads to the relevant stories. However, you might want to wait until you’ve seen either of the local concerts.
• When Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony in War Requiem last week, he honored Britten by using Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, English tenor John Mark Ainsley and German baritone Matthias Goerne as the soloists. Nice touch.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Bramwell Tovey returns to conduct Los Angeles Philharmonic in his own work

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Bramwel Tovey, conductor
Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Saturday and Sunday only)
Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon; Alison Balsom, trumpet
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Information: www.laphil.com
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Tovey_2013There are multiple reasons why people choose concerts to attend. Sometimes it’s the ensemble or soloist performing. Sometimes it’s the hall. Sometimes it’s the program. Sometimes it’s the conductor.

Occasionally it’s all four and that’s the case for me this weekend when Bramwell Tovey (right) conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in three concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Tovey, now in his 14th season leading the Vancouver Symphony, is always a welcome guest on the podiums at Disney Hall and Hollywood Bowl (where for several years his title was Principal Guest Conductor).

In addition to being a first-rate conductor, Tovey is one of the most erudite lecturers I’ve ever heard. Although Veronica Krauses is listed as the preconcert facilitator, I certainly hope Tovey will make an appearance; no offense to Veronica but Bram by himself would be just fine.

Friday’s concert is part of the orchestra’s “Casual Friday” series. After introductory remarks, usually by a member of the orchestra, this Friday will open with Tovey’s own work, Songs of the Paradise Saloon, which was written in 2008 for Toronto Symphony Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless. It ultimately ended up in Tovey’s opera, The Inventor, commissioned by Calgary Opera and premiered in January 2011 (with a libretto by John Murrell). Rather that rewrite the story of Tovey’s work, I suggest you read his own program note HERE.

I would expect Tovey to spend a few minutes talking about the program and, specifically, about his own work, and there will be a Q&A session after the performance. The soloist for these concerts will be English trumpet soloist Alison Balsom, winner of Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” for 2013. (INFO)

Like many organizations, the Phil is pairing Tovey’s piece with a famous repertoire works: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. It should be a big night for the Phil’s brass and percussion sections. The Saturday and Sunday concerts open with Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which would have been a perfect choice for a “Casual Friday” concert, although the two pieces selected are just fine, by me.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil open subscription season with blockbuster concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Lieberson/Knussen: Shing Kham (Pedro Carneiro, percussion); Schubert Symphony No. 4
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Yefim Bronfman, piano)
Last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com
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For most orchestras, first subscription concerts are a major event, complete with the high hopes attendant with the opening of a new season. In some cities — e.g., Chicago, New York and Los Angeles — the luster is dimmed a bit by an opening gala concert but not completely. Usually the galas are light-hearted affairs designed to lure major donors with easy-listening music and a party afterwards. The heavyweight fare comes with the first subscription concerts, which in L.A. usually includes a blockbuster piece to close the concert and, often, a premiere.

Although last Monday’s L.A. Phil gala was an unusually serious program for such an event, this weekend’s opening subscription concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall follow the familiar pattern. Gustavo Dudamel, beginning his fifth season as the Phil’s music director, offered a program that concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed with equal parts musicality and ferocity by Yefim Bronfman, Dudamel and his brilliantly playing band.

There was, however, a touch of nostalgia to the world premiere of Shing Kham, the final piece written by Peter Lieberson before he passed away in 2011 at the age of 64 from complications of lymphoma. What was going to be a three-movement, 25-minute percussion concerto written for Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro became instead an unfinished single movement of about 10 minutes that was later “realized” by English composer Oliver Knussen partly from Lieberson’s sketches and partly from Knusses’s and Carneiro’s best guess as to how Lieberson would have finished the movement.

You might expect a product to be a mishmash, but actually the result was a somewhat episodic set of mini-movements that was, nonetheless, fascinating from start to finish. There were measures of driving intensity, interspersed with jazzy sections, lyrical moments and a final flourish that sounded like vintage Leonard Bernstein.

As is often the case with a percussion concerto, watching Carneiro maneuver around an array of instruments was part of the attraction. The list included a marimba, snare drum, 12 tom toms (six of which were wood), bass drum, four suspended cymbals and a triangle — the last was the only instrument that Carneiro brought with him from Portugal; he also brought the two dozen or so mallets that he used in the performance, often holding two in each hand. The array was lined up to the right of the podium.

The work also called for some heavy-duty work from six percussionists in the orchestra, so another part of the interest came from the interplay between Carneiro and the orchestra (in the program note, Carneiro said, “Every step of the way I need to connect with every single player in the orchestra.”) The stylish performance received a respectful semi-standing ovation from the Friday-night crowd.

After intermission came the blockbuster. Many pianists come determined to show all of their formidable technique in Tchaikovsky’s famous work. Bronfman, instead, chose to probe the work’s musicality first; in the process, of course, he also displayed plenty of musical chops but that’s not surprising for those who have heard him play during the past quarter-century.

Given that I’ve heard this concerto played live at least 50 times and who knows many times in recordings of various formats, I was surprised and pleased how involved I became last night.

This was a big-boned performance both by Bronfman and the orchestra (this is, after all, Tchaikovsky, not Mozart). Bronfman probably missed a note or two somewhere but not so as you would notice. Dudamel had the trumpets and trombones on the top tier with nobody on the level below them, so they were ultra-bold but not strident in their opening measures and beyond. Dudamel, who conducted without a score, shaped phrases expertly; the buildup to the descending octaves that herald the first cadenza, for example, was gripping. That subtle phrasing meant that the “attack” chords, particularly in the first and second movements, really jumped out.

The second movement unfolded without haste, even in the second section. Bronfman studied with Rudolf Serkin at The Curtis Institute and in this performance was channeling Serkin’s elegant playing. The third movement was fast but not perilously so, until the final climactic measures when all hell broke loose from everyone.

I don’t think I’ve every heard this concerto conclude when a standing ovation didn’t occur but for once, this one was eminently deserved. After several curtain calls came an encore. Many pianists would offer something delicate or playful as a contrast to the concerto; not “Fima,” as he is known to many; he alternately powered through and toyed with what someone in the audience said later was a Paganini Caprice.

Before intermission, Dudamel and Co. offered an elegant, refined, albeit large-scaled performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor. This was one of a torrent of works that Schubert wrote during the years 1815 and 1816 when he was still a teenager; he later appended the moniker “Tragic” to the title. According to Brian Newbould, Schubert’s output during those months included more than 20,000 bars of music, more than half of which was for orchestra including nine church works a symphony, and about 140 songs.

The long first movement last night (it takes up about 40% of the piece) and the second movement, with its wonderfully Schubertian song tune, featured luxuriant strings interplaying with the winds; I was again reminded how well Disney Hall allows inner voices to be heard. The third movement, with what Lucinda Carver noted in her preconcert lecture is a meter similar to Beethoven’s fourth symphony, allowed Dudamel a chance to dance but he never overdid it. The final movement was a blaze of majestic glory.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Bronfman was either exhibiting a dry sense of humor or twitting Carver in the preconcert lecture. Carver, who is a well-known pianist, conductor and teacher, characterized Bronfman’s sound as unique and asked how he did it. “With my hands,” he deadpanned. Later she described a report that Tchaikovsky made changes to the concerto after Nikolai Rubinstein originally excoriated it. When Carver asked Bronfman what changes were made, he said, “Nothing important.”
• Carneiro said that he almost never travels with instruments because they’re too hard to ship. He does bring his mallets but other than that, he assembles instruments from the place he is going to perform. He did bring a small triangle to Los Angeles because he thought Lieberson would have particularly liked the sound.
• The Phil rearranged the play order at the last minute (the original called for the Schubert first, followed by Shing Kam. The array of solo instruments was probably easier to take down than set up and the changeover took only about five minutes, although one of the stage crew nearly knocked over the snare drum before adroitly catching it on the way down.
• I’m not sure whether Bronfman played the encore Thursday night (Mark Swed’s review in the L.A. Times today doesn’t indicate — I was hoping to get a confirmation of the title, which Bronfman did not identify).
• The program note on Shing Kam is HERE.
• This program is part of the 10th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Details on upcoming concerts are HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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