REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil, Yuja Wang conclude Disney Hall season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

This past weekend Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pianist Yuja Wang concluded a mini-series that revolved around the three piano concertos of Hungarian composer Béla Bartok. The first concerto was the centerpiece of last week’s concerts (my review is HERE). The series — the second of two, following a Schubert-Mahler cycle earlier in May — also concluded the Phil’s 98th season and 15th in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The second and third Bartók piano concertos are quite different, in part because Bartók was suffering from incurable leukemia as he wrote his final concerto (in fact, the last 17 measures were orchestrated by Tibor Serly, one of Bartók’s friends and pupils).

Moreover, while Bartók wrote his second concerto knowing that he would be the soloist, he composed the third for his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, although she did not play it for nearly 20 years. György Sándor played the premiere on Feb. 8, 1946 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In an interesting historical twist, Sándor was the soloist when the L.A. Phil gave its first performance of the second concerto on December 20, 1962 with Zubin Mehta conducting.

Now age 30, Wang is one of the most dazzling pianists on the world stage today. After her performance of the second concerto Friday afternoon she encored with Bizet’s “Variations on a Theme From Carmen,” as arranged by Vladmir Horowitz, and her bravura rendition of that work was certainly reminiscent of the great Russian pianist.

For the record, she played three (!) encores on Thursday night: her own shared arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo “alla Turca” from Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331; the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118.

She added two more powerhouse encores Sunday afternoon — this curmudgeonly critic wishes she had played something akin to the Schubert simply for contrast, although Bartók’s third concerto is less an endurance contest for iron fingers and far more lyrically romantic than either of the first two.

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of moments for Wang to show off — quite the opposite. The audiences on Friday morning and this afternoon were enthralled both with her playing and her dress (what, you expected me to ignore the lime-green with the slit-all-the-way-up-the front on Friday and the shimmering black VERY short dress this afternoon? No chance).

Her virtuosity continues to be dazzling. It’s hard to believe that anyone could write anything as complex as what Bartók composed and that anyone could play it with the speed with which Wang negotiated the flying powerful octaves, runs and trills. Yet, again, for this critic, what was equally impressive was how Wang delivered the delicate, lyrical passages in the third concerto.

Dudamel surrounded both concertos with Stravinsky’s Symphonies for Wind Instruments and Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. The former is a nine-minute series of craggy fragments for the woodwinds balanced by melodic (for Stravinsky, at any rate) brass chorales. Dudamel, who conducted without a baton but with a score, led the meanderings with panache and the orchestra played it skillfully.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a 22-minute work comprised of five short movements, the first and last of which are brass fanfares played by 13 instrumentalists (11 trumpets and two Wagner tubas) that, on Friday, were arrayed along the front row of the choral benches. The performance proved to be a great showpiece for the entire brass section and Principal Timpanist Joseph Peirera.

Next stop: Hollywood Bowl, beginning (for classical music lovers) on July 9 with Dudamel leading the Phil and several dancers, including Missy Copeland, in selections from ballets by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Adolphe Adam. Information:

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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FIVE SPOT: June 1-4, 2017

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Each week about this time I list five (more or less) classical-music programs in Southern California (more or less) during the next seven days (more or less) that might be worth attending.

JUNE 1, 2, 3 and 4: BARTOK CYCLE
8 p.m. on June 1 and 3
11 a.m. on June 2; 2 p.m. on June 4
at Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conclude their 2016-17 subscription season by completing a cycle revolving around Bartók’s three piano concertos. Yuja Wang will be the soloist in the second concerto on Thursday and Friday and the third concerto Saturday and Sunday. On all four days, the accompanying pieces will be Stravinsky’s Symfonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. (The first concerto was last week — review link HERE).

BONUS: Disney Hall is easily reachable (at least if you’re not mobility challenged) via Metro’s Red and Purple Lines. Exit at the 1st and Hill St. side of the Civic Center/Grand Park station and walk up two steep blocks to reach the hall.


Various times and days, through June 25
at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts; La Mirada
The long-time Broadway hit musical is the final production in the 2016-2017 McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Davis Gaines — one of the most popular performers in the title role of ZZZPhantom of the Opera — stars as the chivalrous knight Don Quixote.


8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday
at La Cañada Presbyterian Church; La Cañada
Since I’m a member at LCPC (although I’m not singing in this concert) you can take this recommendation with a grain of salt or a pound of salt, as the late, great Molly Ivins used to write. This annual Pops program focues on music and films beloved by children of all ages, including Shrek, Mary Poppins, and Seussical the Musical, among others. The church’s choir and soloists are accompanied by the Jack Lantz Little Big Band; Jack Lantz conducts.


8 p.m. at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; Costa Mesa
Pacific Symphony Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman leads this program of music covering a healthy slice of Williams’ motion picture scoring career.


8 p.m. at Centennial Plaza; Pasadena
In advance of its summer season at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, the Pasadena Pops offers its annual free concert on the steps of the city’s iconic City Hall. Resident Conductor Larry Blank will lead music from Broadway, Hollywood and the “Great American Songbook,” accompanied by soloists Kiki Ebsen, Valerie Perri and Christina Saffran, as well as the JPL Chorus.

BONUS: Free admission; gates open at 6 p.m.

The Plaza is easily reachable via Metro’s Gold Line. Exit at the Memorial Park Station walk up three blocks east to reach the City Hall and Centennial Plaza.


7 p.m. at Wilshire United Methodist Church; Los Angeles
Music Director Sue Fink leads her choir of 160+ in a program that mixes music from several centuries and genres with elements of cyberspace. The program will feature the premiere of a new song, A Vibration, by Los Angeles-based composer and ACC choir member Andrew Cheeseman.


(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Bartók, Janáček dominate L.A. Phil’s Disney Hall concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Today and tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Yuja Wang was the soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

As we drove home following the concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, fireworks blazed in the sky over Dodger Stadium. They paled compared to the fireworks that exploded inside Disney Hall.

Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic began a two-week series last night that will conclude the Phil’s 2016-2017 indoor subscription season. The cycle revolves around the three piano concertos of Bela Bartók, with Yuja Wang as the soloist. Dudamel is surrounding each concerto with music by Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček — this weekend it’s two rarely heard and disparate pieces based on Roman Catholic liturgy: Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Since her Phil debut at Hollywood Bowl in 2011, Wang has been one of the most enjoyable pianists at Phil concerts and recitals both for her playing and what she wears. In her Los Angeles Times profile of Wang yesterday (LINK), Deborah Vankin wrote: “Wang says she has outgrown some lifestyle choices for which she’s known. Of fashion, once an obsession, she says, ‘Oh, it was a phase.’ ” Based on the long, purple slit dress she wore last night (see photo above), Wang clearly had her tongue in her cheek during the interview.

However, as usual, Wang playing was the real story. Although she has performed the Bartók concertos individually during this season, this will mark the first time she will play them in a cycle. Somewhat surprisingly, last night she used a score for the complex, percussive score (given the number of notes, I was glad I wasn’t turning pages). She tore through the music with the virtuosity for which she is well known, pausing along the way to let more delicate passages drip off of her fingers.

Dudamel, who also used a score — in fact, for the first time I can remember he used scores on all three of the evening’s pieces — and the Phil were on their rhythmic toes throughout the performance, for which all concerned received an especially lengthy standing ovation.

Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles was the last major work the composer wrote, five years before he died in 1971 (in what was probably a cut-and-past error, the printed program managed to bogey all of Stravinsky’s birth and death information).

Although scored for a massive orchestra, chorus and two soloists, Requiem Canticles is just 15 minutes long, uses only 24 lines of the Roman Catholic Requiem liturgy (Stravinsky termed it his “first mini- or pocket-requiem”), and never has the full orchestra playing — often just a few instruments cover the singers.

It remains a perplexing work for the hearer, full of the dissonances and serialism that Stravinsky was using at the time. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, which numbered 92 according to the printed program, sang with delicate precision, mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova delivered “Lacrimosa” lines with creamy, luxurious tones, and bass Stefan Kocan was properly stentorian in the “Tuba Mirum” section, aided expertly by Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten.

If Requiem Canticles is at the mini-end of the musical scale, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass stands at the opposite extreme. It was written in 1926 and revised in 1928, the same time frame as the first Bartók piano concerto. Janáček was age 73 at the time and his textual choice remains perplexing.

In his program notes: Herbert Glass wrote:

“ ‘The ageing composer [Janáček] had a positive aversion to organized religion, even to churches. He would not go into one even to get out of the rain,’ his niece wrote. ‘The church to me is the essence of death,’ Janáček observed, ‘graves under the flagstones, bones on the altars, all kinds of torture and death in the paintings. The rituals, the prayers, the chants – death and death again! I won’t have anything to do with it.

“Yet after the first performance of the Glagolitic Mass in Brno (in a church), in the composer’s native Moravia, in December of 1927, a Czech newspaper critic wrote: ‘The aged master, a deeply devout man, has composed this Mass out of passionate conviction that his life’s work would be incomplete without an artistic expression of his relation to God.’ Janáček was outraged and wrote in return a postcard with a four-word response: ‘Neither aged, nor devout.’ ”

Rather than religious, Janáček conceived the work as a pantheistic, patriotic work, using for the text — instead of Latin — Old Slavonic (whose written characters are in Glagolitic, thus the work’s title). The words were the same Missa Solemnis text used by Beethoven in his Op. 123 work written near the end of his life.

Like Requiem Canticles, the Glagolitic Mass is scored for giant-sized orchestra and full chorus, but unlike Stravinsky Janáček uses them in full-throated glory. Dudamel conducted the work with an irresistible swagger, the orchestra’s strings were notable for their lean sound, and the full brass section was glorious throughout. The Master Chorale sang the difficult text superbly. In addition to Kolosova and Kocan, soprano Angela Meade sang gloriously with full operatic fervor, while Ladislav Elgr’s clarion tenor voice soared over the orchestra and chorus with seeming ease.

The orchestral score includes a pipe organ and, after the final choral section, Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna put a virtuosic cap on the proceedings using the Disney Hall organ in the “Varhany” solo movement (the word means “organ” in Czech), which concludes with a pedal-solo flourish.

The 1928 version has Glagolitic Mass concluding with a short, dramatic orchestral movement, “Intrada,” which preconcert lecturer Eric Bromberger noted might be thought of as a recessional rather than an introit (the original 1926 version had the movement at the beginning). As an organ lover I might have opted for the earlier version.

• The two-week Bartok cycle concludes next week with the second piano concerto on June 1 and 2 and the third concerto on June 3 and 4. Both concertos are surrounded by Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Information:
• The final concert of the Disney Hall season is a “Green Umbrella” performance of Lou Harrison’s opera Young Caesar on June 13, with the L.A. New Music Group conducted by Mark Lowenstein, and the production staged by Yuval Sharon in collaboration with his group, The Industry. This year marks the centennial of Harrison’s birth. Information:

(c) Copyright 2017, 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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SAME-DAY REVIEW: James Conlon, Yuja Wang and L.A. Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



Los Angeles
Philharmonic; James Conlon, conductor, Yuja Wang, pianist

Britten: Sinfonia da
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3; Dvorak: Symphony No. 7

Friday, November 4, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m.




With Music Director Gustavo Dudamel away from Los Angeles
for the balance of 2011 (he will be leading his Simn Bolivr Symphony
Orchestra of Venezuela on a European tour later this month, then heading to Tel
Aviv to conduct the Israel Philharmonic), the Los Angeles Philharmonic this
morning began a series of concerts led by guest conductors with Los Angeles
Opera Music Director James Conlon on the podium. As is usually the case for midday
concerts, a large crowd showed up at Walt Disney Concert Hall, braving drizzle
(which had turned to steady rain by the time the concert let out) and cool


Hearing and seeing Conlon outside the opera pit is always
welcome and this morning was no exception. Now age 61, he’s an experienced hand
in symphonic repertoire (earlier in his career he was music director of the
Rotterdam Philharmonic and later of Cologne’s symphony orchestra) and one has
only to read laudatory reviews from cities such as San Francisco and Chicago to
know he hasn’t lost his touch. Too bad Phil management hasn’t been able to
snare him for a longer stretch of engagements (can anyone spell Principal Guest
Conductor?), but don’t miss out on the remaining concerts this weekend.


Conlon began with a mid-20th century piece —
Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem — and
worked backwards in time to Prokofiev’s third piano concerto and Dvorak’s
seventh symphony. The two symphonies, as Conlon noted in a brief preconcert
chat, are in the key of D — major for the Britten and minor for the Dvorak. Each
was written during a period of national struggle.


It’s no surprise that Conlon elected to open with a Britten
piece. Few conductors working today revere the British conductor more than
Conlon, who is in the midst of a three-year-cycle of programming the English
composer’s works leading up to the centenary of his birth in 2013.


L.A. Opera performed Britten’s The Turn of the Screw last season and will tackle Albert Herring next spring. One assumes
that one of the big Britten operas (e.g., Peter
Grimes or Billy Budd)
will show up on next year’s LAO schedule (2013 also
happens to be the bicentennial of the births of Verdi and Wagner, so opera
companies will be awash in anniversary celebrations for the next couple of


Although the LAPO didn’t first perform Sinfonia da Requiem until 1971, the work is by now a well-established repertoire piece (all things are
relative — this is Britten, after all). The back-story of the work is quite
interesting (see some history details below in Hemidemisemiquavers).


Conlon led a compelling performance of the 20-minute work,
which contains three connected movements. He sustained the gripping tension in
the outer sections masterfully and kept the Dies
movement (with its Verdi Requiem allusions) moving along snappily. The
large orchestra (the piece includes some major percussion moments) responded


Given Conlon’s obvious affinity for Britten, I hope the Phil
will sign him to conduct the composer’s War
during the 2012-2013 season. Another reason would be that the 50th
anniversary of that landmark piece is May 30, 2012. I could easily imagine soloists
in different parts of Disney Hall, children’s chorus and chamber orchestra in
the balconies, the Disney Hall organ booming, etc. Would be quite something in
Disney’s acoustics, I suspect.


Yuja Wang, the 24-year-old Chinese pianist who created quite
a stir at Hollywood Bowl last summer for her “little orange dress,” was the
soloist in Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. To get the obvious out of the way,
she was dressed this morning in a long, elegant floor-length black gown, which
meant that all attention could be focused on her playing where it belongs.


Wang is a very special talent as she proved again this
morning. That isn’t due to merely to her ability to race through the bravura
sections of this concerto, although race she did, with hands flying up and down
the keyboard through octaves, runs and glissandos. What sets her apart from
other performers (and there have been several run-throughs of this concerto recently)
was the sublime sense of musicality that permeated her entire performance. Even
at breakneck speed, she took time to shape the whiz-bang sections and her
meditative variations in the second movement were played with elegant, pearly
tones. As one audience member said at intermission, “She’s more than a dress.”
That she is!


Conlon took extreme care to collaborate as smoothly as
possible with Wang and the orchestra, which played wonderfully and earns extra
plaudits for being locked into Conlon’s tempo shifts that were necessary to
accommodate the soloist. Lorin Levee’s wistful clarinet solo got things off to
a scintillating start.


After intermission, Conlon and Co. gave an unhurried,
majestic reading of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Conlon conducted without a score
and connected the last three movements without pause. Under his steady hand,
the performance that seemed to unfold naturally without any attempt to make the
work more than it is. The orchestra, which had several principal players on
vacation, delivered a first-rate performance, although there were a few moments
where the ensemble’s customary rhythmic precision seemed to be lacking (those
will probably evaporate in the next two concerts). Nonetheless, overall it
proved to be a satisfying conclusion to an excellent program.




Sinfonia da Requiem
has quite a history, as Herbert Glass relates in his program notes (LINK). For
reasons that no one seems to be able to explain, the Japanese commissioned
Britten in 1940 to write a symphony for ceremonies celebrating the 2,600th
anniversary of the emperor of Japan. What made this request unique (foolish?)
was that Britten was an avowed pacifist while Japan was by then three years
into a bloody war with China and was becoming an axis partner with Nazi


Britten wrote what amounts to a lament, with titles — Lacrymosa, Dies Irae and Requiem aeterna — (pre-approved, inexplicably,
by the Japanese government) taken from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, although
the work has no obvious religious overtones. Nearly a quarter-century later,
Britten would merge the Mass texts with words from poet Wilfred Owen to create
his “magnum opus,” War Requiem, as
part of the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.


When Japan received the Sinfonia
da Requiem
commission, it was not pleased and an acrimonious exchange
between embassies (i.e., not directly with Britten) ensued. Eventually the
Japanese rejected the symphony as unsuitable for a celebration and John
Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic ended up premiering the work on March
29, 1941 by at Carnegie Hall. Ironically, Britten eventually conducted the
first Japanese of the piece in 1956.


One other interesting note (as Glass relates): the Japanese
did not request that Britten return its commissioning fee. He used it to buy
his first automobile — a vintage Ford.


Prokofiev was the soloist when the L.A. Phil first played his
Piano Concerto No. 3 on February 13, 1930 with Artur Rodzinski conducting, nine
years after its premiere in Chicago.


Nathan Cole, the Phil’s first associate concertmaster who
was in the first chair today, appeared to remind Conlon of the orchestra’s
tradition of bowing to those seated behind the ensemble. Good catch — it’s
always a nice touch.



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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