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
News

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

Britten: Sinfonia da
Requiem;
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.

Info: www.laphil.com

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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
temperatures.

 

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
years).

 

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
Irae
movement (with its Verdi Requiem allusions) moving along snappily. The
large orchestra (the piece includes some major percussion moments) responded
powerfully.

 

Given Conlon’s obvious affinity for Britten, I hope the Phil
will sign him to conduct the composer’s War
Requiem
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.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

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
Germany.

 

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.

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

Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 3, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Each Thursday morning, I list five events (actually six this
week) that peak my interest, including (ideally) at least one with free
admission (or, at a minimum, inexpensive tickets). And this doesn’t count the
Metropolitan Opera’s HD telecast of Siegfried
on Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. at theaters in the area — be forewarned:
the running time is approximately six hours! (LINK).

Here’s today’s grouping:

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Tomorrow at 11 a.m.,
Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

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

Much of the attention will, undoubtedly, be focused on what
the young Chinese pianist will wear (she of the “little orange dress” notoriety
LINK) but the real story should be a wonderfully constructed
program — Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Prokofiev’s
Piano Concerto No. 3 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 — led by LA Opera Music
Director James Conlon with Wang as soloist. Tip: if you’ve never attended a
morning L.A. Phil concert, this would be a great time to try it out, but check
for ticket availability. Info: www.laphil.com

 

Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
at Alex Theatre (Glendale) and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall (UCLA)

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra plays Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti

The six Bach Brandenburg Concerti are about as far away from
Prokofiev’s 3rd (above) as you can get, but Bach’s famous sextet is
indelibly linked with LACO — this will be the 51st time that the
orchestra has played all or some of the pieces. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer
will lead the performance from her first-chair position. Info: www.laco.org

 

Sunday at 2 p.m. at
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Los Angeles Opera’s Romeo et Juliette

LAO brings back its
Ian Judge-created production of Gounod’s take on Shakespeare’s tale of
star-crossed lovers. Tenor Vittorio Grigolo and soprano Nino
Machaidze
sing the title roles; Plcido Domingo conducts. A Los Angeles Times story on the young
soprano is HERE and and of Brian’s nifty “10 Questions” posts in Out West Arts on Grigolo is HERE.
Info: www.losangelesopera.com

 

Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Lang Lang in recital

What caught my eye about this concert was the program, which
begins with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat, continues with Schubert’s Sonata in
B-flat, and Chopin’s 12 Etudes, Op. 25 — three pieces of distinctly contrasting
styles that should be fascinating in the hands and mind of the young Chinese
pianist (this is obviously a weekend for young Chinese pianists). Info: www.laphil.com

 

Monday at 7 p.m. at
Castle Press (Pasadena)

Muse-ique stops the
presses

Rachael
Worby continues her penchant in Muse-ique’s first year of presenting programs
in unusual sites — in this case, the Doric String Quartet making its Los
Angeles debut amid stacks of paper and the printing presses of this north
Pasadena establishment (the musicians will be standing on the press while the
audience will sit on other presses and rolls of paper).

 

The
featured work on the evening will be a new string quartet by Southern
California native Peter Knell that the composer and Worby will discuss and the
Doric Quartet (which took first prize in the 2008 Osaka International Chamber
Music Competition) will play. The evening will also contain movements from
quartets by Haydn, Schubert and Bartok, and — given that Worby is in charge –
there’s sure to be a surprise or two. Info: www.muse-ique.com

 

And the weekend’s “free admission” program …

 

Friday at 8 p.m. at
Pasadena Nazarene Church

Pasadena Community
Orchestra with Suzanna Guzmn as soloist

Music Director Alan Reinecke conducts a program that
features one of the nation’s finest mezzo-sopranos, Suzanna Guzmn, as soloist
in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. The
program also features music by Bartok, Howard Hanson, Prokofiev and Ralph Vaughan
Williams. Info: www.pcomusic.org

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

 

 

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: “The Little Orange Dress” … and other items

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

A shorter version of this
article was first published today in the above papers. See the end of the post
for several additions to the printed piece.

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Summertime often becomes silly season, even in the
supposedly serious realm of classical music. Consider, for example, the case of
“The Little Orange Dress” (aka, “The Little Red Dress” — some have called the
dress red but I think it was orange).

 

Last month, Yuja Wang walked onto the stage of Hollywood
Bowl to perform as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto with the Los
Angeles Philharmonic. The 24-year-old native of Bejing is an electrifying
talent who can blaze through octaves and runs with breathtaking speed, as she
amply demonstrated during her Bowl performance (her hands were moving so fast
that they appeared to be a blur on the Bowl’s video screens). My review is
HERE).

 

However, what caused a great deal of notoriety wasn’t how
she played but what she wore: what has now become known as “The Little Orange
Dress.” Ms. Wang is a slender, attractive woman and her attire wouldn’t be
unusual on any street in any American city these days, but when she walked
onstage at the Bowl, she created quite a stir from those in the audience.

 

What led to the most commotion on the Internet wasn’t so
much the dress but that two professional critics in attendance commented on it
in their reviews. In my review I wrote, “It also may (or may not) be worth
mentioning that she came on stage last night wearing the shortest dress I’ve
ever seen a female pianist wear, an orange sheath that elicited gasps from the
audience.”

 

My colleague, Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, devoted four paragraphs of his review to Ms.
Wang’s attire (LINK — which includes a photo). The line
most frequently quoted was: “Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight that had
there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict
admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult.” It should
also be noted Mark devoted the next few paragraphs to her performance, which he
called “downright magical.”

 

The debate in the classical music blogosphere has centered
around whether it’s appropriate for a music critic to comment on “non-musical”
things, such as attire (Lisa Hirsch, a San Francisco-based Blogger who writes
under the nom d’computer of “Iron
Tongue of Midnight,” offers a listing of several of the Bloggers/reviewers
comments HERE).

 

One she listed was Anne Midgette, the well-respected music
critic of the Washington Post, who
wrote a lengthy post on the issue (LINK). The others,
including the comment threads of responders, make for interesting reading. My
attitude (as expressed in several comments to posts) is that attending a
concert is both an aural and visual experience and something like “The Little
Orange Dress” was worth at least a mention — my guess is that many in the
audience can’t remember today how well she played but they certainly remember
the dress. If you agree or disagree with my stance, feel free to post a comment
below.

 

Late adds:

Mark Swed
weighs in on the issue HERE and the L.A. Times has a separate article on
concert dress that includes an interview with organist Cameron Carpenter HERE,
along with three photos of “The Little Orange Dress.” Carpenter’s sequined tee
shirts and jeans are undeniably part of his total concert package and are often
mentioned in stories and reviews.

 

Timothy Mangan,
music critic of the Orange County
Register
(who didin’t attend the concert), offers his comments HERE.

 

MORE FROM THE WEB:

Anne Midgette offers
a good basic primer on contemporary music for those who wonder how to get into
this genre. There’s nothing earth-shaking in her assessments and you may not
agree with all of them but I found it well worth reading. MORE

 

CK Dexter Haven
has begun a new Blog entitled “All is Yar” and he has an interesting post on
the subject of guest conductors HERE.

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

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Lionel Bringuier, Yuja Wang and the L.A. Phil at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Lionel Bringuier, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3; Tchaikovsky: Symphony
No. 5

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 Hollywood Bowl

Next concert: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. (Joana Carneiro, conductor

Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com

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54215-Bringuier.jpg

Last night’s Hollywood Bowl concert was supposed to have
been tinged with sadness because it was to be the final concert in Lionel
Bringuier’s four-year tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the first as two
assistant conductor and the last two as associate conductor. However, earlier
in the day the Phil announced that Bringuier (pictured right) had been promoted to a new
position, resident conductor, for the next two seasons (LINK).

It’s unclear whether his duties will be any different than
those of associate conductor but, based on last night (and what we have been
hearing for the past four years), it’s a savvy move by the Phil’s management to
keep Bringuier connected with the orchestra.

 

That wasn’t the only reason for celebration last night,
because the soloist for the evening was Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who — like
Bringuier — is just 24 years old. She’s becoming a regular on LAPO schedules
and with good reason: she’s a pianist with a formidable technique who also
happens to exude a great deal of musicianship in her playing. It also may (or
may not) be worth mentioning that she came on stage last night wearing the
shortest dress I’ve ever seen a female pianist wear, an orange sheath that elicited
gasps from the audience.

 

Her vehicle last night was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.
3 and her performance also took everyone’s breath away. Like her more
celebrated compatriot, Lang Lang, she played the fast sections VERY fast, so
much so that her hands were a blur on the large video screens on either side of
the stage. Unlike Lang, however, she often sat quietly at the keyboard except
for the requisite power needed to sail through Rach 3′s bravura sections.

 

Yet for me, what I also take away from the performance were
the quiet sections, particularly a few measures in the first movement that
became an exquisite example of musical collaboration between Wang, Clarinetist
Lorin Levee, Flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly and Oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk.

 

Bringuier kept his eyes focused on Wang throughout the
traversal as he and the orchestra did their best to bend to her tempo changes (the
shifts weren’t particularly willful; they’re just Rachmaninoff). Overall, it
was an invigorating performance; the concerto’s whiz-bang ending always elicits
an instant standing ovation but this time the crowd, which numbered 7,493 was remarkably
– and deservedly — vociferous.

 

Wang returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall November 4, 5 and 6
when her vehicle is Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (James Conlon will conduct
INFO) When individual tickets go on sale Aug. 21, you would be well advised
to lock in your ducats before they sell out.

 

After intermission, Bringuier led the Phil in Tchaikovsky’s
Symphony No. 5. There was more than a little irony in the fact that Bringuier’s
final Phil concert was supposed to conclude with this piece, because it was
with this symphony that Gustavo Dudamel made his LAPO debut in 2005 at the Bowl
(click HERE for Alan Rich’s prescient review from that September evening).

 

Alan (who died in 2010) was also very bullish on Bringuier;
one wonders what he would have thought of the young Frenchman’s brash take on
this familiar work. If you like your Tchaikovsky grandiose, then this wasn’t a
night for you. Instead, Bringuier stripped away the pomposity and led a bracing,
thought-provoking performance.

 

Even with the Bowl’s limited rehearsal schedule, Bringuier
got the strings to play with a lean sound that allowed the many wind solos to
come through clearly (it helped that the amplification was on good behavior
last night). The opening was somber, highlighted by Lorin Levee’s clarinet
solos, one of many times for the Phil’s veteran Principal Clarinetist to shine.
Moreover, Bringuier dared to draw out the silences in that opening section, not
easy amid rolling bottles and chirping crickets.

 

Conducting without a score, Bringuier essentially played the
symphony in two large movements, taking almost no time between the first and
second movement or between the final two sections. His tempos reflected their
descriptions to the max; after the first-movement opening, the Allegro con anima section was, indeed,
animated, and in the final movement the Allegro
vivace
really emphasized the vivace appellation.
Even the third movement, while having some lilting qualities, propelled forward
a real sense of urgency.

 

Overall, this was (no surprise) a young person’s guide to
the symphony. With it came an amazing amount of thought for someone who is
still learning his art. It also demonstrated exciting prospects for what the
future holds for him … and, hopefull, for us, as well.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

With temperatures having soared over the century mark in
the afternoon, nearly all of the men elected not to wear white dinner jackets,
although a couple donned them after intermission. The balmy evening actually
was one of the most pleasant in recent memory.

Among my memories from the Tchaikovsky were the unusually
tender horn solo at the beginning of the second movement, played by Eric
Overholt, and the sharp brass section attacks that echoed off the nearby
hillsides — quite an interesting effect.

With Principal Concermaster Martin Chalifour off for the
evening, Nathan Cole — the orchestra’s new First Associate Concertmaster (and
holder of the Ernest Fleischmann Chair) slid over into the first chair.

It’s amazing to consider that 50 years from now there will
undoubtedly be people who will listen to Bringuier conduct and Wang play … or
maybe not so amazing. Fifty years ago, Zubin Mehta was named the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s assistant conductor (he was 25 at the time); less than a year
later, he became the orchestra’s music director. And I can still visualize
sitting spellbound in front of my black-and-white television watching
16-year-old Andre Watts as soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Leonard
Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic on a Young People’s Concert on Jan. 15, 1963. Both Mehta and Watts are still going strong (in fact, Watts will
appear the Phil at the Bowl on August 23 as soloist in Liszt’s second piano
concerto — INFO).

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