OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pianist Francesco Piemontesi debuts at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Piemontesi_2016Francesco Piemontesi made a sparkling Los Angeles Philharmonic debut last night at Hollywood Bowl. Photo by Nikki Thomas.

Francesco Piemontesi. Remember the name.

Under the less-than-ideal conditions ever present in Hollywood Bowl (lack of rehearsal time, outdoor amplification — although the sound engineers were in fine form last night — aerial intrusions —including a flight directly over the bowl — rolling wine bottles, etc.) Piemontesi offered a performance as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 that made even someone who has heard this piece dozens of times in performance sit up and take notice.

Born in 1983 in Locarno, Switzerland, Piemontesi sits in an unassuming manner at the keyboard (the antithesis of Lang Lang, to name but one). He counts as his mentors Murray Perahia, Cécelia Ousset, Alexis Weisenberg and, in particular, Alfred Brendel who, says Piemontesi, taught him “the love of details.”

Those influences were particularly evident in his limpid tone and in the grace and sensitive musicality he brought to the lyrical moments of this ground-breaking concerto, including the trills and runs that permeate much of the work. However, even in the bravura portions of this work there was a genuine sense of musicality to the performance. Rarely has the Bowl’s Steinway sounded so elegant. Someone needs to get Piemontesi back here — and indoors — quickly.

In response to a sustained ovation (lengthy, even by Bowl standards) and at Guest Conductor Andrew Manze’s urging, Piemontesi offered a graceful account of a work that a colleague identified as Au lac de Wallenstadt from the Suisse section of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Throughout its gentle elegance my mind flashed 40 years to when I first Murray Perahia in a solo recital — highest praise, indeed.

Manze and the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered vigorous, yet sensitive support of Piemontesi. We would get a better take on Manze from their performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”), which concluded the concert.

Manaze-2016At age 51 Manze (pictured left) is in that “no-man’s land” for conductors. He is too young to be thought of as one of the “old guard” (e.g., Riccardo Muti, Daniel Brenboim) but he’s too old for orchestras that are enamored with the marketing flash and sizzle of younger conductors such as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Pablo Heras-Casado and — yes — Gustavo Dudamel.

Balding and bespectacled, Manze looks like a genial professor and scholar (both of which he is). He is a former top-flight violinist who cut his conducting teeth in period-performance music, first as Associate Conductor of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and then of The English Consort.

He is quietly building his resume (and expanding his repertoire) with provincial European orchestras, including the Helsingborg Symphony in Sweden from 2006-2014 and since then as Principal Conductor of the NDR Radio-Philharnonic in Hannover. Think of him as a musical “cousin” to another British string player (in this case, a cellist) turned “under the radar” conductor: David Lockington, now Music Director of the Pasadena Symphony.

With Gustavo Dudamel leading only about 35% of LAPO concerts during any one season (typical for music directors of major orchestras these days), having a roster of solid, inspiring guest conductors is a must. Manze appears to be one of those.

He made his L.A. Phil in Feb. 2015 in a Haydn-Mozart concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall and his concert on Tuesday night in the Bowl was all-Mozart. Thus, last night’s program of Beethoven and Schubert can be termed pushing the envelope, somewhat.

Manze led an exuberant, vigorous account of Schubert’s Ninth and the orchestra responded with first-rate playing throughout, with particular shout-outs to the brass and to Oboeist Anne Marie Gabriele. Manze’s period-performance background was evident in his brisk, no-nonsense tempos led with a minimum amount of rubato. This performance of a work probably completed in 1826 looked backward to Beethoven, rather than forward to Brahms and Schumann, whose symphonic works were yet to come, which is a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable approach to take.

• Speaking of conductor moving beyond their perceived specialty, Nicholas McGegan, Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco and Principal Guest Conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, will be on the Bowl podium Tuesday and Thursday.

Tuesday’s all-Handel program features, the LAPO, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as soloist and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. INFO

By contrast, Thursday’s program features Weber’s Oberon overture and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish), along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. The program will be a collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is holding a retrospective of paintings by Théodore Roisseau. Videos created in conjunction with The Getty will introduce much of the music. INFO

• On Aug. 21 cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble returns to the Bowl for a program of music spanning the globe — no surprise, since the ensemble is comprised of performers and composers from more than 20 countries.

• It would have been fun to meet Piemontesi. My wife and I have made several trips to his hometown, which is just north of the Italian border (thus, his Italian name) on the northern edge of Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore). We first visited when we were doing a Eurail trip through Europe and journeyed south through the Gotthard Pass Tunnel (the old one, not the one recently opened) to escape a rainy day in Lucerne. We were enchanted and returned several times to visit, so reading of Piemontesi’s hometown brought back a lot of pleasant memories.

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: McGegan leads sparkling Pasadena Symphony concert

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

McGeganEvery time Nicholas McGegan (pictured right) conducts the Pasadena Symphony we learn something new about this 65-year-old native of England who last Saturday completed his first year as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.

From a witty, erudite Q&A with PSO President and CEO Laura Unger preceding Saturday afternoon’s concert at Ambassador Auditorium, we learned a good deal about the opening work, an 18th century ballet suite from the opera Naïs by Jean-Philippe Rameau, including how to recognize the work’s end. McGegan — ever beaming his cherubic smile — delivered a condensed version of the intro before leading a sparkling performance by the orchestra that featured Theresa Dimond grinding a massive wind machine and then ending the work with a tambourine smack.

One thing we had learned from previous concerts is that McGegan likes his tempos fast, and that was evident in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). Things quieted down in the second movement, which was notable for lyrical, silky strings. McGegan played a game of “How well do you know your Beethoven?” by adding a measure of music at the end that Beethoven wrote after the piece was en route to the printer.

Tempos picked up again in the third movement. Perhaps this wasn’t the best choice, as there was not as much contrast with the “Storm” section as at least this listener would like. Overall, this was a sunny, breezy performance of this much-loved work, notable particularly for smart playing from the winds.

Geneva_Lewis_WEBIn his preconcert remarks, McGegan noted that every time he sees the soloist, 16-year-old violinist Geneva Lewis (Ieft) she has grown an inch or two — “I need the podium to stand on,” he joked. Her PSO debut vehicle was Mozart’s third violin concerto, a piece written when the composer was age 19, which meant, said McGegan, that “we have music written by a teenager played by a teenager.”

Actually, Lewis played like someone much older than her 16 years. Using a 1991 violin made by Arkansas luthier Terry Borman, on loan from the Doublestop Foundation courtesy of acclaimed Chinese violinist Cho-Liang Lin, Lewis produced luxuriant tones in the middle and lower registers and a silky, sweet tone on top with remarkably consistent and lyrical runs and trills throughout the performance.

She maintained almost constant eye contact with McGegan (there were several sly grins between them in the third movement) and the two, along with the orchestra, combined for a gentle, graceful performance of this sunny work.

A student at The Colburn School with PSO Concertmaster Aimee Kreston (who didn’t join the orchestra for this piece), Lewis played cadenzas written by noted musicologist Robert Levin in the 1980s for Gidon Kremer and delivered them with aplomb. The future looks very bright for this young Irvine resident who looks to join the ranks of Midori and others as someone PSO patrons can say in years to come, “We heard her when.”

• The final concert of the 2014-2015 classics series takes place on May 2 at Ambassador Auditorium. Music Director David Lockington will conduct Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, the two suites from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez as soloist. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Lora Unger named CEO of Pasadena Symphony Association

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

Unger2014-LRJust when we thoughts things had settled down at the The Pasadena Symphony Association the wheel turns again. The association, which, operates the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, today announced that it has tapped Lora Unger (right) as its new Chief Executive Officer, effective November 1. Read the Pasadena Star-News story HERE.

Unger replaces Paul Jan Zdunek, who has been named Chief Capital Development Officer with Singpoli Capital Corp. in Pasadena. For the past several years, Singpoli has sponsored the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor classics series.

Zdunek took over the association in December 2008 in the midst of a major financial crisis that resulted in part from financial losses incurred in the recession. One of his first moves was to hire Unger and together the two have worked with others to steer the PSA back to financial and artistic health.

Among the changes were moving the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor season from the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium into the more intimate Ambassador Auditorium, one of the world’s acoustic gems, in 2010. Two years later the Pops shifted into its summer home, the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The PSO also presents a holiday concert at All Saints Church, Pasadena.

Other changes were messier. Long-time PSO Music Director Jorge Mester left in acrimony and Pops leader Rachael Worby also stepped down. Eventually Zdunek and the association hired Marvin Hamlisch as the Pops’ principal conductors only to have him die suddenly in 2012. Despite the grief from Hamlisch’s death, Zdunek and the board took a gamble by hiring entertainer and historian Michael Feinstein to replace Hamlisch, a toss of the dice that has paid off well both artistically and financially.

The Pasadena Symphony’s music director, David Lockington, will lead his first concert in his new role on Nov. 1 at Ambassador Auditorium (LINK). Noted British conductor Nicholas McGegan will assume his new role as the symphony’s principal guest conductor January 17 (LINK).

In a media release, Lockington said he is “thrilled for Paul and absolutely delighted that Lora will be assuming the role of CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association.” Lockington pointed out that he has “worked with Lora for over four years. She is visionary, smart and an astute strategist. Her style is a stimulating blend of seriousness and humor which makes for a creative working environment.”

Unger, who is a trained violist, holds a BA in Music with a Minor in Business Administration from the University of Louisville, and received her MA in Arts Administration from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati College of Business Administration.

Prior to coming to Pasadena she worked with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as well as the Cincinnati, Modesto, and Jacksonville Symphony Orchestras in public relations, marketing and artistic operations. She was a League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Management Fellow with residencies at the Aspen Music Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. She is a member of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras and a presenter at their conferences

“Given the enormous contributions to our success that Lora has made for us, we’re delighted to elevate her to the position of CEO, following thoughtful deliberation by the Board,” said Kay Kochenderfer, president of the PSA Board of Directors, in the media release. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in Classics Series ticket sales, an astonishing 200% increase in POPS sales, and an 85% subscription retention rate.

Read the full media release HERE.

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

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ANALYSIS: Doors close and open at local orchestras

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

Like any business and top executives, orchestras and their music directors undergo cyclical lives — it’s just that when an orchestra changes its music director it’s newsworthy, at least in its hometown or region.

In Los Angeles, we’ve gotten a bit spoiled because both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have enjoyed great longevity in their musical leadership. Esa-Pekka Salonen served as the L.A. Phil’s music director from 1992 through 2009 and his successor, Gustavo Dudamel, came on board immediately after Salonen stepped down.
Jeffrey Kahane (right) has been LACO’s music director since 1997 but recently announced that the 2016-2017 season will be his 20th and final season at LACO’s helm. Meanwhile, earlier this season, Enrique Arturo Diemecke announced that he would not return as the Long Beach Symphony’s music director.

On the other side of the coin, the Pasadena Symphony has now settled its musical leadership team. Michael Feinstein returns this summer for his second season as the Pasadena Pops’ principal conductor, and Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will divide duties for the PSO’s upcoming season as they begin their tenures with the orchestra.

In some ways, Long Beach’s situation parallels the Pasadena Symphony when it severed relationships with its long-time music director, Jorge Mester, in 2010. The LBSO management situation appears more stable than the turmoil that had enveloped the PSO four years ago, so it may not take the length of time that it took the PSO to get its new Lockington-McGegan-Feinstein music leadership team on board but it will undoubtedly take some time to find the right replacement for Diemecke, who has led the LBSO for 10 years.

LACO has more than three years to find Kahane’s replacement but they may need every month . For one thing, Kahane brought unique combination of skills to the position. Among his predecessors, only Sir Neville Marriner and Christof Perick could have been classified as “pure” conductors. Gerard Schwarz was well known for his trumpet skills as for his conducting prowess and Iona Brown did most of her conducting from the first violin chair. Kahane came to LACO with a modest, albeit growing, reputation as a conductor but he was — and is — a high-profile pianist, something he hopes to continue in his post-LACO life.

Moreover, LACO has several musical streams beyond its orchestral series, including its “Baroque Conversations” and “Westside Connections” series. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer has curated the latter series; what influence or changes will a new music director want to make in either or both of these series will be part of the questions involved in naming Kahane’s successor.

In contrast to LACO and Long Beach, the Pasadena Symphony is looking forward eagerly to its new era. Some music directors come to new positions with great overarching themes, but Lockington’s first season as Pasadena Symphony music director has a series of themes interwoven throughout the five programs, each of which will be presented in two concerts at Ambassador Auditorium.

Lockington-small4Web“I suppose if I had to pick one adjective for the season,” said Lockington (right) recently, “it would be ‘colorful.’ “ The PSO’s 2014-2015 season includes a wide range of music, from Baroque to contemporary, with a healthy selection of American music sprinkled throughout the five programs.

Lockington and McGegan will alternate in leading the five programs. The opening concerts on Nov. 1 will feature an all-American program that says Lockington, “focuses on popular, virtuosic styles” using music by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

The program opens with Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare, which Lockington wrote in 2009 for the Grand Rapids Symphony (where he remains music director) in conjunction with a project he championed entitled “ArtPrize.” “The piece features church bells,” says Lockington, “and when we performed it in Grand Rapids the city’s churches rang their bells to coincide with the music.” Unfortunately, Ambassador is too far from Pasadena’s churches to achieve the same effect.

The Nov. 1 concerts will also feature pianist Terrence Wilson as soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Lockington has never conducted the young African-American pianist but he likes what he has heard. “He plays with great panache,” says Lockington, “with a clear, precise king of brilliance.”

Perhaps the most interesting program is the Feb. 14 concerts, which will be the second that Lockington will conduct. It features Dylana Jenson (who is also his wife and mother of their four children) as soloist in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Lockington’s decision to feature his wife as soloist on Valentine’s Day may seem to smack of nepotism but nothing could be further from the truth. A Los Angeles native, Jenson was a child prodigy who studied under Nathan Milstein (among others), shared silver medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition, and made Carnegie Hall debut two years later with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Shostakovich first violin concerto is a work that Lockington and Jenson recorded in 2008 (along with the Barber Violin Concerto) with the London Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim several years ago.

The program will open with Enter Light, a work by Joel Scheckman, a California native who is a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony clarinet section. “It’s about an eight-minute piece that works beautifully as a lead-in to the violin concerto,” says Lockington. The concert concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Seminal works anchor McGegan’s two concerts: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). The cheeky January 17 concerts open with Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, and also feature Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Esther Keel and her mother, Mihyang Keel, as soloists.

So as LACO and the Long Beach Symphony move forward into uncertain futures, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops appear to be on the threshold of new chapters of stability. Just remember: in a few years (or, if the stars align, decades), the cycles will undoubtedly turn over again.

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

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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.

Pasadena Symphony; Nicholas McGegan, conductor; Umi Garrett, pianist
Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Concert preview with Nicholas McGegan one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 South St. John Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$105.
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

As Christmas and the holiday season fade into pleasant memories, the classical music season begins to ramp up again for what will be a busy 2014.

• The Pasadena Symphony resumes its season next Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. Nicholas McGegan begins his tenure as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor by leading a program of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with 13-year-old Umi Garrett as soloist.

McGegan, who turns 64 three days after these concerts, has built an illustrious career leading ensembles that perform baroque and older music on period instruments. Since 1985, he has been artistic director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco. However in recent years he has expanded his repertoire to include conducting music from later eras. Two years, he made his Pasadena Symphony debut leading Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”). Last season he and the orchestra played Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.

Last year, the PSO announced that McGegan would join its new music director, David Lockington, and Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein, in leading the orchestra’s musical future (LINK). McGegan expects to conduct two classical concerts a year in the next two seasons (Lockington will lead the other three). They make a potent trio for PSO audiences.

Garrett will be making her PSO concert debut in Saturday’s concerts. She appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” at age 8 and last year won first prizes in several competitions, including the 13th Osaka International Music Competition in Japan. She has also won top prizes in two different competitions bearing Chopin’s name, one in Budapest and the other in Hartford, CT (it should be noted that neither are the more prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition, which since 1927 has been held approximately every five years in Warsaw, Poland).

• The Pasadena Master Chorale continues a recent tradition as it joins forces with Los Angeles Daiku and the city of Naruto, Japan, to present a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 next Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Aratani Theatre in Little Toyko (244. S. San Pedro St. in downtown Los Angeles). Jeffrey Bernstein will lead the PMC and LA Daiku, orchestra and soloists, along with singers from Japan who will travel to Pasadena to join this performance. Performances of Beethoven’s 9th are a staple around New Year’s in Japan. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

BTW: if you are into comparisons, guest conductor Kazem Abdullah will lead the Pasadena Symphony and Pasadena Singers in performances of Beethoven’s 9th on Feb. 15 at Ambassador Auditorium. The concert will also include a performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Midwinter Songs. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

• The Los Angeles Philharmonic returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday and Saturday evenings and next Sunday afternoon. Christoph Eschenbach, music director Washington D.C.’s National Symphony, will lead Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, with Christian Tetzlaf as soloist.

The following weekend (Jan. 17-19), young English conductor Robin Ticcati returns to lead the Phil in music by Ligeti, Schumann and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, with Emmanuel Ax as soloist. The concerts are part of what’s being termed as Ax’s “Brahms Project.” Friday is a “Casual Friday” concert to Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 will be omitted.

Information: www.laphil.com

In case you are wondering, Music Director Gustavo Dudamel returns to the LAPO podium on Feb. 21 as the Phil and Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra perform “TchaikovskyFest,” a 10-day long orgy of Tchaikovsky symphonies, concertos and other music. Information: www.laphil.com

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

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