LA Opus
Reporting on music and the lively arts
338 Entries

By Douglas Neslund
2013 is the hundredth year of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one of the most singular composers of the 20thcentury, whose centenary is being celebrated in Los Angeles by a series of events throughout the year. His “Noye’s Fludde” is one of the milestones of his creative genius presented at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels over the weekend just past in conjunction with LA Opera’s annual productions at the Cathedral with expenses underwritten by the Dan Murphy Foundation and the Britten-Pears Foundation. Admission was free to the public and both performances were packed to the walls.
This is the seventh year of the LA Opera at the Cathedral series that has produced such early operas as Noye’s Fludde, which are recreations of miracle plays emanating from church performances of Biblical themes from which the art form of opera was born. In 2012, for instance, the opera/miracle play was an adaptation of the 12thcentury Play of Daniel brought to life by Noah Greenberg and his New York Pro Musica in the late 1950s.
What distinguishes this series of opera productions at the Cathedral is the remarkable professional team of conductor James Conlon, director Eli Villanueva, educationand community programs director Stacy Brightman, and a supporting cast of thousands, or so it seemed.
Professional soloists Yohan Yi, portraying Noye (Noah), Ronnita Nicole Miller as Noye’s wife, and Jamieson K. Price providing an impressive Voice of God, drawn from Maestro Conlon’s rich talent stable at LA Opera, were all first rate (and as we understand it, the only paid) performers.
One cannot imagine a better character performance than Mr. Yi’s. His intensity and focus in the role projected to the Cathedral’s baptistery with stentorian authority and a rich, darkly colored voice. Ms. Miller’s role allowed for humor as she resisted boarding Noye’s ark until literally pushed in by her three sons: Caleb Glickman as Shem, Anthony Karambelas as Ham, and Patrick Mayoral as Jaffett. The boys formed the best such trio since Fludde was first performed seven years ago. (All solo voices were amplified.)
Behind the headliners, a massive collection of exceedingly well-trained instrumentalists and choristers were assembled to provide turbasupport, plus what seemed to be an endless parade of little humans dressed as the great variety of animals boarding Noye’s ark to avoid certain extinction, who also sang along and danced at various points. Kudos to Caleb Barnes for shepherding the little ones as production assistant.
All the costumes, props and animal approximations were wonderful but within a narrow color scheme, which made the rainbow, the sign of God’s promise never to flood the earth again, that much more vivid. Most impressive again were the “birds” skillfully given flight.
The greatest single additions to this year’s performances were the projections behind the actors that helped greatly in the audience’s understanding of the old English as well as ongoing story.
One would wish to name all performers, especially the choirs and excellent orchestra, which was seeded with Los Angeles Opera Orchestra personnel, but comprised primarily of music students from Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music. One cherishes especially the beautiful ‘cello solo by LA Opera’s Rowena Hammill. The Cathedral's own Samuel Soria made the pipe organ roar when needed.
Appreciation to Los Angeles Opera and Downtown News for the above photographs.
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
Returning to the friendly confines of Walt Disney Concert Hall from a very successful tour of London, Paris, Lucerne and New York City performing the Peter Sellars/John Adams “Gospel According to the Other Mary” that received critical acclaim, the Master Chorale’s Maestro Grant Gershon selected the works of two early 20thcentury composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Francis Poulenc.
In a finely balanced program, the audience was treated to Poulenc’s Salve Regina that served to remind us how much we missed these 62 choristers while they were on the road. Maestro Gershon approached the work with a high degree of sensitivity that allowed the intimate polyphony to work its magic.
Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor is a finely constructed work that seeks to evoke a modal and almost Gregorian flavor in the opening Kyrie eleison, with a solo quartet performing the Christe eleison. Soloists were soprano Hayden Eberhart, mezzo soprano Michele Hemmings, tenor Michael Lichtenauer and bass Scott Lehmkuhl. Keeping in mind that Vaughan Williams wrote the Mass for an Anglican choir of men and boys, Ms. Eberhart was tasked with replacing a treble and Ms. Hemmings a countertenor, with the effect of changing the quartet’s original sound completely. Mr. Lichtenauer was able to accommodate to a less than full-voiced high tessitura and head-tone production more typical of the English tenor. As a quartet, the four were a bit less than ideal as regards blend and balance of their various parts.
Although some entrances were a bit ragged, the choral sections of the Mass were gloriously and antiphonally sung, at times gifting the audience that wonderful “wall of sound” that we have grown to love and anticipate.
After intermission, Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songsoffered baritone Abdiel Gonzalez a major solo turn that he advantaged to a great extent. His ringing high baritone matched the composer’s requirements to a “t” although some might not prefer his tight, nervous vibrato. Mr. Gonzalez’s musicianship and solid vocal technique serves him well. Accompanying on the organ was Paul Meier, who adjusted the instrument’s sometimes overwhelming power to a fine match with the Master Chorale. Despite the English text so well enunciated by Mr. Gonzalez, the audience was provided above-the-stage text projection.

By far the audience’s (and Master Chorale’s) favorite work of the evening was Poulenc’s sometimes bitter and ironic Figure Humaine (The Face of Humanity) composed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France, which required the poet, Paul Éluard, to veil his personal venom against the enemy by couching his lyrics in subtle and oblique language and using a pseudonym or two.
Starting with Bientôt (Soon), Poulenc maintains a musical low profile, creating while avoiding detection as a partisan, but breaks the tension with Le Rôle des Femmes (The Women’s Role). Of particular note is Un Loup (A Wolf) that darkly paints the Nazi presence as predator, while Un feu sans tache (A flawless fire) creates a special challenge for singers and music students alike with its confetti-like leap-note writing, the beauty of which is only revealed in bringing the different vocal parts together, perhaps a symbol for the Resistance.
The final movement entitled “Liberté!” was kept by Poulenc until American troops liberated his country, and although one might expect an outbreak of major tonalities and trumpets-and-drums declamatory choruses, Poulenc instead rides the waves of emotion throughout from ironic to wry hope, from hopeful and finally, to joy, expressed in the final measures by a four-octave E major chord topped by an in-altissimo E performed bang on pitch on this occasion by Karen Hogle Brown. Given the extra measure of energy and passion, it would not be too difficult to assume that a large portion of rehearsal time went into this work, with ultimate success in every respect. Welcome home, Master Chorale!
2 years ago | |
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Review by Rodney Punt

Gioachino Rossini's Cinderella (aka ‘La Cenerentola’) nods to the rescue singspiels of the composer's beloved Mozart, where Enlightenment Good triumphs over Establishment Evil. But Catalan director Joan Font and his team downplay these proto-romantic leanings in favor of surreal farce. Opportunities for same certainly abound in Rossini’s witty, effervescent score. Joan Guillén’s rakish set and brightly colored costumes, along with Albert Faura’s extreme lighting, set the scene somewhere near Alice's Wonderland. Font compensates for occasional slow momentum in long arias with stage business ranging from charming to silly, working hard at times for its sugar highs. The ensuing action ends up more madcap daydream than miraculous rescue.

Cinderella differs in detail from the well-known Disney version. Rossini’s heroine is named Angelina. Exposed ankles being too risqué in that era, a bracelet set replaces slippers for the day after match-up. Forget the pumpkin carriage, fairy godmother and cute mice. The most sympathetic characters are six Kangaroo-sized rats that take a shine to Angelina and ere long also shamelessly mug for the audience. In an unexpected twist, this Cinderella wakes from her dream to once again sweep the floors. For all the divergences from the Magic Kingdom, no one could mistake this version for any other fable.

Billed as a co-production (its six-year journey had begun in Houston, with stops in Wales, Barcelona and Geneva), it looked more borrowed, with its sets stretched wider and deeper than comfortable on the theme park-sized Chandler stage. Only when a downstage Mylar screen appeared in the second act to support the voices could opening night singers provide vocal punch to the hall's distant reaches. This was especially hard on young Kate Lindsey in the title role.

Just thirty years of age, Lindsey is already a star attraction, if not yet a vocal power-hitter. On opening night her projection into the cavernous house was not as commanding as her more mature colleagues. But give her time; she is charismatic, lovely and lithesome, with a velvety voice as fresh as spring itself. Her Angelina charmed in both the plaintive “Una volta c’era un re” and the flourishing finale of “Non più mesta accanto al fuoco.”

Lindsey’s attractive visage in flowing light brown hair and white prom dress had adorned promo posters of Cinderella on the streets of Los Angeles. Alas, such a picture was never on stage, as the ball scene had her in a silvery-white beehive wig, as frightful as the get-ups of the rest of the off-kilter company.

René Barbera’s Don Ramiro (the so-called “handsome” prince) sounded heroic but looked suitably ridiculous in his pointy pompadour wig. His valet Dandini (Vito Priante, resembling the foppy persona of Sacha Baron Cohen) nearly stole the show when he exchanged his servant’s clothing with his master’s finery, then put on airs and made demands of his temporarily humbled master. Nicola Ulivieri’s Alidoro served admirably as the goofy male equivalent of a fairy godmother. Even the heavies were ultimately more wacky than menacing: Alessandro Corbelli as Angelina’s inexplicably cruel father, Don Magnifico; Stacy Tappan and Ronnita Nicole Miller as her high-handed, hoop-skirted sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe.

Conductor James Conlon and his orchestral charges enforced quicksilver tempi that underscored the fun and frothiness. They made the most of Rossini's famous accelerandi and his tingling instrumental combos, especially those of the flute, piccolo, oboe and clarinet. While vocal solos were for the most part firm, ensembles on opening night were often ragged. Reliable reports suggest the whole show tightened up as the run progressed.

Despite its oddities, this Cinderella was a worthy entry to the ever-growing Rossini canon at LA Opera. More of the composer's sparkling comedies and even the obscure dramas of his late career are returning to favor worldwide. They are becoming a company specialty in Los Angeles.

Cinderella (La Cenerentola) by Gioachino RossiniLA Opera, March 23 - April 13, 2013Performance reviewed: March 23, 2013Photos of Robert Millard used by permission of LA Opera

2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
An ambitious and well-attended performance – the first-ever on the West Coast – of “Ecce Cor Meum” by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney was undertaken by the spirited Angeles Chorale in the large space provided by Pasadena’s United Methodist Church. The 100-voiced chorus, under the baton of John Sutton, was augmented by the Concert Choir of Pasadena’s Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, well-prepared as always by their Artistic Director, Anne Tomlinson.
A 30-member Sinfonia did their collective best, but in the end, only added confusion to chaos: without a reference score, one would never know whether the musicians were playing the “right” notes … or not.  And the uncredited and excellent “Bach trumpeter” was allowed far too much volume in much of his work.
Ecce” is said to be a personal statement of “spiritual confession of sorts” that devolves into a chaotic mélange of noise (and sometimes sound) spread over too much time. As the composer himself described: “… I started writing the music and then putting my own text to it, which is probably completely the wrong way around to do it. It didn’t matter. I suppose, you know, in that respect, it meant that it was a bit less conventional.” The left-handed Mr. McCartney’s confession includes such happy babble as this:

“We may find a traceOf a state of graceIn the saddest faceSomething is there.
How the rivers flowWe may never knowBut it goes to showSomething is there.”
The work, ostentatiously called an “oratorio” was written and revised over a period of eight years, and declared finished by the composer in 2001. There is a reason why the West Coast Premiere didn’t find a home until 2013. Melodies, as such, were hard to detect; any sense of musical structure impossible to sort out. “Through-composed” comes closest to the meandering framework, but after 45 minutes of “through-composed” one longed for a bit of form. It’s weak tea.
But one must applaud the Angeles Chorale and associated personnel for their bravery. One of the highlights were the children, who added gravitasto notes above the treble staff - and there were lots of stratospheric notes - giving the women of the Chorus a chance to save their voices for more exposed portions. 
Another highlight was soprano soloist Virenia Lind, whose duties were brief and difficult to hear over an orchestral accompaniment allowed to play too loudly. But what one could hear was a pure, floating sound that grew rich in lower tessitura.

Throughout, Dr. Sutton kept all in order, except for the clap-happy crowd, which ignored his movement-ending gesture requesting silence.
After intermission, a rock band replaced the Sinfonia, the children were relinquished to their parents, and the audience thinned. What followed was a trip through the 1960s phenomenon called the Beatles. It was a time when Mr. McCartney and fellow bandsmen wrote melodies, yes … melodies! And they were very good at it, the proof being the fact we remember those tunes even today.
Dr. Sutton invited all to join a sing-along on “When I’m Sixty-Four” (a look in the rear view mirror for a lot of attendees) and “Yellow Submarine.” The remaining dozen tunes were all familiar and enthusiastically performed. Many of the songs were incorrectly attributed in the concert program to McCartney, but only “Lady Madonna” and a portion of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” were claimed on his own website.
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
This one is personal for the writer. Losing a mother and sister to breast cancer leaves holes in the family fabric, empty chairs at family holiday gatherings, and a sadness that never quite goes away. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the mezzo-soprano featured in this album of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, died in 2006 at the age of 52 from the disease.
In a live 2003 performance, Ms. Lieberson paired with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in Bach’s solo cantata, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut”, BWV 199, conducted by LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane.  
The pietistic text seems to indulge in over-the-top sentimentality to the ears of today, but in the times and places where it was sung, delivered a jarring message of self-awareness and associated suffering, relieved only by confession and spiritual renewal:
1.         Recitative Violino I/II, Viola, Fagotto, Continuo
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, weil mich der Sünden Brut in Gottes heil’gen Augen zum Ungeheuer macht. Und mein Gewissen fühlet Pein, weil mir die Sünden nichts als Höllenhenker sein. Verhaßte Lasternacht! Du, du allein hast mich in solche Not gebracht; und du, du böser Adamssamen, raubst meiner Seele alle Ruh und schließest ihr den Himmel zu! Ach! unerhörter Schmerz! Mein ausgedorrtes Herz will ferner mehr kein Trost befeuchten, und ich muß mich vor dem verstecken, vor dem die Engel selbst ihr Angesicht verdecken.
My heart swims in blood because reflecting on my sins in God's holy eyes makes me into a monster. And my conscience feels pain because my sins are nothing but Hell's hangmen. Detested night of vice! You, you alone have brought me into such distress; and you, you evil seed of Adam, rob my soul of all inner peace and shut me off from heaven! Ah! unbelievable pain! My withered heart will in future be moistened by no comfort and I must conceal myself from him before whom the angels conceal their faces.
2.        Aria and Recitative     Oboe solo, Continuo (con Violone)
Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen, ihr mögt meine Schmerzen sagen, weil der Mund geschlossen ist.  Und ihr nassen Tränenquellen könnt ein sich’res Zeugnis stellen, könnt ein sich’res Zeugnis stellen, wie mein sündlich Herz gebüßt. Mein Herz ist itzt ein Tränenbrunn, die Augen heiße Quellen. Ach Gott! wer wird dich doch zufriedenstellen?
Silent sighs, quiet moans, you may tell of my pains, since my mouth is closed. And your wet springs of tears can offer certain witness of how my sinful heart has repented. My heart is now a well of tears, my eyes, hot springs. Ah God! Who then will give you satisfaction!
3.        Recitative Violino I/II, Viola, Fagotto, Continuo (con Violone)
Doch Gott muß mir gnädig sein, weil ich das Haupt mit Asche, das Angesicht mit Tränen wasche. Mein Herz in Reu und Leid zerschlage und voller Wehmut sage: Gott sei mir Sünder gnädig! Ach ja! sein Herze bricht, und meine Seele spricht:
But God must be gracious to me because I wash my head with ashes and my face with tears, I beat my heart in remorse and sorrow and full of grief say: God, be gracious to me, a sinner! Ah yes! his heart breaks and my soul says:
4.        Aria  Violino I/II, Viola, Fagotto, Continuo (con Violone)
Tief gebückt und voller Reue lieg ich, liebster Gott, vor dir.  Ich bekenne meine Schuld, aber habe doch Geduld, habe doch Geduld mit mir!
Deeply bowed and full of remorse I lie, dearest God, before you. I acknowledge my guilt, but still have patience, still have patience with me!
5.        Recitative Continuo (con Violone)
Auf diese Schmerzensreu fällt mir alsdenn dies Trostwort bei:
Amidst the pain of remorse this word of comfort comes to me.
6.        Chorale       Viola solo, Continuo (con Violone)
Ich, dein betrübtes Kind, werf’ alle meine Sünd’ so viel ihr in mir stecken und mich so heftig schrecken, in deine tiefen Wunden, da ich stets Heil gefunden.
I, your troubled child, cast all my sins that are fixed so many within me and frighten me so fiercely, into your deep wounds, where I have always found salvation.
7.        Recitative Violino I/II, Viola, Fagotto, Continuo (con Violone)
Ich lege mich in diese Wunden als in den rechten Felsenstein; die sollen meine Ruhstatt sein. In diese will ich mich im Glauben schwingen und d’rauf vergnügt und fröhlich singen:
I lay myself in these wounds as upon the true solid rock: they should be my place of rest. In these I want to soar in faith and content and happy to sing:
8.        Aria Oboe, Violino I/II, Viola, Fagotto, Continuo (con Violone)
Wie freudig ist mein Herz, da Gott versöhnet ist und mir auf Reu und Leid nicht mehr die Seligkeit noch auch sein Herz verschließt.
How joyful is my heart since God is reconciled and through my remorse and sorrow no longer shuts me away from salvation or from his heart.
Ms. Lieberson’s artistry, though forever lost to live performance, sings to us through this recording with the intensity of the eternal, all the while anchored in the earthly. Her voice is richly colored by the mortal vibrato of a woman facing death, although we hear her while in a period of remission, and in the strength of voice that forestalls, however briefly, the victory of cancer. Her voice is free, allowing the widest possible range of expression. Her gorgeous tone reminds one of a Bavarian Rococo church, with exquisite detail in every phrase. It is altogether appropriate that this precious recording should be made available to music lovers everywhere.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Jeffrey Kahane, matches her intensity and color in perfect partnership.
Bach often paired solo treble arias with Baroque oboes, and no oboist anywhere exceeds the virtuosic musicality of Allan Vogel’s oboe d’amorein the second movement (“Stumme Seufzer”). Principal Violist Roland Kato shines in the sixth movement Chorale (“Ich, dein betrübtes Kind”). An added virtue is Ms. Lieberson’s exemplary coloratura in Recitative No. 7 over the words “und fröhlich singen.” Indeed, with a final declarative Aria No. 8: “Wie freudig ist mein Herz!”
Bach’s oft-heard Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, BWV 1049 completes this Yarlung Records CD, and features the leadership of LACO’s concertmaster Margaret Batjer and flutists David Shostac and Brook Ellen Schoenwald, in a one-on-a-part performance that imparts clarity and lucid texture.
The album, simply titled Lorraine, is scheduled to be released for public sale on March 26 at www.yarlungrecords.comwith distribution by Naxos of America www.naxosusa.combearing the catalogue number YAR96298, UPC 700261962985. Bob Attiyeh was the producer.
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
Subtitled Live while you’re alive, the talented teens of the Music Academy of Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts located near the Music Center complex created their own version of the epic story of Gilgamesh, including all of the music. The original epic is very long, and once chosen out of a number of possible projects last fall at the start of the school year, the first job was to do some pretty hefty cutting of the epic to fit into a 42-minute space of time, and reshape into a form of oratorio.
Under the guidance of Jonathan Beard, Doug Cooney and Marnie Mosiman, and with the considerable support of music teachers Desiree Fowler and Christopher Rodriguez, who also shared conducting duties, the students of Music Academy choirs wrote the lyrics and music over a 20-week Voices Within residency in a remarkably skillful coalescence of style and congruity with roots in musical theatre.
Rehearsals of chorus and orchestra were limited to a three-week period leading to two performances in the school’s 950-seat Main Theatre, a grey-black room with bright red accents. Utilizing the internet, chorus members could go online to find recorded accompaniments to the many choruses of the work, a creation of Ms. Mosiman, who is Artistic Director of Voices Within, a community outreach program of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Eight Chorale singers were on hand to represent The Gods of the play, and were assigned some pretty challenging atonality to perform. Professional musicians supported the ensemble, most notably pianist Ulf Annenken and percussionist Ameenah Kaplan.

The oratorio opened with the drama of James Centeno’s Arabic pop song with Brandon Alulema’s plaintive oboe that set the appropriate mood reflecting the oratorio’s time and place, that being modern-day Iraq. Aisha, effectively played and sung by Alice Shin as the storyteller, relates the story of Gilgamesh to Frederick, an injured-in-a-jeep-accident international aid worker (Fumbah Tulay). Thus framed, the work walks through the king’s dramatic life, including lessons imposed upon him by The Gods to rid him of his arrogance through encounters with enemies, monsters, lovers, The Flood, and The Plant of Life, culminating in this: [Immortality] “is not all that it’s cracked up to be.” With that, Aisha and Frederick return to the present, the dust storm that caused the wreck of their jeep having dissipated and passed on.
Especially notable among the many soloists were Serena Boutin as Siri, Kevin Clemente as Gilgamesh and Harmony Tividad as Siduri. Brief but effective instrumentation was provided by three guitarists: Christian Bhagwani, Robert Gonzalez and Benjamin Markus. Violinist Mitch Forte, violist Jamaiya Penn, ‘cellist Lucy McKnight, and percussionist Jodie Landau played their parts well. Participating Master Chorale members included sopranos Tamara Bevard and Hayden Eberhart; altos Leslie Inman and Tracy Van Fleet; tenors Daniel Cheney and Charles Lane; and basses Abdiel Gonzalez and Vincent Robles.
It is utterly life affirming to know that the high schoolers of today, under the finest instructors, are able to give us a glimpse of their future in music and the arts. Bravi, tutti!

Photo credit: Patrick Brown
2 years ago | |
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By Stephen Cohn

The BBC Concert Orchestra performance at The Valley Performing Arts Center was an evening of firsts for this concert goer: the first time I have experienced the new Valley Performing Arts Center, the first time I have heard the BBC Concert Orchestra live and the first time I have heard a British ensemble play a whole evening of music composed by their countrymen. All are now on my list of items to be repeated after attending this Valentine’s Day evening event.

The Great Hall of the Valley Performing Arts Center has an elegant, futuristic exterior that one might expect to see in a big budget, Hollywood, Utopian, Sci Fi film. I was immediately drawn to explore the venue inside and out – it brought back memories of seeing the Music Center and Disney Hall upon first visits. Entering the lobby, I was struck with the Flemming Grand Staircase which is enclosed with glistening, clear panels. It gives the impression of a crystal pathway ascending to another plane. Entering the interior, one finds a state of the art, aesthetically inviting auditorium with blond acoustic paneling. The room, which seats 1700, is one of the wide rather than deep, halls so that no seat feels distant from the stage. The result of all this, as I was to experience, is extraordinarily clear, present, uncolored acoustics. Every note of the performance, from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo was clearly discernible and undistorted from my mid-distance, center seat.

The BBC Concert Orchestra, in their traveling platoon, is a medium sized, virtuosic ensemble under the solid and elegant direction of Maestro Keith Lockhart (also conductor of the Boston Pops). This Northridge Concert was one of the last stops on their current tour of the US. The energy and discipline of this orchestra were very apparent as was that amazing phenomena that happens when a really excellent symphonic ensemble seems magically unified in performance and very much in trusting consonance with their conductor. The textures they forge have a stunning range of colors and dynamics – all tasteful blended with a clarity that was complimented by the hall.

The program opened with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten (1913–76). The four pieces are instrumental episodes taken from Britten’s opera which was premiered in London in 1945. They are described by the composer in his working copy of the libretto as: Dawn (an) “Every-day, grey seascape”; Sunday Morning as “Sunny, sparkling music”; Moonlight as “summer night, seascape, quiet”; and Storm as “Storm at its height.” It is instructive to note that the composer’s intention from this description was to emulate a series of moods of the sea rather than to tell a story about it. The atmospheres he characterized in his notes were apparent in the music: bursts of orchestral color which were more textural than thematic in nature - i.e., evocative orchestrations, presented episodically, rather than the development of melodies appeared to be the underlying principle of design. The harmonic language was the most contemporary of any compositions on the program. It was on the line between tonality and more modern systems. Much of the material sounded familiarly tonal but the structural use was more coloristic than functional. The work was a great way to begin, as the contrasting dynamics; tempos and textures demonstrated the virtuosity and rich sound of the orchestra while also offering some connective insights between British music and music from other locations during the period. From this perspective, Britten was a communicative composer, emotionally attuned to his audience.

Following was the Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1918–9) by Edward Elgar (1857–1934). Cello soloist Sophie Shao joined the orchestra on a platform between the conductor and the concert mistress. For many of us, this work is associated with Jacqueline du Pré who, along with Daniel Barenboim, popularized this work both in performances, which can still be seen on You Tube and in the 1998 movie, Hillary and Jackie.

The orchestra is used sparingly in this piece. The four movements are quite short and none are in a fully traditional sonata allegro form. There were a number of instances, particularly in the second movement where a large melodic leap in combination with a modulation were unmistakably Mahleresque (for moments, I was in the Adagietto of the 5th) – and apparently, this perception comes up in writings about Elgar frequently. However, the timing of the two composer’s lives and careers doesn't lend itself to the probability of cross pollination or influence – so it may have just been what was in breath of the muse at the moment of creation of the concerto. The piece is unabashedly heartfelt and in spite of the sophistication of the writing, there is simplicity in the statement which seems focused on direct emotional connection with the listener. Elgar’s music sounds like it is clearly part of the tradition of communicating human spirit and emotion rather than experimenting with the language as were some of his contemporaries, like Stravinsky and Berg, at the time the Cello Concerto was written.

The work begins with a solo recitative which returns in several forms and, bringing us full circle, is the final statement of the last movement. The orchestration, although containing great contrasts is, for the most part, quite transparent, leaving a great deal of dynamic space for the soloist. Ms. Shao made elegant use of this space with courageously soft, lyrically expressive passages and very full, rich, assertive ones that filled the auditorium. Throughout, her performance was confident, soulful and both her sound and her stage presence spoke of an artist who is one with the music. The sensitivity to the unfolding of the cello/orchestra dialogue between Ms. Shao and Maestro Lockhart was as moving as it was intriguing.

Following intermission, the program opened with The Banks of Green Willow (1913) by George Butterworth (1885–1916). Butterworth’s life is a poignant story of great promise cut short by one of man’s self-inflicted tragedies: war. He was born in London in 1885 but grew up in York as his father became the General Manager of the North Eastern Railway. However, he got his advanced education at Eton College and Oxford University and while there, hung out Ralph Vaughan Williams and became involved with collecting traditional music. When First World War broke out in 1914, he joined the army and was killed in action on the Somme in August 1916. His lifespan of thirty one years is almost exactly the same as Franz Schubert. However, unlike Schubert who was prolific, Butterworth got a late start and left us with only a dozen or so works. The most performed of these are, A Shropshire Lad, a set of songs, and two orchestral works, Two English Idylls and The Banks of Green Willow. Many historians refer to him as one of the most gifted composers of his generation. It’s painful to think of what treasures we might have if he had survived the Great War.

The Banks of Green Willow is based on two English folk songs: the work’s eponymous folk-ballad and the Lincolnshire folk song Green Bushes. It opens with a solo clarinet playing the title theme and then blossoms into lush orchestral settings with contrasting solo passages for flute, oboe, and violin supported by quiet strings or, in one case, simply harp. It is a beautifully crafted work. The composer would have been wonderful with film scores given the opportunity. This work, which contains evocative pastoral counterpoint is also very dramatic - alternatively romantic, poignant, noble, pensive and unabashedly gorgeous. I was taken with the way the composer was able to make inevitable sounding transitions between short, very contrasting sections – so that the flow was seamless across leaps from sparse to fully orchestrated and from emotion to vastly differing emotion. The overall effect was a rich, colorful gestalt, enhanced by the orchestra’s obvious depth of understanding and passion for the music.

The last composition on the printed program was Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’) (1898–9.) Much has been written about this work for several reasons. It was Elgar’s first symphonic work in the Theme and Variations form, which invited comparisons with the Classical masters. His personal and sentimental approach to the form, however, is what gave the piece its lasting value and appeal. The keyword in the title, Enigma, has also been a provocative hook for music historians who have provided many theories about what the enigma is. The basic structure is a theme and fourteen variations. Each variation was inspired by a person who had an intimate association with the composer and the music that came out of this was motivated by something personal between the composer and the inspirer. The first variation honors his wife and the last is a self-portrait. Regarding the title, the composer said: “The ‘Enigma’ I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played …

One historian has advanced the theory that the enigma may be love since it was the composer’s connection to all the people who are represented. My take on the composer’s statement is something I've come across in the study of composition: an integrative principle is adopted by the composer but is never exposed in the music – it’s more like a silent guide for the composer which unifies everything written under its criteria without ever being stated in the composition – this could easily be concurrent with the love hypothesis – they are not mutually exclusive.

The variations are arranged in an order in which contrast appears to be a high value priority…and the varieties of contrast run from tempo to dynamic to mood to texture. Regarding the “apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme” - in the opening bars of the theme, there are several melodic intervals of a downward minor seventh, stated rather subtly. This melodic progression recurs in many of the variations, most prominently in the Nimrod where the progression is made into a repeating, ascending sequence which is the heart of every climax in this very emotive and most frequently performed variation from the composition… it was dedicated to August Jaeger, the man who edited Elgar’s’ music and was his closest and most trusted friend. The ending, self-portrait variation is dashing, even swashbuckling, as one would find at the climax of a high quality adventure film score with shades, also, of a nineteenth century heroic opera overture – it’s wonderfully noble, inspirational, explosive and climactic. Although Elgar’s style is not easy to categorize, this work is romantic in nature but with Elgar’s brand of very direct, deceptively simple communication – there are many elements of the late Romantic Period with some markers that are pushing the envelope.

The orchestra brought their full passion, wit and tenderness to this odyssey with a meticulous reading which appeared to be a celebration of the work of an acclaimed countryman.

With the audience on their feet, after three returns to the stage by Maestro Lockhart, we were granted a perfect dessert for the concert, Touch Her Soft Lips and Part by Sir William Walton from his score for the film Henry V. This is a truly heartrendingly beautiful, romantic and tender, short piece for the string section only. Harmonically, it draws on Impressionism but has more of the aura of a sophisticated pop ballad with a disarmingly intimate melody. Maestro Lockhart had his strings play pianissimo throughout the work as if it were being whispered into a lover’s ear. It was a perfect ending for a Valentines Evening Concert.

All in all, it was an inviting and rewarding introduction to the BBC Concert Orchestra, The Valley Performing Arts Center and an enticing insight into British Composition.

2 years ago | |
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By Stephen Cohn

Last Sunday I was drawn to the La Cañada Presbyterian Church to hear a chamber ensemble which was a combination of instruments I've seldom heard in concert: French horn, violin and piano. However, I have heard two of the fine musicians in the trio, Susan Svrcek, pianist and Jacqueline Suzuki, violinist. I was delighted, for the first time, to hear Steven Durnin play and talk about the French horn.  
The concert began with an introduction, by Durnin, to the development of the French horn in which he showed some specimens of early horns and discussed the instrument's earliest uses in combination with piano and violin. In line with this history, the first composition on the program was Trio No. 1 in C Major for violin, horn & piano by Frederic Duvernoy (1765-1838) - a work that is amongst the first compositions for the Horn Trio. It was a wonderful introduction to the sound of the ensemble, even though, for my ears, the piece was more interesting historically than musically – this, in spite of a clear and meticulous reading by the musicians. Then followed Extase: Reverie, No. 4 by Louis Ganne (1862-1923) – a lovely, dreamy composition with elements of Impressionism, although not the Ravel/Debussy style but with more of a leaning toward lighter music of the period (Ganne was regarded as one of the leading composers of lighter music in France).

The two highlights of the afternoon followed: Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla – a ravishingly beautiful piece which has been arranged for many different ensembles. This version was arranged for piano trio by Jose Bragato and then re-arranged for horn trio by Steven Durnin. This work has one of those irresistibly charismatic, poignant melodies supported with very appealing, evocative harmonies. The ensemble played it with a kind of unpretentious, ardent soulfulness that went straight to the heart.

The main course of the afternoon was the Horn Trio in Eb Major, Opus 40 (1865) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Mr. Durnin told us that this composition is one of the main reasons that the Horn Trio is part of today's chamber music milieu. He also said, and I agree, that it is all you would hope for in a Brahms composition. It has the complex, chromatic harmonic palette of the late Romantic period, lush, intelligent melodies and, to quote Durnin, “a lot of this” he said tapping on the left side of his chest. It's a rich voyage and leaves one feeling like you've been through a significant experience. The musicians delivered all this with a sophisticated, confident, intensely musical and heart-felt through line.

Since the audience would not let them go after the Brahms, the trio graced us with a short, lovely encore: "Esquisse" by Georges Barboteu (1924-2006). It was a very rewarding concert – I look forward to more from this ensemble.
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
Sunday was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 257th birthday, an occasion surely worthy of honor with a performance of his 39thSymphony (Köchel 543) and his enigmatic and truncated Requiem in D minor (K. 626), on this occasion “edited and completed” by Robert Levin, with most of the approved-by-repetition Süßmayr completions more or less intact.
The guest conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in concelebration was the iconic 82-year old German conductor Helmuth Rilling. Choral responsibilities for the Requiem were taken by The University of Southern California Thornton Chamber Singers, prepared by Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe. The solo quartet were: Stacey Tappan, soprano; Callista Hoffman, alto; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Michael Dean, bass.
Mr. Rilling conducts with a loose baton that often wanders between thrusting, emphatic arses, leaving the orchestra to carry on, the better not to watch the bobbing baton. Unfortunately, the opening phrase of the symphony was a bit of a muddle, but by the second go-around, order was restored. Mozart lived and composed in the midst of the Classical period in which the emotional excesses of the Baroque period were considered passé, tempi restored to regularity, and cadences played without attenuating the tempo. This also contrasts with compositions written after the Classical era in the Romantic, where the excesses of the Baroque were resurrected and enhanced by ever more expressive treatments of the score.
When Mr. Rilling formed his Gächinger Kantorei in 1954 and later the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, he applied his then-new ideas particularly to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach that found favor with some of the music community and helped him to set and sell records. His 15-year effort to record all Bach cantatas was completed in 1985. Competition in this specialized field came from several others who felt they had a better idea of how to approach period performance practice, most notably the Viennese Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The music and style that is Bach has withstood performances by a wide range of admirers, from the Swingle Singers to Wendy Carlos to Leopold Stokowsky. But Mozart’s music is more vulnerable, like a fine-crafted lace. A little tinkering around the edges can damage the product.
Over time, Mr. Rilling has accreted quite a following. This fact establishes a marker for stylistic performance that he has found difficult to change. The fact that Mozart’s music lies well within the Classical realm, but is surrounded by emotionally-laden and crushingly dominant styles in the Baroque and Romantic, means that a conductor must choose adherence to one of the three. On this occasion, and one might infer, on all occasions, he chooses to dwell in all three period styles at various times. Now he conducts a straight-forward Classical movement, and then we are dipped into a variable tempo style of Romantic origin, and yet again one perceives elements of the Baroque, especially in the Requiem, which is, in fact, form and style more Baroque than Classical, and certainly not Romantic.
Mr. Rilling’s choices in these matters tended toward a cafeteria line: a little of this, a little of that, and then shake until well mixed. The result is quirky, and full of unexpected change. For some, such a mixture of style is discomforting and annoying.
In the symphony, phrase endings were diminuendoed sometimes, and sometimes not. Cadences were almost always preceded by “brakes applied as the train pulls into the station.” But not in every case, as in the third movement (Andante con moto). Worse, the “Ländler” of the Minuetto was taken at full bladder tempo, when that folk dance is in fact a slower than waltz speed. Nevertheless, the Chamber Orchestra soldiered along, doing its best to fathom the Taktstockwanderungen.
Given the long-standing feelings of UCLA to its private school competitor, USC, especially in the realm of sports, it was heart-warming to note the warm applause from the full-house Royce Hall crowd as the USC Chamber Singers made their entrance for the Requiem. As University-age singers go, this is an excellent choir who always sing on pitch, are attentive to whomever is conducting, and sing with a full measure of commitment. Dr. Scheibe prepared them well for this event.
The solo quartet sang as individuals; only in the Offertorium (Domine Jesu) could some semblance of collaboration be noted. Especially annoying was tenor Nicholas Phan, who refused to blend with the other quartet members, even to the point of making his own entrances and phrase completions, and that often out of tune. Ms. Tappan began the work with a creamy, legato tone, but seemed to lose strength as the evening wore on, an effect suffered by her colleague, Mr. Dean, who nevertheless summoned sufficient energy for his Tuba mirum solo. The fatigue factor might stem from the combined ensemble’s performance the previous night at Glendale's Alex Theatre in acoustics that would drain most soloists. Ms. Hoffman’s voice was beautiful, but hampered by low tessitura; her best singing were notes above A=440.
One has to admire the energy that an 82-year old can muster, and music-making tends to resurrect the requisite amount. The aforementioned Mr. Harnoncourt is still conducting at age 83, but has what appears to be blessed with a stronger constitution.
Mr. Levin, the arranger, felt it necessary to hang an “Amen”onto the Lacrimosa, the near two-octave ladder that marked Mozart’s actual moment of death. Mr. Levin’s addition, no matter how “authentic” does not sound at all like Mozart, as it is overly busy and completely misses out on the composer’s transparency. Some may deem this a worthy attempt to fill a void, but where Süßmayr carried on in something much closer to the style of authentic Mozart, Mr. Levin thrashes out with an hysteric fugue that obliterates all of the heart-wrenching pathos that goes before. It is clearly not Mozart. Some might prefer nothing to this “something.”
Perhaps the most pleasing moments were the Voca me of the Confutatis movement and the Dona eis requiem sempiternam section of the Agnus Dei, another addendum by Mr. Levin that adhered well to Mozartean grace, and provided the choir with an opportunity to sound their best of the evening.
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
As wonderful as our Maestro Grant Gershon and his Master Chorale and Orchestra are on a regular basis, once in awhile they surpass their own excellence and enter into that rare, ephemeral sphere of ecstasy-inducing performance that is so difficult to describe. You had to be there, and fortunately for those who go to the Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow evening, you will have the chance to understand and feel their reverence for two beautiful compositions: the iconic Brahms German Requiem, and a similarly-themed composition by Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) that opened the concert, “The World in Flower."
In Saturday’s matinee before a nearly full Hall, where so often one would not be surprised with other music ensembles to hear a bit of throat-clearing and some level of sight-singing in preparation for the following “real” concert, such a stray thought was quickly banished. Each chorister, each orchestra member, and three stellar soloists were moved to such a degree, one could literally feel their shared ecstasy. They sang and played as one, a cooperative whole whose ethos deeply impressed those in attendance. And of course, all of that has a fountainhead: the utter commitment of their director, Maestro Gershon.
For some, Ein deutsches Requiem of Johannes Brahms is a relic of old hat, full blown German Romanticism, and it is that. And it can be performed minus the careful preparation that banishes technical difficulties and prepares the way for a performance such as one heard this afternoon. But it was clear that Maestro Gershon would not have it any other way short of perfection. He brought the sometimes dusty work to life, finding revelatory musical gems within the choral and orchestral score, and in so doing, revealing fresh facets of the music. Movement after movement, that extra-special feeling passed from one to another in a finely-woven, beautiful tapestry.
Two soloists added their vocal blessings in the Brahms: Brian Mulligan, baritone and Hayden Eberhart, lyric soprano. Mr. Mulligan has a wonderfully musical instrument, together with a sense of phrasing and text delivery that is just right. His ample voice filled Disney Hall in his four arias, not an easy task as others in the past have discovered. But to do so without pushing the voice approaches the extraordinary. Ms. Eberhart (replacing an indisposed Yulia Van Doren) sang the angelic “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” with an achingly sweet voice. The Master Chorus and Orchestra were simply perfection. When finally the last chord dissipated into the Hall, the perfect silence lasted for long seconds before the audience could dare to express themselves in loud applause. Magic.
English translations of both compositions were projected on a screen high overhead. This was especially helpful in the opening item, Mr. Lieberson’s “The World in Flower,” a work of ten movements with instrumental prelude, which utilizes no fewer than 11 text sources celebrating life, love and death, including a traditional Navajo poem, works by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, and the Bible, among others. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the piece is essentially post-Romantic, but with many Romantic-era references, eschewing dissonance for dissonance sake, and employing a mezzo soprano soloist, in this case, Kelley O’Connor, whose radiant voice matched Mr. Mulligan’s in size and beauty. 
2 years ago | |
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