Thursday, March 29, 2012

LACO Refracts a Mozart Concerto with Timothy Andres

Review by Rodney Punt

Sunday’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert promised a world premiere of a new work by a hot young composer. Also a familiar concerto and symphony by Mozart. More than the new work, however, it was the radical makeover of a classic that garnered the evening’s most attention.

Mozart’s Coronation Concerto in D Major, K. 537, is something of an orphan. Its “gallant” style, while surface-sweet, is less personal and interestingly written than the composer’s other mature works in the genre, and he never got around to notating most of this penultimate concerto’s left-hand piano part. A later editor’s speculative filling in of the blanks is dutiful but bland, leaving few subsequent pianists convinced. LACO’s pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane has performed it only once, to complete his survey of all Mozart’s piano concertos with the orchestra. He admits to “hating” the work.
Enter Timothy Andres, LACO’s featured artist for the evening, a Palo Alto-born, Brooklyn-based composer-pianist specializing in writing and performing -- with considerable pianistic skill -- works for piano and orchestra. The twenty-something composer (also known as "Timo") is creating quite a stir this season with his appearances at LACO and at the Cal Arts "Wild Up" contempo music series.

Andres has rewritten Mozart’s missing left-hand part and calls his new version of the Coronation a “re-composition”, justifying his score tampering as an answer to the concerto’s checkered history. Rather than striving for Mozart’s original intentions, Andres’s approach was to complete the work in his own style. His post-modern and eclectic influences embrace everything from Francis Poulenc to John Adams. LACO’s program title “refracted” implied we would hear Mozart’s conventions bent somewhat askew. And, boy, did we ever.

The West Coast premiere of the Coronation’s new version at Royce Hall was kinky, quirky and cute. It ruffled sensibilities with spikey dissonances, intricate polyrhythms, and seemingly incongruous harmonies. That they were jarring to hear was clearly Andres’s intention. The pianistic additions might have been an uncomfortable appliqué on Mozart’s purity, but they made an intriguing sow’s ear of his incomplete silk purse.

Ruffled sensibilities aside, the perverse bad-boy character of the whole was always listenable, exquisitely performed, and, in some time-travelling way, redolent of Mozart’s reputedly playful personality. Andres stated earlier he hoped people wouldn’t think he intentionally “gave the finger” to Mozart. But he needn’t worry. The exercise came off more like a good-natured, thumb-nosing tribute to the irreverent genius from Salzburg.

Opening the program was the world premiere of Andres’s own work, Old Keys, a ten-minute exercise in eclectic razzle-dazzle for piano and orchestra. Commissioned by LACO’s Sound Investment project, the
splashy showpiece employs bright orchestral effects in support of a virtuosic piano protagonist. Andres claims the title refers to tonalities not in use today and old themes long residing in his desk. Influences would seem to be John Adams’s formal devices, Ligeti’s rhythmic manipulations, and Ravel's piano concerto colorings, had they been juiced with steroids. The young composer still has some proportionality to get under control; the latter part of the short piece strives for a conclusion too colossally large for so short a statement. It was as if that section was conceived for the finale of a much larger work. Perhaps it will be reemployed in just that capacity some day.

In both of Andres’ works, the indisputable
element was the pianist’s fluid pianism. His cross-hand technique was a marvel and the command of his thorny rhythms and textures impressive. Kahane and his orchestra provided solid support in both works, though the concerto’s classical-era orchestral score seemed something of a limiting horse-and-buggy vehicle for Andres’ hot racecar piano.

Conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s traversal of another penultimate work of Mozart, his much beloved Symphony No. 40 in G minor, was sculpted as if from fine marble: taut, with well-gauged, lively-paced tempi emphasizing propulsive sturm-und-drang over minor-key pathos, but allowing room for delicate details, as in the second movement‘s interplay of woodwinds and strings and the trio’s phrase-ending ritardandi. Kahane’s orchestra was with him all the way in poise and precision. Particular kudos in the Menuetto are due the strings for their stabbing assertiveness and the horns for their mellow assurances. The last movement’s collaboration between musicians and conductor generated a spatial intensity worthy of the work’s profound statement.

In the end, we were able to enjoy Mozart at his best and on his own terms.


A sad note: At the beginning of the concert, Maestro Kahane announced that long-time music patron and member of the LACO family Ronald Rosen had passed away earlier that week. Rosen's steadfast support of the musical life of Los Angeles will be sorely missed by all music lovers in Southern California and beyond, including this reviewer, who had shared musical moments with him on many an occasion.

Photo: Timothy ("Timo") Andres, used by permission of the artist.

The Shakespeare Club of Pasadena presents Meredith Willson's "The Music Man"

by Douglas Neslund

Meredith Willson wrote two immortal tunes that happen to complement each other and a few patter songs, and spun a tale of misdirection and love that have endured the half century since its initial performance in 1957. Mr. Willson placed the town of his birth, Mason City, Iowa, squarely on the Broadway stage and it has not disappeared since.

A 2012 iteration found a home in the venerable San Gabriel Mission Playhouse under the sponsorship of The Shakespeare Club of Pasadena, as a benefit to provide scholarships for deserving graduating seniors in the Pasadena Unified School District. A large crowd attended opening night, causing a massive parking problem and delaying the curtain for those unlucky enough to have to park many blocks away.

But then the lights dimmed, and a top-drawer professional pit band under the direction of Robert Marino struck up the overture, and the magic of the theatre came to life. As such presentations go, there were aspects of the show that were first class: the stage works, the dancing and the chorus work, in addition to the excellent pit band, were delights. Bill Shaw directed and Rikki Lugo choreographed, and although ankle sprains were reported, the pure energy put forth by the entire cast was infectious and most enjoyable.

The leading roles, Rob McManus's Professor Harold Hill and Peggy Schmid's Marian Paroo, revealed well-worn characterizations and unfortunately, voices. Ms. Schmid's singing was particularly painful even though every patron was most sympathetic and supportive. Mr. McManus suffered, perhaps, by the inevitable comparison with the screened Professor, the youthful Matthew Broderick. But due to their utter familiarity with their respective roles, the two leads made solid impressions. The Schoolboard/Quartet was a disappointment.

However, an excellent impression was made by David Coleman's Winthrop Paroo, who revealed an ultra-shy boy to come alive when handed a trumpet by Professor Hill. The citizens of River City were well represented on stage in acting, singing and dancing duties by scads of volunteers, but one's eye couldn't help but follow Liz Atherton as she danced with great skill in several ensemble numbers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Happy Birthday J.S. Bach!

Hélène Grimaud Plays Bach Chaconne

by Anne French

Today is J.S. Bach's Birthday, for me the most important birthday in the history of western music. I hardly know where to begin in choosing a proper post as tribute to the Master.  This performance by Hélène Grimaud of Bach's famous D-minor Chaconne is one of my favorites, and Ms. Grimaud seems to be positively inspired!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fauré Requiem to be performed in Glendale

by Anne French

Gabriel Fauré
One of the greatest masterpieces of choral literature, Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, will be the centerpiece of Sunday afternoon's concert at Glendale First United Methodist Church. The work is at once glorious, yet quietly emotional and spiritually introspective, making it an ideal musical expression for the lenten season. Performed will be the 1893 version of the piece, written for choir, chamber orchestra and organ, the latter performed by Ladd Thomas.

Conducting will be Nancy Sulahian, who has directed the church's Cathedral Choir since 1996.
A 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Ms. Sulahian is an active concert soloist who also directs the 1000-voice choir at Disneyland's annual Christmas Candlelight Procession. She says of the Fauré work, " seems he conceived the piece as a prayerful personal expression of faith....It feels like the right choice for this concert."

The ambitious program also includes Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11 and Ave Verum, Op. 65, No.1, three motets by Charles Villiard Stanford, and two motets of Anton Bruckner.

The Sunday, March 25 concert commences at 4:00 p.m. at Glendale's First United Methodist Church, 134 N. Kenwood St. Admission is free. For more information, call 818-243-2105 or log onto

Sunday, March 18, 2012

LA Opera/Cathedral partnership presents "The Festival Play of Daniel"

by Douglas Neslund

Six years ago, Los Angeles Opera approached the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels located kitty-cornered to LA Opera's home in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a concept of bringing opera to the general non-opera-going public. Cathedral policy forbids ticket sales, so performances must be supported by foundations, corporations and individuals who underwrite the costs associated with performances, with primary support coming from the Dan Murphy Foundation.

To a jam-packed Cathedral in two performances this weekend, a second go-around of "The Festival Play of Daniel" was presented, conducted by Maestro James Conlon, and performed by a large aggregation of young people filling choral, orchestral, dancing and acting requirements set forth by choreographer Leslie Stevens to music originating in the early 13th century but wonderfully orchestrated by the enormously talented director Eli Villanueva, who also provided the English translation from the original Latin. The monks would have been greatly impressed.

Originally brought to life in the 1960s by Noah Greenberg and his New York-based Pro Musica, the work was expanded by Mr. Villanueva and crew to include scads of performers in the Cathedral's open spaces, with five appropriately decorated and beautifully illuminated panels framing a temporary stage topped by as regal a throne as any king should desire.

No fewer than 12 soloists were featured:
  • Angel..........................................Caleb Barnes
  • King Belshazzar........................Erik Anstine
  • Queen.........................................Tracy Cox
  • Daniel.........................................Ben Bliss
  • King Darius...............................Alexey Sayapin
  • Habakkuk..................................Ashley Faatoalia
  • Sage #1/Counselor...................Robert MacNeil
  • Sage #2/Counselor...................Sal Malaki
  • Sage #3/Counselor...................Vincent Robles
  • Noble #1/Messenger................Daniel Armstrong
  • Noble #2/Messenger................Johnathan McCullough
  • Noble #3/Advisor.....................Museop Kim
All soloists brought their considerable individual talents to the corporate festivities, especially Ben Bliss in the title role, Daniel Armstrong (both Mr. Bliss and Mr. Armstrong impressed in the recent Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performance of Bach's Magnificat), and a 20-year old countertenor on stilts, Caleb Barnes, who seems to have an annual contract for these Cathedral performances. Mr. Anstine and Mr. MacNeil are to be singled out for exceptionally beautiful voices.

It would be futile to list everyone, but outstanding work was rewarded with polished and exemplary performances by the Cathedral's own choir, directed by Frank Brownstead, the Colburn Children's Choir, directed by Mikhail Shtangrud, and the Pueri Cantores of San Gabriel Valley Children's Choir, directed by Patrick Flahive, among so many others. The Celebration Ringers of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena provided a celestial touch.

The youth orchestra, supplemented by ten professionals from the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, came from Hamilton High School's Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra (coordinated by Jim Foschia) and the Colburn String Orchestra (co-directed by Margaret Shimizu and Rebecca Frazier. All musicians played beautifully under Maestro Conlon's baton, and even offered their celebrated maestro a gratuitous "Happy Birthday" as an ad hoc encore that was joyously joined by performers and audience alike.

A Baroque Conversation by Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

by Douglas Neslund

Finding an intimate space in Zipper Concert Hall in Colburn School opposite Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra recently offered the first in a series called “Baroque Conversations,” a brilliant concept of period education sandwiched around a concert, with each item introduced with humor by oboist extraordinaire Allan Vogel. Providing instrumental contributions were Margaret Batjer, violin; Patricia Mabee, portative organ and harpsichord; Armen Ksajikian, cello; Andrew Shulman, cello; David Shostac, flute; Janice Tipton, flute and soprano; and Allan Vogel, oboe. All participants are well-established musicians, and played with delightful elegance and appropriate period ornamentation.

Guest artist Elissa Johnston, soprano, collaborated in six Bachian selections, favoring rich tone and nuanced expression over textual considerations, making the published texts in the evening’s program helpful. Ms. Johnston’s soaring soprano excels in the upper atmosphere, although low-lying notes tended to get lost in the accompaniment. Ms. Johnston’s program:
  • From Cantata No. 199: “Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen”
  • From Cantata No. 208: “Schafe können sicher weiden”
  • From BWV 508 (Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach): “Bist du bei mir” (which was actually composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel)
  • From Cantata No. 115: “Bete aber auch dabei”
  • From BWV 248 (Christmas oratorio): “Flößt, mein Heiland”
  • From Cantata No. 68: “Mein gläubiges Herze”
The above items ranged widely in emotion, from grief to consolation, from release to conviction, from light-hearted (and witty) satisfaction to joyful expression and banishment of complaint. The requisite “echo” voice in "Flößt, mein Heiland" was performed by Ms. Tipton, in what might have been her professional vocal debut. Mr. Ksajikian adroitly maneuvered his four-string cello around the five-string demands of "Mein gläubiges Herze," all at presto speed.

The delightful recital, which was well appreciated by a nearly full house, opened with a graceful Gavotte and Gigue from Mystery Sonata No. 13 (“Pentecost”) by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, whose music, Mr. Vogel opined, may well have been heard by the very young Johann Sebastian Bach. This was followed by brilliant keyboard artistry by Ms. Mabee performing Bach's own Toccata in D Minor (BWV913). Bach’s Trio Sonata in G major (BWV 1038) provided an excellent contrast in four movements midway through Ms. Johnston’s offerings. All parties to the recital met onstage to close with Bach’s final composition, “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (BWV 668a), which was preceded by Canons from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Music Off the Record


by Anne French

I am going through a Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) phase, appreciating his keyboard works played on piano rather than harpsichord for the most part. And after considerable listening to what's available on YouTube, I return to pianist Mikhail Pletnev more often than not. This Sonata in F Sharp Minor, K.25, L.481 is one I do not remember hearing before. It seems like a wonderful way to begin the last day of the first weekend of March (although it's mostly lamb, and very little lion). Enjoy!