Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Pianist András Schiff is Knighted

by Rodney Punt

LA Opus has been notified that eminent pianist Sir András Schiff, a frequent visitor to Southern California, has been awarded Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in the 2014 Birthday Honours. BBC News had this to say about the recent announcement:

"Schiff has been hailed as the greatest musician Hungary has produced since the composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. Alongside his brilliance as a pianist, he has a reputation as one of the great musical thinkers. His lectures on Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas remain a central tenet of music broadcasting."

A British citizen since 2001, Sir András Schiff was recently awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal in December 2013 and the International Classical Music Award 2012, in the category “Solo Instrumental Recording of the Year” for his recording of “Geistervariationen” with works by Robert Schumann (ECM). Recitals and special cycles, such as the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Bartók, form an important part of his activities. Since 2004 he has performed complete cycles of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in 20 cities, and the cycle in the Zurich Tonhalle was recorded live.

With renewed interest these days in the "Classical Style", Schiff will probe some of the later sonatas of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in a North American tour in early 2015 that includes the cities of New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Ann Arbor. His local solo recitals are under the auspices of the LA Phil at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The LA Phil programs, one each in the Colburn Celebrity Series 1 & 2, are as follows:

Wed FEB 18, 2015, 8:00pm (CCS-2)
HAYDN Piano Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50
BEETHOVEN Sonata in E, Op. 109
MOZART Sonata in C, K. 545
SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in C minor, D. 958

Wed MAR 4, 2015, 8:00pm (CCS-1)
MOZART Sonata in B-flat, K. 570
BEETHOVEN Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110
HAYDN Sonata in D, Hob. XVI:51
SCHUBERT Sonata in A, D. 959

Further details and tickets: LA Phil tickets


Photo of András Schiff used by permission of Kirshbaum, Demler & Associates.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Monday, June 9, 2014

Los Angeles Master Chorale Wraps Season 50

By Douglas Neslund

The final concert of the season in most musical organizations is usually regarded by most as lighter, less formal, even a bit frothy. Some might include something of a fashion show above and beyond the memo’s instruction to “wear something black.” It’s a chance for the leadership to thank patrons and invite them back for the Fall season to come, and perhaps more wistfully, a chance to thank departing members for their contributions.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s final concert of the 2013-2014 season, the organization’s Fiftieth Jubilee year, was no different, except in one regard: the quality and gravitas of the musical items on the menu reflected a serious affirmation of Artistic Director Grant Gershon’s determination to bring newly minted choral works to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage.

The concert opened with what might have been the best of the evening’s five works, Shawn Kirchner’s Inscapes suite, set to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). In the preconcert lecture, Mr. Kirchner disclosed that he chose a sonata form, traditionally understood to be: allegro, scherzo, andante, allegro and four of Hopkin’s poems to match.

The initial movement could be subtitled “Young People’s Guide to the Professional Choir” and could not have better underwritten Maestro Gershon’s introductory remark that Kirchner writes, unlike most composers, from the middle (the inner voices) of the choir outward, creating a choral tapestry. Exactly so. No dynamic was ignored, no tessitura boundaries unexplored. His generous reliance on major-minor harmonies makes Kirchner’s color palette accessible to a wider range of audiences, although few choruses could replicate the deliciously exquisite performance heard in Disney Hall, including beautifully sung solo work by sopranos Suzanne Waters and Elyse Willis.

Shawn Kirchner 
The second movement began in a most precarious and exposed above-the-staff series of pianissimo notes that formed a theme shared throughout the choir, a playful episode that set the scene for the dark, elegiac Binsley Poplars, the poet’s mournful reaction to the destruction of trees nearby his Oxford home.

“As kingfisher’s catch fire” returns mood and tempo to the lighter side, once again testing the Master Chorale’s limitless skills with the knowing hand of a true craftsman.

A close second in quality of composition was another world premiere, this time on a commission to Esa-Pekka Salonen paid by Master Chorale members to celebrate LAMC’s Golden Jubilee. The composer chose to set the final stanzas of Dante’s Paradiso from his epic Divina Commedia, commenting that what lies above the “god” concept in the universe is Love. The iPad Air-equipped Salonen uses Dante’s formal structure to excellent effect, with “Iri da iri,” a chant-like musical theme passed around the choir, with the remaining choristers forming a thick wall of vocal miasma as a downstage curtain, a highly effective choral deployment. The Master Chorale commissioners got excellent value for their money.

In between the Kirchner and Salonon bookends were works of two other composers with a strong ethnic flavor: Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Los Cantores de las Montañas and Francisco Nuñez’s “Es Tu Tiempo.” Ms. Frank’s composition consisted of six vignettes first performed by the Master Chorale two seasons ago, each in the style of the people and using their instruments: two guitars, bongos, piano and bamboo flutes from the gruppo Huayucaltia conducted by LAMC Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton. Eight Master Chorale soloists punctuated the vignettes with excellent tone and a clear delivery of their respective texts: sopranos Anna Schubert and Caroline McKenzie; mezzo sopranos Callista Hoffman-Campbell and Tracy Van Fleet; tenors Brandon Hynum and Bradley Chapman; and bass Gregory Geiger. Particularly effective was bass Ryan Villaverde, both as singer and narrator.

New York’s own Francisco Nuñez was blessed to use the honor choristers of the recent Master Chorale High School Choral Festival, singing side by side with Master  Chorale members, and with instrumental accompaniment by students from the Ramón C. Cortines High School of Visual and Performing Arts. These students will never forget this unique opportunity to fulfill one of the Master Chorale's primary missions.

Francisco Nuñez
Mr. Nuñez both conducted and danced, and implored the unfortunately non-capacity audience to clap along on the chorus reprise. Since every other event in this gala concert season sported a full house, it was a surprise to see virtually no one sitting in the highest balcony, and plenty of fabric to be seen all throughout Disney Hall. The timing of this concert coming after schools closed for the summer doubtlessly had much to do with this.

Finally, just before intermission, another world premiere: David Lang’s “the national anthems” utilizing a chamber choir drawn from the Master Chorale and the excellent Calder Quartet. Really fine solo singing from soprano Zanaida Robles and mezzo soprano Adriana Manfredi helped to alleviate the hypnotic and episodic minimalistic effects.

The old joke is that minimalists invent a theme and then photocopy pages of it in repetitious, ultimately boring stretches of ditto-ness. One must admire the persistence of conductor and performers when performing such a work. Thematically, the text is purported to be an amalgam of national anthems from around the world, utilizing snippets of text and stringing them along in as drama-absent a manner as possible. If the listener fancied hearing snippets of an actual national anthem, he or she would suffer ear strain. At least the Lang piece chugged along and finally stopped, unexpectedly. Coffee was served at intermission.

And we’re off to Season 51 come October. One might be tempted to think that Maestro Gershon’s preconcert promises of a new season of expanded vision, less standing in choral rows dressed in tuxes, but choreography? more expansive use of Disney Hall resources? Never fear … passion and rejuvenation are promised!

L>R: Francisco Nuñez, Shawn Kirchner, Gabriela Lena Frank, Grant Gershon


Master Chorale bids a fond farewell to six whose service has come full circle:

Samela Beasom, 29 years
Marnie Mosiman, 13 years
Greg Davies, 11 years
Wingate Greathouse, 6 years
Risa Larson, 6 years
Matthew Kellaway, 1 year

Photo credits: Patrick Brown, used by permission

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Jacaranda Music: Still Edgy After All These Years

Violinists Thereza Stanislav and Alyssa Park in Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa             

By Rodney Punt

Listening to Jacaranda Music’s last concert of its eleventh season, two opposing thoughts struck me. One was astonishment that its first decade (the anniversary was last October) had flown by so quickly and the other was amazement that the series hasn’t always been here. It’s hard to imagine the Southern California music scene without Jacaranda’s “Music at the Edge of Santa Monica” shaping and defining it.

The sobriquet is accurate; the series holds forth a few blocks from the edge of the Pacific Ocean (in the acoustically superb First Presbyterian Church) and it is known for its edgy mix of eclectic music. Featured works have extended as far back as the beginning of the eighteenth century and as near to the present tense as world premieres. But it’s not the chronological span of its repertoire that defines Jacaranda so much as its mission to crown the essential musical canon of the twentieth century.

It was a troubled, messy hundred years, along with its music, and Jacaranda has taken on its significant sounds one concert step at a time. Take for example the evening that tweaked my interest a few weeks ago, one of those typically diverse affairs where the connections may not be all that apparent, even as you read the extensive (and delightfully idiosyncratic) program notes of Artistic and Executive Director Patrick Scott, who helms the series with Music Director Mark Alan Hilt. 

The program on this evening was something of a victory lap for Jacaranda. Titled “Abandon,” it included works by Mozart and Debussy that had featured on earlier occasions, with two obscure pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. On paper the kindredness of these composers to each other seemed remote, but in the hearing, each work shared within its own delicate frame an aural sensation not unlike that of parting curtains on a summer’s day to reveal intense outdoor illuminations.

Jacaranda Winds, with Hilt, in Mozart's "Grand Partita"
The Serenade for Winds (Gran Partita) is a work of early maturity composed during Mozart’s heady first years in Vienna. Describing its elusive beauties in technical terms is as hopeless as examining how a box-pinned butterfly flies. Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus has a lyrical passage that comes close to its magic, as the playwright’s alter ego, Antonio Salieri, muses on the celebrated slow movement:

“It started simply enough, just a pulse in the lowest registers, bassoons and basset horns like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it a sort of serenity. And then, suddenly, high above it sounded a single note of the oboe. It hung there unwavering – piercing me through – till breath could hold it no longer and a clarinet withdrew it out of me and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling… I was suddenly frightened. It seemed to me I had heard the voice of God.”

The “Jacaranda Winds” dream-team of fine players -- stand-ins for the voices of God -- were led by a supple and expressive Hilt. Mozart intended the oboes and clarinets to have the featured roles, and they were indeed glorious here. But in truth the composer gave each of the sonorities its moment in the sun: the oboes of Claire Chenette and Claire Brazeau, the clarinets of 
Joshua Ranz and Andrew Leonard, the basset horns (alto clarinets) 
of Gary Bovyer and Steve Roberts, the bassoons of 
Anthony Parnther and Maciej Flis, the horns of 
Allen Fogle, Paul Klintworth and Sarah Bach. All were ably underpinned by Nico Abondolo's string bass. (Special recognition must be granted, however, to Anthony Parnther, whose bassoon provided magnificent passagework and the ultimate in tonal purity.)

Maria Casale in Debussy's Danses Sacrée et Profane
Claude Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane 
delivered another opportunity for aural sheen. The work, for harp and a string quartet with added bass, is a spiritualized mélange of erotic religious dances. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the steamy side of ancient cultures was in titillating musical vogue. (Strauss’s Salomé and Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps come to mind.) A friend of Debussy's devised a literary fraud, purporting to have discovered, then translated, risqué poems etched on the Greek tombs of antiquity. We can thank those arty concoctions for the composer's delightful work, which sings in an ethereal sensuality comparable to Maurice Ravel’s more famous harp vehicle, the Introduction and Allegro.

Maria Casale's effervescent pedal harp was given extra visual sizzle by the instrument’s radiant sheen, far surpassing the more burnished colorations of other golden harps. With the First Presbyterian Church’s solemn cross just above Casale’s harp, all that was needed was a good dose of stage fog to evoke the Elysian Fields on a libidinous day. Casale's stunning virtuosity, with good support from her strings, put the work over in fine form and it was a great hit with the audience.

Two works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt rounded out an evening of raptures. Darf Ich of 1995-99 and Tabula Rasa of 1977 are separated by twenty years, but they share similar musical territory. Their  composer is often described as a “holy minimalist” for his aim to achieve musical “tintinnabulation” while straddling interweaving strands of sin and forgiveness; also for his spare musical textures that seem to stop time and look deep into the heart’s sad recesses. 

Shalini Vijayan and Jacaranda String Ensemble
Darf Ich, for solo violin, string ensemble and chimes, was written in memory of Yehudi Menuhin. Shalini Vijayan provided the seraphic solo in the short concertante work that meditates, with piquant dissonances and high-flying sighs, on falling tears over a grieving multitude. Jacaranda’s program notes suggested the performance might have been a Los Angeles premiere.

Tabula Rasa is a two-part work for two solo violins, string ensemble and a prepared piano. Pärt specialist Paul Hillier has described its first movement as a series of separated silences that grow shorter until overwhelmed by a loud cadenza, with a quiet second movement that slowly unwinds into another silence. I found the unwinding portion the most compelling, with its undulating waves of floating tenderness and wistful dissonance. Both Pärt works featured solos of gently stabbing notes in the highest reaches of the violin’s E-string, becoming in the second one a haunting, obsessional trope.

Both works were conducted with sensitivity by Hilt. Richard Valitutto's prepared piano added the spooky atmospherics and the "Jacaranda String Ensemble" supporting sonics in the second piece. But it was the solo violins that emerged as the evening's stars in both works.  In the imitative passages of Tabula Rasa, Thereza Stanislav and Alyssa Park lobbed to each other stratospheric notes of uncanny beauty and perfect intonation, that had required laser-like concentration from both to bring off properly.

With Shalini Vijayan in the earlier work, the three soloists in these relatively short pieces by Pärt seemed almost like luxury casting. In fact, all three violinists are regulars on the series. Park and Vijayan are in the Lyris Quartet, Jacaranda’s house ensemble, and Stanislav, a frequent guest soloist, is Assistant Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at nearby UCLA. The evening reminded those present that the last century produced works not just of noisy angst but also of profound delicacy and inwardness.

Southern California’s good fortune is to have instrumentalists who regularly provide such stylish interpretations as were on this occasion encountered. But it was also the sensibility and resourcefulness of of Jacaranda Music's leadership that had brought these artists and works together, enabling their audience to “abandon” all earthly concerns for a couple blissful hours. The concert was a fitting close to Jacaranda's current season and to its past and newly launched decades of matchless connoisseur programming.

Stanislav and Park (in blue hues) take bows with Jacaranda Strings and Hilt

What: Jacaranda Music, "Abandon" [W.A. Mozart: Serenade for Winds (Gran Partita")Claude Debussy: Danses Sacrée et Profane
, Arvo Pärt: Darf Ich; Tabula Rasa]

Where: First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, California

When: Saturday, May 10, 8:00 pm

Who: Soloists Maria Casale, harp; 
Shalani Vijayan, Alyssa Park & Tereza Stanislav, violins; Richard Valitutto, prepared piano. 
Jacaranda Winds
: Claire Chenette & Claire Brazeau, oboe; 
Joshua Ranz & Andrew Leonard, clarinet; 
Gary Bovyer & Steve Roberts, basset horn; 
Anthony Parnther & Maciej Flis, bassoon; 
Allen Fogle, Paul Klintworth & Sarah Bach, horn. Jacaranda Strings: 
Kevin Connolly, concertmaster; 
Alwyn Wright, Jenny Takamatsu, Rafael Rishik, Susan Rishik, Katie Sloan, violin; 
Jerome Gordon, Caroline Buckman, Patrick Rosalez, viola; 
Tim Loo & Alisha Bauer, cello; 
Nico Abondolo & Steve Dress, double bass. Mark Alan Hilt, conductor.

All photos by Andrea Sanderson are used by permission of Jacaranda Music.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]