Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra Launches in Los Angeles

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra at Santa Monica First Presbyterian -- Photos by Kathryn Nockels
by Rodney Punt

Performing arts organizations are complicated enterprises to run. Keeping them afloat prompts ever-new experiments. One of the latest is the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, formed by clarinetist cum entrepreneur Benjamin Mitchell and an ambitious group of L. A. musicians, inspired by New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Its goal is straightforward: create audience encounters of a closer kind with engaging performances of classic and new works. Its means are unorthodox: as with the Orpheus, scrap the conductor in favor of more collaborative leadership on and off the podium.

Founder Mitchell says it this way: “I decided to create Kaleidoscope for a multitude of reasons. Although there are many wonderful orchestras in Los Angeles, and some groups occasionally perform without a conductor, we would be the only professional orchestra that performs solely this way. I’m passionate about sharing a collective vision in much the same way chamber music creates a more intimate experience for the musicians involved and presenting concerts at the highest level possible. I also want us to explore less traditional ways to reach out to audiences that help the concert experience be more personal and meaningful to all people.“

Kaleidoscope’s season launched last weekend at two local churches in Pasadena and Santa Monica. I caught the second performance last Sunday at the latter city’s First Presbyterian Church, a music-friendly space known to audiences for its live acoustics and residency of Jacaranda Music. Featured were two perennial favorites by Copland and Beethoven, not novel choices but surefire crowd pleasers.

Benjamin Mitchell
Copland’s beloved Appalachian Spring is an atmospheric 1945 score of rural Americana based on an earlier ballet. Characterful solos by woods and brass, especially from Mitchell’s clarinet, colored quiet evocations of the nation’s expansive heartland, suggested by the work’s frequent open fourths and fifths and folk tunes of the early pioneers like the now ubiquitously heard “Simple Gifts.”

Even more impressive was a tour de force performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which Richard Wagner famously called the “apotheosis of the dance.” It's a rhythmic, tuneful joyride from the first movement’s charmed awakenings to the last one’s frenzied bacchanal. The 35-member ensemble’s snap-crackle performance of it brought the audience to its feet at the conclusion.

The gentleness of the Copland and the rambunctiousness of the Beethoven showcased two sides of an already remarkable group cohesion within the ranks of an orchestra whose members range in age from mostly younger adults to a few seasoned pros, and whose permanent membership is still a work in progress, according to Mitchell.

Successful music ensembles of all sizes must conform as one unit to the ever-shifting tempos, dynamics, and rhythms of great works of music. To make that happen, the conductor’s role is often likened to that of an autocrat. Kaleidoscope’s approach attempts to achieve equally precise results but in a more democratic way; leadership comes from within the ranks. Players engage in give-and-take discussions at rehearsals, but when it's performance time they take their cues from their section leaders or, if playing as a full ensemble, from the concertmaster.

Notable discipline in this performance was characterized by the consistent bowing patterns in the strings. Also notable was that leadership positions shifted between the two works. Concertmaster and section leaders in the Copland became last chair players in the Beethoven. That switch reinforces the more democratic, less autocratic approach to Kaleidoscope's music making.

As go democratic societies, perhaps also will go the new Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s foray into an uncertain but hopeful collective future. We wish them well in their new endeavor.


Concerts continue this season at Pasadena’s First Baptist Church and Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, as follows:

Series 2 (Feb. 6 & 8) “Paris to LA” will feature works of Debussy and Ravel paired with Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony.

Series 3 (March 6 & 7) “Tales and Tribulations” will focus on tales of childhood through Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

Series 4 (May 1 & 3) will conclude the season with world premiere performances of Los Angeles-based composer Lior Rosner’s Awake and Dream, featuring violinist (and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Concertmaster) Katia Popov, as well as Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

Tickets are $25 for general admission, $10 college students and senior citizens, and no charge for ages 17 and younger. For more details on artists and ticket information, see: 

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Monday, November 24, 2014

L.A. Opera Revives Florencia en el Amazonas

by Rodney Punt

Like the beached riverboat that concludes Act 1, composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas has taken on a lot of water since the premieres at the co-producing opera companies of Houston (1996), Los Angeles (1997), and Seattle (1998). In many ways a trailblazer, Florencia was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major opera company north of the Rio Grande. While its historic importance is secure, the work’s continuing viability proved problematic last Saturday at its prodigal return to the Chandler Pavilion after a 17-year hiatus.

For full review on San Francisco Classical Voice, click here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

San Diego Symphony Music Director Announces Departure

By Erica Miner

Now in his eleventh season as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony (, Maestro Jahja Ling has become an easily recognizable, much liked and admired presence on the San Diego classical music scene. 

On Thursday, November 20, Maestro Ling and the San Diego Symphony announced that Ling, the longest serving music director in the orchestra’s history, would take his final bow in that capacity at the orchestra’s Copley Symphony Hall at the end of the 2016-17 season. 

The announcement was made to the Symphony board of directors, musicians and administrative staff, whom Ling addressed on Thursday. 

“The 2016-17 season will mark my 13th anniversary with this wonderful organization and my final season as music director,” Ling told them. “These past 11 years have been a most rewarding and exhilarating life journey for me. We have accomplished so much, but I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to inspire and instill the spirit of integrity in everything that we do at the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.” 

During those eleven years, Ling has worked tirelessly to bring the orchestra back from an ensemble in decline to one that has been widely praised throughout the city, all over the US, and internationally. He has accomplished this through a meticulous audition procedure for new musicians, as well as engaging some of the world’s most celebrated soloists. Ling has increased the orchestra’s prominence through CDs, broadcasts on the local PBS station, and last season’s sold-out appearances at Carnegie Hall and on tour in China. He also has been committed to programming works that have never been performed by the orchestra, from both classical and contemporary composers. 

These accomplishments notwithstanding, Ling is most proud of the high quality of performance the orchestra has achieved. “For me it is also most rewarding when in our performances, we can move and stir our audience’s hearts and souls because of our utmost devotion to details in our preparation. I hope this spirit will continue to live on,” he said. 

Ling plans to set his considerable creativity on a path toward guest conducting and sharing his abundance of musical knowledge with subsequent generations of young musicians. “In my lifetime I was blessed with the opportunity to learn from and inherit the great Central European and American musical traditions,” Ling said. “These experiences have allowed me to pass on the best of both the great European and American traditions and to create a distinguished sound and style that this orchestra now manifests.” He also hopes to carry on with his volunteer Christian mission work in the city and worldwide. 

Newly appointed SDS CEO Martha Gilmer praised Ling and his history with the orchestra, as well as his ability to think ahead. “It is characteristic of the personal and artistic integrity that is associated with Jahja Ling that he has made this thoughtful decision with the foresight to allow the San Diego Symphony Orchestra the time to search for a successor to continue the remarkable work that Jahja has accomplished here,” she said. 

Gilmer also announced that the board will name Ling Conductor Laureate, a great honor for the maestro but also a well deserved one, which will help ensure his continued presence as a guest conductor for the orchestra. “We look forward to Jahja Ling’s upcoming seasons and want him to know how very much we appreciate all that he has done for this wonderful organization,” Gilmer said.

There is no question that Ling has served well and given his all to the orchestra, though he admits that a few of his objectives still remain unfulfilled; for example, taking the ensemble on tour to the great European concert halls. However, it is clear that he has given his decision a great deal of consideration, and feels that the timing is right. 

After thanking the board and staff for their support he added, “I am hopeful and confident that the future of this fine orchestra, led by our new CEO Martha Gilmer and supported by our talented administrative staff and committed board of directors, will be bright.”

Photo used by permission of San Diego Symphony
Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Los Angeles Master Chorale Reawakens the Renaissance

By Douglas Neslund

Maestro Grant Gershon strung beautiful Renaissance pearls together Sunday evening for a nearly capacity audience with many yearning to hear a cappella perfection as only the Los Angeles Master Chorale can. Here are the pearls:

            Thomas Tallis                     If Ye Love Me
            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Gloria
            Tomás Luis de Victoria    Gaudent in coelis
            Josquin des Prez                Tu solus qui facis mirabilia
            William Byrd                      Sing Joyfully
            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Credo
            Orlando di Lasso               O Crux Splendidior
            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Sanctus/Benedictus
            Josquin des Prez                Ave nobilissima creatura
                                    (conducted by Lesley Leighton)
            Tomás Luis de Victoria    Vere Languores
            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Agnus Dei
            William Byrd                      Laudibus in sanctis

            And as an encore that left many in the audience with dew in their eyes:

            Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater.

Maestro Gershon not only conducted, but instructed with the vim and vigor of a Jeffrey Kahane, soloed the entire tune embedded throughout the Taverner Western Wind Mass, as well as a couple of incipits! Other than that, on this “wear something black” evening, he had little to do.

The choral music of the Renaissance that has survived the centuries is characterized by its linear structure, which results in a horizontal and usually legato sound pattern except for the occasional hiccups (hockets) leading to a cadence. Melodies, many of which originate in chant sources (and some think, Hebrew chants as well), are introduced by one or two choral sections, with the rest of the choir entering later. The trick Renaissance composers needed to master was to preserve the original melody horizontally, so that it sounded harmonically in the vertical, as well. They were very good at it. The sometimes über-emotional music of the Baroque to follow contrasts with the Renaissance music that is cool and rarely dips into the cauldron of heated emotion.

Maestra Lesley Leighton’s approach to her des Prez item was a gem of clarity, and kept the 40-member Master Chorale restrained to allow the text the emotional element. Maestro Gershon announced Maestra Leighton’s appointment as the newly-appointed Director of the Chorale and Chamber Singers at UCLA. This drew a gasp from audience members of the USC Family, as this week is local college football’s Rivalry Game between USC and UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Perfect timing!

As to which pearls stood out, or not, suffice it to say they were a perfect string of beauty. If one were to be nitty-picky, as reviewers are wont to be, writing the nits and picks of this concert would be tantamount to reviewing a brand new Lamborghini Aventador and noting a mote of dust on the hood, a cat hair on the passenger’s seat or a fingerprint on the windshield. That level of criticism.

Occasionally, the bass section over-sang a phrase here or there. Often, one or two sopranos allowed breath support to relax before the end of a phrase, resulting in a perceptible wobble. Solo groupings – and there were many of those – were not always balanced (no names, milady). That completes the nits and picks.

One left Walt Disney Concert Hall feeling fulfilled by this concert, and not a few with a tear of remembrance for Roger Wagner and Paul Salamunovich, who excelled in this era of great music.


Photos by Steve Cohn, used with permission

A Conversation with Luke McEndarfer

by Douglas Neslund

The first impression one gets when speaking with Luke McEndarfer is one of equal parts crackling intelligence, laser-like focus and deep intensity. Those elements are who he is and the talents he possesses are rare. The fact that he has dedicated himself to the cause of music education at a time when musical standards in schools are declining, is both remarkable and fortuitous. Few people could maintain a demanding work schedule that entails weekly transcontinental flights between New York City and Los Angeles, with additional trips to Washington DC.

The story begins in the 1990s with his selection to serve as the Paulist Choristers of California’s music director. The Choristers were based in the parish school of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Westwood, where Sister Stella Maria Enright served as principal and founding board member. It became clear that drawing talent from such an exclusive source was a limiting factor, and with so much potential in surrounding parts of West Los Angeles beyond the St. Paul campus, Mr. McEndarfer and Sister Stella began to discuss the possibility of secularizing the Choristers and broadening the program.

Over a period of time, plans were laid for changes to be made. The myriad details involved in that change were aided and supported by parents of the existing group and ultimately, The National Children’s Chorus was born. The structure of the NCC is detailed below in a conversation we had recently with Mr. McEndarfer.


LAOpus: Please bring us up-to-date on the status of the National Children’s Chorus’s various ensembles.

Luke McEndarfer (LM): The National Children's Chorus in Los Angeles is now structured with two divisions. We have a Senior Division and a Junior Division. The Junior Division is comprised of three levels: the Prelude Level, the Minuet Level and the Sonata Level. The Prelude Level focuses on students ages five and six and is strictly age-based. In other words, students who are seven years old cannot be in that ensemble and anyone who is five or six cannot be in any higher level, because our approach to that level is very much suited to kindergarten and first grade students.

LAOpus: So they must enter at ages five or six?

LM: Students may enter at any of the levels they qualify for based on age and skill so we could have a ten-year old child join right at the Sonata Level based on previous choral experience. We try to have a place within the levels for different ages and so on.  Then we have the Minuet Level which is roughly ages 7 to 9 and then the Sonata Level for ages 10 to 12. We really try to establish the basics of vocal technique in the Junior Division. 

Conducting his fellow Choristers
All students also participate in the Kodály music literacy program, so when they come to the National Children's Chorus they will see repertoire time with their conductor and also work with their Kodály teacher within our structured Kodály program which has been customized for the National Children’s Chorus. We have 12 levels in the Chorus of Kodály study. All of the Kodály classes are aligned at the same time so students can be in different vocal ensembles but take different Kodály classes. They test into a certain level and then advance through the system.

We also have a Senior Division of the National Children’s Chorus that is comprised of three ensembles: the Debut Ensemble, which is the first level conducted by Dr. Pamela Blackstone. It's the first level where students experience the professional stage and participate in a lot of professional performances that we do. 

We also then have the Premier Ensemble, which is the main concert choir. The Premier Ensemble is considered the large professional level chorus here in Los Angeles, with 60 students in it.

And then we have the Scholars, which is a high school level SATB chorus. We have boys whose voices have changed into tenor and bass as well as the sopranos and altos. We no longer actually allow boy sopranos in that ensemble; that ensemble is strictly for high school students. The sopranos and altos are female students and the tenors and basses are male students whose voices have changed. That’s the structure here in Los Angeles.

LAOpus: Let me ask you as to the amount of rehearsal per week. For a child in each of these levels, how much time would they be spending?

LM:  The time commitment and the level of intensity of the training increases as the child progresses. The Prelude Level meets on Sundays from 1 to 3 PM, with a two hour commitment. The Minuet Level is from 1 to 3:15 PM, so it's 15 minutes longer. The Sonata Level goes to 3:30 PM. Then in the Senior Division the Debut Ensemble meets for three hours, the Premier Ensemble for three and a half hours and the Scholars between four and five hours, because the Scholars have elective classes that they can take, for example, they may take composition afterwards. We have guest speakers that come in. We just had a guest speaker from LA Opera who was lecturing about “La Traviata.” So the students can take these elective courses that will lengthen their day, but the minimum is four hours for Scholars.

LAOpus: And those four hours are broken into two halves?

LM:  Yes. Part of the time is used for repertoire preparation for concerts. The students also participate in the Kodály training program. They also receive private voice lessons. The private voice lessons occur during their repertoire portion of the day, where students cycle out of the room in 10 minute intervals. 

We have the voice instructor in a separate classroom and the students cycle in and out of the classroom without interruption. In addition to that the students also take a musicianship class, where they study composition in the Fall/winter season from September through December; then they study conducting from January through May. So those are the two main focuses of study in addition to their vocal studies at the NCC. Every student receives all of that training.

LAOpus:  You’ve been in Santa Monica and West LA now since 2009, five years. But the NCC has grown quite a bit since then. Walk us through that history.

LM:  We opened in New York three years ago. In my very first rehearsal, I had four students, which was somewhat intimidating as arguably four students does not make a choir. But I trusted the mission of what we were doing. I worked with those four students and soon four became six and six became 15 and 15 became 30 and now we have about 300 students in New York in five different ensembles, in a span of just three years.

In New York the program is structured very similarly to Los Angeles. We have two different divisions, a Junior Division and a Senior Division. In the Junior Division we have the same comparable Levels: Prelude, Minuet and Sonata. Then in the Senior Division we have a Debut Ensemble and a Premier Ensemble. We do not have a Scholars Ensemble yet in New York, but in time, we will.

LAOpus: So you’re up to 300 membership in New York?

LM: Yes. 

LAOpus: Did we get a total number for LA?

LM: It's roughly 300. So New York caught up with Los Angeles within three years.

LAOpus: And then, I hear you’ve opened a third front!

LM: Yes. Currently, we have our office, rehearsal and performance spaces reserved in Washington DC for the 2014-2015 season, and we’re in the recruitment process auditioning students. So we have students who will be auditioning from late October. We will see what applicants we get, but our goal is to start off with a Junior Division of the above-mentioned three levels and within a couple of years we’ll be ready to open a Senior Division. It takes a few years even to aspire to a professional sounding product.

LAOpus: In New York, who is assisting you there?

LM: Our Executive Director Cristina Demiany lives in New York. She travels with me Los Angeles on occasion. We have administrators who live there as well. We also have a full music staff: Kodály teachers, musicianship instructors, accompanists, so our full music staff live locally in New York.

LAOpus:  How is the staff coming in Washington DC or have you gone that far yet?

LM:  We have not started to hire directors or conductors because we want to see what kind of ensembles we’re going to have. Once we have that information we will list the relevant job openings.

LAOpus:  Looking back in time, you started off here in Los Angeles with the Paulist Choristers of California which was at home on the campus of the St. Paul the Apostle parish church which had been in residence for many years since its founding by Dr. Jon Wattenbarger, who has since deceased. He was followed by several directors and quite a bit of turmoil in the choir which required some renegotiating what was once was an all-boy choir that became a children's chorus and then you came in as Director and immediately felt the need to expand the possibilities beyond the parish campus.

LM: Right.

LAOpus: Sister Stella Maria Enright, who was a cofounder with Dr. Wattenbarger back in time, had of course to approve. Was it difficult with Sister Stella? Did she agree with you right away that there needed to be a broadening of the membership base but also the expectations of the choir?

LM: It was not difficult with Sister Stella because she and I have always been unified in our belief in the mission, which is to provide the highest level of education to as many children as possible. She felt very strongly that that was one of the prime objectives of the organization, so any changes that I was seeking to make in order to achieve that goal were wholeheartedly approved by her.

LAOpus: Obviously you were the right person in the right place at the right time. That doesn't always happen but in this case, it was. What was the first thing you did after the decision was made to go forward with broadening the audition base as well as the goals of the organization?

LM: We had to change nearly everything about the organization. When I arrived at the Paulist Choristers, it became very clear the aspirations of the group were very high, but it also became clear to me that the structure of the organization, the way that it was, could not successfully lead to those goals. So my job was to restructure the organization in a way that could make it successful.  There are many things we had to change, including the name of the organization. We sought to choose a name that reflected very clearly what the organization was about without any needed explanation.

LAOpus: In light of that, was it your plan already to expand outside of Los Angeles and when you chose the name “National Children’s Chorus,” did you have the vision that you were going to be doing that?

LM: Yes. The name and the vision and the concept came to my mind all at the same time. I knew that something drastic had to be done to save the mission of the chorus and so on one September evening circling my block in New York, literally pacing for hours around the block, I saw the vision of what the organization could be and then the answers regarding what changes needed to be made come into my head. With the partnership of a few wonderful people, we put it together.

LAOpus: It certainly has taken root. I don't know who other than you would attempt such a challenging goal especially with the time frame in which you’ve been able to do it.

Locally there is a well-established choir located in Pasadena that has pretty much dominated the professional responsibilities whenever a children’s choir is needed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Opera and so forth.

I was privileged to attend your Spring concert which I very happy to hear. Your Choristers really sang well, and although I didn't get a chance tell you that afterward, I was very impressed. It's not the same sound as the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus that is a much lighter sound, a flutier sound, very much locked into the sound mostly produced by girls. But your group sang with very strong voices. They are well trained. It shows on stage that they know their vocal technique. None of the voices stuck out of the choral fabric, which is one sign that everybody's on the same page, using the same technique and are exceedingly well trained. There was no question that they knew the music. The very sizable audience at the Broad Stage reflected that in their applause. Repertory wise, it was a challenging program of very difficult and complex arrangements.

LM: We've never done that before. Generally speaking, conductors will plan one or two gospel or American spiritual numbers in the program because they’re so demanding. We did an entire program of spirituals and it took a lot of energy to do that concert. I pretty much collapsed at the end of the concert. My arm was about ready to fall off after the first five minutes so to have gone on for the next two hours … there is no downtime in any spirituals!

LAOpus: I was very impressed. The Choristers reflected the training and the quality of training that you're giving them and you and your staff deserve great kudos.

Repertory-wise, what are the New Yorkers working on now?
National Children's Chorus in New York
LM:  The New York Premiere Ensemble, which is our most advanced group, is attempting their first major work this season. It's going to be a challenge for them but I think they're ready for the challenge. They will be performing John Rutter’s “Dancing Day.” Up until this point they have sung a few pieces in two- and three- parts. But doing a full work in three- to four-part harmony with singers who have had roughly only two years of experience in the Chorus is definitely a tall order.

LAOpus: Are you taking any Los Angeles children to New York to help out that performance?

LM: No. They are going to be performing a major work on their own, flying free, so to speak. Currently, we're having very intense rehearsals, but I think that having such an ambitious goal greatly plays into the learning curve and forces the group to rise.

LAOpus: That was really obvious here in the Los Angeles contingent. You have urged them to the next level continuously. But you have to. You can't rest on your laurels, especially if you aim to capture a chance at professional opportunities here in Los Angeles.

Do you foresee NCC students being able and available to capture solo roles in LA Opera, for example?

LM: Sure, absolutely! I think that the National Children's Chorus must first focus on it's own core curriculum. That is one of the main differences that we feel separates us from other children's choruses that serve primarily as an adjunct entity to the opera or an orchestra or adult chorus. We love those projects and we want to be a part of them but we would never do so at the expense of our core curriculum. We really try to create a very balanced and well-rounded year of experiences for our students, and we are open to professional collaborations with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Master Chorale and the Opera as they come along.

We do have two very exciting such collaborations coming up. In one, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra will be presenting the National Children’s Chorus in the 2015-2016 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall in which the NCC will be featured in a premiere performance together with the American Youth Symphony. The NCC and AYS are co-producing the concert.

National Children's Chorus in Los Angeles

LAOpus: Thank you, Luke. For further information, visit the National Children’s Chorus website:


Photos used by permission, National Children's Chorus