Category: Music review

Music review: New Les Surprises Baroques in Santa Monica

April 16, 2012 |  3:04 pm

We could use more surprises in a concert scene so often encased in ritual and formula. So with that in mind, a new, roving period-performance group with a flexible roster of musicians is calling itself Les Surprises Baroques.

Getting Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock to serve as artistic director is a good first step. Now they have to build an audience, which from the looks of the pews in Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon is currently in the embryonic stage.

This program, the group’s second, was labeled “Curiose Inventioni,” a dig through some cobwebbed corners of secular 17th century Italian repertoire. There were 21 pieces, none lasting more than a few minutes, some linked together so that it was sometimes hard to tell where one left off and the next began.  

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Music review: Herbert Blomstedt leads Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

April 15, 2012 |  4:01 pm

Herbert Blomstedt
That incomparable Beethovenian Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the Missa Solemnis to be Beethoven’s greatest work. Too great, even, to perform. He stopped conducting it at age 44. But maybe if Furtwängler, who died in 1954 at 68, had lived on, he might have come to terms with this visionary epic mass. A spiritually enthralling call for peace, the Missa Solemnis is a habitable country for old men.

The former San Francisco Symphony music director Herbert Blomstedt, who turns 85 in July, led a superbly taut, vital performance of the Missa Solemnis with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. That entitles him to a platinum card in the prestigious Solemnis Seniors Club.

Other members include an 85-year-old Colin Davis, who conducted Beethoven’s mass in New York this season to glorious reviews. One week younger than Blomstedt, Kurt Masur remains a member in good standing despite a recent dustup in Boston. He withdrew from the Boston Symphony’s Missa Solemnis last month, the orchestra said, because of his frail condition. Masur immediately let it be known that he is fit enough to conduct elsewhere. Toscanini’s vigorous 1953 recording of the Missa Solemnis was conducted by an 86-year-old.

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Music review: KarmetiK Machine Orchestra at REDCAT

April 13, 2012 |  3:20 pm

KarmetiK SamsaraWe build robots to do things we don’t want to do, say vacuum the rug or drop bombs. Business and government love robots because machines master the universe. Machines always win.

Young artists, however, increasingly turn to machines simply because the machines are cool, and because young artists all have MacBooks, which make the artists feel like masters of the universe. The KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, a CalArts invention on display at REDCAT Thursday night, is very cool, very MacBookish and very much interested in mastering the universe. We used to call that cultural imperialism, but that was before a techno-beat became a universal force for dulling cultural distinctions.

The show, “Samsara” (which repeats Friday), however, was meant to be high-mindedly and ambitiously interdisciplinary. Fine guest artists were contributors. Ancient Indian tradition — dance, music and storytelling — bumped into high, medium-high and low technology.

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Music review: Pacifica Quartet at UCLA's Royce Hall

April 12, 2012 | 11:23 am

Pacifica Quartet
The Pacifica Quartet likes to think big -- and in the chamber music field, that often means doing cycles. 

Some adventurous listeners remember the evening at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in 2003 when the Pacifica served up all five of Elliott Carter’s notoriously knotty string quartets in one mighty scoop; after that, you figured that from then on, everything else would be a piece of cake for them.  There were more cycles to come -- most recently, two volumes of an emerging CD project on the Cedille label, “The Soviet Experience,” that will link all 15 Shostakovich quartets with four by his Soviet colleagues.

However, the Pacifica did not have omnivorous feats in mind when it visited UCLA’s Royce Hall on  Wednesday night -- just Beethoven’s Quartets Nos. 4 and 8, and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 9, plus the spiky, humorous, Allegretto pizzicato movement from Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 as an encore. 

Live, the Pacifica sacrifices some of the smooth, virtually immaculate surface that it displays on its recordings. But in return, there was a big gain in dramatic tension and fire, with all four players listening intently to one another. 

Though it is one of Beethoven’s early Op. 18 quartets, the No. 4 could take the Pacifica’s emphatically-accented, forwardly-pushed approach more in stride than some of the others in Op. 18 might have.  The Beethoven Quartet No. 8 at the end of the night was even better -- from the first movement’s big symphonic chords to the perfectly sprung rhythms and fast tempos in the third and fourth movements. 

On the Pacifica’s Shostakovich CDs, the group usually stakes a middle ground between the Emerson Quartet’s fierceness and the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s warmth.  Live in the Quartet No. 9, the Pacifica leaned more toward the former approach, identifying with the wildness in the third and fifth movements, bearing down hard toward the conclusion with terrific momentum.

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Music review: Cage, Stockhausen and Bettison under Green Umbrella

-- Richard S. Ginell

Photo: The Pacifica Quartet, from left, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Brandon Vamos, Masumi Per Rostad and Simin Ganatra. Credit: Anthony Parmelee.

Music review: Cage, Stockhausen and Bettison under Green Umbrella

April 11, 2012 |  2:58 pm

Nick Stoup

Once, during a public conversation at UC San Diego between the video artist Nam June Paik and John Cage, Paik recalled having asked Cage why he wrote music. “Because I promised Schönberg I would,” had been the answer from the composer who had studied with Schönberg at USC and UCLA. And why, Paik had also asked, did Cage continue to write music? “Because,” Paik recalled Cage saying, “it is important to continue meaningless activity.”

“I said that?” a surprised Cage wondered aloud onstage, but laughed engagingly. Who’s in control, and why, is perhaps the most controversial question that’s been posed by the international avant-garde in music since World War II. And that was the principal question of a fascinating, if uneven, Green Umbrella Concert on Tuesday night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The centerpiece was Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, written in 1951 and the first major work in the Western canon in which a composer began to give up musical control. It was surrounded by works from this century. Stockhausen’s “Fünf Stenzeichen” (Five Star Signs), which began the program, was composed by the biggest ego of European avant-garde, a Prospero who pulled all the strings. Oscar Bettison’s “Livre des Sauvages” (Book of Savages) was commissioned for the program by a young composer who delights in crazy percussion instruments with minds of their own.

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Music review: The L.A. Phil plays John Adams and Philip Glass

April 6, 2012 |  2:30 pm

John Adams
Philip Glass’ big, new Ninth Symphony –- 52 minutes, written for a large, powerhouse orchestra –- is late Glass at his most momentous, a significant symphony by America’s most significant symphonist. Chalk up another one for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was a co-commissioner of the Ninth and which gave the West Coast premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night. John Adams conducted.

That bit about Glass’ status as a contemporary American composer of symphonies is fact, not opinion.
But despite Glass’ prominence and his large body of symphonic work, that fact is not well known (or, at least, well acknowledged) among American orchestras.

Want to hear another Glass symphony in the next few months? Try Pforzheim, Germany (the Eighth), or Rotterdam, the Netherlands (the Fourth). As if the South of France didn’t already have enough summer attractions, Aix-en-Province is where Glass’ Tenth Symphony will have its world premiere in August.
On the other hand, in the 20 years Glass has been writing symphonies, very few American orchestras have ever performed one.

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Music review: Master Chorale performs Bach's 'St. John Passion'

April 2, 2012 |  2:54 pm

Master Chorale performing Bach's "St. John"
Bach's “St. John” is no "St. Matthew." The "St. John Passion" does not hold the central place as one of the greatest and most revered spiritual artworks of Western civilization that Bach's “St. Matthew” does. "John" is smaller, shorter, more intimate, more dramatic. And controversial. Performances of “John” often include an apologia these days, since only one of Bach’s two surviving Passions is anti-Semitic.

But is “John” the lesser Passion? The current fashion is to consider it the modern one. It is prized for its terse theatricality and for the very fact that “John” is not weighed down by the sanctimonious baggage “Matthew” carries. But in a solemn performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the period instrumental ensemble Musica Angelica at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night, “John” was expected to hold its spiritual own. And it did.

The Master Chorale’s music director, Grant Gershon, is a choral conductor with a foot on the lyric stage. He is also associate conductor of Los Angeles Opera, and there seems little doubt that he could have presented a histrionic, passionate “John” had he wanted to. But this was a “John” of consolation, not confrontation.

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Music review: Nicholas McGegan conducts the Pasadena Symphony

April 1, 2012 |  8:41 am

Pasadena Symphony Saturday
Beethoven is not a composer audiences immediately identify with early-music specialist Nicholas McGegan, especially Beethoven performed on modern instruments. But as music director of the period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco since 1985, McGegan has been updating his profile over the past few years.

Next season, he is scheduled to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with the Pasadena Symphony, but on Saturday at the Ambassador Auditorium he joined them for vigorous and finely detailed accounts of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 (K.466), featuring pianist Nareh Arghamanyan.

The 23-year-old Vienna-trained musician is already a thoughtful and effective Mozart player. Though so far she appears to favor more romantic composers such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff, her stylistic approach in Mozart valued clarity of articulation, a firm tone and emotional restraint. As a result, her reading gathered cumulative power and an even deeper emotional resonance. She was especially moving in the pensive second movement Romance.

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Music review: The Baltimore Symphony at Segerstrom Concert Hall

March 29, 2012 |  1:40 pm

Marin Alsop
The Baltimore Symphony began its first West Coast tour in 24 long years at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Wednesday night. The last appearance had been at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and at the time, there were two unusual things about the orchestra. It had an American music director, David Zinman, who championed living American composers. And it had a woman associate conductor, Catherine Comet.

But that was then. Don’t call me a woman conductor, Comet defensively told The Times. And Zinman did not tour American music here.

The last quarter century has not been without progress. In her fifth season as Baltimore’s music director, Marin Alsop is a woman conductor, and she has broken the highest glass ceiling in the orchestral world thus far. She is popular and brings the Baltimore Symphony deserved attention. She is a proud champion of American composers, dead and alive. She also goes to bat for women composers. And she does not pretend otherwise.

An uncommon woman, Alsop began her program Wednesday by pairing Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” with Joan Tower’s cheeky “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” That was followed by Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto. It is, unfortunately, a commonplace concerto, but Alsop ended with a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

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Music review: Osmo Vanska in his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut

March 25, 2012 |  3:03 pm

Osmo vanska
During Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 17 seasons with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so many Finnish instrumentalists, conductors and composers came through L.A. that you might have thought Finnair would have found it profitable to restore service to LAX. But at least one prominent Finnish conductor and one somewhat prominent Finnish composer were notable for their absences.

Osmo Vänskä, a classmate of Salonen’s at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is a darling of New York music critics (he was Musical America’s conductor of the year in 2005), and he has long been a favorite of record collectors. But with his flamboyant conducting style and his championing of the neo-Romantic Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, Vänskä seems the polar opposite of the cooler, more progressive Salonen.

Even so, it is important for the opposition party to get an airing. And  at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a month shy of three years after Salonen conducted his last concert as the orchestra’s music director, Vänskä finally made his belated L.A. Phil debut. On Saturday night, moreover, he led the L.A. premiere of Aho’s Clarinet Concerto, with Martin Fröst as the flashy soloist.

I would be surprised if Vänskä were to be invited back any time soon. Ditto Aho.

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