Category: Richard S. Ginell

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: 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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-- Richard S. Ginell

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

Music review: Neeme Jarvi, Ralph Kirshbaum and L.A. Phil at Disney Hall

March 16, 2012 | 12:20 pm

Neeme-Jarvi-and-Ralph-Kirsh
This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

There are two interlocking storylines at Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend: the culmination of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, and the belated return of Estonian-born maestro and patriarch of a conducting dynasty, Neeme Järvi.  

A prolific recording conductor, to say the least -- you name it and it’s probably in Järvi’s discography somewhere -- and once a frequent visitor here, it seems that Järvi hasn’t led the Los Angeles Philharmonic since a 1990 Hollywood Bowl date, and hasn’t conducted the Phil downtown since 1989.  So the orchestra is taking advantage of Järvi’s versatility in a most unusual and festive way: He is accompanying three different cellists, one per concert, in five different pieces.

The first cellist out of the gate Thursday night was Ralph Kirshbaum, tackling the signature cello concerto of the repertoire, that of Dvorák.  Deadly routine can set in with a piece played as often as this, but Kirshbaum gave it an extra push -- not always precisely in tune yet full of gutsy expression and, particularly toward the end, drawing us in with varying tone colors. 

Next up: Mischa Maisky on Saturday and Alisa Weilerstein on Sunday.

Järvi -- now 74 and, as ever, a master of economical, telling gestures -- opened the concert with a Dvorák “Carnival” Overture whose outer sections ripped and roared as much as you might want, delivered with bracing clarity by the Philharmonic. 

The main orchestral course was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.  Järvi, wouldn’t you know it, has recorded all 15 symphonies, if somewhat unevenly, but the Fifth was one of his best recordings in that cycle. Thursday’s performance more-or-less confirmed Järvi’s sane way with the Fifth -- tempos right down the middle, the argument unfolding logically with textural clarity, missing just the last ounce of intensity.  Also, Järvi’s treatment of the Finale’s controversial coda has brightened a bit, no longer quite as slow and beaten-down.

[For the record, 2:40 p.m., March 16: An earlier version of this story said that Järvi hadn't conducted the L.A. Philharmonic since 1994. His last appearance with the orchestra was in 1990.]

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-- Richard S. Ginell

 Los Angeles Philharmonic with Neeme Järvi; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $57-$180; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.org.

Photos: Top left: Neeme Järvi. Credit: Frederick Stucker. Top right: Ralph Kirshbaum. Credit: Henry Fair.

Opera Review: 'Albert Herring' at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

March 15, 2012 | 12:51 pm

Christine Brewer performs on stage.
Aficionados of big voices have been waiting for Christine Brewer to appear in a Los Angeles Opera production for a long time.  Indeed, there were a couple of occasions where she was dangled tantalizingly before us, singing song recitals somewhere in town while Wagner’s “Ring” operas -- her natural habitat -- were playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. 

But Brewer’s LA Opera debut finally came Wednesday night in a most unorthodox way -- slipping into the cast of Britten’s chamber opera “Albert Herring” toward the end of its run.  That’s right -- a chamber opera, and a comedy at that, written for an ensemble cast of equals. 

Fortunately, Brewer’s part -- that of the lordly arbiter of small-town morals, Lady Billows (which she sang in the Santa Fe edition of this production in 2010) --  can sort of lend itself to a Wagnerian soprano. Britten used one, Sylvia Fisher, on his own recording of “Herring.” 

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Music review: Pablo Heras-Casado, Martin Chalifour and L.A. Phil

March 4, 2012 | 12:15 pm

P_Heras_Casado_6939_w699.

The career of Pablo Heras-Casado has been rocketing along as of late –- a debut with the Berlin Philharmonic last October, landing an American post as principal conductor of New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s in December, and so forth. He has a lot on his plate -– chamber music, early music, opera, standard symphonic repertoire -– yet seems to be most celebrated for his work with new music.

So in his return to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon, Heras-Casado offered something new -– the West Coast premiere of a violin concerto by James Matheson, director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer Fellowship Program –- following a rather blunt, lean-and-mean rendition of Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture with the orchestra.  

The Matheson concerto was first performed in December by Esa-Pekka Salonen (who recently wrote an impressive violin concerto himself) and the Chicago Symphony. It must be a coincidence that both Matheson’s and Salonen’s concertos open in a similar way, with perpetual-motion violin right from the starting gate. 

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Music review: Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony at Segerstrom Hall

February 18, 2012 | 12:18 pm

Riccardo Muti

The mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra -– made great by Fritz Reiner and turbocharged by Georg Solti -– last visited Southern California 25 years ago this month, playing one concert in then-new Segerstrom Hall and three in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. 

Much has happened at the CSO since. The Daniel Barenboim era came and went. More than half of the personnel has changed over and it landed the much-coveted Riccardo Muti as its new music director. And with the convenient convergence of the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial and Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ 25th anniversary, the CSO was finally lured back Friday night -– this time in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.   

Yet our ears have changed too. I remember when the CSO blew through town and turned heads with its staggering precision and ability to get a big sound out of recalcitrant halls like the Chandler and old Segerstrom. Now, with the upgrade in technical standards here and elsewhere, the CSO no longer seems so startling.  And in newer Segerstrom, the still-brawny Chicago brasses worked too hard, which they didn’t have to in this space, where the adjustable setting was much too reverberant. 

There was only one concert this trip, but it was a bold one -– loaded with future-shock pieces past and present and one oldie that has dropped off the radar, Franck’s Symphony in D minor.  At 70, Muti looks exactly the same and conducts with the same vigor and expressiveness as he did in his last visits with the Philadelphia in the 1980s.

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Music review: Guitar-playing Assad Brothers at Cerritos Center

February 16, 2012 | 11:00 am

Assad Brothers copy

Brazil’s Assad brothers -– Sérgio and Odair -– have been known for extraordinarily freewheeling programs, as Sérgio has been willing and able to transcribe and arrange just about anything for two guitars. But, at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts Wednesday night, they played what Sérgio said was their first all-Brazilian program –- thus going against type and reverting to their roots all at once. In any case, it made for a lovely evening, full of luscious melodic foliage from their homeland.

Much of what the Assads played was not too familiar to a North American audience, but virtually all of it could be immediately assimilated -– from the sentimental waltz “Eponina” and driving “Batuque” of Ernesto Nazareth to the rolling samba rhythms in the interior of Joao Pernambuco’s “Interrogando.”  On recordings, given their tightly knit blend, it’s difficult to discern who is playing what, but observed live, Odair is clearly more mellow and fluid while Sérgio has a steelier, more staccato edge.

One item that was familiar -– indeed over-familiar -– was Luiz Bonfá’s “Manhä de Carnaval,” here subjected to an elaborate arrangement by Sérgio where the tune was at times almost completely hidden underneath a jungle of counterpoint. But Sérgio needn’t apologize; his treatment made Bonfá’s standard seem fresh and challenging.

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Music review: Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Concert Hall

February 13, 2012 |  2:11 pm

Gershon
Now and then, you may hear a Bruckner symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall, but did any of Bruckner’s big choral works ever receive a performance there?  The answer is: Not until Sunday night, when Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale took on Bruckner’s somewhat peculiar Mass No. 2 in E minor.

And what kind of a sensibility would program a Bruckner mass alongside a piece by Stravinsky?  An iconoclastic one, yes, but also a practical one, since both the Bruckner mass and to a large extent Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” are powered and colored by wind and brass ensembles.

While Bruckner’s First and Third Masses bear the distinct signatures of the symphonies all over the place, you have to listen hard to find streaks of his sound in the Second Mass, with its backing by a small wind band and throwbacks to the choral styles of the Renaissance. 

The piece sounds as if it was tailored to the acoustics of a cathedral; some of the wind timbres even seem to imitate certain stops on a pipe organ.  A cathedral Disney Hall is not, yet Gershon’s fast tempos were appropriate for this less-reverberant space, as was the Master Chorale’s fresh, bright, plush, not-at-all-ascetic singing.

The Master Chorale is no stranger to “Symphony of Psalms” -– this was the piece the chorale memorably sang at Esa-Pekka Salonen’s farewell concert here in 2009 -– and Gershon carried out another inventive programming scheme by prefacing Stravinsky with a brief, luminous a cappella Bruckner motet, also set to a psalm text, “Os justi.”

Yet this performance (of the Stravinsky) could not quite generate the cool yet paradoxically emotional fervor of the sequence of magically heartfelt, dense chords near the close of Part 3. Gershon tried, slowing the tempo down as marked to let the passage breathe, but it didn’t work.

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-– Richard S. Ginell

2010 photo of Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale. Credit: Lee Salem Photography

 

Visiting Verdi at the Musicians' Rest Home he founded in Milan

February 4, 2012 |  7:30 am

Casa di Riposo per Musicisti

Verdi’s 28 operas (or 26, if you count “I Lombardi” and its revision “Jerusalem” as one opera; likewise “Stiffelio” and “Aroldo”), plus his Requiem, are his legacy to the performing arts. Wherever there is an opera house, you can be sure that at least one Verdi opera will be on the boards in any given year -– and if a season goes by without one, wait till next year.

Yet Verdi’s own idea of what his proudest legacy would be –- he called it his favorite of all his works -– was the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a retirement home in Milan for musicians who had reached age 65 and found themselves in dire straits. He bought the land in 1889, endowed the building himself and once his composing years were wrapping up, he spent much of his time supervising its construction.  Verdi also insisted that he and his wife Giuseppina be re-buried there –- and that happened one month after the official funeral in a state ceremony that reportedly attracted 200,000 people.

Casa di Riposo still stands today beside a busy Milan traffic circle, still active –- and one fine March day in 2000, I visited Verdi’s tomb in an enclosure within the courtyard of the home.  Inside the tomb are two slabs of metal on marble under which the remains of Signor and Signora Verdi lay, surrounded by arches, pillars and artwork.  

The small room had a lovely, long reverberation time, as deep as the ages –- and since no one was there, I thought I’d whistle a Verdi tune to test the acoustics.  Not something predictable, like “La donna è mobile” or “Sempre libera,” but rather, the tune that occurred to me was the theme from “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (“Life is the joke we make it”), the final fugue from his final opera, “Falstaff.”  It is said that late in his career, the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was singing “Tutto nel mondo” in concert and decided right on the spot, this would be the time to retire –- right now, going out on a high note.  

So I whistled, and the sound was absolutely fabulous, reverberating all around the tomb.

For more insight on Verdi's illustrious musical career prior to Los Angeles Opera's production of "Simon Boccanegra," here's my Arts & Books story.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Photo: Casa di Riposo per Musicisti. Credit: Franco Folini

 

Music review: Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra at AT&T Center

January 29, 2012 |  2:51 pm

Angelica
A 500-seat auditorium is hidden within the 1965-vintage corporate confines of the 32-story AT&T Center at 12th Street and Olive, an area of downtown Los Angeles that looks desolate at night -– off the charts, as it were.  But when KUSC moved into the AT&T Center in 2010, they saw a possible staging ground for small- to medium-sized groups in this underused hall –- and so on Saturday night, the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra became the first group to try out the facilities.

The hall looks like an artifact of its time –- a gleaming-white, fan-shaped, multipurpose room with maroon-colored theater-type seats –- and sounds rather dry, with hardly any resonance.  Yet the makeshift shell that KUSC erected on the stage did its job well, pushing the sound forward and out to the audience with good balances among the six period instruments and a full bass response.  The voices of a pair of early-music stars -– soprano Emma Kirkby (working with Musica Angelica for the first time) and countertenor Daniel Taylor -– sounded a bit recessed, but they could be heard clearly from a right-center seat toward the stage and farther back on the left.

In other words, it’ll do.

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