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.
In his recital at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo on Sunday, pianist Emanuel Ax shared the spotlight with two exceptional instruments. Ax played a bright-sounding Hamburg Steinway in the first half and a more darkly textured New York Steinway in the second.
This was the first piano recital at the 1,032-seat hall, which opened in September. The detail and depth of sonic warmth produced by Ax in a program of variations by Copland, Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann was embraced by the venue, which compares favorably to Walt Disney Concert Hall. Yasuhisa Toyota was the acoustician for both spaces.
There was an especially effective crystalline clarity to Ax’s sound in Copland’s compact and dramatic Piano Variations. Copland called his austere 1930 masterpiece a “ten-minute monster,” and it shows the composer in an atypically rigorous modernist mode. In Ax’s hands, the score’s bracing dissonance and loud chords became beautiful.
In Haydn’s touching Andante and Variations in F minor, the pianist made a case for the composer as the first great Romantic. In a rendition full of feeling, he meticulously etched the alternating variations on two themes, leading to a whispering coda.
Ax tested the resounding lower register of the Hamburg instrument in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations and Fugue, Opus 35. He captured the grotesquery in the opening bass chords, a self-parody of the composer’s own theme from his “Eroica” Symphony finale. Ax’s account was exhilaratingly earthy and visceral.
Even better was Ax’s uninhibited rendition of Schumann’s inspired “Symphonic Etudes.” If any single work could test the grand orchestral and intimate properties of a New York Steinway and a new concert hall, it's this one. Ax conveyed Schumann’s full range of moods, from dreamy and reflective to impetuous and passionate. His encore was an atmospheric rendering of “Pagodes” from Debussy’s “Estampes.”
-- Rick Schultz
Photo: Emanuel Ax performs Sunday at the Soka Performing Arts Center. Credit: Eric Mitsuo Kimura
Pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s combination recital and chamber music concert on Wednesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall took a delightful detour when he performed his son Gabriel’s “Django: Tiny Variations on a Big Dog.”
Commissioned by Kahane père in 2008, the score was inspired by the family dog, named after the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Programmed between major works by Bach and Chopin, this rigorously inventive six-minute set of variations remarkably held its own.
Sounding hoarse from hay fever, Kahane told the Disney Hall audience it took him months to learn his son’s breakneck perpetual motion variation, “Mechanized Django.” He dazzlingly conveyed Django’s different moods, including a ragtime section evoking goofy canine charm.
Since becoming music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 1997, Kahane hasn’t been seen much in recital. But he began his career as a pianist, winning a gold medal at the Arthur Rubinstein competition in 1983. Kahane opened with Bach’s French Suite No. 5 (BWV 816), performed with expressive warmth and fleet-fingered high spirits. His occasional ornamentations gave due consideration to Baroque performance practices without becoming precious, and he crisply articulated the ebullient concluding Gigue.
One of the many pleasures of the monthly Sunday afternoon chamber music series Le Salon de Musiques is its intimacy. The Salon venue on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion feels as if the listener is in a carpeted living room with large windows overlooking the city and hills. This special ambience, which includes a brief introduction by a musicologist, Champagne-fueled conversation between audience and performers, and a buffet, allows listeners to get closer to the music and musicians.
For example, after harpist Marcia Dickstein’s lovely, rippling account of Arnold Bax’s rarely performed “Elegiac Trio” for flute, viola and harp, several people said it was the first time they had ever seen and heard the instrument up close.
Dickstein, a Bax scholar, has recorded most of the British composer’s music for harp. His 1916 trio, which shows the Impressionist influence of Ravel, found sympathetic interpreters in Dickstein, flutist Pamela Vliek Martchev and violist Victoria Miskolczy. The trio’s richly harmonic language was perfectly placed between two more substantial French neighbors: Poulenc’s Flute Sonata with piano, composed for Jean-Pierre Rampal in 1957, and Fauré’s late-Romantic Piano Quartet No. 1 in C-minor (Op. 15).
Flutist Martchev offered a technically stirring, lyrical rendition of the Poulenc, superbly accompanied by pianist Steven Vanhauwaert’s delicately calibrated touch. You could almost feel her breath transformed into music.
For the Fauré, John Walz, principal cellist of the L.A. Opera orchestra, got permission to take off from the second half of the matinee performance of “Simon Boccanegra” to fill out a quartet (with Vanhauwaert, Miskolczy and violinist Tereza Stanislav) upstairs. Together they generated an alternately poetic and earthy intensity, never losing the work’s propulsive rhythmic impetus. The pianist’s clarity in playing softly (the piano lid remained open) blended sensitively into the opulent fabric created by his partners.
Photo: The February gathering of Le Salon de Musiques at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Credit: Henry Lim
The Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit has a reputation for working fast and knowing what he wants. He was exactly what the Los Angeles Philharmonic needed on Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he led them in a program of Stravinsky, Debussy and Prokofiev. It was the orchestra’s first concert on its home stage since repeating its recent Mahler symphony cycle in Caracas, Venezuela, with music director Gustavo Dudamel.
Returning Sunday from a trip partly marred by bouts of food poisoning, head colds and flu, the musicians had Monday and Tuesday off to recover from jet lag, and then went into a five-hour double rehearsal on Wednesday.
Before the scheduled program began, Philharmonic president Deborah Borda announced that Lorin Levee, a 36-year veteran of the orchestra and its principal clarinetist since 1981, died on Wednesday. In his honor, Dutoit and the orchestra gave a lovingly shaped account of Ravel’s “The Enchanted Garden,” the moving finale to the ballet “Mother Goose.”
In his short but powerful organ recital on Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Olivier Latry, the organist of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, performed solo works by Anton Heiller and Jehan Alain. But the big event was Latry’s pipe organ version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for four hands and four feet, where he was joined by Korean organist Shin-Young Lee.
Latry opened with Heiller’s brief Tanz-Toccata, composed in 1970, and quickly demonstrated a breathtaking mastery of the Disney Hall instrument by shaping the score’s restlessly shifting meters and thick harmonies into a compelling dramatic whole. In Alain’s “Three Dances” -– “Joys,” “Mournings” and “Battles” -- Latry contrasted gentle and more emotionally conflicted passages to create a sense of epic adventure in just over 20 minutes.
Alain’s dances were accessibly, if strangely, tonal, employing medieval plainchant style to shattering effect. Weeks before the Nazi invasion of France, Alain mailed his “Three Dances” to a friend. He died in a firefight in 1940 at the age of 29.
After intermission, Latry and Lee gave a high-voltage rendition of “Rite of Spring,” which was adapted by him from the composer's own original piano-duo version. Latry added extra elements unavailable to pianists. For example, Lee’s virtuoso pedal trills in the lower registers were used to brilliant effect.
The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gives good taste a great name. His playing displays no vanity. In a program of Haydn, Bartók, Debussy and Chopin at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday, Andsnes combined aspects of the introvert and extrovert, the Romantic and Classicist, while remaining fully at the service of each composer’s musical style.
In the opener, Haydn’s moody Sonata in C minor, the pianist made the score’s irregular phrasing sound natural and inevitable. His articulation and dynamic shadings in the opening movement were finely judged, and his warm, rounded tone in the slow movement and finale captivated.
Andsnes employed a more resonant and textured sound for Bartok’s rhythmically engaging Suite for Piano, Opus 14, his varied attacks placing the work’s playfulness, drama and mystery into sharp contrast. In a stunning rendition of Debussy’s Images, Book I, Andsnes’ delicate touch, timing and rhythmic steadiness in “Reflections on the Water,” “Homage to Rameau” and “Movement” quietly drew the listener in. He proved a superlative Debussy interpreter.
In the all-Chopin second half, Andsnes began with graceful readings of Four Waltzes, three from Opus 70. In the more technically demanding and showy Waltz in A flat major, Opus 42, speeds were perfectly judged. Andsnes’ relaxed, serene accounts of Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 and Nocturne in B major, Opus 62, No. 1, were paradoxically gripping. His artful pedaling in Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor lent an expressive intensity to its unstoppable forward drive. He dispatched its fearsome coda with apparent ease.
As encores, the pianist offered Chopin’s enchanting Waltz in A flat major, Opus 34, No. 1, and Granados’ lovely Spanish Dance, Opus 37, No. 5 “Andaluza,” both performed with bravura poise and muscular clarity.
-- Rick Schultz
Above: Leif Ove Andsnes. Credit: Felix Broede
Dressed in vibrant violet leggings and a black bodice with its strings dangling ostentatiously in front, the redheaded pianist Kathleen Supové suggests a kind of Lady Gaga without the stage entourage. Her program for Piano Spheres on Tuesday at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall was similarly striking and colorful.
Supové, a performance artist with a degree from Juilliard, revels in electronic and theatrical elements that turn a classical recital on its head. At one point, the Portland, Ore., native told audience members they were free to examine the handmade bodice “up close.”
She has commissioned more than 75 piano works in her career and has said she looks for “the kind of music Debussy would write for piano if he were alive today.”
A prime example: The trills in Lainie Fefferman’s “Barnacles,” which was written for Supové, sounded like a gloss on Debussy’s “Island of Joy,” which includes some of the most joyous trilling in the piano literature. A recorded voice, not always heard through Supové’s shimmering sound, says things like, “Evenness creates the illusion of speed.” At the end, the pianist’s fist pounding bass chords echoed Debussy’s “Engulfed Cathedral.”
Russian pianist Denis Matsuev turned UCLA’s Royce Hall into the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory Tuesday night. At least it felt that way in his recital of works by Schubert, Beethoven, Grieg and Stravinsky, performed before an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking audience.
Matsuev, 36, is a virtuoso in the tradition of Gilels, Richter and Horowitz. He revels in playing at speeds almost too fast to absorb. At slower tempos, he creates a lovely, delicately judged musical flow. But his technical fireworks can be as exhausting as they are thrilling. Adding to the warp-factor feel of his recital, Matsuev walked briskly on and off stage, pausing only briefly between works.
The pianist’s rendition of Schubert’s Sonata in A minor (D. 784) evoked the personal drama of a composer working on the edge. There was little Schubertian charm in the first movement’s spare accented chords, and Matsuev’s primal outbursts, especially in the finale’s rapid octaves, summoned an angry Schubert.
Similarly, Matsuev’s account of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” conveyed the composer’s cultivated anger and determination to push to extremes. Performed with Matsuev’s daredevil intensity, the sonata took on a darker profile, the Andante becoming a respite from its dominating emotional and rhythmic drive.
After intermission, Matsuev gave a persuasive reading of Grieg’s early Sonata in E minor, allowing its more superficial turbulence to portray a young composer beginning to find his own voice. Though the sonata is largely influenced by Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, Matsuev touchingly conveyed the lyrical Grieg to come.
Then, Matsuev, sounding like a full orchestra, dispatched Stravinsky’s rhythmically daunting Three Movements From “Petrushka.” Though his account occasionally lost some clarity, with one mood tumbling into another, the whole was infused with an irrepressible Russian spirit. There were four encores: Liadov’s “Music Box,” which displayed the pianist’s quieter, more charming side; Shchedrin’s “Humoresque”; Chopin’s “Butterfly” Etude; and a surprising jazz improvisation that brought the large crowd to its feet.
Photo from Sony Music Entertainment.
Conductor David Lockington began his program with the Pasadena Symphony at the Ambassador Auditorium on Saturday afternoon with a story about how he and soloist Andrew Shulman were childhood colleagues. They played together about 35 years ago in the cello section of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. “Andrew was the squirt cutting up at the back,” Lockington told the audience.
Lockington and Shulman, who is principal cellist of the Pasadena Symphony (and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra), reunited for an extraordinary account of Elgar’s melancholy late-Romantic Cello Concerto. The concerto is a deeply personal work evoking life in England before and after the Great War whose intimate grandeur suggests a kind of “Downton Abbey” in music.
Avoiding what Elgar scholar Byron Adams called “the seductions of nostalgia,” their performance was powerfully direct and unsentimental. Shulman, whose solo part demands nearly 32 minutes of nonstop playing, gave a richly detailed reading. He made judicious use of vibrato, his burnished tone creating a confiding expressiveness. He managed Elgar's etude-like repeated-note passages and short solo sections with virtuosity. The nobility and restraint he brought to the score’s many slow sections (there are three adagios) were gracefully supported by Lockington and the finely balanced, lean-textured orchestra.