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3/13/2014 - Haifa Symphony stops on U.S. tour

Haifa Symphony stops on U.S. tour
by Timothy Mangan, for the Orange County Register

Israel’s Haifa Symphony Orchestra made a stop at Segerstrom Concert Hall on Wednesday night as part of its first U.S. tour, a grueling affair of 38 concerts in eight weeks. The musicians have been on the road since January. For Orange County, their program was a coals-to-Newcastle thing, but then most of the orchestra’s concerts haven’t been in areas as well stocked with classical music.

Founded in 1950, the Haifa Symphony Orchestra serves Israel’s third largest city, a port in the country’s northern region, not far from Lebanon and Syria. On the basis of its concert Wednesday, one would call it a decent regional orchestra and certainly an institution that its city can be proud of. That it showed up on the Philharmonic Society’s series normally devoted to some of the best orchestras in the world – and barely a week after the Vienna Philharmonic performed on it – wasn’t the Haifa Symphony’s fault, but one noticed the difference.

The orchestra showed a lively spirit, though, and its program – Weber’s Overture to “Euryanthe,” Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Roman Rabinovich as soloist) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 – was designed to please all but the most curmudgeonly attendee. The group’s principal guest conductor, Boguslaw Dawidow, led it with straightforward enthusiasm.

The differences between a great orchestra and a second-rank one are sometimes hard to detect exactly; you feel it more than anything. With the Haifa Symphony there was an inconsistency of intonation, both within sections and between them, some bobbles in the brass, out of whack balances (the violin section seemed too big for the rest of the orchestra) and sloppy execution here and there. Still, most of these were minor blemishes and none of them damning.

More important, and perhaps more subtle, was the orchestra’s overall sonority, which was rather bright and blunt, and the group’s expressive capabilities. If a listener normally moved by Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony finds himself looking at his watch, it is usually because of the expression, or lack thereof. Here, the phrases were dispatched as if they were technical assignments not emotionally-packed messages. The musicians didn’t always seem to be listening to each other either; the musical puzzle parts didn’t congeal.

Rabinovich, winner of the 2008 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, gave an intermittently effective account of the Rachmaninoff concerto. Sitting in a straight-back chair, the young Israeli pianist offered a rather relaxed view of the score, riding its waves patiently but rarely pushing them, or himself, forward. At times, he appeared satisfied with accompanying the orchestra. That he trusted the music, and played it with an easy virtuosity, was to the good. That we couldn’t quite tell whether or not he was excited by it wasn’t. Boguslaw and the orchestra were too loud in accompaniment.

Rabinovich supplied intimate studies of Chopin’s Preludes Nos. 17 and 18 in encore. Boguslaw and the orchestra were generous at the end of the concert, too, performing the Theme from “Schindler’s List,” the solo taken by a violist rather than a violinist, and Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” with the conductor leading the audience in an unusually intricate clap-along.

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3/4/2014 - Vienna Phil returns with Schubert, Mahler

Vienna Phil returns with Schubert, Mahler
by Timothy Mangan, for the Orange County Register

To hear the Vienna Philharmonic perform live is always a treat. Monday night, three years to the day after its last visit here, the orchestra was back in Segerstrom Concert Hall. Once again the audience was large (the Philharmonic Society of Orange County presented) and once again the orchestra performed a Mahler symphony. This time around, Lorin Maazel was on the podium.

One could have fairly anticipated a weary group of musicians. Last week, they performed four concerts in Carnegie Hall, including on their programs such big works as Beethoven’s Ninth and Bruckner’s Sixth as well as concert performances of two operas, “Salome” and “Wozzeck.” But this listener detected no such weariness.

Maazel had been called in late in the game as a replacement for Daniele Gatti, who had to cancel due to acute inflammation in the tendons of his shoulders (a conductor’s injury if there ever was one). No matter, or not much. Maazel, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra who turns 84 on Thursday, has conducted the Viennese often over the years and is also a noted conductor of Mahler. A magician with the baton, he is also known as something of a willful interpreter, though.

Maazel was on good behavior for the opening work on the program, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic could probably play this piece without a conductor and Maazel probably knows it. At any rate, his directions were restrained and the results were beautiful. He coaxed floating rubato in the transitions between the main themes, kept the whirring underpinnings alive and motivated, and allowed the dramatic climaxes their full breadth and amplitude without overdoing them.

The Vienna Philharmonic is a luxury brand with a difference. Its muscle is lean and it has an array of delicacy in its sound. It cannot, or at least usually does not, knock you out of your seat like the Chicago Symphony, New York or Berlin Philharmonics can. The violins have a shiny glint in their sound; the cellos do not bellow; the basses remain distinct and exacting. The woodwinds display a touching fragility, the brass a noble, unforced mellowness. Together, these timbres produce a unique depth and character, elegant and diaphanous but also teeming.

And there was the rub in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. What exquisite sounds did Maazel and the Viennese make in this most gentle and idyllic of Mahler’s symphonies. The conductor rooted in the sound garden of Mahler’s orchestration to produce one flowery, tangy, dainty, brilliant and gracious texture after another. He mined the pianissimos for all their worth, caressed and threaded silken, deliciously elongated phrases.

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3/4/2014 - Review: In Lorin Maazel's hands, the Vienna Philharmonic is magical

Review: In Lorin Maazel's hands, the Vienna Philharmonic is magical
by Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Italian conductor Daniele Gatti, about whom there has been much interest of late, may have been forced to cancel his appearance with the Vienna Philharmonic at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Monday night due to an inflamed tendon, but he was replaced by an even bigger name, Lorin Maazel. The program of Schubert and Mahler symphonies remained the same.

But nothing remained remotely the same. Maazel is a uniquely idiosyncratic interpreter and a uniquely practiced veteran musical manipulator.

Yet everything remained mainly the same. It's the Vienna Philharmonic!

Change comes very, very slowly to these guys. They've got finesse to their playing that has long been the wonder of the orchestral world. They're not all guys anymore. A handful of women, at long last, have made it into the ranks.

But while it might come as a surprise to the dogged traditionalist members of the orchestra who fought to maintain a men's-club camaraderie, theirs is not a sound but a sensitivity to sound and a standard. It's a way of players blending with other players that may be integral to Viennese culture but that also transcends race, gender and nationality. A conductor, especially one as radical as Maazel, can make a great deal of difference, but the real attraction is always the orchestra.

Maazel, moreover, knows this orchestra. In 1982, he was the first American to become artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, from which the Vienna Philharmonic draws its elite members. He may have remained in Vienna for only two years, but Maazel, who turns 84 on Thursday and who was a child protégé conductor, has conducted an average of two concerts a week for more than 70 years with more than 200 orchestras.

That experience may partly explain just how peculiar Monday's performances were. Maazel can do anything with an orchestra, and he's always got a new trick up his sleeve. He also has the reputation for having a mind suited for four-dimensional chess.

In Schubert's Eighth Symphony and especially in Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Maazel was usually many moves ahead of me and definitely in another dimension. Don't ask why. Just know that the performances amazed.

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3/2/2014 - Garson's 'Symphonic Suite for Healing' debuts

Garson's 'Symphonic Suite for Healing' debuts
by Timothy Mangan, for the Orange County Register

The good people at the Philharmonic Society of Orange County stretched out of their comfort zone on Saturday night and presented the premiere of Mike Garson’s “Symphonic Suite for Healing.” The usual crowd was not in attendance; it must have gotten wind. This was not classical music (despite some claims), but a combination of smooth and almost-progressive jazz, easy listening, pop and inspirational music. The crowd that did show up seemed to enjoy it.

In the broadest sense, of course, almost all music is healing. The “Symphonic Suite” might be considered in a new category, though: medical music. Teaming with the Foundation for Neuroscience, Stroke and Recovery, Garson composed some 30 pieces for the patients there and had them choose their favorites, the ones that made them feel best. The result is the “Symphonic Suite,” 12 movements and an hour and 20 minutes (including the chatter) in length. There were a lot of soprano sax solos.

The Foundation for Neuroscience, etc. is measuring the healing properties of music on its patients and finding good things. Not a surprise, really, except maybe to doctors. Also not a surprise: The music the patients picked for the suite is generally mellow, meditative, melodic and sugary. Large sections of the work are left open for jazz improvisation. The piece is orchestrated for jazz rhythm section (with Garson on piano), strings, winds and brass, harp, percussion, organ and more. The Southern California Children’s Chorus contributed wordless tunes. A pair of (adult) vocalists also sang occasionally.

Garson is best known as David Bowie’s pianist. He has also worked with such bands as Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins. In the “Symphonic Suite,” he proves an earnest and sincere composer, supplying music that aims to soothe and, occasionally, enliven. That the outcome is one step away from the “Hour of Power’s” gush and Yanni’s thrum is perhaps predictable. Garson is working within the realm of cliché here. But if its familiarity helps patients, who’s to complain? This writer would choose different music for his own healing purposes – Haydn string quartets, Stravinsky, the Clash – but I’m not a doctor.

Garson assembled an impressive array of friends and colleagues for the performance. Among them were flutist Jim Walker and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. There were five bassists on board (three acoustic and two electric); in one number, “Counterpoint of Life,” we heard an extended improvisation section for all five of them. The movement titles included “Prelude to Life,” “Lullaby for Our Daughters, “Standing Proud,” and “Oneness with All/Gratitude.” A Parkinson’s patient danced with her husband in “El Tango de Curación”; she had requested the work, and it apparently does help her move.

The first half of the program featured a smaller ensemble performing Garson’s “Jazz Variations, Based on Paganini,” and arrangements of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo A la Turk.” Garson and Walker also gamboled garrulously and virtuosically through a parade of Gershwin tunes.

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2/12/2014 - Bowers explores Beethoven's later years

Bowers explores Beethoven's later years
by Richard Chang, for the Orange County Register

He may have lost his hearing, but he gave the world a bounty of sound and song like no other.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was one of classical music’s greatest composers. His symphonies and concertos are performed throughout the world, and his sonatas have become standard for those learning to play or master the piano, from school children to concert professionals to retired folks.

Through May 18, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art is presenting “Beethoven: The Late Great,” a collection of rare artifacts, handwritten manuscripts, images created during his time and even two locks of his hair. The exhibit is a collaboration with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and is completing a multi-season tribute to Beethoven’s later (or “transcendental”) years – often considered his best.

“One of the things that’s interesting about him, he’s never gone out of fashion,” said William Meredith, a professor of music history and director of the Beethoven Center at San Jose State University. Meredith curated this exhibition, bringing items from the Beethoven Center and borrowing manuscripts from the Library of Congress. Three of them are making their West Coast debut in this show.

“Since he died in 1827, he’s held a central position in the arts of Western culture,” Meredith said. “The Ninth Symphony penetrated to every corner of the globe where there are human beings.”

For the Bowers, this exhibit is a way to reach out to different audiences and to recognize the achievements of Dean Corey, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society. Corey, who recently authored the book, “Beethoven: The Late Great: Thirty-Three Personal Variations,” is retiring in June after 21 years at the society’s helm.

“Dean and I have been close friends since we both started here” in Orange County, said Peter Keller, president of the Bowers since 1991. “I consider him one of the most creative guys I’ve ever known. It’s significant that we not only have this show, with some very important pieces from Beethoven’s life and career, but this wonderful partnership with the Philharmonic Society is important, too.”

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