STORY AND LINKS: L.A. Phil's "Americas and Americans" festival in full swing this week
18 Apr 2010
Robert D. Thomas/Class Act

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Among the many responsibilities of an organization’s music director or artistic director, perhaps the most important is to articulate a vision for the organization and to help lead the group to reach those goals. Without a compelling vision, organizations stagnate, wither and die. The music or artistic director may not be the only person to promulgate the vision, but he or she plays an indispensable role.

From the time Gustavo Dudamel was named the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 11th music director in 2008, one of his prime goals has been to extend the vision of the orchestra and its audience to south of the border. That spirit comes to life this month with Americas and Americans, a month-long festival that will spotlight the music and shared cultural traditions of nearly all the Americas.

“This festival is meant to link us as a people,” Dudamel said last spring when he introduced the concept, “so that borders dissolve, and we find those common threads and musical moments that unite North and South America as one. This is our music.” The programming will include selections from composers representing Mexico, Central and South America, as well as the United States.

Although the nine-event (14 performances) festival’s first event was April 6, Americas and Americans really kicks into high gear with orchestral concerts beginning Thursday and Friday nights in Walt Disney Concert Hall when Dudamel leads the Phil in music by Carlos Chavez (Toccata for Percussion), Peter Lieberson (Neruda Songs) and Leonard Bernstein (Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety).

In a sense, soloists drive each of these works. Chavez’s Toccata for Percussion (sometimes called Toccata for Percussion Instruments) was written in 1942 but not performed for another five years. Throughout the 12-minutes piece, six players scamper among two snare drums, Indian drums, two tenor drums, bass drum, claves, maracas, two suspended cymbals, large and small gongs, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone and timpani.

Unlike much of Chavez’s music, this work has no overt nationalistic overtones; instead, as the composer noted at the 1953 U.S. premiere, “The Toccata was written as an experiment in orthodox percussion instruments — those used regularly in a symphony orchestra, that is, avoiding the exotic and picturesque … The thematic material is, for obvious reasons, rhythmic rather than melodic.”

Contrasting the Toccata’s six percussionists, Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs has just a single soloist, in this case American mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor. She has taken up a rewarding but daunting task. Lieberson wrote Neruda Songs on a co-commission from the L.A. Phil and the Boston Symphony for his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in 2004; the texts are five love sonnets from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Before the premieres in Los Angeles and Boston in 2005, Lorraine was diagnosed with a reoccurrence of breast cancer (which had originally emerged in 2000). She was able to sing the premieres and make a recording but she died in 2006 at the age of 52.

Many people have conjured images of Leonard Bernstein when describing Dudamel but, at least so far, Dudamel has shown no inclination to compose, for which Bernstein was well known. However, it’s undeniable that Dudamel loves Bernstein’s music. His performances of the West Side Story Dances were among Dudamel’s earliest calling cards and Mambo from that composition catapulted Dudamel and his Simón Bolivár Youth Symphony Orchestra to worldwide fame through a famous YouTube clip (LINK)

In his first season as L.A. Phil music director, Dudamel not only programmed Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 but is taking it on tour; next year’s schedule includes Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah) — can Kaddish (Symphony No. 3) be far behind?

Bernstein began writing Symphony No. 2 in 1947, five years after Jeremiah was completed. Its inspiration is W.H. Auden’s poem, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, which Bernstein read when it was published in 1947. “From that moment,” Bernstein wrote in a program note, “the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired an almost compulsive quality.”

Bernstein had originally believed it was “absolutely necessary” for listeners to read the Auden poem before hearing the symphony, but by a 1977 interview he had changed his mind. “The symphony,” he said, “has acquired a life of its own.”

In a sense, Symphony No. 2 is the piano concerto that Bernstein never formally wrote. Jean Yves Thibaudet, a familiar and welcome guest around these parts, will be the soloist both at Disney Hall and on the orchestra’s upcoming tour when the work will be paired several times with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique); the latter will be performed at Disney Hall just before the orchestra departs on tour May 10.

One of the Americas and Americans festival’s special moments will happen Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon (April 25) with performances of La Pasión según San Marcos by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. This was one of four “Passions” commissioned by Helmuth Rilling’s Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart for its Passion 2000 project commemorating the 350th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death.

These Disney Hall concerts will feature the performers that played the premiere: Maria Guinand conducting La Pasión Orchestra, the choral group Schola Cantorum of Venezuela and vocalist Luciana Souza. Soprano Jessica Rivera joins in this exuberant Latin-flavored setting of St. Mark’s gospel text. I heard it in Orange County several years ago — it was a knockout and should be even more so in Disney Hall’s marvelous acoustics.

Another major moment will come on April 29, 30 and May 1 when Dudamel conducts the Philharmonic and Schola Cantorum of Venezuela in a program that includes a theatrical presentation of Antonio Estévez’s Cantata Criolla, along with Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia Dances and The Promise of Living from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land.

Venezuelan film director Alberto Arvelo, Arvelo — who directed the 2006 documentary Tocar y Luchar (To Play and to Fight) about Venezuela’s music system, El Sistema, that has nurtured Dudamel and thousands of others — is creating a theatre realization of Estévez’s 30-minute choral work, which is based on a Venezuelan mythic legend.

Florentino y el Diablo, the poem which inspired Estévez, tells of a singing contest between a cowboy, llanero Florentino, and the Devil (two guesses as to who wins). As one online fan, David Hurwitz, puts it, “Aside from the folk influence, the scene of the actual contest is set as a series of variations on the Dies Irae Gregorian chant from the Requiem Mass — only with maracas in a kind of samba rhythm!”

This is one time when attending the preconcert lecture seems particularly well advised. Chad Smith, LA Philharmonic Vice President of Artistic Planning, will be the speaker one hour before each concert.

In the midst of Americas and Americans, Dudamel and the Phil are preparing for a cross-country tour in May, and several upcoming concerts contain music that will be played across the U.S. Two of the tour pieces appear in a nonsubscription concert on April 25 at 7:30 p.m., with Dudamel conducting a reprise of his gala opening concert last October: John Adams City Noir and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

Info: 323/850-2000;

• Read Reed Johnson’s Los Angeles Times article on Dudamel HERE

Speaking of the Philharmonic, the Pasadena Showcase House of Design — which, since 1948 has raised more than $17 million for the arts (including the LAPO) — unveils its newest House and Garden tour today at 9 a.m.

This year’s house is The Cravens Estate, a three-story, fifty-room residence with a wealth of architectural features located on what was once “Millionaires’ Row” in Pasadena. It’s now home to the American Red Cross’s San Gabriel Pomona Valley Chapter. Visitors to the house and gardens can also shop at more than 30 boutiques, helping to support the arts and having a grand time.

Tickets are available for house entry beginning on the quarter hour (9:00, 9:15, etc) as follows: Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday from 9:00 a.m. until 3:45 p.m. and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 9:00 a.m. until 7:45 p.m. Showcase is closed on Mondays. Parking is offsite with free shuttles. Proceeds benefit a wide variety of arts organizations, large and small. Details are on the PSHD Web site.

Information: 714/442-3872;

(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.


Golijov: Ainadamar
Poulenc: Gloria in G major
Spohr: Songs (6), Op. 103
Salazar: Canciones Mexicanas (3)
Adams: A Flowering Tree
Golijov: La pasión según San Marcos
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music
Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Górecki: Symphony no 3, Op. 36 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"
Mompou: Combat del somni
Theofanidis: Creation/Creator
Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem
Spano: Hölderlin-Lieder: No. 1, Lebenslauf

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