The Cal Phil's Spectacular Summer Season Opener

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By Christina Linhardt, Staff Writer

The California Philharmonic launched its sensational summer season with the spectacular "Made in America" concert on June 24th, 2018.

The experience for concertgoers began by entering the wondrous Walt Disney Concert Hall foyer, a labyrinth of wood and steel arches designed to allow light and air flow throughout the space, carrying the visitor onward. Pritzker Prize winning architect Frank Gehry intended the lobby to be a "living room for the city," connecting everyday life to the inner sanctum of this iconic concert hall. And indeed, the lobby feels warm and inviting yet grand and magnificent at the same time. Much like the California Philharmonic itself, an orchestra that exhibits the highest caliber of virtuoso performance while remaining accessible to all audience members, including those who might be quite new to the joyful experience of live symphonic music. Much of this broad appeal is due to unique personality and approach of the orchestra’s founder and conductor, Maestro Victor Vener. His popular pre-show talks and as well as his comments and explanations during the concert give everyone in the audience, newcomers and connoisseurs, a sense of comfortable engagement with a large-scale musical experience. ("Talks with The Maestro" take place before every concert in the BP Hall inside the soaring lobby, space.)

The Maestro began his talk for this opening concert of 2018 before a packed house by saying, "Today is a special day for all of us because we're going to learn where classical music in America came from." He talked about the American Philanthropist, Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, who created a classical music conservatory for female and African-American students, a revolutionary idea at the time. In 1892, she invited acclaimed Czech composer Antonin Dvorak to become the director of her National Institute of Music in New York City. During Dvorak's residence in the U.S., he noted there wasn't a specific sound for American classical music - but when he studied Native American chants and African-American Spirituals, he realized that music like this was, indeed, the music of the land. This indigenous music influenced Dvorak's original melodies and inspired the birth of his most popular symphony, his 9th, popularly known as "The New World Symphony."

The Maestro explained in his intimate style how the "New World Symphony" could be likened to the score for a Western film. He then went on to talk about the American-born composer Aaron Copland, who used American folk tunes in his symphonic works. Copland, deemed "The Dean of American Music," was asked by conductor Andre Kostelanetz to write a musical portrait of a prominent American. "Lincoln Portrait" premiered on May 14th, 1942 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The work incorporated folk tunes like "Camptown Races" and "Springfield Mountain." For the text, Copland chose excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches, including the Gettysburg Address. Following Dr. Vener’s talk, the audience entered the concert hall itself, an acoustical gem with vineyard-style seating and a stage crafted from Alaskan yellow cedar.

As the Maestro walked onto the stage, he was greeted like a rock star with cheers from the crowd. And then, quite suddenly, the mood became somber as the orchestra gracefully played a piece not on the program, the hymn from Copland's "Appalachian Spring," in honor of the Cal Phil's concert master Katia Popov, who unexpectedly passed away shortly before the concert. An open violin case full of flowers was placed on a chair on stage in remembrance of this beautiful and brilliant artist. After the Maestro explained this homage to the audience, the concert officially began with the National Anthem. The Maestro also gave an informative, brief summary of the introduction to Dvorak from his earlier talk for those audience members who had missed the lecture. 

Dvorak’s symphony began with delicate opening chords moving into the famous motif, like the theme of a hero riding across the North American plains, a sonic journey through the red rocks, deserts, and plains of America. Woodwinds feature heavily throughout the piece, painting aural colors and textures. The flute solos, reminiscent of Native American flutes, were performed exquisitely by Jamie Pedrini and Sarah Andon. The "Going Home" theme, an original melody by Dvorak known all over the world, rang out divinely on the English horn played by Marilyn Schram and was then taken over by the clarinets, led by Michael Arnold. The exchange of voices in the "New World Symphony" is exceptional and perfectly suited to the acoustics of the Disney concert hall. An enthusiastic audience applauded in between movements, which in more staid and traditional musical venues might be seen as unusual. However, the Cal Phil is a bit different and very West Coast in its approach; laid-back and easygoing, the Maestro and his musicians always welcome such sincere appreciation from the audience. After the second movement, Dr. Vener turned to the audience and told concertgoers that applauding between movements was, in fact, more traditional than the more recent practice of holding applause until the very end of the piece! “In previous time periods,” Dr. Vener explained, “audiences often applauded between the movements” and he thanked them for their appreciation. The final movement of Dvorak's 9th shines with French horns and brass, as trumpets and trombones lead the orchestra to a glorious cinematic ending, greeted by enthusiastic applause. 

The second half of the concert began as award-winning Broadway star Kevin Earley presented Frank Sinatra tunes in perfect vintage style. The orchestra behind him was like a colossal big band. The entire audience clapped along with his performance of "New York, New York." Mr. Earley took us back to the glitz and glamour of the Vegas Rat Pack; "My Way" began with a heavenly harp, piano, and drum set, eventually joined by the entire orchestra as Mr. Earley delivered the song with real power, backed by soaring trumpets. A standing ovation was followed by a graceful encore of "Bring Him Home."

Then it was time for "Lincoln Portrait," narrated by film and television star Aldis Hodge (best known for his roles in "Hidden Figures" and "Straight Outta Compton.") Like President Lincoln himself, Hodge delivered the words with humble purpose and understated majesty: "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves ....in honor or dishonor..." This was followed by yet another standing ovation for Mr. Hodge.

In true Cal Phil fashion, the concert ended with a bit of fun as the Maestro prepped the audience on their participation in "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the quintessential work by John Philip Sousa. A grand ending to a superb event. But have no fear if you missed it - there are 4 more concerts to come!