CONCERT REVIEW: Beethoven Meets the Beatles

A brilliant stroke of Programming

Everybody loves the Beatles, and everybody loves Beethoven. So what better combination could there be than the California Philharmonic’s opening concert of the season, “Beethoven Meets the Beatles,” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 30th. Yet another stroke of brilliant programming on the part of Maestro Victor Vener, “the man you’ve all come to see,” as he was introduced by Cal Phil volunteer Susan Weststeyn for the “Talks with the Maestro” prior to the concert. In top form, Dr. Vener took the stage of the BP lecture hall, loosening up the crowd with his witty and disarming banter. He started off with audience participation, asking everyone to sing the opening four notes of Beethoven’s 5th while he conducted, setting the tone for the interactive afternoon. After the entertaining talk by the Maestro, breaking down the intricacies of meter, rhythm and conducting, the crowd exited the giant honeycomb atrium and entered the warm, wood-lined interior of the concert hall with “vineyard” seating, a construction created to bring the audience closer to the performance. Cal Phil Chairman, Kevin Baines of JPL, accurately introduced the program by saying, “we have the greatest hits of the last two centuries.” And, indeed, the inaugural concert of the season was a complete hit.

Maestro Vener opened the show with a heartfelt speech about the three violinists the orchestra recently lost: former concert master Pavel Farkas, principal of the second violins Hakop Mekinyan, and concert mistress Katia Popov. In their honor, he asked the entire violin section to stand to perform Vittorio Monti’s “Czardas,” exemplifying how the Cal Phil is more than just a musical ensemble that plays together but a family of bonded souls. After a rich musical intro by principal clarinet Michael Arnold, followed by the elegant strumming of harpist Liesl Erman, the violins came in on the solo line in crisp accuracy, each player a virtuoso soloist in his or her own right. A very fitting tribute to the lost musicians who loved life and were loved by all.

The 2,265 seat house was packed clear up through the last rows of the Terrace. And yet, the Maestro made everyone feel like they were enjoying an intimate musical salon in his living room. Before playing the four most famous notes (though only two pitches) in classical music, the Maestro asked the audience what the “short-short-short-long” stood for in Morse code, to which several people yelled out “V,” V for Victory. And what a victorious performance it was, to hear the iconic Beethoven’s 5th, executed by such a vibrant orchestra of A-class musicians in such a reverberant hall.

With crystal-clear precision and velvety legatos, the Cal Phil performed the symphony with both fresh energy and respectful tradition. Speaking of tradition, the audience applauded after the first movement. Turning to the crowd, Dr. Vener asked the proverbial question “how many of you think it’s not proper to clap between movements?” Reiterating what he had said in his pre-show talk, he explained that during Beethoven’s time, it actually was quite common to do so. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, in Boston, where a reviewer equated going to the symphony with going to church, that the tradition of not clapping between movements began. “Things were casual back in the day when music was serious,” the Maestro declared. The Cal Phil seems to harken back to that time, when classical music affairs had the energy and vigor of a rock concert, yet complete precision and artistry.

The second movement of the 5th is a minuet, not as characteristically slow as most symphonic second movements are. Again, the Cal Phil players displayed what a masterful and flawless orchestra they are with the luxuriant string sound and exquisite ensemble blend of the woodwinds. One could envision the wigs and polished buttons on the shoes of dancers of the time period. Dr. Vener explained that if a composer didn’t want applause in between movements, they would be blended together, as Beethoven did with the 3rd and 4th in this symphony, utilizing 32 bars of timpani, which was adroitly carried out by Judy Chilnick. The exhilarating herald of the French Horns on the theme followed by the trombones bathed the hall in an exuberant wash of sound. The contrabassoon played by Allen Savedoff, giving way to Jim Thatcher on French Horn, to Valerie King’s triumphant piccolo trills carried the symphony to the triumphant end, encouraging the listeners to tap their feet and even sway to the music, something usually only done in pop concerts. But the California Philharmonic plays with such zest, that it becomes an entirely new and vibrant concert-going experience.

“Thanks for coming back.” The Ringleader Victor Vener greeted the audience after intermission. “Ok, who came just for the Beatles?” He went on to equate the “magic mushroom 1960s band” with Beethoven. “Beethoven has his own addictions, he was addicted to coffee.” Apparently Beethoven would grind up 32 coffee beans per cup. “That explains his eyes in the portraits…” The Maestro demonstrated with his facial expression, yet again triggering thunderous laughter from everyone. The nostalgic trip down memory lane began with an original overture of “Eleanor Rigby” arranged by Wendell Kelly. What a pleasure to hear the epochal George Martin string arrangement with a full professional orchestra and the otherworldly piccolo trumpet phrase gracefully played by David Washburn.

Then, as if it was a flashback to the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, The Fab Four, hailed as “the best Beatles show in the world,” pranced out on stage to kick off their set, looking and sounding just like the quartet did back on the television broadcast which launched Beatlemania. Ripping through hits like “She Loves You,” “All My Loving,” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” The Fab Four had their act down, encouraging the audience to clap along, sing, and “whoo” in exact time and pitch. The pinnacle was reached when they broke out into “Twist and Shout,” managing to coax the entire audience to stand up and dance. Furthering the excitement, the beautiful blond principal second violinist got up to rock out followed by two more gorgeous violinists, Jennifer Walton and Colleen Coomber. The initiator pulled Maestro Vener up to dance, and the venerable conductor twisted away as the crowd howled in approval. After the number, Victor Vener introduced “the beautiful blond” he danced with: Sabine Vener, his daughter.

After his dancing debut, Maestro Vener picked up the baton again, and the philharmonic journeyed into “Before Yesterday,” a lovely orchestral prelude which transitioned to the celebrated song “Yesterday,” delicately performed by one of the Fab Four on acoustic guitar, with gentle underscoring by the ensemble. The Beatles tribute band exited the stage while the Cal Phil played “Boarding the Submarine,” a picturesque interlude, with Francisco Castillo’s oboe evoking a sea faring voyage and Terry Schoenig’s snare drum marching us along a colorful mainstreet parade. Once again, out bounded the Fab Four, this time in the vibrant regalia of the Sgt. Pepper album, complete with instant moustaches, jumping into “All you Need Is Love” and then “Penny Lane.” The all-around marvelous rendition of “Penny Lane” exploded when David Washburn, a regular trumpeter for John Williams’ scores, stood up and stole the show with the piccolo trumpet solo, so grandiose that one of the Fab Four felt compelled to run to the back of the orchestra and hug Mr. Washburn after the song ended. The quartet exited once again, while Wendell Kelly, resplendent in a black suit, with fire-truck red shoes and vest, entered the stage to accept acknowledgement of his arrangements, all created by aural dictation. The orchestra then performed George Martin’s psychedelic cinematic instrumental piece, “Pepperland” written for the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine. “John Lennon” of the Fab Four then came out, in the quintessential long hair and glasses look, to perform “Imagine” with the orchestra. It was a touching moment as half the audience waved the flashlights from their phones, creating a symphony of stars twinkling throughout the grand chamber. The other three then joined, also in the attire of the final Beatles phase, to perform “Hey Jude” with, of course, the entire crowd singing along, leading to a standing ovation and unending cheers. How could such an exuberant opening of the California Philharmonic’s dazzling Summer Season possibly be topped? Come to the next four concerts and find out!