By Christina Linhardt

Liberte! Egalite! Bastille Day! Thunderous vibrations reverberated throughout the chamber of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The behemoth organ struck a chord, launching the California Philharmonic’s Bastille Day concert on July 14, 2019. “Seven soloists, 180 members of the Cal Phil Choral, the Disney Hall Organ, and the entire California Philharmonic,” chairman Calvin Gross had declared at the top of the show. When the Cal Phil celebrates, they celebrate.

“Today is Bastille Day. Who knows what Bastille Day is?” Maestro Vener asked the audience during his pre-show talk in the BP honeycomb Hall. The Maestro explained that Bastille Day was when all the non-nobility in Paris stormed the Bastille prison, and the guards allowed it to happen. “So we have selected a program of French music,” he informed the crowd. So French in fact that after the California Philharmonic performed the Star-Spangled Banner to open the concert and the audience began to sit down the maestro gestured for everybody to stand up again for the French national anthem, “a snappy tune,” as he called it.

“Who knows Saint-Saens’ music well?” The Maestro asked. “That’s a burst of hands going up…one hand,” he joked. A composer and composition teacher, Camille Saint-Saens was most known for his “Carnival of the Animals,” and more recently for the movie Babe. “Tears came to my eyes when that little piggy won the competition,” the Maestro confessed, admitting he looked into getting a service pig. The theme from Babe came from the finale of Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony, which was the first symphonic piece on the program.

On the conductor’s downbeat, resident Organ Conservator Philip Allan Smith struck the chord that blasted everyone to the back of their seats, followed by Bryan Pezzone adroitly tickling 32nd notes on the piano accompanied by the resonant wood of the string instruments, sounding through the rich wooden hall. The heroic brass section took over, with Terry Schoenig’s crashing of the symbols leading into a wash of sound and wonderment amongst the fine French horn section, the smooth woodwind tones, and the resounding organ, driven to the end by Theresa Dimond, the warrior wonder-woman powerfully pounding away on the timpani. Like heavy metal? Yet far more profound.

Then it was time to be taken on a dream-like journey with the 2nd, 4th, and 5th movements of Berlioz’s Symphony “Fantastique.” The piece tells of a love-struck college boy, in his Sorrows of Young Werther stage, who attempts suicide through opium but instead falls into a drug induced nightmare. Not only is Dr. Vener a world class conductor but a first-rate story teller as well, engaging the audience as if they were engrossed in the plot of a blockbuster thriller.

Preeminent harpist Maria Casale, Cal Phil member and International Champion on harp, stepped to the front of the stage to be featured in the “Ball” movement of the Berlioz. But first Dr. Vener had her turn the harp around to show the audience the multiple pedals on the instrument, extracting an “ahhh” from the crowd. Opening with ascending scales, Ms. Casale’s fingers danced on the strings, with both the litheness and strength of a prima ballerina. Like a waltz on steroids, the orchestra glided through the “Ball,” lush and playful, with the woodwinds so indefectibly in tune that a delicious harmonic buzz was created. The 4th movement began with a walking bassoon passage representing an adjudicator, executed expertly by Andy Radford. “The bassoon is always a judge in music,” the Maestro had revealed earlier at the pre-show talk.

The character of the young college boy in the tale of the “Fantastique” was convicted of murdering his lady love, and so in the movement was paraded through the streets in a cart while the villagers flung garbage at him. The bass trombone, played by Toby Holmes, managed to produce “raspberries” on the instrument by blowing through the mouthpiece. A last emotive cry of the idee fix from Michael Arnold on the clarinet rang out as the strings plucked an onomatopoeia symbolizing the protagonists head falling from the guillotine, to be finished off by bombastic brass and percussion.

“I’m taking my time starting this because we’re going to hell,” The Maestro said before they began the final movement.

A soft tremolo on the violins, succeeded by the woodwinds whirling into the witches’ Sabbath dance, transitioning back and forth through tempos and styles, was interrupted by the ominous sound of the Gregorian “Dies Irae” on bell plates, played by Marie Madsen. As it picked up, Terry Schoenig broke out pu’ili sticks to enhance the strings’ sound, and with a tour de force of the percussion and brass sections, drove the intoxicating symphony to a close. Victor Vener and the California Philharmonic take the people to hell and back all in one afternoon, the perfect recipe for the Sunday Blues.

“Are you ready for it?” Victor Vener asked the audience after intermission. Could anybody be ready for what they were about to hear? A concert version of excerpts from Les Miserables performed by a 180-piece Chorale, seven world-class soloists, and an orchestra consisting of the top studio musicians in the world, many of whom probably played on the recent major motion picture score of the musical. Impressive is the only word that can describe Maestra Marya Basaraba’s Cal Phil Chorale, which she hand-picked, nourished, and trained opening the second half of the program with the “Prologue,” whilst Eric Castro and Randall Keith valiantly squared off as “Javier” and “Valjean.” Since it was a concert version, the soloists sang multiple roles, and Randall Keith’s versatility, vocal dexterity, and prowess proved why he has starred as “Jean Valjean” in over 3,000 Broadway and National Tour performances across the world. Whipping through numbers such as “Who Am I,” “What Have I Done,” and “Master of the House,” Keith possessed such command and theatricality that the concert stage melted away to reveal the world of 19th century France in the viewer’s imagination. Truly a highlight was his performance of “God on High,” one of the most vulnerable songs in musical theater repertoire, which he delivered with impeccable finesse. But his sensitivity didn’t stop there as he and his co-star Anne Martinez shared endearing duets with “A Little Fall of Rain” and “A Heart Full of Love,” the latter joined by the engaging singer and actress Christie Pryor. Like a siren, Las Vegas Award Winning headliner Anne Martinez drew the audience in with her delicate and introspective renditions of “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” The petite beauty, dressed in a striking cobalt blue gown, with shimmering red hair, exemplified loving gentleness, crescendoing into belting bravura. Supporting cast Alison Lewis, Eric Castro, and Christie Pryor brought Victor Hugo’s novel to life with their dramatic ability and stage presence. Then, a moment like no other occurred. A little princess walked on stage. Nine-year-old Monet Hernandez, dressed in a pale peach ball gown wistfully gazing out, sang “Castle on a Cloud” in purest angelic voice. A sweeter moment is not possible. But it didn’t stop there. A dapper young Lord, dressed in period attire, strutted out on stage in complete command. 14-year-old Patrick Geringer had the entire orchestra, choir, and audience in the palm of his hand with his rendition of “Look Down” while he gestured grandly, owning the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Bringing the house down, the entire company including chorus Maestra Marya Basaraba performed the most rousing version of “Do You Hear the People Sing,” complete with a chorus member producing a large red flag, waving it triumphantly in the air. Nothing short of a musical revolution. Can the California Philharmonic soar any higher? Find out at the next concert: “Space, A Giant Leap.”