Concert Review - Carmen Goes to the Movies

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An Epic Feast for the Ears

By Christina Linhardt

Flying carpet rides, wild Gypsy women rolling cigars on their thighs, phantom pirates pillaging the Caribbean; just another California Philharmonic Sunday spectacle. The penultimate concert of the Cal Phil’s dazzling 2019 summer season pulled out all the stops with the 60 piece orchestra of LA’s finest studio players, five world renowned opera stars, the glorious 180 voice Cal Phil Chorale, and of course, the Maestro everyone comes to see, Dr. Victor Vener. Even prior to the concert, during the pre-show talks in the BP Hall of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Victor Vener was greeted with thunderous applause by the devoted audience members who show up an hour early just to hear little “secrets” and stories about the repertoire. The Maestro never disappoints the packed house with his wit and character.

If filling the BP lecture room isn’t impressive enough, the magnitude of Cal Phil fans swarming the concert hall itself is nothing short of miraculous in the jaded entertainment capital of the world. But there was hardly an empty chair in the 2,265 seat auditorium for the August 11th Cal Phil concert “Carmen Goes to the Movies.” After a gracious welcome by board member and patron saint Calvin Gross, the Maestro took to the stage for the traditional singing of the National Anthem, sounding all the more spectacular by the mammoth Cal Phil Chorale joining in. The first half of the program consisted of excerpts from “probably the most famous opera ever written,” George Bizet’s Carmen, about the wild and reckless Gypsy cigar girl, who meets her fate at the hands of an obsessed and jealous lover. The orchestra was off to a thrilling start with the celebrated, high-spirited Overture, as percussionist Timm Boatman crashed the symbols, while the rest of the musicians played with such vigor, audience members tapped and swayed to the rhythm. Not a common occurrence at a symphony concert, but the Cal Phil is no common symphony.

Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock, dressed in a black Spanish style dress with red gypsy sleeves, commanded the stage for the universally recognized “Habanera” opening aria of Carmen. With a deep, sonorous voice, Ms. Babcock delivered the acclaimed aria with sensuous playfulness, seductively slithering through the melody atop the Cuban dance rhythm on cello played by Dennis Karmazyn. With such mastery of the role, Ms. Babcock is indeed the definitive “Carmen” of her generation. The exceptional Cal Phil Chorale, meticulously prepared by Maestra Marya Basaraba, provided an impressive and rousing opera chorus. The lilting “Entr’acte” floated up to the rafters with Liesl Erman’s heavenly harp and Jaimie Pedrini’s golden timber on flute, soon to be taken over by Michael Arnold’s tender clarinet, in a celestial instrumental. But angels fall, and along with the earthy and gritty Carmen, soprano Annalise Staudt and Maggie Renee Valdman came out to perform the “Gypsy Song.” “These aren’t your nice girls,” the Maestro declared, and indeed the wanton women danced and shimmied about as they sang, the feral flutes and savage tambourines working the piece up into a frenzy. Then from the back of the concert hall, a trumpet fanfare rang out, played by Bryce Schmidt standing on the top balcony to be back echoed by Miles McAllister’s bold onstage trumpet for “Le garde Montan.” Returning to a gentler moment, soprano Annalise Staudt performed the “Air,” with all the yearning needed for “Michaela, with her sweet and sensitive, yet strong soprano and controlled pianissimo akin to Montserrat Caballe’s divine pianissimo. A theatrical highlight, the “Quintet” was performed by Audrey Babcock, Annalise Staudt, bass-baritone Cedric Berry, charismatic tenor Gabriel Paredes and up and coming mezzo Maggie Renee Valdman, a singer to keep your eye on. To close the first half, Cedric Berry strutted back onstage like a true rock star bullfighter, waving to the choir who cheered like fans, to execute the “Toreador Song” which he did with such bravado and vigor, finishing off the aria by pulling a red handkerchief out of the Maestro’s tux pocket. Only a celebrity of his stature could get away with that.

The second half of the program was an expedition through various cinematic lands and scenes commencing with “Gonna Fly Now” from the movie Rocky, displaying the bold prowess of the Cal Phil brass section, with Terry Schonig rocking out on drum kit and legendary saxophonist Harvey Pittel whaling away on an improved sax solo. The orchestra then conjured images of mystical seafaring vessels with the “Pirates of the Caribbean Suite,” their voluminous sound inspiring visions of the sea. Soprano Annalise Staudt returned for a nuanced and moving interpretation of “The Sound of Music,” with the musicians sensitively accompanying her. “The Aladdin Suite” proved boisterous fun, instantly caravanning to the exotic bazaars of a charmed Middle East, exotic and mesmerizing, the trumpets growling with the plunger technique followed by the violins lovingly taking flight into “A Whole New World” theme. Down to the Mississippi River, the program roamed with Cedric Berry delivering a show stopping performance of “Old Man River” from Showboat with the Cal Phil Chorale behind him. So chilling and soulful was his resonant, powerful bass-baritone, reverberating through every molecule in the space, that the second he finished the entire audience sprang to their feet in standing ovation. Yet the energy didn’t stop there. The incredibly moving “Dry Your Tears Africa” by John Williams was up next with the Cal Phil Chorale singing in the Mende language of Sierra Leone to be followed by “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King. The astonishing 13-year-old Haly Williams stood up in the organ loft in full regalia and belted out the opening without a microphone, soon to be joined by the dynamic Gabriel Paredes. The piece exploded from there, so powerfully performed there was not a dry eye in the house. In a striking departure from the gritty Carmen, Ms. Babcock performed the reverent “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, her dramatic mezzo so profound it was nothing short of incredible. If the audience wasn’t entirely entranced by this point, the finale threw everyone overboard into a transcendental state. Voted as best film music ever written, Ennio Morricone’s score to The Mission closed out the concert. Francisco Castillo’s breath taking sensuous oboe solo opened the piece, as the choir sublimely took over, the hypnotic orchestra bathing the air with almost tangible sound, leaving the entire audience drenched in a luxurious sensation. Epic is the only word that can be used to describe such a feast for the ears. With only one more concert left in the dazzling 2019 summer season of the California Philharmonic, buy your tickets now.

Philharmonia Association