CONCERT REVIEW: The Emperor’s Round Up
The Nation’s Frontier Orchestra led by a True Pioneer
By Christina Linhardt
“For those of you who have gone on pony rides, and wrangled up cattle for a rodeo like I have,” volunteer Susan Weststeyn announced, “This music will bring memories back!” And so for the last concert of the California Philharmonic’s dazzling 2019 summer season she introduced “the orchestra wrangler himself, Dr. Victor Vener” to present his pre-show talk, which he began with a few words in German followed by a “Yippee-i-o!” The title of the concert on August 18th was “The Emperor’s Round Up” about which the Maestro mused, “I’m not sure people understood what I was doing.” Standard program planners might not think to couple Beethoven with Country-Western music, yet Dr. Vener’s creative brain proved yet again to know how to captivate an audience. The Maestro then admitted he forgot his cowboy hat. Fortunately he was offered a black Stetson by a generous cowboy in the hall. The Cal Phil never fails when it comes to audience participation.
Instead of opening with the “Star Spangled Banner” the orchestra started with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” then parading into Beethoven’s Turkish March,a delightful performance led by piccolos and bells. “I think that’s a cute piece, but the next could hardly be cute,” Dr. Vener addressed the audience as he brought out pianist Daniel Lessner, a man of decorum, who first shook the hand of Concert Master Irina Voloshina and then the Maestro before sitting down at the piano for Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, which had been written for the Archduke of Austria. The concerto immediately burst into a raging cadenza which Lessner executed with impeccable technique, his acrobatic fingers gliding across the keys with the grace and strength of a martial artist. The California Philharmonic always possesses a majesty in their playing, smoothly swimming in to theme of the first movement, so quintessentially Beethoven, it fills the heart and soul. Lessner’s playing was nothing short of mesmerizing, completely owning the exceedingly intricate concerto, modulating between force and delicacy.
The 2nd movement, so endearingly written, was performed by the orchestra and soloist with pure sensitivity, guided by the Maestro’s gentle conducting. Soothing and sweet, it breaks one’s heart to realize Beethoven must have been mostly, if not completely, deaf by the time he wrote his 5thpiano concerto, so that he never got to hear it outside of his head. The 3rdmovement instantly picks up from the 2nd, as the Cal Phil played with sparkling vibrancy and pianist Daniel Lessner continued his exalted performance accelerating into one last gravity-defying flourish. An utter triumph. “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a virtuoso,” Dr. Vener stated. Roaring at the top of their lungs in acclaim, the crowd would not allow Lessner to exit the stage, until he performed an encore. And so Daniel Lessner whipped out Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody # 15, his fingers flying so fast it was almost impossible to believe.
The second half of the program was a foot-stomping cavalcade of Western-themed orchestral music, with the Maestro walking out in a vest and the hat loaned to him, whooping out a big “Yahoo!” The orchestra instantly struck gold with Alfred Newman’s How the West Was Won with the prominent French horn section, like bold bandits galloping across the desert plains, singing out the striking theme. To introduce Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Maestro claimed it was a “Ravioli Western.” Promptly, a child in the audience corrected Dr. Vener with “Spaghetti.” Either way, the theme to the “Pasta Western” howled through the dust with Michael Arnold on clarinet whistling out the two note motif as the low beat of the drum threatened tomahawks, until the impressively soft, low bass ending.
The Waltz from Aaron Copeland’s ballet Billy the Kid was carried by Andy Radford’s dulcet bassoon solo, dancing above the harp and strings, giving way to Lorin Marsteller’s euphonious trombone solo, followed by Jim Thatcher, yet again shimmering on French horn.
“Ok, enough listening,” Maestro Vener turned to the audience. “It’s nice to come here and relax, but it’s time for audience participation. Yahoo along, you are required to dance in your chair.” This season the California Philharmonic has transformed the Walt Disney Concert Hall into a massive spaceship, a floating pirate barge, even a magic flying carpet, but on this afternoon, the warm wooden chamber transfigured into the world’s largest barn house with Richard Hayman’s Pops Hoedown. Armen Kasjikian jumped into bluegrass fiddling on his cello and the hootenanny was off. The audience clapped and hollered along, stomping their boots, as the musicians in the orchestra yodeled and heehawed while playing. The Cal Phil’s powerhouse percussion section always seems to be a driving force and in the hoedown especially, it was a playground of musical toys including sirens, whistles, duck quacks, and cuckoos. At one point Marie Matson snapped into an astonishingly rapid “Turkey and the Straw” on xylophone. Another Americana classic included in the Pops Hoedown was “Pop Goes the Weasel” with Fred Greene on tuba blowing out the punchline. Complete fun and incredible skill. “I’d like to see other orchestras have such a hip audience as you,” the Maestro complimented the party-goers.
Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven was up next, expansive and uplifting, revealing how every musician in the orchestra is of soloist quality, yet contributes to the synergy of the whole wagon wheel. One of Victor Vener’s favorite pieces from childhood, The Big Country, by Jerome Moross galloped across the listener’s imagination, grandiose and scintillating. To close out the final shindig of the summer season, the California Philharmonic presented an electrifying rendition of John Williams Overture created from his music for the movie The Cowboys. Only the Cal Phil could conclude with such an exuberant jamboree.
To celebrate, the board of the orchestra generously sponsored a reception for patrons in the Founders Room of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Supporters of the orchestra included engineers, educators, and businesspeople, some coming from as far as Indian Wells just to hear the concert. “One of a kind,” “Just marvelous,” “What a wonderful job of putting the program together,” and “We’re having more fun than should be legal” were just a few of the enthusiastic responses from the concertgoers, all of whom look forward to the next season with great anticipation. A frontier orchestra, led by a true pioneer of the arts, the California Philharmonic strikes it rich in a musical gold rush.