By Ted AYALA
The California Philharmonic brought some cool musical relief from the persistent heat wave on Sunday afternoon. Those who packed Disney Hall in search of refuge from the wilting heat were met with the refreshing sound of the orchestra in its usual mash-up of friendlier classical fare and show tunes.
A choice sampling from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” – dispatched in energetic fashion by the orchestra under its music director Victor Vener – led the program. The suite of excerpts, which comprised the entire first half of the program, gave listeners a fine taste of the opera without having to sit through all four acts.
Joining the orchestra were Christopher Bengochea (tenor), Sandra Rubalcava (soprano), Cedric Berry (bass-baritone), and the California Philharmonic Chorale.
Following the intermission were a string of show tunes from “Showboat” all the way to “The Lion King.” Rounding out the concert was the duet from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” a sharply profiled take on the overture to Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” and the concluding chorus from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.”
The orchestra, as always, was at its considerable best. The string body, led by concertmaster Pavel Farkas, has an attractive, bronzen tone that gives everything they play a mellow glow. Its woodwinds, too, have a playful character that made the most out of Bizet’s gem-like orchestration. Especially lovely was the playing of musicians Jamie Pedrini (flute), the superb Michael Arnold (clarinet), Gordon Lazarus (English horn), and Andrew Radford (bassoon). Their brief turn in the spotlight during the “Dragoons of Alcala” march – realized with pert phrasing and soft-spoken wit – was a quiet highlight of the concert.
But this is music where the voice dominated – and the orchestra’s guests did not disappoint.
Bengochea’s liquid, finely shaped tenor was capped by an excellent, ringing top register that gave his voice equal authority both in moments of wistfulness and virile strength. His duet partner (and wife) Rubalcava was equally impressive as a coquettish, girlish Carmen. They were joined by soprano Emily Dyer in a heartfelt interpretation of Micaëla’s third act aria.
As excellent as their voices were, their co-star Cedric Berry sat on a plane unto himself. Less a singer and more a irresistible force of nature, Berry is a magnificent artist of astonishing expressive and stylistic range that is one of Southern California’s great – and arguably overlooked – treasures. It’s a rarity to hear someone who manages to fuse a natural genius for singing with an effortless mastery of stage presence. Berry’s interpretation of Carmen’s “Toreador Song” and Showboat’s “Old Man River” left one grasping at superlatives to do it justice. These were performances that for once truly merited standing ovations; acts often made meaningless by the frequency of their use, but here rightfully earned. It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest bass-baritone of our time may very well be working right under our noses in Los Angeles.
Under Vener’s careful and judicious curation, the California Philharmonic once again proved their ability to appeal to both neophyte and connoisseur alike.
The Cal Phil season closes with Beethoven and John Williams
on Aug. 25-Aug. 26.