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Posted by on Dec 29th, 2011 and filed under Leisure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

A Look Back In Music … From My Recliner

Sonia Maria de Vega de León

Sonia Maria de Vega de León


The calendar on my planner is telling me that it’s that time again. Yes, that’s right. As the sands in the hourglass that is 2011 quickly dwindle away, this is the moment where I pomade my hair, don my purple velvet smoking jacket, puff on my proverbial pipe, and reflect on the music I’ve enjoyed this past year. In fact, I’m adjusting my cravat and spats as I type this, gently reclining into the obligatory armchair by the fireplace with trusty dog … er, cats … by my side, comfortably contemplating moments that linger warmly in this listener’s memory as I sip my cognac from my exquisite “World’s #1 Grandma” mug.

If there is anything to be gleamed from this year – and this is a lesson I’ve learned long ago – it is that the notion of Southern California as a cultural backwater or poor country cousin to the East Coast is preposterous at best, downright offensive at worst.

We have in this region not only one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras and an opera company that is, for my money, producing more thrilling and relevant productions than anything the East has cooked up in decades, but we also enjoy a surfeit of phenomenally talented local orchestras and musicians that have made our cultural landscape one of the most vibrant in the nation.

Within a roughly four mile radius, our community enjoys orchestras like the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO) and the Glendale Philharmonic (GPO), both of them outstanding ensembles that have shone thanks to their exacting musicianship, thoughtful programming, and the sheer joy of their playing.

The death of local composer Daniel Catán in April was as an unfortunate as it was unexpected. But what a fine eulogy the SCO gave to the departed composer in its closing program of the 2010-11 season with a performance of some of his best works, paired – with eerie prescience – with the music of another great Mexican composer who died far too young, Silvestre Revueltas. The orchestra, under the leadership of Sonia Maria de Vega de León, has proved its excellence repeatedly, and once again they were superb.

Ruslan Biryukov

Ruslan Biryukov

After a difficult year, the GPO is finally finding its footing with a performance of Prokofieff’s “Peter and the Wolf” forthcoming next week. Under the charismatic aegis of cellist Ruslan Biryukov, the GPO’s performances have pulsated with vigor and polish, often programming music that has been sadly left by the wayside of the standard repertoire.

Twice a month you have excellent local musicians in delightfully eclectic programs at the Glendale Noon Concerts at the Glendale First Baptist Church. This year I had the pleasure of hearing works by local composer Harry Scorzo and a strikingly lovely performance of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “String Quartet No. 1” as played by the Avanti String Quartet. Their year begins next week on Jan. 4 with another well-chosen program that will include music by Ravel, Fauré, and Messiaen.

Avanti String Quartet

Avanti String Quartet

A little further away you have one of the Crown City’s cultural gems, the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra (PSO). After a period of instability because of the sudden departure of their well-loved music director and funding problems caused by the souring economy, the PSO has emerged a finer orchestra than before. No doubt their move to the Ambassador Auditorium, with its superior acoustics, has helped. But no hall, however splendid it may be acoustically, will mask the work of a sub-par ensemble. And the PSO is anything but that. The transparency and warmth of its sound, with superb brass and winds, is something to relish. Their performance earlier this year of Mendelssohn and Beethoven under the very talented conductor George Stelluto was about as perfect as I could ever dream of hearing.

Southern California has also been the home of some of our greatest composers as well, something Southwest Chamber Music reminded us this year through their stunning and revelatory series of music by American master John Cage. Continuing through the Cage centenary next year, SCM’s performances have been nothing less than landmarks of musical performance. Cage, a composer so often reviled, ridiculed, and misunderstood, was taken up with almost religious zeal by SCM. In their hands the poetry, beauty, and power – not to mention the phenomenally sensitive ear – of this great composer rose resplendent. This was Cage not as the musical mad scientist portrayed by some less enlightened minds, but Cage as a real musician of peerless intellectual rigor.

The local connection was further elucidated by Pacific Standard Time’s presentation of Igor Stravinsky’s Los Angeles period music last month. Curated by Patrick Scott of Jacaranda, the program was a brilliant snapshot of a composer in flux: on one hand seeking the firm ground of popular favor to shore up his finances; on the other fearlessly exploring new sonorities with his youthfully questing mind.

John Cage

John Cage

At the center of the local musical landscape are the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Los Angeles Master Chorale, all of them ensembles whose qualities are well known across the world. To listen to them in person is to understand that Los Angeles is – and has been for awhile – a major cultural center on par with London, New York, Berlin, Vienna or any other city from across the globe.

Indeed, so many from around the globe for the past century have flocked to this city. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Klemperer, Korngold, Heifetz, Rubinstein, Piatigorsky, Seidel, Walter – the list goes on and on. Not only did their presence light up the cultural scene of their day, they also enriched the soil for the next generation of musicians that blossomed, leaving a far lasting influence, and not just in classical music.

And I haven’t even begun to touch upon the spectrum of the region’s culture outside of music.

Still think Los Angeles is “provincial?” Then maybe you ought to get out more.

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