The California Philharmonic Orchestra under music director-conductor Victor Vener offered top-notch performances in the opening concert of the orchestra’s 12th season at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia.
Last Saturday, the evening was warm and delightful, the grounds of the Arboretum, beautiful, and the crowd both plentiful and eager to enjoy the music. Against this background, the stage was packed with talented performers who responded to the audience’s enthusiasm by giving probably the best concert ever by this group.
In addition to the Cal Phil top-rated professional orchestra, was the Cal Phil Chorale led by Marya Basaraba, plus guest artists, baritone Cedric Berry and soprano Henrietta Davis who performed what Vener called the “authorized concert version” of the now-classic opera, “Porgy and Bess”.
The program, like so many offered this summer, was eclectic and wandering, a style summer concert-goers seem to prefer. The music included many types of music, all unrelated. Well, OK, this was billed as “By George!” meaning that composers of music played had the first name George. Beyond Gershwin and Handel, “George” is not a particularly popular name associated with songwriters: the only other two that come to mind are George Enescu and George Harrison.
Harrison’s work is sure to be included in Cal Phil’s next concert, on July 11, when they bring a Beatles tribute band, The Fab Four, to join the music-making. Enescu, though his Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 is popular among fans of classical music, it is not a name that brings in the crowd. Harrison, or at least the Beatles, definitely will. Goerge M. Cohan’s great music was performed in an arrangement befitting a vaudeville orchestra.
Baritone Cedric Berry and soprano Henrietta Davis with the orchestra and the Cal Phil Chorale directed by Basaraba, highlighted the evening with 14 numbers from “Porgy and Bess” presented smoothly and deftly annotated by Vener with appropriate comments on the tragic story.
Berry, in his fourth appearance with the California Philharmonic Orchestra, was in superb voice in his depiction of several characters from the opera. Henrietta Davis, here for the first time, showed the benefits of her quality vocal and drama training as she sang the various character roles assigned to her. In the song, “My Man’s Gone Now”, lyrics in this case by librettist DuBose Heyward—not Ira Gershwin, she was absolutely chilling as the tragedy overwhelmed the character.
But it was Berry who used his controlled voice and emotion to present the best of the opera’s music. His singing was emotion-laden in several songs, but his personality and warmth in his rendering of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was exceptional. The Cal Phil Choral brought a fully rounded sound with clear diction to all their work.
The classical work of the evening was George Frederick Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks”, a pre- July-4th celebration that, at least in rehearsal, literally lit up the sky, according to remarks Vener made from the podium.
Vener reported that the night before, two lights above the stage began to burn with bright trailings falling near the musicians. The Arcadia Fire Department responded to the incident, although there were no difficulties, according to Vener’s report. The “Royal Fireworks” music was executed with lively and accurate playing though the “Ouverture” seemed some ponderous.
The balance of the six movement work was executed with lively and accurate playing. The Cal Phil Jazz Ensemble gave a tribute to Michael Jackson just before intermission with the playing of his hit, “Beat It!” In spite of the odd placement it is an idea I think would add much to the festival feeling in Cal Phil programs.
The California Philharmonic Orchestra opened with two Charles Sayre arrangements of Gershwin show tunes, “Fascinating Rhythm” from “Lady be Good” and “s’Wonderful” from “Funny Face”, and closed when Vener brought another George to the program, George Lucas, the originator of the famed Star Wars franchise, completing the program with the end of the film. Vener tendered an invitation to the audience to return with friends to subsequent concerts imploring their support.
Vener humorously remarked as to the state of the orchestra by telling the crowd: “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin,” explaining that the title of the song from “Porgy and Bess” could refer to the financial situation of the CalPhil Foundation, the presenters of the concert. The Foundation has reported losses in 2006 and 2007 according to figures available at Guidestar.org.
The Festival on the Green concerts at The Arboretum are enjoyable and entertaining. An evening spent attending these concerts—especially with a picnic basket in tow and suitable refreshments, will add to anyone’s summertime pleasures.
Each concert is also presented downtown in the afternoon at the Walt Disney Concert Hall the day following the Arboretum concert. Tickets are now available for the July 11 and 12 concert “Basically Beatles—with The Fab Four” at either locale. For information, please call (626) 300-8200.
By Bill Peters