The Los Angeles Philharmonic wrapped up its whirlwind twelve day, seven city tour last week. Reviews from the trip were generally positive, many even glowing. Critics seemed most impressed by the performances of 20th & 21st Century works by Bjarnason, Corigliano, and Rachmaninoff, with Yuja Wang’s pianistic contributions also earning requisite praise. The smattering of negative comments made were mostly directed at Gustavo Dudamel’s interpretations of Brahms & Tchaikovsky symphonies. In contrast, there was no disagreement about the LA Phil’s playing: kudos for the orchestra’s sound were universal, regardless of the repertoire or the city in which is was played.
I certainly agree. The orchestra sounds great, and more to the point, they sound noticeably different than they did when they first moved into Walt Disney Concert Hall ten seasons ago.
I started to think more about how — and more importantly, why — the orchestra’s sound has evolved: the vaunted acoustics of the auditorium; differences in style and emphases during this time of the two Music Directors, Messrs. Salonen and Duamel; differences in seating arrangement of the musicians.
But the biggest reason for this evolution in the orchestra’s sound is probably one of the most obvious and, ironically, also one of the most overlooked: changes in the LA Phil’s roster of the musicians. Of the orchestra’s current group of players, about one-third of them — eight principals, eight other titled chairs, and sixteen section players, by my unofficial count — never performed with the orchestra in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the orchestra’s previous home.
I thought about those musicians who’ve joined the orchestra over the past decade and decided to create a Top 10 list of my favorite hires by the LA Phil during this time.
You don’t put together a list like this without leaving off some very fine musicians. This Top 10 isn’t necessarily a rundown of “best,” “most important,” or “most impactful” players, though these factors certainly entered into my thinking. I haven’t met most of those included below, so it’s not about personal connections. Ultimately, there is no specific selection criteria aside from my own very subjective set of observations, gut reactions, and personal biases of their playing in orchestral concerts, chamber music and Green Umbrella concerts, and whatever else I felt like taking into account.
There is one qualification, however, that I imposed on myself: no musician would be considered unless he/she has officially been listed on the roster for at least twelve months. I figured that it wouldn’t be fair to include these folks in the consideration set since I hadn’t heard them play for an entire season over a diverse repertoire. This eliminated such notable recent hires as Robert deMaine, Burt Hara, and Julien Beaudiment, among others (though I’ll cover my thoughts on the three of them in a future post).
A quick list of honorable mentions of those who came close to cracking the Top 10, but didn’t quite make it for one reason or another (in alphabetical order): Nathan Cole (First Associate Concertmaster), Ariana Ghez (Principal Oboe), Cathy Karoly (promotion from 2nd flute to Associate Principal), and Chris Still (2nd Trumpet).
Without further ado, here’s the list of my Top 10 favorite LA Phil hires of the past decade:
10. Sarah Jackson (solo piccolo & section flute):
For the dozen or so years before Ms. Jackson joined the LA Phil, there was little stability in the piccolo chair. Sure, if you looked at the LA Phil’s roster in the 1990’s, you’d have seen Miles Zentner listed in that role until his retirement in 1999. But if you looked on stage during that same time, you’d more likely have seen someone else sitting in that spot — Kazue Asawa McGregor filled in for a season or two, followed by Larry Kaplan for many years after that. Tamara Thweatt won the job after Mr. Zentner retired, but failed to win tenure and left after one year, and Mr. Kaplan capably filled in once again until another permanent replacement could be found.
So it was with a certain happiness and relief that when Ms. Jackson took over the chair in 2003, she played with both skill and authority. Her first year with the orchestra happened to coincide with the orchestra’s move into WDCH, and after some auspicious playing of the demanding piccolo part in The Rite of Spring during the orchestra’s WDCH debut concert, it was clear that the orchestra had a keeper.
9. Vijay Gupta, AKA Robert Vijay Gupta (section 1st violin):
By now, his story is old, but he still isn’t: pre-med Bachelor’s Degree in biology at 17 years old, Master’s Degree from Yale by 19, and LA Phil first violinist before he turned 20 — beating out 331 other applicants to get the job. Mr. Salonen said of his audition, “I was struck not only by the sheer quality of Robert’s playing, but also by the boldness and confidence of it.”
Now a cagey veteran in his seventh season with the orchestra, he remains a veritable Renaissance man: TED Speaker and Senior Fellow, founder and Artistic Director of Street Symphony, and prominent member of the LA Phil committee that decides who gets tenure with the orchestra and who doesn’t. And he’s still in his mid 20’s. . . . Makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your life, doesn’t it?
8. Akiko Tarumoto (section 2nd violin):
Her current tenure began in Fall 2011, which qualifies her for this list. That said, she first joined the orchestra in 2000 in the second violins, moved up to first violins in time for the LA Phil’s WDCH debut, only to leave for the Chicago Symphony’s first violin section in 2004. A few years ago, the LA Phil hired Nathan Cole (her husband and fellow CSO violinist) to be the First Associate Concertmaster, so when the local band had an opening for a 2nd violinist, she auditioned for the LA Phil again — and to the shock of pretty much no one, she got the job.
It is VERY good to have this talented player back in LA. It may be tough to pick her playing out of the section, but if/when you are lucky enough to hear her play chamber music, you’ll understand. I remember her leading a Shostakovich string quartet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during her first stint with the orchestra, and even back then, her playing stood out for its pinpoint accuracy and beauty of tone. More recently, she played the first violin part in last November’s stunning performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht; it was the most moving, intense version of that iconic work I’ve ever heard done live. The next time you have a chance to hear her play, run, don’t walk.
7. Carrie Dennis (Principal Viola):
When I first came up with the idea for this list, I knew for certain that Ms. Dennis would be on it. What I didn’t initially guess was that she wouldn’t be closer to the top than this. In the end, I think what kept her from a higher slot was that as Principal Viola, she gets very few opportunities to shine on her own, even compared to the other string principals. Her very kinetic style of playing (read: she sways a whole hell of a lot) can be polarizing: I have no problems with it and I know many people find it admirable that she gets so into the music that she moves as much as she does; on the other hand, I know many others who find her machinations distracting and annoying.
What isn’t ever debated are her chops: everyone agrees that she is an absolutely phenomenal player and we are very lucky to have her. She was initially offered the job two years before she took it. The reason for her delayed acceptance? At roughly the same time she was invited to come to Los Angeles, Sir Simon Rattle offered her the 1st Principal Viola (aka “Solo Viola”) chair in the Berlin Philharmonic, and she took that job instead (surprise, surprise). Fast-forward to a couple years later: Ms. Dennis had decided to move back to the US, and Esa-Pekka Salonen still hadn’t found a new Principal Viola he wanted to hire, so the timing worked well for orchestra and player alike. And now we all get to benefit.
Her most recent solo turn was last summer at the Hollywood Bowl in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (with Nathan Cole playing the solo violin part). It was a tour de force of skill and artistry, shading and stretching lines without ever allowing it to become deformed or out of place. There are at least two living composers, perhaps more, who have talked about writing works specifically for her — can’t wait to see if any of those actually come to fruition.
6. Mathieu Dufour (former Principal Flute):
The one that got away. Coming right on the heels of the Carrie Dennis hire, the announcement that the Chicago Symphony’s lead flutist was auditioning for a job in the LA Phil was news in and of itself. That he accepted was almost earth-shattering. It took him about a year and a half after E-PS offered him the job for him to finally take his official seat with the orchestra and by then, Gustavo Dudamel was the new Music Director about to begin his first season. Less than five months later, amid a media-generated kerfuffle over alleged misquotes, Mr. Dufour was on his way back to Chicago.
But what a glorious five months it was while he was here. The first time I heard him play with the LA Phil at WDCH was for The Firebird under Mr. Salonen. I was stunned. His sound had a unique combination of power, buttery smoothness, and airiness that I had never heard from the other excellent flutists that had played with the orchestra. During his short official tenure, he never failed to impress, whatever the repertoire was. One current LA Phil member called him one of the top three flutists in the world.
I was very sad to see him go. Thankfully, we have two audio releases (The Firebird under Mr. Salonen and Mahler 1 under Mr. Dudamel), and one video (Mahler 1) by which to remember his time with the orchestra (and more if you count YouTube footage of Beethoven’s 9th at the Hollywood Bowl).
5. Joseph Pereira (Principal Timpani):
It’s tough not to notice Joe Pereira, even before he plays a single note. He almost always sits dead center in the back of the orchestra, lording over the scene like a judge presiding over the courtroom. And as I’ve noted before, he has a kind of rock-star persona that makes men and women want to be like him — and perhaps with him (sorry, folks, he’s married to LA Phil 1st violinist Minyoung Chang); if you don’t believe me, just listen to the loud cheers he always gets at the end of concerts at WDCH and the comments overheard about him in the lobby. The guy beats things for a living, and you’ve gotta have some attitude to pull that off in front of more than 2,000 people per night.
That said, his playing more than justifies these ovations. Ever since Mr. Salonen essentially hand-picked him from the New York Philharmonic in 2006, he has played with distinction, lifting and pulling a nuanced host of sounds and textures out of his drums in a way that you just didn’t get from his distinguished predecessor, Mitchell Peters. When he’s not playing, you notice, and you’re bummed out.
2. A 3-way tie: Andrew Bain (Principal Horn), Tom Hooten (Principal Trumpet), Nitzan Haroz (Principal Trombone):
In a past All is Yar article, I wrote:
“I really, REALLY, hope that this crew stays together. Whether they do or not remains to be seen, the tenure process being what it is and especially with a no-longer-bankrupt Philadelphia Orchestra likely wanting to get Mr. Haroz back into their ranks. But if they do stay together, it is frighteningly good to think how impressive the brass will sound in a few years, once the principals and other newer section players really get a chance to gel.” (– Nov 28, 2012: “The LA Phil’s new brass principals are definitely making their presence felt,” All is Yar)
It’s about a year-and-a-half later, and so far, so really freakin’ good. The brass sound is consistently radiant. The brass section can produce playing that has sizzle and precision, warmth and brightness, power and subtlety in equal measure and with wonderful balance — whatever the music demands and/or the conductor permits.
Leading the way are the three principals, Messrs. Bain, Hooten, and Haroz. The horns and trumpets may not be settled yet (Associate Principal Horn Eric Overholt remains on leave, a recent audition for a permanent 4th horn player yielded no winner, and the audition for the open 3rd trumpet chair is still to come), but you’d never know it with these three musicians driving their respective sections. And while they are each remarkable on their own, together they’ve built a noticeable rapport which enhances the overall sound of the entire orchestra. For what its worth, they also genuinely seem to get along with each other. If you had the opportunity to see them earlier this month play the Poulenc Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone, you’d see them not only playing beautifully, but having some fun in the process.
So with all three now having tenure and none of them deciding to return to their previous orchestras, can we all look forward to decades of the trio leading the LA Phil brass? Not . . . quite . . . yet.
- The New York Philharmonic’s legendary principal trumpet, Philip Smith, has announced his retirement and that orchestra will be looking for someone to replace him; no word on whether or not Mr. Hooten have any interest in that job, but it’s out there.
- A loyal All is Yar reader sent me a note worrying that Mr. Bain and/or Mr. Haroz may be interested in the Chicago Symphony, with Dale Cleavenger’s retirement and Jay Friedman’s eventual retirement.
Most notably, the Berlin Philharmonic has an opening for Principal Horn, and guess who’s been sitting in with them over the past year? Yup, Andrew Bain. He played with the Berliners three times last year, twice under the baton of Simon Rattle and once with Mr. Dudamel, and he’s already scheduled to join them again this coming year.
If that doesn’t give you a reason to pause, ponder his choice in instruments:
- He raised a few European eyebrows during his visits to Berlin playing an LA-made Atkinson Geyer AG2000 instead of the Alexander 103 that is the de facto standard in that orchestra; he even participated in an Alexander-sponsored “hang-out” with Berlin Phlharmonic hornist Sarah Willis in which he somewhat sheepishly confessed to having sold his old Alex 103 (click HERE to see his response to Ms. Willis’s questions about any changes he made before moving to LA).
- Fast forward to December of 2013, and all of a sudden, Mr. Bain is leading the LA Phil horns at WDCH playing an Alex 103. I thought maybe he was just getting ready for his latest Berlin Philharmonic gig later that month, but he has continued to play the German horn ever since then. His sound is actually not as different as one would expect, and he still sounds great.
Does that mean he switched horns to curry favor with the Berlin Philharmonic and improve his chances of winning the full-time Principal Horn gig with that distinguished orchestra? Maybe, maybe not. A few months ago, I asked him about both being in LA and being a guest in Berlin: he was generous in praise for his colleagues in the LA Phil and for life in Los Angeles; at the same time, he was equally effusive about the opportunity to play in Berlin, and demurred about making any definitive pronouncements one way or the other about any interest in joining the Berlin Phil.
So, fans of the LA Phil, we still have to be patient to see whether or not this trio will continue to play together; but to re-affirm I first wrote about this trio back in November 2012, “In the meantime, I’m going to sit back and revel in the brass sound every chance I get.”
1. Whitney Crockett (Principal Bassoon):
After Gustavo Dudamel officially took the job as LA Phil’s Music Director, his first hire was a doozy: filling the Principal Bassoon chair. David Breidenthal, the previous holder of the job, had retired after more than four decades with the orchestra. Mr. Breidenthal’s predecessor and teacher, Frederick “Fritz” Moritz, played with the LA Phil for 47 years AFTER having spent the previous four years as the Berlin Philharmonic’s Principal Bassoon. Given the legacy and continuity of this particular position, finding the right person to take over the job was critical.
Among the bassoonists that the LA Phil had sit-in as guests in the 1st chair as far back as 2008 were Principals from the Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony, and San Diego Symphony, and Associate/Assistant Principals from the Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra. I heard all of them perform with the orchestra, and while they were all fine musicians, none of their playing was particularly noteworthy to me.
This was definitely NOT the case when Mr. Crockett played his trial week with the orchestra. At the time, he was the MET Opera Orchestra Principal and former Principal of the Montreal Symphony, so his bona fides were comparable with the other candidates; however, his playing was distinctive, with bloom and a rich sonority that I hadn’t heard from any of the other bassoonists. I wasn’t the only one who thought highly of his playing: after the concert at which I first saw Mr. Crockett perform, I heard some serious buzz in the lobby about his playing; even on stage, Michelle Zukovsky (the LA Phil’s iconic Principal Clarinet) was very noticeable in her praise of Mr. Crockett and his playing. Once he joined the orchestra full-time in 2010, it was clear that among a group of over 100 talented musicians, Mr. Crockett is a prince among principals, a bad-ass among bad-asses.
Mind you, this is a bassoon player — not exactly the instrument you think of when you’re looking for orchestral stars, which makes Mr. Crockett’s stellar playing all the more noteworthy. His playing stands out for all the right reasons in places where you don’t expect it to, and yet he always blends so beautifully with the rest of the orchestra.
Every guest I’ve brought with me to Disney Hall has been blown away by his technique and musicianship, and veteran LA Phil observers and concertgoers rave about his playing.
If you don’t believe my very subjective qualitative opinion, how about this more tangible measurement: according to the LA Phil’s latest available tax returns, Mr. Crockett has the second highest compensation of any orchestra member, with only Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour being paid more.
And if that fact isn’t enough to convince you of his worth and you want to hear his playing for yourself, listen to the prominent bassoon parts in the recent LA Phil recordings of the Shostakovich 4th or Mahler 9th Symphony, and you’ll see what I’m talking about; if you don’t happen to own either of those, try THIS archived broadcast recording of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro (fast-forward to 3:37 to skip the concert’s introductory comments).
Better yet, go buy a ticket to a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert and hear him — and his fine colleagues — play live. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
- Sarah Jackson: courtesy of Los Angeles Flute Guild
- Vijay Gupta: photo by Gary Leonard courtesy of LA Downtown News
- Akiko Tarumoto, Carrie Dennis, Joseph Pereira, and Whitney Crockett: photo by Mathew Imaging courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
- Mathieu Dufour: portrait by Todd Rosenberg; screenshots via YouTube
- Nitzan Haroz: photo by Linnea Lenkus
- Tom Hooten: courtesy of http://www.tomhooten.com
- Andrew Bain: photo by CK Dexter Haven, exclusively for All is Yar