Los Angeles Music Review: NICHOLAS MCGEGAN & UMI GARRETT (Pasadena Symphony)

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by Tony Frankel on January 20, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


When Umi Garrett played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star with her hands behind her back on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2009, what first appeared as cutesy fun-and-games suddenly turned into a recital to be remembered: The 8-year-old budding piano prodigy stunned the world executing a section from Franz Liszt’s technically formidable composition, Dance of the Gnomes.

Since then, she has appeared with symphony orchestras globally, and even won a few competitions, including the Gran Prix at the Chopin International Competition in Hartford, CT. At her home-base in Southern California, the now 13-year-old arrived at the Ambassador last Saturday to join Pasadena Symphony’s newest Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan with a remarkable rendition of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Technically, she was a wonderment, and Pasadena Symphony is to be commended for showcasing this enormously gifted pianist at the early stage of her career. While her playing lacked emotional development (forgivable, as this is right in sync with her youth), it was overflowing in grace and polish.

Garrett’s right hand work was exquisite. At times, Chopin offers unassumingly gorgeous melodies which instantaneously turn into extravagant variations; while I prefer the arpeggios and trills a bit more clipped, she nonetheless flavored every note while bringing out the melody amidst the fluttery runs. Other times, when Chopin Umi Garretthas the right hand spiraling around delicate flights of mind-boggling imagination, Garrett not only executed these with acute technique—the hand robotically staying in front of the forearm, the perfect curvature of the fingers—but she ended those tricky phrases with a decisive flourish.

The left hand is textbook Chopin, with widely spaced chordal figures that should but don’t overwhelm the piece’s texture; Garrett accomplished this quite well, but those left hand octaves got a bit lost sometimes, and could use more muscle. Overall, it was an impressive showing from an unassuming artist who was wholly gracious and humble, showing respect and obedience towards Maestro McGegan, who was hidden by the piano during the Chopin. It wasn’t until Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in the second half that I actually espied the elfish and engaging conductor.

From period ensembles to conventional symphonies, the affable and energetic English-born McGegan has proven himself to be the ever-ready bunny of classical music—artistic director of the International Handel Festival (1991 to 2011), a world-wide guest conductor, and music director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for 28 years. Pasadena is lucky to have McGegan, who like Garrett, clearly loves making music.

Nicholas McGegan, Photo by Steve Sherman.Dvořák’s Sixth is also affable and energetic, so composer and conductor were well-matched. There is a confident, lyrical, continually happy ambience to the work, and McGegan highlighted its intense expressiveness, even in the relaxing lento, as if he were a rollicking captain sailing a ship in adventurous waters; even the strings seemed to swell like waves.

During the scherzo, based on the rhythms of a Czech folk dance called a furiant, McGegan was practically dancing at the podium; his jocularity made this ribald peasant dance exhilarating. Dvořák employs all of the aural colors of the orchestra to great advantage, and the Pasadena players responded exuberantly as McGegan invited them to the party with grand sweeping gestures and cutting motions (the musicians no doubt love their job partly because the Bohemian composer gives almost every player a moment in the sun).

With a glorious amount of instrumental shading, the program was remarkably precise and had a bright sound. Angelinos are encouraged to attend future concerts (listed below), as this truly professional outfit offers competitive ticket prices as well. Just watching Garrett master the musical substance within the mechanical difficulty of her encore, a Chopin étude, was worth the attendance.

photos courtesy of Pasadena Symphony

Pasadena Symphony
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Umi Garrett, Piano
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
Dvořák: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60

Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena
played January 11, 2014
for future events, call (626) 793-7172 or visit www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

UPCOMING CONCERTS at the Ambassador Auditorium:

February 15, 2014 at 2:00 & 8:00
Kazem Abdullah, Conductor
Tracy Cox, soprano
Laura Harrison, mezzo
Casey Candebat, tenor
Andrew Craig Brown, bass
The Donald Brinegar Singers, chorus
Lauridsen: Mid-Winter Songs on Poems by Robert Graves
Lauridsen: Nocturnes
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

March 29, 2014 at 2:00 & 8:00
Andrew Grams, Conductor
Simone Porter, Violin
Bolcom: Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

May 10, 2014 at 2:00 & 8:00
Jahja Ling, Conductor
Shai Wosner, Piano
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

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