Photo courtesy of CalPhil
It is just past 7:30 pm on a balmy Saturday, and picnickers have finished their cucumber salads and curried chicken and savored a few glasses of wine. As they munch on chocolate Éclairs, the crowd's animated dinner conversation is suddenly interrupted with the appearance of a rotund and bearded gentleman coming on stage, dressed in an old-fashioned black three-piece suit, replete with a gold watch-chain that spans its two waist pockets like an enormous inverted rainbow.
In appearance, he is a blend of the late television actor Sebastian Cabot and 19th Century French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, as he lumbers across the stage and gingerly lifts his enormous girth upon a central platform. Turning to the audience of about four thousand seated and sated souls, who at this moment recall they are here for a concert, he greets them like a favorite uncle come home from a shopping trip with a slew of good tunes to introduce and share around.
It is Maestro Victor Vener, conductor, impresario, and Chairman of the Board of the California Philharmonic (aka Cal Phil), and we are at a concert of his "festival on the green" evening series at The Arboretum -- the latter best known as L.A. County's botanic home for camellias and azaleas. The concertgoers sit at tables, in chairs, or on lawn blankets; the informal ambience resembles that of the Hollywood Bowl's early days. Facing them is a summer bandshell with a large orchestra. To the rear, as dusk settles into the Arcadian landscape, is a stunning view of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Thus the setting last Saturday when Maestro Vener asked the crowd to kick off the program singing 'America', and only an isolated few were able to recall the words.
Tagged as "Frank, Tony & The Maestro" the program turned out to be a grab-bag affair, the sort of musical clash of high, low, and in-between that, just not incidentally, characterized many a 19th Century European concert.
The musical fare ranged from Rodgers & Hammerstein and selections from the American Songbook to orchestral pieces by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the aforementioned Saint-Saëns, and Edward Elgar. Two popular singers would contrast the traditional mellifluous Broadway style of a Howard Keel with the more parlando style of a Frank Sinatra lounge act in Las Vegas. Vener attempted a half-hearted explanation of how the eclectic program fit together, but just as soon gave up trying, deciding to let it all hang out.
The orchestra began with an arrangement of Rodgers & Hammerstein hits from The Sound of Music, with Rodgers' evergreen, lighter-than-air tunes sounding a little thick in these orchestrations under Vener's deliberate pacing. A bass-heavy sound amplification did not help matters.
Baritone Kevin Earley joined the orchestra for two songs, but his Broadway stage voice, not yet warmed up, betrayed a wide vibrato and some strain in the upper reaches of "Climb Every Mountain" and a forced, dry bottom register at the beginning of "New York, New York."
Additional song selections by baritone Michael B. Levin with the orchestra fared much better. A musical mimic (as well as stand-up comedian and impressionist in Vegas), Levin delivered a virtual replica of Frank Sinatra's voice and style in songs like "Come Fly With Me", "Ice Cream", "Summer Wind", and "They Have an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil." He connected with the audience, and Vener and his orchestra wisely got out of his way, letting him take the lead and do his own flying.
Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade followed. Vener related the story of how the eponymous character in the tale keeps the king's death sentence at bay night after night with her thousand stories, until he finally falls in love with her and makes her his queen. Vener introduced his concertmaster, Pavel Farkas, whose violin would depict the voice of Princess Scheherazade. The orchestra's run-through was only fitfully effective, however, with Farkas's otherwise lovely tone in the solos consistently a hair under pitch.
And so it went.
After intermission, veteran Russian violinist Daniel Shindarov, age 86, gave a remarkably nimble rendering of the finger-busting Introduction and Rondo Capriccio for Violin & Orchestra of Camille Saint-Saëns. The orchestra did their best to keep up with this former concertmaster of the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet, but again was not particularly aided by Vener's heavy-handed approach. Vener reminded the audience before and after the performance of the violinist's advanced age, garnering further applause from the already enthusiastic crowd.
The return of Mr. Earley found him in more pliant and open a voice, and with a song selection well suited to his innate stage lyricism. "As Time Goes By", "My Way" and especially "Bring It Home" (from Les Misérables) were affecting, the latter especially poignant.
What was clearly planned as the pièce de résistance, Elgar's Enigma Variations came across as lugubrious and imprecise, and the orchestra's under-rehearsed state apparent in the work's otherwise brilliant score. There were fine moments here and there, but Vener's long pauses between the variation movements further slowed down momentum and chopped what might have been a cumulative, unified impact into isolated fragments, resonating something like those singular ice-chunks off Greenland we are seeing a lot of in nightly news broadcasts.
Vener had punctuated each of his musical selections with cheerful introductions aimed at the musically uninitiated. His is an easy, unpretentious and enthusiastic pitch, and it resonated with his audience. Unfortunate then that he felt so often compelled to engage in applause-milking remarks for his musicians, as if he were a cheerleading coach trying to buck up an unsteady team.
If success were measured by a lovely setting, a lot of people in attendance, and a balance sheet in the black, Maestro Victor Vener and the California Philharmonic would appear to have a successful operation. Grant him that and good for him and his orchestra. This is no mean feat in a crowded musical field coupled with a bad economy. But that still leaves some reservations in the musical aspect of this program.
Will this quibble matter to the vast majority of the audience who sat under the Arcadian stars of the Arboretum last Saturday evening? Probably not. In today's world a satisfied audience may be all that matters, and this audience seemed well satisfied indeed.