Maestro Frank Fetta leads an exciting season of symphonic concerts, featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tchaikovsky and more

By Brian Marks

For classical music fans, summer is the season for symphony orchestras to migrate outdoors from their stuffier indoor haunts. For the Culver City Symphony, summer signals an even bigger transformation: it metamorphoses into the Marina del Rey Symphony and relocates to the seaside environs of Burton Chace Park for a series of free outdoor concerts.

Unlike the standard summer fare, with its focus on the warhorses of the classical repertoire, the Marina del Rey Symphony has prepared a lineup with variety and some unexpected gems, appealing to the tastes of seasoned aficionados and neophytes alike.

The symphony’s Los Angeles County-sponsored summer season opens Thursday, July 12, with a survey of operatic favorites in a show billed “Opera at the Shore.” Led by conductor and music director Frank Fetta, the orchestra is tackling a series of opera selections behind four talented finalists of the
Loren L. Zachary International Vocal Competition: sopranos Elena Perroni and Clarissa Lyons, and tenors Fanyong Du and Joseph Lopez.

“These singers are not just your normal opera singers,” says Fetta. “They represent the best among the younger generation. Some of them have already made major debuts at the Metropolitan Opera or La Scala or Covent Garden.”

Soprano Michele Patzakis, who teaches at the USC Thornton School of Music, is also on the bill.

Selections include operatic staples like Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus,” Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegi,” while music from Antonin Dvorak’s sporadically performed opera “Rusalka” should appeal to opera
obsessives and adventurous beginners. Rounding out the evening is music from “Kiss Me, Kate” and George Bizet’s “Carmen,” likely to be familiar even to non-opera goers.

On July 26, the symphony joins orchestras around the world to celebrate the 100th anniversary of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Bernstein rose to fame in the 1950s and ’60s as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position that allowed him to display his skills as a composer, an advocate of 20th-century music, and a musical educator.

“The beauty of a person like Bernstein is that he was definitely a crossover guy,” says Fetta. “He was a great conductor, a great pianist, a great composer. His music crossed over both the classical and serious worlds and then all over to musical theater.”

Included on the anniversary concert is the overture to Bernstein’s operetta “Candide.” The gleefully buoyant piece zooms along as it tours the operetta’s high points, all while translating the show’s abundant humor into its musical language.

The orchestra’s Bernstein tribute also features “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” an instrumental suite from the composer’s most popular and enduring creation. Although it lacks Stephen Sondheim’s witty yet earnest lyrics, the symphonic dances showcase Bernstein’s gift for melody, then at its pinnacle.

The show also includes dancers performing choreography by Nancy Dobbs Owen for the symphonic dances and Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town.” Finally, the symphony offers a taste of Bernstein’s darker, thornier side with the suite from “On the Waterfront,” his only original film score.

The Marina del Rey Symphony’s final summer show is perhaps its most ambitious — a fully staged and choreographed performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” on both Aug. 23 and Aug. 25. Though the musical set during World War II addresses both colonialism and xenophobia, Fetta denies any political motive in programming it. The play does, after all, contain some of American musical theater’s most popular showtunes, including “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Richard Rodgers’ earworm melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s socially conscious story are enough to recommend “South Pacific,” but Fetta had another compelling reason to take on this American classic.

“Well, we’re right by the water,” he says. “There are palm trees. It’s balmy and beautiful. Let’s do ‘South Pacific.’”    

Opera at the Shore begins at 7 p.m. Thursday (July 12) in Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. All Marina del Rey Symphony concerts are free, though parking in public lots can cost $8 to $10. Visit culvercitysymphony.org or beaches.lacounty.gov for more information.

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