Monday, October 16, 2017

G&S Captivates in San Diego Opera Opening

J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

REVIEW: San Diego Opera

Civic Theatre

Blustering Pirates dominated San Diego’s Civic Center Plaza and overflowed onto the Civic Theatre stage in San Diego Opera’s Oct. 14 engaging season opener, Gilbert and Sullivan’s perennially pleasing The Pirates of Penzance. Brimming over with a cast of operatic virtuosi and awash with clever, eye-catching sets and costumes originally created for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the gleaming production enlivened the hall from start to finish. The addition of a few timely bits, including a not-so-subtle reference to such current phrases as “covfefe,” contributed extra laughs to the overall comic effect.

As the Pirate King, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was without doubt a bit of luxury casting. Known for his heavy Wagnerian roles - e.g., a recent Flying Dutchman in Seattle and Wotan in San Francisco Opera’s upcoming Ring - Grimsley was last seen at SDO as the seriously villainous Scarpia in Tosca. The singer’s status as an SDO favorite was further enhanced by his portrayal of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comically villainous pirate chief. The very epitome of swashbuckling, Grimsley thrust and parried his way through the well-populated stage full of pirates, maidens and police academy rejects, seemingly without breaking a sweat. Vocally, his powerful instrument twinkled and flashed, with its usual impressive consistency.

Greer Grimsley
In partnership with her real-life husband for the first time on the SDO stage, mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee provided nonstop laughs with her over-the-top characterization of the “Piratical Maid,” while giving a vocally solid performance that showed both depth and power. Her Cockney accent was authentic, spot on, and exceedingly amusing.

Greer Grimsley, Mackenzie Whitney, Luretta Bybee
The Bybee-Grimsley couple frequently perform as a stage duo, and it shows. Their scenes together scintillated; in fact, their “paradox” number was so convincing in its tongue-in-cheek, mock malevolence that one almost expected a Sweeney Todd moment to follow (they have performed together previously as Mrs. Lovett and the title character).

Young tenor Mackenzie Whitney showed great promise as the steadfast Frederic. His sincere portrayal of the naïve, lovesick apprentice was winning, and though it took him a bit of adjustment in his upper notes for the opening numbers, by the second act he settled into pleasing tones and was in top form.

As Major-General Stanley, Patrick Carfizzi drew a steady stream of guffaws from the audience. The comically gifted bass-baritone displayed an endless repertoire of physical pratfalls and light-stepped dance moves that kept viewers in stitches in his every onstage appearance. His hysterical, virtuoso “modern Major-General” patter was so rapid that the above-the-stage surtitles barely kept up with him.

Patrick Carfizzi
Having witnessed soprano Maureen McKay’s luminescent Nanetta in last season’s SDO Falstaff, it was even more pleasurable to hear the full capabilities of her lyric coloratura in the role of Fredric’s heartthrob, Mabel. Though the difficulties of this character’s vocal pyrotechnics are often underestimated. McKay dazzled with her vocal beauty and dashed off the fioratura in true Beverly Sills fashion.

Maureen McKay
Baritone Michael Sokol provided more chortles as the bumbling Sergeant of Police. Sokol led his equally blundering troops with true Inspector Clouseau aplomb, and was vocally convincing as well. In the smaller roles sopranos Tasha Koontz (Edith) and Patricia McAfee (Isabel), and debuting artists Sarah-Nicole Carter (mezzo, Kate), and Ted Pickell (bass-baritone, Samuel) contributed likeable comic appeal.

Director Seán Curran deserves much praise for his sparkling Vaudevillian charm and wit. The antics through which he put his singers were at once enthralling and adorable in scene after scene. The performers played up the slapstick humor to the hilt, often bordering on camp but never going over the edge of good humorous taste. The stage was always active but not overly busy, the actors gutsy but campy only when necessary; and in true Barber of Seville fashion, the Police force shtick drew belly laughs from the audience at every entrance and exit.

Michael Sokol, SDO male chorus
Conductor Evan Rogister made a truly striking company debut. Rarely has this writer heard the company’s orchestra sound better. Rogister’s lively tempo at the beginning of the overture set the tone for the entire performance. Attacks and releases were impressively together. The string sound especially was smooth and refined. His lively, expressive beat showed great understanding of style. Rogister has all the equipment required to reach star status as an opera conductor.

Robert Wierzel’s cheerful lighting brightened James Schuette’s kaleidoscopic, attention-grabbing sets and costumes. The women’s attire was especially fetching in color and movement.

Bruce Stasyna’s chorus showed their singing chops to spectacular effect, even in the throes of the most active comically physical challenges. The authenticity of the various enunciations could have been a bit more consistent overall, but the singers stepped up to the challenge.

Bringing British operetta to the SDO stage may have been a calculated risk on the company’s part, but their boldness in programming pays off in this highly entertaining evening of rib-tickling and swagger.


Photo credits: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Friday, October 13, 2017

Eckart Preu’s triumphant takeover at Long Beach


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Only fireworks were missing last Saturday from Long Beach’s celebration, in true style, of the arrival of the Symphony’s new Music Director, Eckart Preu. For the party before the evening’s concert, the broad, spacious plaza that fronts the Performing Arts Center was laid out with tables for al fresco dining, bars, and even a dancing area, all against the backdrop play of floodlit fountains and searchlights piercing the gathering dusk. And there were speeches, first from Kelly Lucera, Executive Director of the orchestra, then from Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, and finally from Maestro Preu himself, who after expressing his thanks and appreciation for the lavish welcome, went on to give a short introduction to the evening’s season-opening concert, in place of the usual pre-concert talk inside the Terrace Theater. 

My initial reaction when first learning of his opening-night program had been elation... and slight concern – elation at the brave choice to open with such a substantial but little-known late-Romantic masterpiece as Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), but concern that the very unfamiliarity of this "Fantasy in three movements for large orchestra" would be an audience turn-off and thus jeopardize the conductor’s clear intent to avoid in his first season tired and hackneyed programming, and provide instead a stimulating mix of both tried-and-trusted and unusual repertoire.

Alexander Zemlinsky at around the time he composed Die Seejungfrau.   
Alma Schindler in 1900,
shortly before she became
Zemlinsky’s student.

I need not have worried. Whether it was effective publicity, orchestra loyalty, or other factors, very few of the 3000+ seats were empty when Herr Preu bounded onto the platform. And then he proceeded to win over any doubters with a winning account of the real-life story behind Die Seejungfrau – the fated romance between the (diminutive, unprepossessing) 30-year-old music teacher Alexander Zemlinsky and his (tall, beautiful) pupil, the 20-year-old Alma Schindler. After some torturous months, she abruptly terminated the relationship in favor of marriage to Gustav Mahler, 20 years her senior and already the hugely celebrated – and controversial – Music Director of the Vienna Opera. 

Bronze statue by
Edvard Eriksen of
"The Little Mermaid"
in Copenhagen Harbor.
Zemlinsky’s musical response to his heartbreak was to be a “Symphony of Death”. The work as such was never written, but initial ideas for it were repurposed into a large-scale orchestral work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Little Mermaid”. Having assured the audience that there was nothing “little” about this mermaid, Herr Preu outlined the narrative behind Die Seejungfrau’s three movements – her doomed love for a human prince, heartbreak at his marriage to a human, and eventual dissolution and redemption as a disembodied spirit of the air. 

But what of the performance itself, given that the work was likely to be as unfamiliar to the players as to the audience? Again, no concern was needed. Not only was Herr Preu clearly familiar with every corner of this lengthy and complex score, but right from the hushed, portentous, fathoms-deep groundswell in the bass with which Zemlinsky unveils his oceanic mis-en-scène, it was clear that the conductor had totally secured his orchestra’s involvement. Seven measures in, the first violins’ initial entry, in four parts, following the marked pianississimo to the edge of inaudibility but not beyond it, was of rapt tenderness, like a grey haze of early morning mist over gently shifting waters. 

Zemlinsky’s imagination is undeniably prolix in this work, and though it has sometimes been described as a symphony in all but name, it has little of the Classical form’s firm structural framework. Maestro Preu managed its progress masterfully, shaping the overall structure and entirely avoiding any potential longueurs, and with equal skill propelled the great climaxes to maximum dramatic effect and allowed plenty of space for its manifold quieter beauties to be fully revealed. Assistant concertmaster Agnes Gottschewski, standing in for concertmaster Roger Wilkie (doubtless holding himself in readiness for his joint solo appearance, with principal ‘cellist Cécilia Tsan, in the second half), bodied forth in sovereign fashion the substantial violin solo part that enshrines the themes and character of the mermaid herself. Indeed, the whole orchestra covered itself in glory, not least Zemlinsky's full complement of six horns (generously bumped to seven here).

Composed in 1902-03, Die Seejungfrau was premièred in 1905, but even before it went into rehearsal Zemlinsky made cuts to each of the first two movements. It was played twice more, in 1906 and 1907, but then heard no more in his lifetime; indeed the score was broken up as an indirect consequence of the composer’s flight from Nazi persecution. Since its reassembly in the 1980s, however, it has become in Europe one of Zemlinsky’s most-recorded and often-played works. A performance as fine as this cannot have failed to bring it many new friends on this side of the pond as well. 
Eckart Preu, Cécilia Tsan, and
Roger Wilkie after the performance.

Herr Preu’s program-planning skill was evident in his structuring the concert with the Zemlinsky as its first half, thus avoiding any risk of faint-hearted departures at the interval, as happened at another recent concert when the audience noticeably shrank once the star soloist had done his thing in the first half (and the second-half piece was by no means as novel as Die Seejungfrau). 

At Long Beach the more familiar main work following the interval was in fact still far from hackneyed. Why is Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor for Violin and ‘Cello Op. 102 still the least-performed of his four? Do program-planners blench at the thought of stumping up for two big name soloists rather than one? If so, then this performance showed the answer. Instead of flying a pair of stars in and then out the next day, trust the skill and musicianship of your own home team section leaders! It would be difficult to imagine a more empathetic collaboration than that between Roger Wilkie and Cécilia Tsan, with Eckart Preu drawing their LBSO colleagues into full partnership in this richly satisfying performance of Brahms’ final orchestral masterpiece. 

Brahms in 1889.
However, what a spare and challenging work it is, particularly for the ‘cellist: after only four measures of powerful orchestral tutti – the first movement’s first subject, thrown out like a challenge – the soloist must respond with a long and entirely unaccompanied recitative. Ms. Tsan seized it and played the heart out of it, as did Mr. Wilkie when his (much shorter) solo turn came, after the ensuing quiet woodwind statement of the second subject. 

With the long and elaborate first movement, full of complex contrapuntal interplay between the soloists, safely accomplished, the remaining two movements – together barely its equal in duration – felt almost like an earned reward. Mr. Wilkie's and Ms. Tsan’s unison statement of the slow movement’s main theme was so perfectly aligned that it sounded as if it was one instrument, and when they came to the finale, the manner in which they tossed the impish, chugging rondo-theme between them, never missing a perfect catch, was cherishable. 

And so to conclude, Herr Preu conducted Johann Strauss’s most famous waltz – more like a larger-than-usual encore than a listed program item – which Brahms famously lamented was not composed by himself. Sometimes, when the star conductors who in recent years have taken over the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concerts come to the inevitable penultimate item, they seem to overload An der schönen blauen Donau Op.314 with super-sensitive schmaltz and weight. Nothing like that here… Maestro Preu conducted “The Blue Danube” with plenty of feeling but straightforwardly, letting the music speak for itself. Willi Boskovsky would have been proud, and the Long Beach audience loved it. 

Roll on the next concert, for Veterans Day on November 11, and a rare chance to hear live a symphony by William Grant Still that isn’t his “Afro-American.” 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, October 7, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Zemlinsky: WDR Radio; Alma Schindler: “Alma” stage presentation; The Little Mermaid: Avda-Berlin; Eckart Preu, Cécilia Tsan, Roger Wilkie: Connor Bogenreif, LBSO; Brahms: C. Brasch, Berlin. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Another Concert of Two Halves


Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro plays Mozart, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, and Bach

Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro (at neither Torrance nor Rolling Hills). 

Though not spelt out as such in the advance publicity, it was easy to read the two recitals by Portuguese pianist Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro in the “First Fridays at First!” and, two days later, “Second Sundays at Two” series, as being the complementary halves of a larger whole, linked as they were by a common factor. 

The opener for the first recital, at the smaller venue of First Lutheran Church, Torrance, was Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K. 397/385g. So vast is Mozart’s catalog of works that one could spend a lifetime exploring and still come across unfamiliar things, so I don’t mind admitting that this was the first time I’d come across this particular work. Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro conveyed a remarkable emotional range in its brief five-minute span, but I was unsurprised to find out later that Mozart never completed the work, and that the final few measures, a little glib-sounding even in this performance, were added by another hand, probably the Fantasia’s first publisher. 

There is no sense of incompleteness or uncertainty of expressive focus in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’, the main work in the recital, nor was there in this interpretation of it. The first movement’s initial tempo marking of Allegro assai may mean “very fast” or “fast enough”, and his reading took that to be not very fast at all – a meditative account of the pianissimo opening that with the utmost contrast exploded into violence at the fortissimo upwards cascade of chords with which Beethoven makes clear the heroic, striving nature of one of his most challenging and revolutionary sonatas. 

Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s expansive, improvisatory approach, with much flexible use of rubato, continued throughout the performance, though without any self-indulgent “listen to me” pyrotechnics. He carefully characterized the four large variations that make up the middle, slow, movement, and then launched, attacca as marked, into the finale at a pretty fast lick, despite Beethoven’s ma non troppo qualification. Nonetheless, he had plenty in reserve to kick up the substantial notch needed for the final Presto at full tilt, hurtling to a tumultuous conclusion.

The final manuscript page of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.
As an encore, Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro played Alexander Siloti’s transcription (in B minor) of Bach’s Prelude in E minor BWV 855a from his 1720 compilation of keyboard music for his son Wilhelm Friedman (later reworked as Prelude No.10 in E minor BWV 855 in Book 1 of “The Well-Tempered Clavier”)… and fascinatingly, that earlier account of the piece sounded quite different from his repeat of it in the larger space of RHUMC as the curtain-raiser for Sunday’s main item, Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition. What was previously limpid and tender sounded here bold and resonant – an effect, I suspect, not only of pianistic approach but also of a different piano in another acoustic, and heard from a position facing the keyboard from the left rather than behind the body of the piano on the right. 

Mussorgsky in 1874.
Given the ubiquity in concert-halls of Ravel’s orchestration of the Pictures as a guaranteed go-to crowd-puller, it was a treat to have the comparatively rare opportunity to enjoy live the keyboard original. The impression of boldness and a touch of clangor encountered in the Bach transcription continued with a confident, even imperious, initial “Promenade”, but after abruptly encountering a particularly lumpish, hulking, and threatening “Gnomus” (No.1 in the series of 10 paintings by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann that are imaged in the work), the spectator, in Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s cleverly stage-managed interpretation, moved on notably chastened and thoughtful in the second Promenade. 

“The Old Castle” (No.2) came across as meditative and somber rather than overtly pictorial, but that reaction might have been, as elsewhere, a carry-over from familiarity with the genius of Ravel’s orchestration (memo to self: try sometime to listen to more of the many Pictures arrangements by other composers). Again the Promenade returns, here with a determined stride as if shaking off the mood of the picture, only to be immediately arrested by the capriccioso of the “Tuileries: Children’s Quarrel after Play” (No.3). 

No Promenade between this picture and “Bydlo” (No.4), this title variously translated as “Cattle” (here) or “The Oxcart” (as for most performances of the Ravel orchestration), and bringing the first of two major differences between that and the piano original. Where Ravel creates a scenario in motion, the cart approaching from the distance, initially pianissimo, to rumble past so close you can feel the ground shake and then finally disappear into the distance, Mussorgsky writes a brutal fortissimo from the outset, which only recedes in the final dozen or so measures. 

The fourth Promenade, marked Tranquillo, became a positive tiptoe away in Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s hands, only to be brought up short again by the crazy Scherzino of the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” (No.5), a good deal louder here than the score’s pianissimo. Again there is no Promenade between this and No.6 “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” – the former weighty and commanding rather than a hulking bully, the latter shrilly protesting, not timorous, and both thereby closely following the score’s markings.

Viktor Hartmann's (unbuilt) design
for the Bogatyr Gates in Kiev.
Then comes the second striking difference from Ravel, who in his orchestral version omits entirely the fifth and final Promenade before the last four continuous pictures. The presence of this – almost identical to the first full 24-bar version (the intervening Promenades 2-4 being much truncated) – makes a fascinating difference, the work falling, to my ears, into two unequal halves, rather than essentially a multi-movement but virtually continuous whole. 

The pianist’s characterization of, successively, “Limoges, the Market (No.7), “Catacombs” (No.8), “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” (No.9), and “The Bogatyr Gates” (No.10) increased if anything in range and intensity, so that the spectacular conclusion to what is normally called “The Great Gate of Kiev” when the Ravel transcription is performed did not, for once, have me wishing I was hearing his orchestra rather than Mussorgsky’s single pianist. 

Finally came one brief encore, Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo ed Euridice, delivered by Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro with affecting delicacy. 


“First Fridays at First!”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 6, 2017.
“Second Sundays at Two”: Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2.00pm, Sunday, October 8, 2017.
Photos: Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro: Rita Carmo; Beethoven manuscript: IMSLP; Mussorgsky: Wikimedia Commons; The Bogatyr Gates: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Two Serenades by any other name would sound as sweet…


Joshua Bell, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Royce Hall, UCLA

Guest soloist Joshua Bell, violin, performs Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by guest conductor Jaime Martín, in his Los Angeles debut, at the opening night concert for the Orchestra’s 50th anniversary season on September 30, 2017, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA. 

The opening program of the LACO’s 50th anniversary season, under the baton of guest conductor Jaime Martín (also given the previous evening at Alex Theatre, Glendale), featured two major works, both entitled “Serenade” but which could easily be styled “concerto” and “symphony” respectively. Before the interval, Joshua Bell played Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion, while the second half was devoted to Brahms’ Serenade No.1 in D major Op.11. The concert opener was the overture to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio K.384

Before the music, however, came a very touching human prelude: the orchestra’s executive director, Scott Harrison, assisted onto the platform James Arkatov, who in 1968 founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Mr. Arkatov’s short speech of reminiscence, and congratulation to the orchestra, was greeted with applause as warm as it was lengthy, by players and audience alike. 

In the Mozart overture, Señor Martín immediately established his credentials with sharply accented dynamic contrasts, though quite a steady tempo for the initial Presto marking. The “Turkish music” that further enlivens the overture’s first section seemed to be played on smaller “period” versions of the cymbals and bass drum (plus triangle), judging by the lighter, more “splashy” percussion sound, matching appropriately the general exuberance. The conductor gave full measure to the fermata before the overture’s slower central section and then positively reveled in the contrast of tempi, turning Mozart’s Andante into something more like an Adagio espressivo for the dotted sixteenth-notes and eighth-notes on the strings with which it begins. All good dramatic fun and indicative of plenty of character to come. 

The Bernstein centennial began officially on August 25, his 99th birthday, and a quick glance at the intimidatingly corporate Leonard Bernstein at 100 website shows a juggernaut of celebratory performances through to the same date next year that seems to have onboard virtually every orchestra in North America and plenty beyond. This Brit music-lover, who grew up with the unconvinced reaction of our musical establishment to the Bernstein phenomenon, remains to some extent on the outside looking in, wondering how many of the works by “without question the greatest musician America has ever produced” (as the first liner-note sentence for one CD I own of the Serenade unequivocally has it) will have a sustained life in the concert-hall once the centennial bandwagon has passed by.

Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s.
This Serenade, however, is surely high on the list, and last Sunday’s performance spelled out why. Leaving aside questions of how far the Platonic titular impulse was an afterthought for the composer, there was no denying the inspired and original layout of its five highly contrasted movements, the beauty and memorability of its themes, and the imagination with which these themes mutate and cross-reference from one movement to the next.

Mr. Bell, Señor Martín, and the relatively slender body of players Bernstein requires, vividly projected the Serenade’s sound-world: the “Phaedrus” introduction effortlessly unspooled on Mr. Bell’s violin, followed by the motoric vigor of the main “Pausinius” body of the first movement; the delicate wryness of the "Aristophanes"  Allegretto; the explosive start and quicksilver progress of the brief “Erixymachos” Presto; and the sombre, ecstatic richness of the “Agathon” Adagio, conveyed by all with truly re-creative sensibility. Only the bipartite finale, as ever for me, failed to convince as a coherent movement. After the thoughtfulness of "Socrates", with its probing conversation between solo violin and principal ‘cello (plus a really big string sound here despite the 8-7-4-4-2 large-chamber-sized resources of the LACO), the sudden levity of the concluding “Alcibiades” jolted in the wrong way, as if Officer Krupke, back in ancient Greece courtesy of the TARDIS, had crashed in to join the party. But then, for Bernstein in 1954, the composition of West Side Story was just around the corner. 

Perhaps on an alternate Earth in an alternate Universe, in an alternate Düsseldorf around 1859, an alternate 26-year-old Johannes Brahms, on completing the final version of his first large-scale orchestral work without a soloist, proudly published it as his “Symphony No. 1 in D major”. This work would (in that alternate universe) change the course of musical history. In a revolutionary six movements rather than the standard Classical four, its originality of overall form, compositional mastery, and freshness, would throw into retrospective relief Brahms’ subsequent four symphonies (with a particular kinship to the second of those to come) – all in the four-movement pattern – and broaden yet further his supremacy as a symphonist. 

Brahms (left) and Joachim (right) in 1855.
A fanciful scenario, of course, but not so distant from the implications of Señor Martín’s brief impromptu talk before the second half. Historically, he said, a serenade was “street music”, but neither of the large-scale works so titled this evening could be considered “street music”. Bernstein could easily have called his a violin concerto, while Brahms was encouraged to make his a symphony by his great friend Joseph Joachim, who urged him to expand and orchestrate its original (later destroyed) nonet form; indeed, thereafter Joachim referred to it as the “symphony-serenade”. Instead, however, Brahms settled on the title Serenade No.1 in D major for his Op.11, and thereby consigned it to the underplayed sidelines of his output. 

That Señor Martín believes totally in the work was manifest throughout his performance, which was simply one of the best I’ve ever heard of it. He and his orchestra got almost everything right, from the vigorous Allegro molto with which the first movement was unleashed, the principal horn covering himself in glory in his solo first statement of the jubilant and indelibly memorable first theme. The conductor divided his first and second violins left and right, thus securing both a platform-wide sweep of tone when they played in unison and clarification of the many passages of contrapuntal interplay between the two groups. And then when he reached the end of the first movement’s lengthy exposition, he observed its repeat, underlining and emphasizing further (if there was any doubt) the symphonic scale. 

Brahms follows with a large-scale Scherzo in ¾ time. Its scurrying, slightly furtive first bar sounds a lot like that of the Allegro appassionato second movement in the Piano Concerto No.2, but immediately sideslips away from anything so portentous into a cool-tempered waltz, which itself, as it segues into the Trio section maintaining the waltz time, blossoms into positively Schubertian amplitude, all conveyed here with the utmost swing and joy by orchestra and conductor. The slow movement is as expansive and symphonically scaled as the first two, but Señor Martín cannily took full account of the non troppo with which the young Brahms carefully qualifies his Adagio marking, and thus ensured no longueurs. Indeed his control was so careful, and the playing per se so stylish, that I would have been happy if he had risked relaxing and luxuriating a little more. 

With only three of the six movements done but more than a half-hour already elapsed, Brahms then avoids outstaying his welcome by dispatching the remaining three in half that time, and with their brevity contrives to subvert and divert the work’s aspirations to symphonic substance, in its first half, toward serenading nonchalance in its second. The fourth movement comprises a pair of tiny minuets, and the LACO’s woodwind burbled as deliciously in the first of these as the first violins and violas conversed discreetly and affectingly in the second. The horns galloped royally in the fifth movement, a second Scherzo, and with this – as concise as the first Scherzo is extended – done and dusted in three minutes or so, Señor Martín made an unmarked attacca into the Rondo finale. 

This masterful movement, despite its brevity, encompasses a teeming inventiveness in the episodes between repetitions of its rondo theme, Brahms tightening the structural knot by reusing in altered form the main melody from the first movement. This performance imbued the fragmentation of that melody towards the close with an almost vocal “farewell” quality, before gathering up the reins for the surge to the finish. It is only regrettable that some of the audience, presumably having had their superstar fix with Mr. Bell’s appearance, didn't return after the interval, and that when for once a standing ovation was deserved, this magnificent performance of Brahms’ youthful masterpiece didn’t get it from more than a smallish number. 


Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Royce Hall UCLA, Sunday, October 1, 2017, 7 p.m.
Photos: Orchestra, conductor, and soloist: Michael Mancillas for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Brahms and Joachim: photographer unknown; Leonard Bernstein: photographer unknown.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Dvořák and Sibelius at the Segerstrom


Joshua Bell, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Joshua Bell.
Though this concert – an item extra to the Pacific Symphony’s 2017-18 classical season and generously sponsored by Yasuko and Seth Siegel – was billed as “An Evening with Joshua Bell”, the soloist did not appear until after the interval, when he played the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47. The first half was occupied by the rather longer Symphony No.9 in D minor “From the New World” Op.95 B.178 of Antonín Dvořák, and while one may regret that the program didn’t take a chance and opt for something a bit further from the very center of the mainstream (and it surely wouldn’t have been much of a risk, given Mr. Bell’s audience pulling power), there was still much to relish in the performance. 

This was only my second experience of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall’s acoustic, so I’m still at the stage of being knocked out by its remarkable blend of spaciousness, clarity, and effortless-seeming truthfulness (doubtless achieved with a great deal of effort and expertise by the acousticians and architects!). There was something almost shocking in the sheer beauty of the sound of the lower strings’ pianissimo, as PSO Music Director Carl St. Clair gently coaxed their opening measures of the symphony’s first movement Adagio introduction.

Antonín Dvořák.
However, as he navigated the progressive entry of other instrumental groups in this “upbeat” to the main body of the movement, I did find the very slow pace and degree of expressive intensity a bit much. Dvořák’s metronome mark alongside that Adagio instruction is sixteenth note=126, and neither changes throughout the 23 measures before the main Allegro molto kicks in. This is way faster than any performance I have come across, and while in no way would metronomic rigidity be desirable, it would be interesting to hear an approach to that speed, so that the slow(ish) intro feels actually like a lead-in to the main movement and not a separate piece in itself.

It was not a surprise that Mr. St. Clair omitted the first movement exposition repeat, as is the case more often than not with this symphony. I realize that this review is beginning to sound a bit of a nitpick, but… a master in his maturity such as Dvořák was when he wrote the "New World" surely knew what he wanted, particularly as he took the trouble to write four lead-back measures to this particular repeat; and first-movement repeats clearly were not automatic for him, given that he does not ask for one in either of his preceding symphonies.

Enough! Beauty abounded throughout the performance, from the gorgeous flute that introduced the transition to the first movement’s second subject (neither slowed unwontedly), to the easeful legato of the English horn “Going Home” in that solo in the Largo second movement (but with its limpid purity not descending into any hint of droopiness), to the dramatic driving fury of the end of the finale. And I noticed detail as never before – the brief tremolo on the double-basses toward the end of the Largo’s central section, and for once the triangle in the Scherzo sounding “right” and not like an unanswered telephone offstage. Hearing the "New World" afresh in such a performance also made one note how angry and even tragic much of it sounds, despite its manifold ear-catching tunefulness.

Delaying Mr. Bell’s presence until the second half of this “Evening with” gave his eventual appearance an almost rock-star degree of deferred gratification for the audience, amped-up by Mr. St. Clair’s microphoned invitation just before his entry to “enjoy the artistry of Joshua Bell!” And unquestionably there was a great deal to enjoy.

  Jean Sibelius, sketched by Albert Engström
in 1904, when the Violin Concerto was written.
It’s a truism to say that Sibelius’s Violin Concerto is one of the great masterpieces of the genre, but it had a difficult genesis, due not only to problems over the original dedicatee’s availability, as noted in the program book, but also to Sibelius’s battle with alcoholism. After the premiere he withdrew and extensively revised it (I wonder whether Mr. Bell has ever played, or considered playing, the even more excruciatingly difficult original version?), and even then it was decades before it broke through from Finnish provinciality to a solid place in the repertory, following Jascha Heifetz’s 1935 recording.

This work almost miraculously “has it both ways”, in that its overall structure of a large and complex first movement followed by much shorter and simpler slow movement and finale is firmly in the pattern of the great violin concertos of the past, pre-eminently the Beethoven and the Brahms, but also in that its sound-world is entirely of Sibelius’s highly original maturity. The very opening, a pianissimo haze of muted tremolos on divided first and second violins, out of which emerges the long and unmistakably Sibelian first theme on the solo violin, is unlike any other. Mr. Bell floated the melody (much more quietly than the marked mezzo-forte, but with all the dolce ed espressivo that the composer also asks for) on a thread of tone, expansive, and as flexible as a living thing. 

As the first movement progressed, once again the extraordinary acoustic of the Segerstrom Hall revealed details I had never consciously been aware of before, like the violin’s brief duet with a solo viola about five minutes in, and later the bassoons’ entry after the cadenza. Indeed, throughout the work the acoustic, quite as much as it clothed Mr. Bell’s sinuous, expressive line, pointed up the sheer originality of Sibelius’s orchestration – its spareness, rawness, almost primeval quality – all the more remarkable as it is achieved with absolutely standard orchestral forces.

The opening of the Adagio di molto slow movement is as original as, but completely different from, that of the first movement, though those musings in thirds by the pairs of clarinets and oboes lead to a melodic line on the solo violin as expansive and memorable as its counterpart in the first movement. Here I did miss a certain warmth in Mr. Bell’s playing, though his control of pitch and intonation were as total as elsewhere. 

Carl St. Clair.
This technical mastery, which seemed simply to melt away the concerto’s difficulties, enabled his performance to be variously mercurial, tender, ferocious, and with an improvisatory quality that must have been a challenge for conductor and orchestra to follow. Indeed, there were places, particularly in the fast and often insistently rhythmic rondo finale which is full of spots that require exact coordination between soloist and other instruments, where I felt that one more rehearsal to tidy up some shaky moments wouldn’t have come amiss. Nonetheless, everyone was right “there” at the movement’s climax – seismic, or sea-swelling: either metaphor will do – and few capacity audiences can have been so fast onto their feet cheering. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Saturday, September 23, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Joshua Bell: Lisa Marie Mazzucco; Carl St Clair; Antonín Dvořák; Jean Sibelius.