Thursday, March 9, 2017

Familiar Beethoven, Dvořák, unfamiliar Lebrun at Long Beach

Antonin Dvořák

REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, March 4
DAVID J BROWN

My LA Opus blog notices are getting a bit repetitive in their praise for the enterprising inclusion of unfamiliar music in South Bay and Long Beach concert programs, but what can you say when, as happened last Saturday, a very pleasing oboe concerto by an 18th century composer unknown to almost everyone was greeted enthusiastically by a large audience? The person to whom it was not unknown was of course the LBSO’s principal oboist, Rong-Huey Liu, who clearly loves Ludwig August Lebrun’s Oboe Concerto No. 2 in G minor, and delivered a fearlessly devoted performance, warmly supported by the reduced number of her colleagues required by the score, and guest conductor Paul Polivnick – fearlessly because, as she noted in her segment of the pre-concert talk, Lebrun requires lungs of virtually infinite capacity to power the oboe’s very long lines.

Rong-Huey Liu
Every easily available reference source will tell you that Lebrun, who died at only 38 in 1790, was a Mannheim-born oboe virtuoso famed throughout Europe, but not much seems to be established about exactly what he wrote and when. The “No. 2” designation of this concerto is pretty meaningless, merely indicating that it was the second in a group of six published 14 years after his death. Another collection of seven was published during his lifetime, the autograph of a further single concerto survives in a library in Darmstadt, and one reference I came across ups this total of 14 by another four to 18 oboe concertos in all. 

In addition, Lebrun wrote chamber works and apparently a couple of ballets; clearly some forensic musicology is required (maybe it’s already under way). Meanwhile, this concerto clearly indicated that his music is well worth exploring. Memorably tuneful in all three concise movements, the G minor tonality imparted a gently smiling tinge of melancholy far removed from the driven sturm und drang of Mozart’s two symphonies in that key, or indeed the C major optimism of his own concerto for the instrument.

I wonder whether tonality was an influence in the choice of big symphony to fill the second half of the program? Certainly the memorable theme that opens Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Op. 88 is in G minor, and Maestro Polivnick was blessedly scrupulous about the opening Allegro con brio marking, thus avoiding the creation of an unmarked “slow introduction” that some conductors indulge in by taking the tempo down a notch or two. This welcome lack of exaggerated point-making continued through and beyond the flute’s “bird-call” motif that marks the turn to the symphony’s titular major key. Indeed the whole first movement “came out in one” in the most satisfying way.

Generally, the remainder of Dvořák’s Eighth was equally cogent, though I did feel that the Adagio’s only real turn to darkness in its latter half was a little overdone – it is, after all, a passing mood rather than a change of direction for the whole work, and when the sun once more comes out for the final stretch of the movement over-preparing for the preceding drama can lead to a slight “so what?” anticlimax. The Allegretto grazioso that does duty in this work for a scherzo was generally delightful, though for my taste there was a touch too much Viennese schlag in its opening tempo.

I did relish, however, Maestro Polivnick’s attacca start to the finale, even though the score does not ask for it to begin right on the heels of the third movement. And here the opening trumpet fanfare was at just the right not-too-fast tempo, rather than being whipped into premature frenzy as can happen sometimes. As this movement continued, its teeming variety of pace and texture was just about perfectly balanced with the overall dramatic arc, and the nostalgic quietude before the final dash to the finish was exquisitely handled.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No. 3 Op. 72b, a work that in scale and dramatic intensity so much transcends what an “overture” usually delivers that it would be easy to argue that here Beethoven opened up potential future symphonic poem territory to as great a degree as the Eroica had expanded the possibilities of the symphony per se only a couple of years before. I thought this performance in the Adagio opening section smoothed out the dynamics a little too much – after all, Beethoven does range between fortissimo and pianissimo before he hits his first terrific climax with the upward-rushing violin scales some 30 bars in. Also the off-stage trumpet seemed a little too close (as the oboe had in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique at the previous concert – maybe the configuration of the Terrace Theater’s backstage area precludes the player getting far enough away?).

However, Maestro Polivnick certainly fulfilled his pre-concert talk promise that there would be no safe holding-back in the Presto tempo for the coda, where the first violins and then progressively the remainder of the strings are driven to the utmost in their helter-skelter scales that usher in the final triumph. The drama of this conclusion (how could Beethoven have thought for a moment that the domestic opening scene of Fidelio could follow it?!) was amply rewarded by a cheering audience on its feet.

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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, Saturday, March 4, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Rong-Huey Liu: courtesy LBSO; Antonin Dvořák

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