Wednesday, February 15, 2017

USC Stars of Tomorrow play Brahms

Five USC Thornton School of Music Stars of Tomorrow
REVIEW

Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

The future of music is safe! Well, maybe that’s a touch hyperbolic, but if the five players from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music who delivered this remarkably coherent and mature account of Brahms’ late Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 are anything to go by, it is looking pretty bright, at least in this neck of the woods. The prior email billing and the hand-out leaflet made a point of spelling out their international origins, maybe a bit unsubtly but necessary in these troubled political times. They were (left to right in the above photo) Joseph Lorang, 2nd violin (U.S.A.), Hyunyoung Lee, viola (South Korea), He Chang, 1st violin (China), Yasmina Spiegelberg, clarinet (Switzerland), and Javier Iglesias Martin, cello (Spain). 

The fallback descriptor for Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet is “autumnal”, and in some performances the opening is so freighted with “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” sensibility that there seems nowhere else for the remainder to go but the frigidities of winter. This performance definitely leaned in that direction, and at the outset I was a little concerned that overall other facets of what is an extraordinarily subtle and emotionally ambiguous masterwork might be short-changed. I need not have worried. 

After a measured (given Brahms’ initial unqualified Allegro marking) first movement, where immaculate ensemble plus welcome observance of the exposition repeat (how subtly Brahms leads back into it!) gave an imposing sense of scale, the ensuing Adagio was not particularly slow-moving. But any danger of monotony from two comparably unhurried movements in succession is avoided by Brahms himself through his insertion of the remarkably disturbed più lento central section. The clarinet’s series of increasingly impassioned arabesques – the one place in the whole work where it emerges into real soloistic prominence from its otherwise primus inter pares role with the four strings – are like an earthquake’s jagged disturbance to a seismograph, and Ms Spiegelberg seized the opportunity to give this passage a real “where-is-this-going?” sense of danger.

The third movement Andantino that does duty as a scherzo was appropriately easeful and, in its trio-like Presto non assai, ma con sentimento central section, lightly insouciant, almost skittish. Then it was back to serious matters with the finale, which comprises a theme and five large variations, plus coda. The group vividly characterised each variation, with more definite pauses between them than Brahms actually marks, and drew a convincing emotional arc across a difficult-to-read movement, though the final pair of B minor chords that terminate the coda are pretty unambiguously tragic.

The group’s happy choice for an encore was that other great clarinet quintet variation-finale – Mozart’s. It was delivered as immaculately as the Brahms, and made one wish that there had been time for the whole work.

Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, February 11, 2017.
Photo: Courtesy RHUMC

Thursday, February 9, 2017

David Brown joins LA Opus as Contributor

Photo: David Brown































From the Publisher of LA Opus
RODNEY PUNT

In the summer of 2014, my wife and I attended the Bard College Music Festival in New York State, devoted that year to the works of Franz Schubert. Our frequent between-concert conversations included an articulate ex-pat Englishman named David Brown. Having relocated from London to Western Massachusetts in 2004, he was, by coincidence, dating a California lady in our hometown of Santa Monica. Early last year, David retired from his day job as an architectural magazine writer and editor and moved to California to marry Jill. They now live with a couple of adorable cats in San Pedro. It is with a sense of real joy that LA Opus announces that David is our newest contributor. He has an interesting back story, which he will relate to you directly:

"Ever since I encountered Holst’s The Planets some time in my early adolescence, adding an unsuspected musical aspect to my hitherto prime obsessions with astronomy and space travel, I became a “classical” music enthusiast. Initially a delighted discoverer of the standard repertoire, I soon came to realize that this was just the tip of a vast musical iceberg. As part of this process of discovery, I came into contact with then almost entirely unknown English composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972), who at that time lived close by me on the South Coast of England.

"This personal contact led me, after the aged composer’s death, to take over running the nascent Havergal Brian Society in 1975, and I spent over 20 years, first as its Secretary and then its Chairman. When Brian died, much of his music had never been performed and not a note of it ever commercially recorded, despite a composing career of around three-quarters of a century. Due in part to the promotional efforts of our Society, much of Havergal's large output gradually came to be recorded in the subsequent four decades, and 2017, we will at last see all 32 of Brian’s symphonies, as well as many of his other works, available on CD in professional performances."

"The realization that the standard repertoire had missed at least one genius kickstarted my lifelong interest in exploring the work of other neglected composers. My main enthusiasm is for the Late Romantics. Alongside great masters like Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Strauss and Mahler, that cohort includes such partly-obscured figures as Schreker, Schmidt, Zemlinsky, Koechlin, Atterberg, Braunfels and many others – also, in Britain, contemporaries of Havergal Brian like Holst, Delius, Bridge and Bantock, to name just a few.

"Alongside these activities, I have intermittently pursued a side-career writing liner notes, first for LPs, later for CDs, and reviewing concerts and recordings. In my professional life, I edited for many years The Arup Journal, the flagship client magazine of the multi-national engineering design consultancy Arup. I was also author of the books How They Were Built (Kingfisher Books, 1991), and Bridges: 3000 Years of Defying Nature (Mitchell Beazley, 1993; second edition, 2005).

"After my retirement in December 2014, I at last put into action a long-cherished plan to explore and bring to light the work of the totally forgotten English Romantic composer, Henry Cotter Nixon (1842-1907). In December 2016, the first of three CDs of Nixon’s complete orchestral music was issued by the British company Toccata Classics, conducted by Paul Mann."

Over dinner at a Santa Monica eatery a couple of months ago, I learned that David had just returned from the Nixon recording in Hungary. Toward the end of the meal, he mused on what his next project might be. Before another word, I offered him a berth at LA Opus as a writer, and he accepted. David's primary focus will be on musical activities in the South Bay and harbor areas of Los Angeles County. Already up are six of David's contributions. Check them out here.

We welcome David to LA Opus.

Long Beach Symphony and Eckart Preu play Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Dukas and Berlioz

Hector Berlioz, as portrayed by Jean-Louis Barrault in the 1942 movie "La Symphonie Fantastique".

REVIEW

French masterpieces at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

Last Saturday’s Long Beach Symphony Orchestra concert was a special occasion, the first conducted by Eckart Preu since he was chosen as the new Music Director to commence his tenure with the upcoming 2017-18 season. Indeed he began his pre-concert talk, delivered as dynamically and enthusiastically as it was warmly received, by nailing his future colors to the mast with the declaration that alongside the core repertoire he was committed to digging deeper to explore less-known and undeservedly forgotten works. “Trust me”, was his message to the large audience, “you’re going to enjoy the discoveries!”

Maestro Eckart Preu
His choice for the opening piece in the first concert of the upcoming season, on October 7, certainly looks to fulfill the promise – Zemlinsky’s glorious 1902-03 symphonic poem The Mermaid. Yes, it is based on that Hans Anderson story, like the Disney movie, but there’s nothing “little” about this mermaid (maybe it sounds more imposing under its original German title, Die Seejungfrau!). Playing for around 45 minutes and cast in three large movements, it’s as broodingly romantic and grandly atmospheric as anyone with a musical sweet tooth could desire. I for one can’t wait to hear it live for the first time (I wonder if he will conduct the 2013 reconstruction of the original version, with the five previously cut minutes put back into the middle movement?).

So, how was this concert? In short, the orchestra did their new man proud, with warm, homogeneous and responsive string playing, characterful winds including plenty of individual moments carried off with aplomb, strong but disciplined brass, and percussion that was right “there” when it needed to be. I particularly relished the uninhibited tintinnabulation of glockenspiel, harp and triangle near the climax of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the four timpani as well-tuned as you could hope for at the meticulously balanced rolling “thunderstorm” chords close to the end of the Symphonie Fantastique’s third movement, and the really hefty and ominous low bells in Berlioz’s finale.

The opening of the first work on the program, Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, immediately demonstrated maestro Preu’s care over dynamics, with his close observation of the way they differ widely, so cunningly calculated by the composer, for first horn, harp and divided violins. This formed the perfect backdrop for concertmaster Roger Wilkie’s re-tuned violin to strike in boldly and devilishly. Also clear was the conductor’s concern with the long view, through steady tempi that took sure anticipatory aim at the work’s climax (I thought here, and later, that he must be a fine Bruckner conductor).

Following this highly promising start came a particular moment to treasure: the solo flute heralding Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune stole in over motionless silence without any apparent conductorial cue, filling and stilling the hall with its effortless beauty. Indeed this performance was for me the highlight of the concert: the spacious pacing, the sensitive playing both individually and collectively, and (again) the attention to dynamics were virtually flawless, with everything warmly embraced in the Terrace Theater’s expansive acoustic.

I suppose one could argue that the program-planning played it a bit safe, with these two familiar favorites followed by Dukas’s real warhorse crowd-pleaser, and that it could have been more interesting to substitute a less-known piece by any one of them (e.g. how about Saint-Saëns’ Phaeton instead?). However, no-one could argue that the three pieces didn’t work well together, even forming a sort of three-movement “proto-symphony”, with the Debussy as the middle “slow movement”. In his talk, maestro Preu drew attention to the climax when the sorcerer returns and puts a stop to the broomstick’s shenanigans once and for all, and his own interpretative choice to broaden the moment as much as possible. Personally I felt the effect a little overdone, but kudos for trusting the audience to be interested in and see the musical and dramatic reason for the decision.

I did, however, regret that his additional spoken intro before the Symphonie Fantastique was pretty much devoted to Berlioz’s sensational scenario, rather than the work’s dazzling array of ground-breaking features, of which the five-movement form and dramatic program are only the most notable among many. Berlioz was arguably the most original composer of the 19th century, and this work is his signal calling-card. In the teeming, miraculous score Berlioz asks his musicians to do things no composer had ever done before, but never once as any kind of gimmick. Everything – the unprecedentedly detailed expressive markings and instrumental innovations wherever you turn – enhance and add vividness to the artistic whole. Nothing so brilliantly calculated could just have poured out in a lovesick and drug-fueled splurge, and Berlioz’s continuing concern to get the work exactly right was demonstrated by his several careful revisions to it in later years.

Conductor and orchestra mostly did this masterpiece proud. They shaped and graded the long and complex first movement finely, though I did regret the omission of the short exposition repeat (wherein Berlioz first introduces the idée fixe that represents “the beloved” all through his scenario, and then sensibly adds the repeat so that the audience gets it thoroughly fixed in its collective mind). 

The succeeding Un bal movement was the one disappointment, I thought – too relaxed and “Viennese gemütlich” a waltz to retain the nervous edge needed – but the long Scène aux champs came off beautifully at a basic tempo just about as slow as the music can take. Conductor and orchestra seemed to have complete confidence in each other, and right from the opening duet between onstage English horn and offstage oboe it twisted and turned inexorably towards the timpani “storm” already noted, and then the exhausted postlude.

The Marche au supplice’s repeat wasn’t there either, but no worry: whenever it is included it always seems a bit odd for a march to the scaffold to go back to the beginning and start again. As for the final Songe d’une nuit du sabbat, its constant starts and stops and kaleidoscopic changes of texture were held surely together despite coming at the end of a long evening when everyone must have been getting tired. The pair of tubas managed to sound almost as raspingly rude and blasphemous, in their Dies Irae parody, as the ophicleides that Berlioz wrote for invariably do in period-instrument performances, for once with something like the required nasal bray rather than the tubby honk you usually get with the modern instruments. The Symphonie roared to a unanimous and blazing final chord that would surely have earned M. Berlioz’s approval, and the audience cheered in response.

Roll on October 7!

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Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 4, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Eckart Preu: Courtesy Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Jean-Louis Barrault as Berlioz

Monday, February 6, 2017

Benjamin Hudson and Antoinette Perry play Bach, Patterson and Mozart

Michael Patterson
REVIEW

First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

Benjamin Hudson
Rain rather decimated the audience for February’s “First Fridays at First!” lunchtime concert. This was a shame, because it was a beautifully balanced program in which two masterpieces of the violin/piano repertoire, one Baroque, one Classical, bookended a welcome, if brief, piece of hardline modernism and its more mellifluous companion, by a composer new to me.

The leaflet’s bio for violinist Benjamin Hudson noted, among numerous other appointments, his seasons with the Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra and London’s Hanover Band, and both these bodies’ embrace of period instruments and historically informed performing practice boded well for Mr. Hudson’s accounts of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E BWV1016, and Mozart’s Sonata No. 35 in A, K526 (his penultimate in the genre). However, there was no really hardline eschewing of vibrato in either performance, just a restrained use of it that contributed to tenderness and a slight sense of fragility in slow movements and light-footed athleticism in fast.

Antoinette Perry
Genre names like symphony and sonata are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to take them for granted and not reflect that they must have an origin somewhere. Bach’s six violin sonatas BWV1014-1019 are generally regarded as the first such, where the keyboard part is fully written out as the violin’s equal partner. Though for cembalo (i.e. harpsichord), the piano works perfectly well if played with the appropriate sensibility, and that was just what Antoinette Perry supplied.

Bach’s sonata is in the four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast sonata da chiesa form of the time, with no sections marked to be repeated. Mozart’s, on the other hand, written two-thirds of a century later, has both halves of both the first two movements repeated, plus two short sections at the opening of the finale. Whether none, some, or all of these are observed clearly varies the overall playing time a good deal. In this performance only the first movement first repeat and the finale’s pair were played: a judicious decision for a short lunchtime recital, though I for one would be intrigued to hear a go-for-broke account of the work with all repeats, ideally having the second movement Andante walk a little faster than it did here.

As it was, the commonality of mood between the Bach slow movements and that of the Mozart – amongst his more sombre – testified to astute program-planning by the duo.

For the two short pieces by the contemporary American Michael Patterson in the middle of the recital, the leaflet reproduced his brief note: “In writing this short, lively piece Esprit, I wanted to counter the meditative quality of its companion piece Ave’, which was composed as a quiet piece for contemplation, a ‘wordless’ Antiphon in a sense, used in earlier times to acknowledge a spiritual presence. Esprit is quite different in mood and tempo and in its compositional approach. It is actually a rigorous serial piece, concise in design, and mostly based on triadic hexachords.”

I enjoyed both, though I wonder why their order was reversed. As it was, after Bach’s divine clockwork the spiky explosive opening of Esprit came as quite a shock, before it settled to a mood of uneasy stasis punctuated by lightning flicks and flashes from both instruments. Ave’ formed the promised contrast, a grave and consolatory arioso for the violin, with a touched-in accompaniment of mostly isolated quiet piano chords. I found it all too brief.

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“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 3, 2017.
Photo credits: Michael Patterson, Benjamin Hudson, Antoinette Perry

Saturday, February 4, 2017

'Cendrillon' Pacific Northwest Ballet's Valentine

Noelani Panatastico (c), Sarah Ricard Orza, Rachel (l-r)


REVIEW: Cendrillon

McCaw Hall, Seattle
ERICA MINER

One does not have the opportunity to see Prokoviev’s “second” ballet, Cendrillon, as often as his iconic Roméo et Juliette, which has become more ubiquitous in the classical repertoire. That made PNB’s season-of-love offering all the more special for Seattle ballet mavens.

“Magical” is the optimal word to describe this production, which received its world premiere in 1999 with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo and was seen for the first time at PNB on Feb. 3 at McCaw Hall. This version of Prokofiev’s Op. 87, written from 1940-1944, included a winsomely choreographed excerpt from the composer’s Lieutenant Kijé (1933-1934).

With a radiant Noelani Pantastico in the title role, and other PNB rep favorites James Moore, Lesley Rausch, Rachel Foster, Sarah Ricard Orza and Seth Orza performing their respective roles for the first time, topped by the appearance of guest artist April Ball as the pivotal Fairy/Mother character, the quirkily modernistic but dazzling production held together beautifully. From the glitter that adorns Cinderella’s bare feet before the ball to the flash and shimmer of the Fairy/Mother’s transparent tutu, the look of the production was lustrous.

“Cendrillon is not merely a fairy tale personage,” said the composer, “But also a living being whose destiny moves us.” Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot, a guiding light at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo since 1993, takes this message to heart, as he reimagines the character as a soulful, breathing entity in search of recognition and love against all odds, guided by a Fairy godmother-type reincarnation of the girl’s late mother. The story took on a new life in this interpretation, in which the concept of Pleasure (with a capital “P”), along with the dichotomy between the real and the surreal, are ongoing themes.

Maillot, who previously brought Prokofiev’s Roméo et Juliette to the PNB stage, takes full advantage of the lugubrious stretches and pointed blips of musical phrasing to elongate the dancers’ lines and give them ample opportunity to spring into the air in short double-footed leaps with impressive grace. The repeated motif of a dancer being swiftly carried through the air as if in a dream state of being unable to touch the floor embodied the trancelike quality of the story’s overall theme.

Those audience members expecting a traditional take on the perennially beloved fairy tale were in for a surprise, especially with Jérôme Kaplan’s decidedly non-traditional costumes. Ball gowns draped on semi-mechanized Mannequins, tutus with wires instead of netting, and Hollywood Red Carpet-type frocks with sheer organza revealing total expanses of leg were the order of the evening. Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s captivating minimalistic set designs consisting of a largely geometric backdrop of moveable panels enhanced by projections and mirrors, brilliantly enhanced by Dominique Drillot’s pastel-shaded lighting, gave the production a luminosity that was both enchanting and realistic.

April Ball and James Moore
Music Director Emil de Cou’s sensitive interpretation of Prokofiev’s delicate, haunting score, along with Maillot’s engaging choreography and clever, eye-catching staging by Bernice Coppieters, Bruno Roque and Asier Uriagereka, provided the perfect opportunity for the PNB ensemble to display their lyrical capabilities and technical prowess with a sparkle that matched the glow of Cinderella’s love-struck, ingenuous face. At times highly amusing and alternately introspective, the action flowed continuously with nary a dead spot.

Pantastico brought a panoply of emotions and grace to her light-footed rendering of the overwrought, neglected and mistreated stepchild in search of love and recognition. Ball’s Fairy/Mother brought attention to her every move, yet her presence never overwhelmed. The magical spells she weaves are entirely convincing, and the affection between her and Pantastico’s Cinderella is both touching and gratifying.

Lesley Rausch’s sexually charged Stepmother sizzled with tensile energy in her every scene. Her lightning-quick antics with Seth Orza’s beleaguered Father were both amusing and shocking. Quick-stepping stepsisters Rachel Foster and Sarah Ricard Orza provided the perfect comic foil for their mother’s deplorable behavior. A duo of obsequious male Pleasure Superintendents, played with outrageous Triplets-of-Belleville-meets-Minions abandon by Steven Loch and Miles Pertl, supervised the adornments for the ball.

Lesley Rausch, Steven Loch and Miles Pertl
Prince Charming, like Swan Lake’s Prince Siegfried always in the company of his friends (Kyle Davis, Benjamin Griffiths, Price Suddarth and Ezra Thomson), tries unsuccessfully to satisfy his need for validation by indulging in small pleasures: always searching but never finding what he thinks he is seeking. Appealingly played by James Moore, this Prince managed to engage in unabashedly adolescent attitudes while still maintaining a sympathetic presence. His love duet with Pantastico was seamless and deeply moving, and the athleticism he and his cohorts displayed (of special note was their grand entrance aux entrechats down the staircase in the ball scene) was impressive.

James Moore and Noelani Pantastico
To balance all of this flurry of activity with a dose of reality, the Fairy/Mother doppelganger cautions Cinderella before she goes off to attend the surreal ball symbolically clad in her mother’s former ball gown, to look beyond glitz and glamour and focus on what is truly important: simplicity.

The story comes full circle as the journey evolves from Cinderella’s grief in the beginning to her enlightenment and well-deserved reward of true love, with her father taking over the mantle of bittersweet heartache with which the story begins, leaving the audience awash in conflicting yet deeply uplifting emotion.

The ball may be surreal, but the struggle between good and evil in society is all too real. PNB’s radiant Cendrillon captures the heart and stirs the imagination in ways that reminds us that good will indeed prevail. It definitely is worthy of being seen more than once upon a time.

Cendrillon continues through Feb. 12, 2017

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 Photo credits: © Angela Sterling