Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Golds and Silvers, from Korea with Love…


REVIEW
David J Brown


Though there were a few initial joking references from the platform about the Winter Olympics in Seoul, it was the wide range of music to be performed at the February Classical Crossroads “The Interludes” recital – from Germany, Poland, Russia, Bohemia, France, and finally their native Korea – that was the focus of attention, delivered by a group of splendidly gifted young performers who we must hope will become familiar to South Bay chamber music aficionados. 

These were the pianists So-Mang Jeagal (top left) and Beth Nam (below left), soprano Jungwon Choi (below right), and ‘cellist Kyung Eun Choi (top right), and to begin, the first and last played a pair of works for ‘cello and piano by the closely contemporary (born within a few months of each other in 1810) but otherwise highly contrasted early Romantic masters, Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin. Similarly, the former’s Adagio and Allegro Op.70 and the latter’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C major Op.3 – while having comparable durations and overall structure – are very different in style, instrumental writing, and overall effect. 

The two parts of the Schumann, a work of his late maturity dating from 1849, are virtually equal in duration, so that they could easily be heard as the latter two movements of a ‘cello sonata, with a lyrical slow movement (that constantly reminds one of how fine a song-composer he was) followed by a concise rondo finale. In both sections, the two instruments are very much equals in projecting the musical discourse and, a slight initial frailty in ‘cello intonation aside, Mr. Jeagal and Ms. Choi gave the piece a warm and loving performance. 

I did wonder whether they felt more thoroughly at home in the tightly-enwrapped beauties of Schumann’s maturity than with the florid ebullience of Chopin’s youthful Op.3 (he was only 19 when he wrote what he is said to have described to a friend as “nothing more than a brilliant drawing-room piece suitable for the ladies”). There’s a twinkling, thrown-off insouciance and sense of fantasy in his high-stepping Alla Polacca (just as a much a rondo as the Schumann, really, though its “Introduction” is much less of a separate and substantial item than its counterpart in the other work) that just eluded these performers, wonderfully fleet though Mr. Jeagal’s playing of Chopin’s teeming runs was. 

A rusalka (water-nymph), by Ivan Bilibin (1934).
Next up, a pair of Rachmaninoff songs: “A Dream”, the fifth of his early Six Songs Op.8, and “How Fair this Place”, No.7 of the 12 in Op.21 (1902), both brief and soulful, with melodic arcs underpinned by piano harmonies that instantly bespoke their composer. Jungwon Choi’s soprano voice is a rich and powerful instrument, arguably too much so not to feel a little uneasily constrained within the small-scale song-recital environment – as her third and final item tended to confirm. This was the very familiar “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, where one couldn’t help imagining her voice soaring over the orchestra in the opera house rather than the piano reduction, which felt compromised even under Beth Nam’s expert fingers. (A small niggle about this segment of the recital: in lieu of a program note, it would have been nice to have had a word from the performers on what the songs were about, and the point and position of the aria within the opera.) 

Ms. Nam was then joined by her fellow player for two four-hands-one-keyboard reductions of orchestral showpieces. Their performance of the “Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One” from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was almost good enough to make me wish I was hearing the whole work rather than just its final section, but it was Ravel’s La Valse that really sent the wattage soaring. Surprisingly, perhaps, given that unlike the Stravinsky this arrangement was not the work of its composer (if I’m reading aright the Google search-result), it really convinced as a viable version of Ravel’s poème chorégraphique, with quite as much choreography in the coordination and collision-avoidance of Ms. Nam’s and Mr. Jeagal’s four hands sweeping up and down virtually the full length of the keyboard as in Ravel’s retrospective waltz-phantasmagoria of the doomed pre-WW1 culture of Vienna. 

Of course, after this brought the Saturday afternoon First Lutheran audience cheeringly to its feet, there had to be an encore, with all four returning to perform “Arirang,” a Korean folk song that is often (thank you, Jim Eninger and Wikipedia!) considered the unofficial national anthem of Korea. 

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“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, February 17, 2018.
Photos: The performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc; Rusalka: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 12, 2018

USC Stars of Tomorrow play the “Trout”


REVIEW

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

The fact that the Quintet in A major D.667 – commonly known as the “Trout” due to its fourth movement being a set of variations on Schubert’s own song Die Forelle D.550 – is not generally regarded by Schubert mavens as being amongst his greatest chamber works has not dented in the slightest its great popularity, and a capacity audience duly turned out at RHUMC for the February “Second Sundays at Two” recital to hear it played by this year’s group of “USC Stars of Tomorrow”: So-Mang Jeagal, piano; Justin Woo, violin; Kevin Hsu, viola; Benjamin Lash, cello; and Kaelan Decman double bass. 

l-r: Kaelan Decman double bass, Justin Woo violin, So-Mang Jeagal piano, Benjamin Lash cello, Kevin Hsu viola.
The work originated in 1819 on a summer vacation enjoyed by Schubert with two friends at Steyr, Upper Austria; here they spent much time with Sylvester Paumgartner, a local businessman and keen amateur ‘cellist, who reportedly asked Schubert to write a piece that would both include variations on the song, which he loved, and be scored for piano, violin, viola, ‘cello, and double bass – this unusual combination to match the instrumentation of an arrangement, which the group likely played, of Hummel’s then-popular Septet in D minor

It’s worth noting, then, that for such an informal “commission” Schubert nonetheless produced a large-scale, multi-movement Classical structure – sonata-design first movement, slow movement, scherzo and fast finale, plus the additional “Trout” variation set – proving, if proof were needed, his comfort with the form. His first movement is one of those that seems to have a slow introduction but which is, in fact, illusory: the marking, a pretty fast Allegro vivace, is there from the outset, the illusion being caused by the long note-values in the first couple of dozen measures. 

The young Schubert, three years before the
composition of the song, Die Forelle,
and five years before the "Trout" Quintet.
The young stars of the USC did the work proud. The long first movement stayed airborne on the tight rhythmic rein of Mr. Jeagal’s spry, athletic pianism, so that its extended length from the observation of the exposition repeat was entirely welcome. The transparency of the playing overall enabled one to appreciate Schubert’s truly resourceful development, as well as the masterful nonchalance with which he elides back into his recapitulation. 

The relatively short Andante second movement was limpid and easeful, and followed by a scherzo as vigorous as its trio section was playful. When the group came to the again modestly-scaled theme-and-variations fourth movement, once more the dominant impression was of sheer liveliness and enthusiasm. They took a particularly fast tempo for the third variation, where for the first time I noticed that the double bass has his moment in the sun carrying the melody – smoothly taken by Mr. Decman – against dotted rhythmic support from his string colleagues and cascading treble figuration on the piano. 

In the Allegro giusto finale, for once I didn’t mind the omission of the main marked repeat (unless I was much mistaken, not having the score to hand), as even without it this movement – to be honest one of Schubert’s least substantial – has plenty of repetition. As a result, the group had the whole delightful performance done and dusted in a scant 40 minutes, their last measures so tight and emphatic, the final unison chords so smart and clipped, that for a moment the audience seemed wrong-footed that the conclusion had actually arrived! 

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Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, February 11, 2017.
Photos: USC Stars of Tomorrow: easyridernews; Schubert: portrait by Joseph Abel.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Spanish Night with Pepe Romero at Long Beach


REVIEW

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

Carlos Surinach.
Relatively brief though it was, and scored for far smaller forces than any of the subsequent pieces, in some ways I was more impressed by the first item in the LBSO's “Spanish Night with Pepe Romero” program than anything that followed. This was the dance suite in three movements, Ritmo Jondo (“Flamenco rhythm”) by Carlos Surinach, Barcelona-born but a naturalized US citizen for the latter half of his long life (1915-1997). 

Scored in this version (there are two others with different instrumentation) for just trumpet, clarinet, timpani, side drum without snares, xylophone, and (crucially) three hand-clappers, the arrestingly gaunt timbres of Ritmo Jondo and its fascinating overlapping rhythms projected an effect of something alien and strangely bleak, even dangerous – an effect enhanced by the vibrant flamenco dancing of Arleen Hurtado, clad in black, not to mention the atmospheric deep red lighting effects with which the Terrace Theater stage was bathed. As a novice in the areas of Spanish and Catalan music, I have no idea how authentic the whole package really was, but I was hooked.

Eckart Preu.
Maybe I misunderstood, but in his pre-concert talk LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu had seemed to imply that native Spanish music may not be up to the standard of some “Spanish” works by non-Spanish composers, thus justifying the inclusion in this concert of a few of the most well-known latter.

I have to say that with the Surinach still fresh in my ears, it made for the wrong kind of jolt to move to the comfortable sounds of Chabrier’s familiar rhapsody España, which despite the French composer’s well-attested first-hand research into many aspects of Spanish music on a long tour of the country, projects an urbanely Parisian tourist’s-ear-view of it (which isn’t to say that España is not thoroughly enjoyable and indelibly memorable on its own terms). I’m sorry to say Rimsky-Korsakov’s equally familiar Capriccio espagnol Op.34, which opened the second half, again had me wishing I was listening instead to something authentically Spanish (ideally, perhaps, by the country’s greatest composer, Manuel de Falla). 

Pepe Romero.
Immediately before the interval came a work that was – the Concierto de Málaga composed in 1981 by Celedonio Romero, father of the hugely popular guitarist Pepe Romero who was on hand to play it, to the delight of a full house of fans. This was a fall-back item: Señor Romero was originally slated to perform a concerto by another 20th-century Spanish flamenco composer and guitarist, Manolo Sanlúcar, but as Eckart Preu noted in his pre-concert talk, the performing material for it could not be located, leading to the late need for a replacement. 

The LBSO, though down to Classical orchestra size with reduced strings and a handful of wind, brass, and percussion, produced a big sound for the dramatic, rhapsodic opening to the first movement (with orchestration by Romero’s colleague Federico Torroba), and the introduction to the second movement was similarly striking, featuring a plangent English horn that to these Brit ears immediately recalled, of all composers, Frederick Delius. Once these preludes were done, however, the solo role dominated, Señor Romero’s guitar articulating with dazzling clarity the full spectrum of flamenco style. 

Celedonio Romero.
With the concerto over and cheered by the capacity audience, Pepe Romero returned for an encore – his father’s solo guitar piece Noche en Málaga – but only after an enchantingly discursive reminiscence of an earlier appearance with the LBSO all of 36 years ago, when his then four-year-old son, Pepe Jr, after being allowed into the rehearsal, had strongly objected to not being allowed to play in the concert! Today, Pepe Sr was, he said, playing a guitar that had been built by his son… who was in the audience (cue shout of “Up here Dad!” from the balcony when Pepe Sr peered out into the crowd to try and locate him). 

Georges Bizet.
The only downside to spending this extra quality time with a great player and great raconteur was that, along with the much longer duration for Ritmo Jondo than the six minutes given in the program book, it made for a very long concert, pushing the final close to the 10.30PM mark. However, that wasn’t the only reason why I was starting mentally to count off the numbers still to go during the final item(s), the Carmen Suites Nos.1 and 2. Bizet’s crowning masterpiece probably has more memorable numbers than any other repertoire opera, and his posthumous collaborator Ernest Guirard has earned the gratitude of untold music-lovers ever since in extracting a neat dozen of them and putting them into purely orchestral garb. But he did create two medium-length suites and not one very long one, and I think there’s a natural limit to what makes a coherent listening experience from collections of short items like these. 

Arleen Hurtado.
For me it would have been more satisfactory to have limited it to one or other of them –preferably Suite No.2, which is the more substantial and varied, and (marginally) less familiar. Nonetheless, after sounding a little reserved earlier on, particularly in the Chabrier, the LBSO was by now thoroughly warmed up. Roger Wilkie and Cécilia Tsan, principal violin and principal ‘cello respectively, made the atmospheric most of their respective solo passages, and piquant woodwind, crisp brass moments, and vigorous tuttis abounded. Arleen Hurtado, now in a blood-red dress, reappeared to grace one movement in Suite No. 2 and, in the final ‘Danse Bohème’, Eckart Preu’s very slow initial tempo and hushed dynamic enabled the build-up of a terrific head of steam into the Presto final section, and a truly tutta forza climax. Despite the late hour, the audience roared its approval. 

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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 3, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Carlos Surinach: F. Plaut; Eckart Preu: Courtesy LBSO; Pepe Romero: Courtesy LBSO; Celedonio Romero: Discogs; Bizet: Prabook; Arleen Hurtado: Flamenco LA.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

A rare outing for Strauss’s (and Tennyson’s) Enoch Arden


REVIEW

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

The tragic homecoming of Enoch Arden, from “The Leisure Hour”, published in 1864.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, autographed
portrait by Elliott & Fry, 1860s.
Richard Strauss’s 1897 “monodrama for speaker and piano” Enoch Arden Op.38, TrV.181 is something of an oddity in his output. It dates from when his main focus was on the orchestral tone-poem (following Also Sprach Zarathustra and contemporary with Don Quixote), though these years also saw a considerable output of songs with piano accompaniment. It was written as a thank-you to the actor Ernst von Possart, who had helped Strauss gain the post of Chief Conductor at the Bavarian State Opera, and he and Possart toured together widely with the melodrama. 

On the rare occasions when Enoch Arden is performed today, it is programmed as a composition by Strauss, but in truth it is the spoken text of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lengthy narrative poem that does the expressive heavy lifting, rather than the relatively sparse piano accompaniment. Thus it is the narrator rather than the player who bears the main burden in performance, and it is good to report that the actor Sherman Howard successfully held the February “First Friday” audience’s attention for almost an hour, duly supported by pianist David Kaplan. 

Sherman Howard.
This was an ambitious departure for concerts in this series from Classical Crossroads Inc., which usually comprise short instrumental recitals, but it was a welcome opportunity to experience live a work (as well as a genre) that’s largely vanished from concert-halls, though this piece has in fact been recorded several times, amongst the duos tackling it the most celebrated being Patrick Stewart and Emanuel Ax, and in former years Claude Rains with Glenn Gould. 

David Kaplan.
I did feel, however, something of a mismatch between the text and the music, or rather between poet and composer. Apparently Tennyson wrote and published his “Enoch Arden” (in 1864, ironically the year of Strauss’s birth) as part of a deliberate –and successful, to judge by sales figures – attempt to broaden his public appeal in true fulfillment of his role as England’s Poet Laureate.

This elaborately sentimental tale of tragic loss and noble self-denial chimed exactly with High Victorian taste, but one could argue that, a generation on in the fin-de-siècle 1890s and five years after Tennyson’s death at the age of 83, its emotional world had receded into remoteness from the most up-to-date sensibilities, as exemplified musically by the style – by turns maliciously witty, grandiose, and even savage – of the foremost young lion (still only 33) of Late Romanticism. One can imagine a more appropriate match with, say, the Arthur Sullivan of Lost Chord fame.

Richard Strauss.
Thus, to my ears, and despite the best advocacy of Mr. Kaplan, Strauss’s musical response to Tennyson’s tale seemed perfunctory, aside from some nicely rippling scene-setting at the start (the composer’s onomatopoeic skill for a marine effect here) and some hefty pointing-up of the main dramatic moments later on. As for the narration, I had feared we might be in for some over-strenuous actorly hectoring (with some awful recorded examples in mind), but Mr. Howard’s narration was a model of careful sensibility and articulate navigation through a lot of words (but which might have benefited in terms of clarity from a bit of discreet miking during the piano’s weightiest passages). Indeed, I felt he could have let rip a bit more at the most dramatic moments. 

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“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 2, 2018.
Photos: Enoch Arden: Wikimedia commons; Tennyson: Wikimedia commons; Strauss: The Guardian archive; Sherman Howard: Quantum Leap wiki; David Kaplan: Samantha West.