Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Southeast Symphony Celebrates Bernstein & Diversity

Southeast Symphony, Anthony Parnther, Music Director (at L.A.'s First Congregational Church)

REVIEW

Southeast Symphony in Bernstein at L.A.'s First Congregational Church
RODNEY PUNT

It was the Southeast Symphony’s turn last Sunday to celebrate protean American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial birthday has spawned a year-long slate of local celebrations. Until that evening, however, the champagne had hardly bubbled trouble free. Two earlier uptown productions of his works proved at least as star-crossed as they were star-kissed.

LA Opera’s revival of Candide confirmed - once again - that its cardboard-caricatured parable is at best a succès d’estime, even with an imaginative staging by Francesca Zambello, solid vocals and fine pit-work by James Conlon’s orchestra. Likewise, the LA Phil’s rafter-rattling production of Mass, Bernstein’s paean to the turbulent 1960’s (and his middle-aged bid to connect with new audiences), though expertly handled by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, his orchestra and singers, seemed to lose dramatic focus along the way in Elkhanah Pulitzer’s over-busy staging.

If these two premiere organizations couldn’t fully bring off the banner-waving for America’s most famous musician, could that daunting task be accomplished by the venerable yet modestly funded Southeast Symphony? It turns out it could be, and it was, in the resonant space of First Congregational Church, the Gothic-styled cathedral near downtown Los Angeles.

In a program that had top-flight Bernstein bookending works by three other composers simpatico to his vision, the evening became more than a performance; it was an event to remember and savor, for itself and for what it represented to today's Los Angeles in all its busy, sprawling diversity.


Anthony Parnther
For the past eight years the Southeast Symphony's music director and conductor has been the charismatic, multi-talented Anthony R. Parnther (a fine bassoonist when not on the podium), whose family background is equal parts Jamaican and Samoan. His handling of the orchestra and singers throughout the evening kept rhythms crisp and colors bright in an acoustic environment that could easily have gobbled up both. Parnther’s witty introductions to the works were delivered in deep resonant tones that invoked actor James Earl Jones. In the First Congregational Church's cavernous acoustic, his narration sounded like the voice of God, but with a kindly wink.


Displacing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Verona to the ethnically tense streets of New York City lent dramatic spine and relevance Bernstein’s now iconic West Side Story, and inspired some of its composer’s best lyrical outpourings. An orchestral medley of songs from the score (arranged by Jack Mason) opened the program, whetting the appetite for more Bernstein.

Conveying the stage drama of Candide has been problematic from its first performance and through several subsequent revisions (blame Voltaire’s wooden protagonists), yet two excerpts have been recognized from the beginning as top-flight Bernstein: the scintillating overture (often performed as a stand-alone piece) and the work's denouement, “Make our Garden Grow,” a vocal duet that urges humanity to remain hopeful and rise above calamities and cynicism. Concluding the program, the latter's fine performance by orchestra and chorus featured lilting solos by tenor Gustavo Hernández as the wised-up naïf, Candide, and soprano Golda Berkman as his chastened gold-digger wife, Cunegonde.

Between the evening's Bernstein were three other works, two by Americans and one by a Russian exemplar of the splashy colors and cross-cultural influences that characterize Bernstein’s own work.

Adrienne Albert
Adrienne Albert’s Western Suite is an appealing early work by the oft-performed Los Angeles-based composer. Her substantial Bernstein connection came in her early career as a singer and friend of the composer, collaborating with him on recordings of his Mass and West Side Story. (Before that, her collaboration with Igor Stravinsky included a vocal recording of the Russian composer’s very last song, The Owl and the Pussycat.) Albert’s Western Suite is an evocative, tuneful piece in the worthy tradition of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon and Mississippi suites and the American ballets of Aaron Copland. It teems with impressionistic vistas: an oboe-led Western sunrise, a bustling pizzicato workday, some spiky hoedowns, and an exuberant apotheosis of peeling bells under a wide Western sky.


Florence Price
The piece that most surprised me - in fact it knocked my socks off - was a tone poem by American composer Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), the first African-American woman to have a symphonic piece performed by an American orchestra, when Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave Price that distinction in 1933 with her Symphony in E Minor. This evening’s piece, The Oak, was a deeply mysterious tone poem that reminded one of Rachmaninov's spooky Isle of the Dead, or the more somber orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The work, never completed, was characterized by Parnther as “a torso.” If this is a torso, I want to hear more so.

Annelle Kazumi Gregory
Lending colorful benediction from an earlier century to the evening’s ethnic mash-up, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s evergreen Scheherazade reminded all concerned that exotic sounds from distant musical traditions were always, as they remain today, the spice of musical life. Providing a lovely musical simulation of the fabled heroine's spoken lines in The Thousand and One Nights was the evening’s musical Scheherazade, violinist Annelle Kazumi Gregory. A native of Southern California and a rising young soloist of mixed ethnic background (reportedly African-American and Japanese), she has already achieved distinction in a number of venues around town and abroad. Her solo outings here glistened like sinuous silver threads streaming their way in the vast interior space of the neo-Gothic church. This young artist has a bright future awaiting her.

Mention of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky in the same article reminds me that the former was teacher to the latter, and the latter was teacher-collaborator to featured composer Adrienne Albert in this evening's recital. The torch of musical tradition passes from one generation to the next. (For additional information on Rimsky’s influence on Stravinsky, see my review of the older Russian’s last opera.)

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Celebrating this year its own seventieth season, the Southeast Symphony is an L.A.-based professional community orchestra closely associated with the city’s vibrant African-American musical life. The symphony’s complement of musicians more closely resembles multicultural Los Angeles than any other like ensemble I am aware of. A post-concert check of the orchestra’s ethnic make-up yielded this: Of the 73 musicians who performed on Sunday, 59 of them (that’s 80%) identified as either African-American, Latin-American, Native-American, Pacific Islander, Filipino-American, Asian-American or other non-European backgrounds. And that’s not counting the 13 African-American musicians who had to miss this performance because they had higher paying gigs elsewhere. (The latter conflict is, in fact, one to celebrate, not regret: these musicians are making real money in tinsel town's creative-artistic factory to the world.)

First Congregational Church is the oldest continually serving protestant church in Los Angeles, housing also the City’s largest pipe organ. Even more significant, its social outreach embraces the full diversity of the people of Los Angeles, making it an exemplar institution to bring the fractious city together and to lead the way to the embracing, inclusive society Los Angeles is becoming in this new century.

First Church’s association with the Southeast Symphony is a fortunate pairing of two great Los Angeles institutions with diversity in their DNA. But embracing multiculturalism wasn’t always the way of Los Angeles. Prior to my taking up pen and paper as a music critic a score of years ago, I served for a quarter century as Deputy Director of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department (originally named “Municipal Arts”). One of my first experiences in that capacity, in the late 1970’s, was defending to the City Council’s Finance Committee the Department’s recommendations for grants to private arts organizations.

Here’s what I encountered one day: Two Councilmen on the three-member Finance Committee questioned our selections. (Both were from the then predominantly white San Fernando Valley, inclined to secede from the rest of the City.)  Councilman one declared: "Aman Folk Ensemble? What’s that? It sounds foreign. We don’t need to fund foreign stuff here. Denied.” Councilman two joined in: “Watts Symphony Orchestra? Are you kidding? Those people don’t even know what an orchestra is. Denied.”

True statements, I am ashamed for them to report. Fortunately, Mayor Tom Bradley, then in his first term, supported our original recommendations and kept the two grants in his budget. To their credit, the full City Council had the courage and heart to fund both of them. That’s where Los Angeles was, at least in part, some four decades ago. Since then we’ve come a long way.

The Southeast Symphony is one of the reasons we've come the distance, and it remains one of our continuing musical joys.

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Photo credits: Southeast Symphony at top by Eugene Carbajal. Anthony Parnther by Konstantin Golovchinsky. Other photos are courtesy of Southeast Symphony. 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

First Congo wasn't always a bastion of diversity. Back in the day they were controlled by a cadre of very rich old widows headed by Blanche Seaver who would return unopened any letter that had an FOR stamp on it.

Rodney Punt said...

Ah yes, Blanche Seaver, a well-known name forty years ago in Los Angels. She was fabulously rich and superannuated (in her mid-80's) and lived in a wealthy enclave on Adams Boulevard when I had an evening out with dear Blanche. She was hyper-conservative, but a huge donor to USC and to this day her name festoons several buildings there. I worked for USC then. Around 1976, my then boss, Dean Grant Beglarian of the USC School of Performing Arts asked me, his Assistant Dean for Academic Development, to chaperone Blanche to an event on campus. That involved picking her up at home, which I did. On her mantel were pictures of all the conservative Republican politicians in office in California. At the center of her mantel was a huge picture of her hero, Ronald Reagan. (This was when he was governor of California.) I had to bite my tongue so hard all evening with her, it practically choked me the next morning from swelling. Blanche had already begun to switch her allegiance to the more conservative and Christian Pepperdine University in Malibu, where half the campus still bears her name.

Ah, Blanche. She lived to be 102 years old.