Thursday, June 13, 2024

Bruckner and Tchaikovsky Crown The LBSO Season


LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu and soloist Awadagin Pratt greet the ovation following
their performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach
DAVID J BROWN

The audience hook for the final concert in the Long Beach Symphony’s very impressive 2023-2024 season was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto—and if you regard the programming of it with Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony as a contest between Tchaikovsky’s undoubted popularity and Bruckner’s deemed reputation as box-office poison, then the former was undoubtedly the winner, given the volume of patrons in the Terrace Theater.

Tchaikovsky in 1874, the year of the
First Piano Concerto.
There was a clear sigh of pleasure and even a faintly audible hum-along as the signature pum-pum-pum-paaahhh of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor Op. 23, from horns noticeably energized under the baton of Music Director Eckart Preu, heralded what is still arguably the world’s most popular piano concerto (just as the same rhythm, but very much faster, kicks off the most famous symphony!).

But any fears that the leonine stage presence of soloist Awadagin Pratt might hint some lack of subtlety in his performance were scotched by his very first entry with those massive and equally unmistakable chords striding up the keyboard. 

Here he carefully observed, as so many do not, the piano’s marking (as in the original score) of only forte compared with the preceding fortissimo orchestral tutti, and he thereafter reduced his dynamic further to provide as subtly nuanced an arpeggiated accompaniment to the big mezzo-forte 1st violins/cellos tune (which famously never returns), as anyone could desire.

Awadagin Pratt.
This welcome lack of barnstorming continued to characterize the first movement, with generally swift tempi, aerated textures, and a pervasive sense of spontaneity in the playing of orchestra and soloist alike.

To the movement’s main cadenza Mr. Pratt brought a ruminative, improvisatory quality (though it is fully written out in Tchaikovsky’s score), and the conclusion of the movement, brought in at a fleet 20 minutes, surged with such emphatic vigor that for once the burst of applause was as justified as it was inevitable.

The opening of the Andantino simplice was marked by the delicacy of the string pizzicati, a truly dolcissimo flute solo from section principal Heather Clark, and an appropriately self-effacing piano entry. Maestro Preu maintained a steady forward motion, avoiding any indulgent lingering, but with Tchaikovsky’s restlessly sensitive scoring this gave the music a feeling of vulnerable fragility that was only enhanced by the hectic and uncarefree skittering of the central Allegro vivace assai section—all underlining that this concerto, for all its ingenuity and indelible memorability, was the work of a disturbed, even tormented, composer.

Tchaikovsky seated on a bench in front of the Belle Vue Hotel on the Corso Imperatrice in San Remo, sometime between December 1877 and February 1878.
With barely a pause, the Allegro con fuoco finale swept in headlong, and if any misguided listeners were up to this point feeling a little shortchanged on sheer virtuosity, it surely made up for it. Throughout, orchestra and soloist were as nimble, robust, and integrated as anyone could desire, culminating in a passage of double octaves delivered by Mr. Pratt at a speed that seemed to defy human possibility, and a surge to the finish that brought a roaring standing ovation that surpassed anything I can recall at these concerts. Altogether it was a performance that provided the perfect antidote to any “… surely not again!” feelings about this particular concerto.

For me, though, it was the performance of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB 104, “Romantic” that made the event most memorable. In southern California, celebrations of the 200th birth anniversary of one of the greatest of all symphonists have been remarkably thin on the ground, (very) honorable exceptions being the Santa Clarita Master Chorale’s enterprising whole-evening celebration of his choral music and a fine LAPO account of the Seventh Symphony (reviewed respectively here and here).

In Long Beach at least, this was made up for by the LBSO and Maestro Preu, a self-confessed lifelong Bruckner fan, who in his pre-concert talk (left) gave an enthusiastically spontaneous run-down of what makes this composer so individual—his very large-scale and highly sectional layout of movements; the extreme dynamic range and sudden juxtapositions thereof; his often obsessive rhythmic patterning; and the "terraced" way of orchestral scoring that was drawn originally from his organ improvisation at St. Florian Priory.

Preu also sketched in aspects of Bruckner’s personal life, his social naivety, the cautiousness of his development as a composer, and the extreme lack of self-confidence that led to so much revision, sometimes unnecessary, of his symphonies and in later life to his damaging willingness to accept advice and alterations to them by acolytes—all of which has led to an ongoing academic industry around the ever-expanding plethora of editions of his works.

The Fourth Symphony exists in at least eight versions, but in terms really meaningful to performance these devolve to three: the original of 1874 (and thus pretty much simultaneous with Tchaikovsky’s composition of his First Piano Concerto some one thousand miles east-north-east), Bruckner’s own major reworking of 1878-1880, and his final pre-publication revision (with “help”) of 1888. Of these, by far the most often performed is the 1878-1880 version, and this was what Preu and the LBSO gave us. 

Anton Bruckner in 1885.
Of all composers, Bruckner seems to trigger the most extreme reactions amongst devotees, and I can imagine some who like to hear his symphonies played as spaciously as possible not responding well to Maestro Preu’s interpretation—but in nearly 60 years of listening to countless performances and recordings of this symphony, I can recall few readings as cogent as his.

As an experiment to aid mutual audibility across the orchestra in the Terrace Theater’s unforgiving acoustic, a demountable baffle had been erected at the rear of the platform, and this seemed to give improved clarity to section principal Melia Badalian’s faultless intonation (mezzo-forte just as marked) of the opening solo horn motif against tremolandi in all the strings—and here they delivered the truly ppp whisper of sound demanded by the score.

On from this impressive start came an underlying sense of firm direction, with the first of the symphony’s countless fortissimo tuttis immaculate in ensemble and new-minted brightness. With inner counterpoints clearly delineated and transitions between its various sections beautifully shaped and paced, Preu’s handling—taking only around 17 minutes compared with the 20+ sometimes heard—clearly presented the first movement as something Bruckner thoroughly got right in 1878-1880, but rarely sounding as seamless as this.

Caricature of Bruckner
improvising at the organ.
On some previous occasions I’ve found this symphony’s slow movement a little problematic, having neither the immediate melodic richness of its counterparts in Symphonies 5 and 6, nor the epic Alpine climb-to-the-summit of Nos. 7-9. In particular, the long melody on violas against pizzicati in the violins and cellos that begins at measure 51 can seem interminable if played dully —but not here! Obviously exhaustively rehearsed, the LBSO section brought it glowingly to life as they faithfully observed every one of Bruckner’s many expressive markings, and fully deserved their special shout-out from Maestro Preu at the performance’s conclusion.

Similarly, in a less than expert account the long literal repeat of the “Hunting” Scherzo after the Trio’s folksy twists and turns can become tiresome if there’s the slightest suspicion of rote, but here again the sheer vigor of Preu’s interpretation and the light and shade in the LBSO’s playing made it, and indeed the whole movement’s 10 minutes or so (in this movement, as with the 15-minute Andante, his tempi per se weren’t much faster than usual) pass effortlessly.

Bruckner's tomb beneath the organ in St. Florian Priory.
The Finale is both the longest in duration and the movement that gave its composer the most difficulty in bringing to a satisfactory form, being subject to an additional major revision between the 1874 original and the version at which he arrived by 1880.

Its juxtaposing of several major and distinctive thematic groups, and their widely differing emotional character—including a steady build-up to a grandiloquent brass chorale and a thunderous recall of the work’s opening horn theme, a pensive counter-theme in the strings, and an amiable peasant dance—make it a challenge to hold together, but Preu’s command of the long view, attention to detail, and ability to carry the orchestra with him, paid full dividends.

The symphony’s final climax truly crowned the performance—no echo here of Sir Thomas Beecham’s remark in a different Brucknerian context that he “took note of six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages”—and in awe-inspiring fashion managed, as it always does in the best performances, somehow to express simultaneously tragedy, resigned acceptance, and triumph.

Eckart Preu heralds the LBSO’s viola section for their contribution to the performance of
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.
This performance was a personal triumph for Eckart Preu, and it’s to be hoped that any of the Long Beach audience members with a hitherto dim view of Bruckner were duly converted by it, and—now that the dream team of him as Music Director and Kelly Ruggirello as President have had their contracts renewed through 2028-2029—that he has the opportunity after next season’s 90th anniversary celebrations are over, to give us more Bruckner. How about, instead of (or as well as!) another symphony (No. 6?), a collaboration with the Long Beach Camerata Singers in the Te Deum or the Mass in F minor?—there would still be room in the other half for more Tchaikovsky!

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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, June 1, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Awadagin Pratt: Boston Musical Intelligencer; Tchaikovsky: tchaikovsky-research.net; Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons; Bruckner's tomb: findagrave.com.

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Saturday, June 8, 2024

Mason Concerts Season Ends With Three String Quartets



REVIEW

The Zelter String Quartet play Beethoven, Mason, and Korngold at Mason House
DAVID J BROWN

Though pot-pourri programs of varied smaller pieces and arrangements can often be fun and sometimes very rewarding, for this listener at least there’s really nothing to match an imaginatively chosen set of larger-scale works that explore and reveal what can be achieved by composers from different time-periods in one of the archetypal chamber music genres.

… And this was exactly what the redoubtable Zelter String Quartet (Gallia Kastner and Kyle Gilner, violins; Carson Rick, viola; Allan Hon, cello) provided for the final recital of the Mason Home Concerts’ 10th anniversary year: an early Beethoven quartet, and the middle items in two composers’ outputs of three—Erich Wolfgang Korngold and host Todd Mason himself, though in his case we hope and expect that there will be more!

Kyle Gilner and Gallia Kastner.
A couple of months ago a story hit the internet, or at least those bits of it concerned with classical music, on the uncovering of a supposed “secret code” in Beethoven’s manuscripts by which the composer is said to have intended to convey layers of expressive nuance above and beyond the normal indications that made it into the published editions of his works.

Intriguing? Yes... Likely? Probably not… Clickbait? Undoubtedly. But in the close and impactful proximity afforded by the purpose-designed Mason concert room, the notion began to seem not quite so outlandish as I followed with the printed score the Zelters’ account of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18 No. 6 (probably the last to be written of the set of six, though the compositional chronology between 1798-1800 of Beethoven’s highly accomplished first claim on the genre that Joseph Haydn, above all, had raised to pre-eminence in the chamber music sphere, is otherwise not known for certain).

Beethoven in 1803: painting
by Christian Hornemann. 
These wonderful players’ almost limpet-like precision in following, from the outset of the Allegro con brio first movement, the wealth of expressive markings—sudden changes of dynamic, mode of attack, etc.—that are spattered across the pages certainly underlined the impression of a composer obsessively intent on pushing his vision as vividly as possible, though maintaining this forensic attention to detail did not preclude spontaneity in the movement’s unfolding.

Their approach also underlined that there’s more to the Adagio ma non troppo second movement than limpid Mozartian serenity, with its central turn to the minor more clouded than usual, and gave an additional unsettled edge to the off-kilter urgency of the Scherzo. In the Trio, Ms. Kastner relished the insouciant twists and turns of the soloistic role that Beethoven gives the 1st violin.

The expressive range covered within this work’s compact and outwardly conventional four-movement design certainly comes to the fore in the lengthy Adagio introduction to the finale. Entitled La Malinconia and carrying the instruction Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezzo (this piece must be treated with the greatest delicacy), it almost amounts to a separate extra slow movement.

But only “almost,” and the Zelters avoided any smoothing of the emotional jolt between its rapt, sometimes racked, introspection and the blithe jollity of the movement’s main body, punctuated though it is by brief further returns to the La Malinconia mood. Overall, this performance dug deeper into the ambiguities of this earlyish Beethoven masterpiece than any other that I can recall.

Allan Hon and Carson Rick.
The Zelter String Quartet had previously performed Todd Mason’s First (2019) and Third (2021) string quartets respectively at Mason House and in the 100-inch telescope dome at Mount Wilson Observatory (reviewed by my LA Opus colleague John Stodder here and here). While the First Quartet’s four movements, mostly in slow to moderate tempi, adumbrate an acknowledged life-journey from innocence to experience, and the single movement of the Third seems primarily a vehicle for timbral and harmonic experimentation, No. 2 (2020) is firmly structured in three separate movements, fast-slow-fast.

Todd Mason.
The Zelter seemed particularly adept at not just navigating but positively relishing the opening Allegro energico’s near-constant rhythmic wrong-footing—from 7/8 to 5/8 to 6/8 to 2/4 to 3/8, and so on—never exactly repeating a pattern and sometimes with half a dozen changes of time signature in as many measures. The result was jagged, compulsive, and unsettling, as if players and audience alike were hanging on by their fingertips to a near out-of-control vehicle. Mason does build in calmer sections, but the motion resumes and climaxes in a ff slam on the brakes.

The second movement is in the greatest contrast, opening as it does with slow pianissimo drifting initially on the 1st and 2nd violins and then all four instruments. This dreamy motion seems to belie the initial Allegretto con passione marking, but via two silent 2/4 measures that punctuate the pervasive 4/4, it works up to a powerful ff climax before subsiding back into the opening mood, the sense of stasis enhanced by mutes being added in the last 10 measures.

The finale has another complete change of mood—mutes off, and away on what sounded like a swirling peasant dance, all chattering groups of 16th notes and vigorous octave leaps, with something of a central European tinge that was surely an homage to models in Bartók and Kodály. As often in Mason's works, this movement has something of an ABA structure, with a slower Più lento con il sentimento section before the dance returns. As ever, the Zelter Quartet seemed unfazed by its stringent demands, and their virtuoso account was met with ringing cheers. Hearing the String Quartet No. 2 in its original form made a fascinating contrast with its later guise as Chamber Suite for String Orchestra, recorded as fill-up to Mason's impressive Violin Concerto, available on Ulysses Arts.


After the interval, with the Mason Concert experience corporeally enriched as ever by Ethel Phipps’s marvelous catering, Ms. Kastner and Mr. Gilner swopped the 1st and 2nd violin chairs for Korngold’s String Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 26. His three string quartets were much more widely separated in time than Mason’s three: No. 1 in A major, Op. 16 was written between 1920-1923, at the height of his early operatic triumphs, while No. 3 in D major, Op. 34 (1944-1945) dates from the latter part of Korngold's signal career as a Hollywood film composer.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his
wife Luzi en route to America.
The four-movement Second Quartet lies almost exactly equidistant in time between them: Korngold composed it in 1933 when he was still living in Vienna, and shortly before his first trip to Hollywood to work with Max Reinhardt on the latter's film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though the quartet still left the feeling that something essential in Korngold’s musical persona is diminished if not lost when he doesn’t have the sumptuous resources of a large orchestra—as is not the case with some other great composers (and Korngold was a great composer) who essay chamber music as well as orchestral works and opera—the Zelters’ affectionate performance was a perfect contrast after Beethoven’s youthful brilliance and Mason’s wide-ranging challenges.

To these ears, both the concise sonata-design Allegro and the whimsical Allegretto con moto that does duty as scherzo-and-trio recalled elements of Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing incidental music, while after some introductory measures of eerie harmonics there was plenty of aural schlagobers to be enjoyed in the romantic Lento and in particular the concluding Tempo di valse.

Finally, we had not one but two encores: first the traditional Danish folk song Æ Rømeser, in a 2017 arrangement by the Danish String Quartet, and then, right out of left field, The Beatles’ Come Together as reworked by Quatuor Ébène in 2010.

Altogether what a feast of music this was, and a reminder if one were needed by now that within greater LA’s teeming chamber music scene, the Mason Concerts remain a unique pleasure, garnished as they are not only with Ethel Phipps’s unequalled food but also the informal and witty introductory talks by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano. Roll on the 2025 season!

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Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, May 11, 2024.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Beethoven: musicwithease.com; Korngold: The Korngold Society.

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Monday, May 13, 2024

Seattle Opera Serves Up 60th Anniversary Gala Concert

 

Greer Grimsley
Sunny Martini

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle

ERICA MINER

To commemorate both the finish to a highly successful 2023-24 season and the 60th anniversary of the company’s 1963 founding, Seattle Opera held a gala double celebration on May 11 highlighted by a star-studded ensemble of solo singers, the 52-member Seattle Opera Chorus, and members of the Seattle Symphony. It was an exceptional evening, serving up slice after slice of ganache-filled operatic birthday cake to delight a pumped audience ready for anything.

Kazem Abdullah
Philip Newto
The program, if a bit overlong, accomplished its goal of displaying the performers’ strong suits. Helmed by Conductor Kazem Abdullah (X: the Life and Times of Malcolm X), the cast of celebrities, many of them beloved SO favorites, brought a stellar sheen to the festivities, with a combination of solo arias, small ensembles, full opera scenes and choruses, and orchestral numbers. David Gately’s always entertaining direction for the singers provided plenty of visual interest for the audience.

The most prominent luminary of the evening, Greer Grimsley, demonstrated why he remains a living legend as the head god in Wagner’s Ring. After acquitting himself majestically in Wotan’s “Farewell,” Grimsley joined the ranks of lush-voiced bass-baritones able to cross over to another form of elegance, paying homage to the occasion with his impassioned “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

Greer Grimsley
Philip Newton


“Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse” from the Ambroise Thomas Hamlet is always a favorite for opera galas to show off a gifted baritone. John Moore, who portrayed the lead in SO’s production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, gamely took on the difficult task of being first batter up and delivered strongly.
In her partnering with Moore, soprano Sarah Coburn’s vibrant high notes carried beautifully throughout the hall, in the “Pronta io son” duet from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and with SO Resident Artist Michael J. Hawk, in the passionate “Nedda! Silvio!” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Performing both of these duets may have caused her to flag later on, however, in “Ardon gl’incensi” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a grueling test for both vocal pyrotechnics and stamina.

Fans of Ginger Costa-Jackson had the opportunity to watch her perform multiple times, delivering winning performances vocally, dramatically and comically. Costa-Jackson and bass Adam Lau provided delightful comic antics in “Oh! Che muso” from Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, and the mezzo was at her sultry best in the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Philip Newton
A radiant Mary Elizabeth Williams, who received major recognition for her SO performance of the fiendish role of Isolde in 2022, brought down the house with an inspiring rendition of “My man’s gone now” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Williams and Costa-Jackson then performed one of opera’s most iconic and difficult soprano and mezzo duets, “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s Norma. The pair performed fearlessly, with bold, dramatic flourishes.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Philip Newton

Duke Kim, the engaging Almaviva in SO’s current production of The Barber of Seville, rendered the poignant “Ah! Lêve-toi, soleil” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet with heartfelt passion and powerful top notes. He and Michael J. Hawk gave a dramatically convincing interpretation of the gorgeous tenor and baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

Any bel canto tenor would give his eye teeth to perform “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. Amitai Pati sang sweetly and sincerely, appropriate for the naïve irresistible character the aria portrays, producing beautiful tones throughout. One hopes to hear more from him in the future.

Adam Lau’s performance of “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was vocally strong, and his appealing playfulness brought appreciative guffaws from the audience.

The Seattle Symphony made the most of its virtuosity and lush orchestral sound with an energetic rendering of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s beloved opera, Eugene Onegin.

In a surprise move,  U.S. representative from Washington's 7th congressional district Pramila Jayapal gave a moving address about the astonishing accomplishments of SO General Director Christina Scheppelmann, who took charge of SO in 2019. Jayapal then presented Scheppelmann with a commemorative plaque honoring the general director’s hard work as well as the multifaceted success of her leadership. The audience was delighted to hear that the Seattle City Council had declared May “Opera Month” throughout the city.

Christina Scheppelmann, Pramila Jayapal, Deborah Horne
Philip Newton


Having provided a buoyant opening to the concert with the Entry of the Guests from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the Seattle Opera Chorus inspired the audience with “Va Pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco. Their Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser provided a seemly finish to an enchanted evening that will be remembered for many decades as an occasion that was memorable in every way.





To highlight the importance of the event, Seattle’s well-respected FM classical station, classicalking.org, will broadcast a series of recordings (May 10, May 17, May 24 and May 31) drawn from the company’s history. 

Photo credits: Philip Newton, Sunny Martini

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Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Sunday, May 5, 2024

A Barber for All Seasons

 


REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle

ERICA MINER

According to Beethoven, Rossini’s “excellent opera buffa,” The Barber of Seville, would be “played so long as Italian opera will exist.” The older master’s assessment was spot on. Over the past two centuries, this youthful, energetic confection remains Rossini’s most beloved work.

On May 4, Seattle Opera chose this gem, a co-production between Opera Queensland, Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera, to initiate the photo finish to their 2023-24 season. It was clearly the right move. Directed by Lindy Hume (SO’s The Stranger, Rigoletto, Count Ory), with its boldly colored, spectacularly vibrant sets and costumes, gave an overall effect that was captivating: funny, sexy, and alive.

The well-appointed cast included panoplies of familiar performers coupled with an impressive number of fresh new faces, providing an extraordinary assemblage of talent onstage.

Duke Kim,
Sean Michael Plumb



It’s always intriguing to see a Figaro making his debut, and Sean Michael Plumb, who already has made a name for himself at the Met Opera, was shamelessly self-promoting in his characterization. His initial appearance via the hall for his Largo factotum aria, reminiscent of Alice’s White Rabbit being late for a very important date (i.e., showing up for his entrance) set the stage for an appealing portrayal that was comically adept, emphasizing the character’s inherent subtleties more than the slapstick angle. The voice, with its fearless high notes, fully filled the hall with no problem whatsoever.

Megan Moore, also in her company debut, brought a combination of dreaminess and down-to-earth feistiness to her portrayal of the young Rosina. Her voice was remarkably flexible and varied: brighter and more lyrical than usual for this role, with a range that was superbly agile from top to bottom. Her acting was convincing; no one, not even Figaro, was going to mess with this fiery, determined young woman.

As Almaviva Duke Kim delivered a well-rounded performance that was proficient, not only vocally but comically. Both of his Act 1 arias showed that this role lies perfectly within his fach: lyrical, technically skillful with all the fioratura. But he also stood out in the ensembles, contributing greatly to the cohesiveness of the whole, and showed exceptional comic élan in all the physically demanding antics the staging required of him. 

Returning bass Kevin Burdette is an opera singer for all seasons, known for his comic flair, but also for more serious roles. He portrayed Don Bartolo in true Jim Carrey style, emphasizing the wicked, Count Olaf aspects of the crotchety old tormentor, showing his sleazy side to great effect and acquitting himself impressively in the role’s more demanding vocal aspects.

William Guanbo Su,
Kevin Burdette
William Guanbo Su made a huge impression debuting as Don Basilio. The voice is much fuller and lusher than what is accustomed in this role, powerful but not thunderous, and overwhelming the listener with its power and sumptuousness. His acting was appropriately varied: at once comical and serious, mugging when appropriate, grabbing the viewer’s attention whenever he was onstage.

In her SO debut, Deanne Meek’s Berta was more fleshed out (literally; see above: “sexy”) than was usual for this secondary role, with an offbeat, gawking characterization that elicited appreciative laughter throughout the house. Her Act 2 aria, often somewhat an afterthought, came off so beautifully as to compete with any of the other arias in the show, especially its ringing high notes.

Michael J. Hawk, in his SO debut, stood out in the small but pivotal role of Fiorello. Marc Kenison/Waxie Moon as Ambrogio provided the required antics with aplomb.

Another refreshing debut was that of Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi, who displayed Florentine subtlety in her lively tempi, intuitive phrasing, and overall command of the orchestra. Starting with a spirited overture, she maintained an appropriately Italianate character in each aria and ensemble and brought out the absolute best from the orchestra, all the way to the end.

Chorus master Michaella Calzaretta continues to impress with her first-rate coaching of her singers, who were required to execute complicated stage maneuvers in addition to their singing demands.

Duke Kim,
Megan Moore

Tracy Grant Lord’s set designs included an assortment of doors and windows, both interior and exterior, which symbolized the burning desire of a young woman to spring free of her restricted captive world. Figaro, her lifeline to the outside, crisscrosses between outside and inside, while her would-be lover Almaviva, fantasizing about breaking down the doors to liberate her from her prison, serenades her from the outside. The concept works brilliantly, as the minor characters—Berta being a prime example—also dream of being set free.

Matthew Marshall’s eye-catching lighting provided continuous interest with arresting detail, from the lit-up doorways and windowsills during the overture to the jaundiced yellow of Basilio’s supposed illness and beyond.

Hume’s direction provided plentiful opportunity for the characters to ham it up. It's not every day one sees a long-limbed man dangling upside down from a chandelier. But the pièce de resistance was the stunningly presented, authentically choreographed fandango finale. All the characters banded together to dance, slap hands, and in general carry on to the max to Associate Director and Choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s brilliant step routine. A great deal of work went into this buoyant, vigorous ending, and it showed. The audience could barely contain their delight. That is a sure sign of a well thought out, splendidly implemented production. It was without a doubt the highlight of, and a perfect ending to, the company’s season.


The Barber of Seville runs May 4–19, 2024, at Seattle Opera. Tickets and info: seattleopera.org/barber

Photo credits: Phillip Newton
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 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]


Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Mason House Hosts a Magnificent Seven


l-r: Jonathan Davis, Susan Greenberg, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Bernadine Blaha, Judith Farmer,
Gernot Wolfgang (composer), Amy Jo Rhine, Sérgio Coelho.

REVIEW

Los Angeles Wind Sextet play Blumer, Ligeti, Poulenc, Schubert, Wolfgang, Schubert, and Falla
DAVID J BROWN

With seven performers playing seven works artfully distributed across its two halves, the penultimate recital in the 10th anniversary season of the uniquely convivial Mason House Concert series fielded as much variety in repertoire and instrumental resources as one could wish for in a single evening, and all introduced with her usual wit by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano (right).

The seven players comprised the six members of the Los Angeles Wind Sextet—Susan Greenberg, flute; Jonathan Davis, oboe; Sérgio Coelho, clarinet; Amy Jo Rhine, horn; Judith Farmer, bassoon; and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano—together with the Canadian pianist Bernadine Blaha, who joined Mr. Fitz-Gerald in the second half in two pieces for piano four-hands.

Todd Mason.
While that second half included no fewer than three “lollipops” (to use the term appropriated by the late great Sir Thomas Beecham) the first half comprised two more substantial works, the first of which in particular I suspect was unfamiliar to most if not all of the capacity audience gathered in composer host Todd Mason’s state-of-the-art living-room-into-concert-room conversion in West LA. And while each was a product of the 20th century, they were as different from each other as could be imagined—the one comfortably Romantic, the other fiercely Modernistic.

First up was the Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, Op. 45 written in 1921 by Theodor Blumer (1881-1964), well known in his day as a conductor but now almost entirely forgotten as a composer. Subtitled “Originalthema mit Veranderungen,” Blumer’s Sextet could very well function as an introduction for novice listeners to theme-and-variations as a musical form, being one of those sets where the theme is not only strongly shaped but remains clearly discernible in its variations—unlike some that leave you scratching your head as to where on earth the tune’s gone.

Theodor Blumer.
Blumer’s theme—first heard on Ms. Greenberg’s flute—is amiable, expansive and immediate. After the first half’s marked repeat, the much longer second half comprises a miniature development (with the theme spread around the five winds), and then a recapitulation in which the main melody transfers to the horn.

Listeners are kept comfortably on track in each of the succeeding variations by their sticking to this structure, though Blumer straightaway broadens textural variety and expressive range by allotting Variation 1 to the piano alone, which had been silent during the statement of the theme. Variation 1 is dubbed “Improvisation,” which exactly suited the wayward delicacy of the piano writing and Mr. Fitz-Gerald’s playing.

Indeed, each variation has a subtitle that signals its nature. All six instruments share the carefree dance of Variation 2Capriccio,” while in Variation 3Pastorale” the winds enter sequentially over tranquil, reflective piano chords. In the expert hands of these players Variation 4Slavischer Tanz” was a merry whirl and then, over Debussyan keyboard ripples, Ms. Rhine’s horn intoned Variation 5Romanze,” the sentimental heart of the work. Variation 6Humoreske” was mostly jaunty tiptoeing, before all concerned let rip in the dazzling contrapuntal Finale, marked Lebhaft, sehr locker (Lively, very relaxed).

György Ligeti.
Unlike the forgotten Blumer, György Ligeti (1923-2006) is still a relatively familiar composer—an influential avant-gardist whose work, however outré sometimes in inspiration, remains vivid and communicative, often with a mordant sense of humor. This was evident in his Six Bagatelles for Woodwind Quintet, which he extracted in 1953 from his piano cycle Musica ricercata.

Across their overall fast-slow-fast-fast-slow-fast sequence, the Bagatelles deliver a virtuoso work-out for each of the five players, with extremes of dynamic, pace, and pitch constantly deployed. All this was delivered with maximum commitment and intensity by the LA Wind Sextet, with Ms. Greenberg’s flute (switching sometimes to piccolo) or Ms. Rhine’s horn often taking the expressive lead.


After the interval the wind players had a breather while Mr. Fitz-Gerald and Ms. Blaha (above) played the two pieces for piano four-hands. Poulenc’s Sonate pour piano à quatre mains FP 8, written in June 1918 when he was not yet 20, is brief even by the composer’s usual standards of concision, with its three movements all over within six minutes or so.

Francis Poulenc.
Though Dr. Brown-Montesano had noted in her pre-concert talk that in 19th century domestic music-making the four-hands medium was particularly useful for discreet romantic interaction, Poulenc’s Sonate affords precious little opportunity for this, its first and last movements being mostly concerned with jagged, insistent rhythms and quicksilver figuration. Fitz-Gerald and Blaha dispatched all this with vigor and élan, though to me their way with the second movement, entitled Rustique and marked Naif et Lent, seemed a little matter-of-fact.

Their other joint contribution was the first of the evening’s “lollipops.” Schubert’s Marche Militaire No. 1 in D major, Op. 51 (D. 733) No. 1, is definitely one of those “oh, so that’s what that is!” tunes, but on this occasion it came liberally and unexpectedly garnished.

In 1974 the prolific and long-lived English composer John Gardner (left) produced a version of the march that in four minutes or thereabouts cleverly weaves in numerous musical quotes, from Colonel Bogey to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to Beethoven’s Ninth. If you want to share the fun that set the Mason House audience laughing, go to YouTube here (and to sample Gardner’s own impressive music, try the first movement from his Symphony No. 1).

This cornucopian program of goodies even fielded a living composer in the person of Gernot Wolfgang, who was indeed present for the performance of his Ghost Train for flute, bassoon and piano. This was commissioned in 2013 by the concert series Chamber Music Palisades, and brought CMP’s Artistic Director Susan Greenberg back to the platform, together with Ms. Farmer and Mr. Fitz-Gerald.

Gernot Wolfgang (right) is a prolific composer of both jazz and concert works, and Ghost Train has its feet in both camps; the title references the jazz technique of “ghost notes”—softer and played with less emphasis than others in a phrase. The work’s exploratory propulsiveness across its sectional, 11-minute span made it an intriguing listen that invited re-hearings.

Finally came the other two “lollipops,” bringing back the LA Wind Sextet's full muster. Emmanuel Chabrier’s orchestral rhapsody España exists in numerous transcriptions, but here I did feel that the loss of its kaleidoscopic color, the percussion-tinged rhythms, and warmth of its main theme on horns and cellos, was not altogther compensated by the pungency and clarity of winds plus piano.


Manuel de Falla.
On the other hand, these instruments felt idiomatically appropriate for the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s 1915 ballet El amor brujo (Bewitched Love), in no way under-serving its tremolando shudders and the brilliant ferocity of its main theme. As in the orchestral original, this was played on the oboe, Mr. Davis (as first amongst six expert equals) giving it all the sinuous charm plus hint of menace that it needs.

Altogether this was another memorable feast at the Mason House, and not only aural but also of comestibles, thanks to Ethel Phipps’ wonderful catering. The last concert in the series, and already sold out, will bring the Zelter String Quartet on Saturday May 11 to play Beethoven’s and Korngold’s Quartets Nos. 6 and 2 respectively, as well as Todd Mason’s own Second String Quartet


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Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, April 20, 2024.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Blumer: Superstock; Ligeti, Poulenc, Falla: Wikimedia Commons; John Gardner: composer website; Gernot Wolfgang: composer website.

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Friday, March 29, 2024

“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” at Santa Clarita


Bruckner in 1889: portrait in oils by Ferry Bératon.

REVIEW

Bruckner, celebrating 200 years: Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

This year marks the bicentenary (on September 4, to be exact) of the birth of the great Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner, and so in southern California we keenly look forward to a plethora of performances of his works. Sorry… just kidding. There seems to be not a note of Bruckner, for example, in the LA Philharmonic’s 2024-2025 season (though that still finds space for yet another *yawn* "Mahler Grooves Festival"). All of which leaves just the Long Beach Symphony to fly Bruckner's symphonic flag in this part of the world, with its keenly awaited perfomance of Symphony No. 4 on June 1.

Given this, one might expect even less attention to Bruckner's choral works, were it not that Artistic Director Allan Robert Petker (left) and his hugely enterprising Santa Clarita Master Chorale have already—on Saturday, March 16, in the snug main auditorium of Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center—done the master of Linz and St. Florian proud, and not just with a token inclusion of one piece in an otherwise mixed program, but an entire evening devoted to him—“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” indeed.

This was an object-lesson in making the most of limited resources. Petker met head on the challenge of presenting Bruckner’s choral output at its most attention-grabbing by opening with his Te Deum in C major WAB 45, drafted while finalizing his Sixth Symphony (1879-1881) but only completed in 1884 after the Seventh Symphony (1881-1883) was finished, making it the sole large-scale choral/orchestral work from Bruckner’s symphonic maturity.

The Te Deum is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, chorus, a normally-constituted but still large symphony orchestra, and organ (ad lib). Constrained by financial, logistical, and voice/instrument balance concerns, Mr. Petker presented the work with a very small band of just 10 string players, the full specified wind section of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, a single pair of horns and no other brass, and timpani.

But even with such reduced forces, the elemental power of Bruckner’s fortissimo opening—a falling ostinato on strings against a sustained chord in all the winds—still had remarkable impact in the relatively small hall. Similarly, when in the second measure the 60-strong chorus fervently seized their opening on one of the few straightforwardly simple unisons in the whole work, one barely registered the absence of trumpets, trombones and tuba. Already it was clear that this approach was viable.

The first page of Bruckner's manuscript of his Te Deum.
If I had any quibble about the performance of the Te Deum, it concerned the solo parts. The work is divided into five sections wherein the soprano, alto and tenor sing briefly as a trio in I; in II and IV the tenor takes the lead before the other three join in; III is for chorus only; and in V all four again contribute. Despite each section being headed with the first few words of its text, and having concluding double bar lines, the way each ends shows clearly that Bruckner intended the work to be essentially continuous.

In this performance, instead of the same four soloists throughout, the joy was spread by changing the team for each section, so that overall three sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses were featured. Though the changeovers—with each team retreating back to the choir ranks and the next coming forward—were carried out quickly and efficiently, there were inevitable breaks in that continuity, with the shortest sections, II and III, in particular seeming over almost as soon as they had begun, with their conclusions left hanging.

Apart from this one cavil, the performance of the Te Deum was confident and cogent, with the choir equally projecting Bruckner’s great climaxes forcefully and getting to grips with his often complex counterpoint and unpredictable harmonic shifts; as ever, the quotations from the Seventh Symphony’s Adagio in the final In te, Domine, speravi section were strikingly eloquent.

Bruckner in 1854.
The remainder of the first half comprised three of Bruckner’s unaccompanied motets, but in addition took on something of the character of a genial lecture-recital. Before each motet, choir soprano and program annotator Brenda Hunten came forward to deliver brief accounts of milestones and domestic episodes in his (sometimes quirky) personal life, and then Maestro Petker talked about the composer's artistic development and specifically the piece to follow. First of the three motets to be sung was the brief but rapturously beautiful Locus iste, WAB 23 (1869) with its echoes of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus.

Next was Ave Maria, of which Bruckner composed three settings, all in the key of F major. The first (WAB 5), dating from 1856 and scored for two soloists, chorus, cello, and organ, shows him not yet arrived at his full individuality, while the last of the three (WAB 7), though written in 1882 and full of harmonies and progressions that characterize Bruckner’s mature style, is for a single alto voice with organ. Thus for this concert the second setting, WAB 6, written in 1861 for seven-part choir, selected itself, and in its limpid serenity maintained the mood established by the Locus iste. Last, but far from least, came the somewhat longer and more grandly contemplative Os justi, WAB 30 (1879).

Bruckner in 1868.
In the second half Maestro Petker and the Santa Clarita Master Chorale presented a single work, Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor, WAB 27 (1866). He actually wrote four full Mass settings, but each of the other three—the Missa Solemnis in B-flat minor, WAB 29 (1854), the Mass No. 1 in D minor, WAB 26 (1864), and Mass No. 3 in F minor, WAB 28 (1868)—is scored for four soloists, chorus, orchestra, and organ.

Mass No. 2, however, utilizes eight-part mixed choir with no soloists, plus winds and brass only (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets and 3 trombones). Bruckner composed it at the request of the Bishop of Linz for the dedication of a chapel in the city’s new cathedral, but revised it in 1869, 1876, and 1882: this final version is the one normally performed, as was the case here.

Bruckner's manuscript dedication of the Mass in E minor.
In the context of this program, the work's austere and timeless spirituality provided a far stronger expressive contrast to the jubilant Te Deum than any of the other Mass settings would have done, though similar logistical and audible balance factors also applied here. In the absence of brass instruments apart from the pair of horns, Petker’s solution was to rework the accompaniment for the strings and winds used in his account of the Te Deum.

While hard-line Bruckner purists would doubtless disapprove, in the fairly small Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center auditorium the performance had considerable conviction, aided by virtually vibrato-free playing from the strings. It would be idle to deny, though, that—particularly at the fastish speeds which the hall's quite dry acoustic prompted—some of the Mass in E minor’s intrinsic quasi-archaic grandeur was diminished.

All in all, this was a splendid showcase both for a skilled and committed choir and its imaginative Artistic Director, and an implicit finger-wag to other southern Californian performing bodies who, so far, seem to have shown no interest in celebrating the 200th anniversary of one who was not only one of the greatest 19th century symphonists but also a master composer for choral forces. 

The Santa Clarita Master Chorale at a previous concert in the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center.
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Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center, Saturday March 16 2024, 7 p.m.
Images: The performers: Kimberly Ayers; Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons (1889), London Symphony Orchestra (1854), StadtMuseum, Linz (1868); Te Deum manuscript: IMSLP; Mass in E minor dedication: Wikimedia Commons.

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