Tuesday, March 14, 2023

An All-Stops-Out Night at Long Beach…

The Long Beach Symphony and Camerata Singers under the baton of Eckart Preu at a dramatic
moment from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, with soloists Anna Schubert, Ashley Faatoalia, and
James Martin Schaefer, and the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach

The "Wheel of Fortune" image from
the original Codex Buranus collection of
poems and dramatic texts discovered
 in a Bavarian monastery in 1803,
 from which Carl Orff selected 24 for
 musical setting as Carmina Burana.
… though no stops in the literal sense, as the organ is one instrument not included in the otherwise copious line-up that Carl Orff (1895-1982) deploys in his 1935-36 “scenic cantata” Carmina Burana, given on the second Saturday of March by a notably expanded Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, vocal soloists Anna Schubert (soprano), Ashley Faatoalia (tenor) and James Martin Schaefer (baritone), the Long Beach Camerata Singers and South Bay Children’s Choir, and the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo, all under the baton of the LBSO's Music Director, Eckart Preu.

Given that Carmina Burana's length of just on an hour is slightly awkward for concert programming—like Beethoven’s Ninth and some Bruckner and Mahler symphonies, it’s too short to stand by itself but too long for any other extended work to be included—Maestro Preu’s selection for the first half was Ángeles de Llama y Hielo (Angels of Fire and Ice), written in 1993-94 by the Mexican composer Ana Lara (b. 1959).

Ana Lara.
In some ways it was a shrewd choice: at 20 minutes just the right length and certainly unhackneyed, needing virtually the same large orchestra as Carmina Burana and, with its essentially static, contemplative nature in appropriate contrast to the latter’s propulsiveness. Compositora Lara is adept at conjuring orchestral sonorities, and the textures that characterize the four movements—Ángel de Tinieblas (Darkness), Ángel del Alba (Dawn), Ángel de Luz (Light), and Ángel del Ocaso (Sunset)—are certainly atmospheric.

Preu’s handling of the score had as much focus and sense of direction as the piece allows, and the LBSO responded with its customary skill, care and commitment—the antiphonal placing of two percussion groups, and the harps far left and far right at the front of the platform, were particularly pleasing effects. But to my ears, each movement had a too-similar effect and with diminishing returns: impressively portentous scene-settings but which led nowhere, and with insufficient differentiation to match the given subjects. 

Orchestral layout for Ana Lara's Ángeles de Llama y Hielo.

After the interval, the ultra-familiar galvanic roar of O Fortuna was welcome. However, there are some thickets to be navigated before one can get to grips with Carmina Burana as a piece of music per se. First there’s the ubiquity of O Fortuna itself and the near-impossibility of dissociating it from the innumerable ad and movie sound-tracks that it’s adorned, as well as its begetting of endless near-clones whenever a film composer, hard-up for originality, wants to underscore scenes of epic barbarism on the screen.

Orff at around the time he composed Carmina Burana.
Then there’s the knee-jerk reaction of critics for whom Carmina Burana's sheer popularity renders it unworthy of serious discussion, swiping at its perceived banality rather than engaging with what it does do—and very well. Finally there’s the elephant in the room to be tiptoed around or confronted directly as you choose: Orff’s accommodation with Nazism that, it seems, he used to further his career and which, for some, renders him beyond the pale as an artistic figure and this particular piece unlistenable.

What Orff does supremely well—while sidestepping historically informed “authenticity”—is to clothe the 13th century poems that are his subject in exactly appropriate music: as vivid, direct, and down-to-earth as the verses themselves, pungently scored for forces in which multiple percussion and the two pianos (the Silver-Garburg Duo bitingly prominent when required) often take the rhythmic lead. This fitness for purpose of the music was admirably clarified by the texts being projected as supertitles, a far more satisfactory solution than extensive printing in the program book would have been.

Dr. James Bass.
Carmina Burana
is subtitled Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magical images), but shorn as it almost always is of those images and any dramatic staging, in practical terms it is supremely a choral work. The Camerata Singers’ Artistic Director, James Bass, emphasized this in an illuminating pre-concert conversation with Maestro Preu.

The choir appears in all but five of the 25 numbers that are spread across the work’s three large sections, singing in a wide and demanding variety of styles: rapid and strongly accented polysyllabic chanting, recitatives that turn on a dime between pp and ff, unaccompanied unison quasi-plainchant, as well as many full-throated outbursts. Throughout, the Long Beach Camerata Singers covered themselves with glory, as did the South Bay Children’s Choir when their big solo moment arrived at the start of Part III, Cour d’amours (Court of love).

James Martin Schaefer.
Pre-eminent though the chorus may be, it is also crucial that the three soloists embrace fully the exceptional expressive demands that Orff makes of them. The baritone has the largest role—the only soloist to appear in all three parts—and James Martin Schaefer immediately impressed from his first appearance in No.4 Omnia Sol temperat: as the work progressed he was variously tremulous, fervent, and reflective as his words required, but always richly toned and sensitive in expression.

Part I, Primo vere (In spring), is the longest of the three, and as always, I felt some longueurs: surely there are a couple too many alternations between cheery German choruses and chunky orchestral dances, for all the energy and rhythmic élan that the Camerata Singers and LBSO brought to them? For me, the advent of the brief Part II, In Taberna (In the tavern), brings the work onto much more satisfying expressive ground, where it remains until the end.

Ashley Faatoalia.
After Mr. Schaefer delivered Part II’s opening No.11 Estuans interius with clear rapid-fire intonation, Ashley Faatoalia gave just the right blend of intensity and exaggerated pathos to his single aria, No.12 Olim lacus colueram: you could almost hear the roasted swan’s flesh crisp and sizzle, accompanied by mock laments from Orff’s acutely scored instrumental solos, and its three verses punctuated by fast, bitten-out chants from the men of the chorus.

Anna Schubert.
Part III introduces the soprano solo, whose role, first in alternation with the baritone and then alone, enshrines the sexual directness and fervor that still might cause a bit of blinking in more prudish quarters. Anna Schubert’s long-delayed contribution was thrilling, culminating at No.23 Dulcissime in an absolutely secure leap of a 9th to the moment when Orff’s evocation of ecstasy, con abandono, leaves words entirely behind in a long melismatic “Ah….” that progressively slows as it rises to “totam tibi subdo me!” (no translation necessary here).

Eckart Preu.
Anna Schubert absolutely nailed this solo, as did the full orchestral and choral forces, estatico as the score directs, in the scalp-tingling culminatory “Blanziflor et Helena” chorus, securely held together as everywhere by Maestro Preu, despite having to deal with uncomfortably long sight-lines to the back of the Terrace Theater’s very deep stage (could not high demountable risers have been provided for the chorus?). His task in this work reminded me of the quip made by some regarding the even larger forces needed for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, that it requires not so much a conductor as a traffic cop!

Heretically, I’ve always wished that Carmina Burana ended at this chorus, with of course a suitable harmonic resolution added, rather than leading directly as it does into the reprise of O Fortuna—but which of course makes appropriate dramatic sense, closing the circle of the inexorable wheel of fate, and on this occasion bringing the near-capacity audience in the Terrace Theater instantly to its feet, cheering. Truly this evening was a memorable success for the LBSO.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, March 11, 2023, 8 p.m.
Images: The performers, Eckart Preu: Caught in the Moment Photography; Final applause: Todd Mason; "Wheel of Fortune" and Ana Lara: Wikimedia Commons; Orff: Carl Orff Foundation website; James Bass: Long Beach Camerata Singers website; Anna Schubert: J.D. Renes/artist website; James Martin Schaefer: artist website; Ashley Faatoaila: artist website.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Cello/Piano Masterworks by Schumann and Grieg

Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, Southern California.


Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha, First Fridays at First!~fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

In relation to his celebrated outputs for orchestra and for solo piano, chamber music is not a genre within Edward Grieg’s oeuvre that initially comes to mind as comparable to them, but—as is also the case with Rachmaninoff—amongst that relatively small corpus of chamber works there is a single cello sonata that stands as one of his most imposing and deeply-felt utterances.

Grieg in 1888.
There are (at least) two surviving autograph manuscripts of Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 36, one dated 1882 and the other 1883—a period of both professional frustration and domestic discord for the composer. Both manuscripts clearly head the sonata as “for piano and cello”—an indication that Grieg considered the piano as at least the cello’s equal in conveying the work’s expressive content, and firmly banishing any notion of a mere “accompaniment.”

This was certainly clear right from the start of the performance that formed the main item in Classical Crossroads' March “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, when pianist Svetlana Smolina’s urgent articulation of the opening ostinato figure hit the ground running at a true Allegro agitato, close to Grieg’s metronome of half note=100, and thereby launched cellist Evgeny Tonkha’s comparably tensile statement of the movement’s main theme.

Title-page of the 1883 score, with
dedication at the top to John Grieg,
the composer's amateur cellist brother.
Some commentators on this sonata have dwelt on its melodiousness and charm, but anyone anticipating a soothing evocation of Norwegian landscape would have had expectations rudely shattered by this performance, particularly the first movement, whose elaborately tempestuous piano part notably recalls that of the Piano Concerto in the same key (but here suggesting that the sonata might be reworked successfully as a cello concerto, which in fact has happened—some of it can be heard on YouTube).

The duo encompassed fully the extremes of expressive scope that Grieg builds into his score, ranging from the molto più tranquillo of the second subject to the con fuoco and strepitoso-driven development, with its almost hysterical stretto climax that spills over via a short cello cadenza into the recapitulation. And Ms. Smolina and Mr. Tonkha still had enough left in the tank to follow Grieg’s demands to accelerate on into the coda at his marked presto, and then prestissimo.

The relatively brief central slow movement begins in deceptive quietude, Ms. Smolina here following in her statement of the main theme the spirit of Grieg’s Andante molto tranquillo heading rather than his very slow metronome mark. But the skies soon darken, and the players as before gave full expression to the tense storm at the movement’s core before its return to tranquillity.

Even more successful, perhaps, was the finale, which in lesser hands can sometimes seem (all 828 measures of it!) tediously discursive and over-elaborate, as if Grieg were trying too hard to prove that he was a master of form as well as of melody and mood. In this performance, however, their infectiously skipping treatment of the opening was never far from the movement’s many twists and turns, capping a volatile and vivid performance of the whole sonata.

1847 lithograph of Robert and Clara Schumann.
The heart-on-sleeve passion and turmoil of the Grieg was preceded by music of a very different sensibility and emotional tenor. In the first of Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Op. 73 (the whole work reputedly written in just two days in February 1849), Mr. Tonkha and Ms. Smolina hit what seemed exactly the right note of intimate confiding to match its Zart und mit Ausdruck (Tender and with expression) marking, the mood of which is sustained into the Lebhaft, leicht (Lively, light) second movement despite its faster pace.

Only in the third piece, Rasch und mit Feuer (Quick and with fire), did I feel, as in other performances, that the original designation of the work for clarinet rather than cello works better in certain passages, where fluid upward runs in the former instrument become seemingly a little effortful on the latter.

This, however, did not detract from the duo's idiomatic and penetrating account of the whole work, a miniature masterpiece whose indivisibility—despite its somewhat offhand designation as merely "pieces"—was emphasized by the performers' careful observation of the attacca markings that link them. The entire splendid recital can now be enjoyed online at this Vimeo link.

It was good to be able, after the recital, to introduce Ms. Smolina and Mr. Tonkha to Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Clara and Robert Schumann. Resident for many years in Orange County, she is keen to become more familiar with the music of her illustrious forebears through local performances such as this, as well as talking with musicians about how their interest in the Schumanns developed and what they see as their legacy. 

Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha with Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield.

“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, March 3, 2023.
Images: Grieg and the Schumanns: Wikimedia Commons; Grieg score: IMSLP; the performers: author.

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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Pacific Trio Play Turina, Muczynski and Smetana

The Pacific Trio: l-r John Walz, cello; Edith Orloff, piano; Roger Wilkie, violin.


The Pacific Trio, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Given the pre-eminence of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann in the piano trio genre, not to mention the predilections of South Bay performers and audiences, it was quite a surprise to see a local piano trio recital program announced that did not include works by any of these illustrious names, nor indeed anything by Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, or Dvořák.

But then, with the performers in question being the long-established Pacific Trio (Roger Wilkie, violin; John Walz, cello; Edith Orloff, piano), the breadth of whose repertoire is well known, it was not a surprise that the program they presented for the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s January concert was full enough of variety and interest for no-one to have regretted the absence of any of the above-listed masters.

Joaquín Turina.
One tends to associate the name Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) with the guitar and the piano, in music patently influenced by the traditions of his native Andalusia, but in fact after a wide-ranging musical education, notably in Paris, he went on to contribute to many genres, including opera, others that involve voices, and several within the broad scope of chamber music.

Among these are three piano trios, one (unnumbered) from his student years and two written in his maturity. In the hands of the Pacific Trio, Turina’s 1933 Piano Trio No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 76 proved to be an extraordinarily immediate and attractive work which managed to convey an expansive, unfettered romantic tunefulness within a remarkably concise compass, its three movements all over in around 16 minutes.

Just as concise was the First Piano Trio, Op. 24 of Robert Muczynski, composed in 1966-67, in which the sun-drenched Mediterranean sensibility of the Turina was replaced, in the first of its four movements, by jazz-inflected, hard-edged energy enclosing a brief, somber, central section. An equally energetic, gnomically brief Allegro giocoso followed, not as uncomplicatedly cheerful as the marking might suggest, ending dismissively on a seemingly sour dissonance.

Robert Muczynski.
An eloquent cello solo against stepwise piano figuration begins the Andante third movement, to be joined by the violin in unfolding textures that drift in and out of nocturnal half-lights. The cello line returns but this movement also ends suddenly, just when it feels as if there is more is to be said. The even briefer Finale returns to the spiky, vigorous soundscape of the first two movements.

Muczynski’s music is far from unknown to South Bay chamber musicians (see reviews of two previous concerts here and here), but for me the major pleasure of the concert lay in the single work that occupied the second half, Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15, composed in 1855 at the age of 31.

Any view of Smetana that is bounded by his reputation as a composer of Bohemian nationalist comic opera and romantic orchestral tone-poems gets a severe buffeting from an encounter with this astonishingly intense and personal work—his first real masterpiece, though its finale does incorporate elements of a piano sonata in the same key written some years earlier.

As the admirable downloadable program note by Saagar Asnani of UC Berleley made clear, the trio memorializes Smetana’s eldest daughter Bedřiška, who died that year at the age of four—and if ever there was an instance of tragedy sublimated into great art, this is one. All three instruments, singly and collectively, are pushed to their limits by a score laden with detailed markings from a composer visibly determined to use every resource for maximum expressiveness.

Oil portrait of Smetana in 1854. 
In all three movements Smetana takes what he wants from the conventional forms of the time and makes them his own. The first movement works perfectly well as a sonata design but the effect is of a vivid emotional journey whose progress is charted through a landscape of memorable themes and expressive contrasts that can pass from marcatissimo to dolcissimo within a handful of measures.

The second movement begins Allegro, ma non agitato with a tripping, somewhat Mendelssohnian-fairy idea, and its role as a scherzo-and-trio seems assured by the arrival of a contrasting Andante section, complete with first-half and second-half repeats, before a return to Tempo I. But this seemingly regular “trio” is also labeled Alternativo I, and just when the movement seems heading for a conventional end it plunges downward to Alternativo II, Maestoso, which amounts to an intercalated march-like slow movement that completely alters and expands the overall expressive range, before the opening tripping theme does finally return.

As for the finale, that passes from a furiously rhythmic Presto—derived from that earlier piano sonata—through various episodes, including another funeral march, which incorporate a second theme on the cello derived in part from its counterpart in the first movement. In the final climax the three instruments, straining it seems for truly orchestral weight, give this theme a positively Tchaikovskian passion and intensity, before a scurried fortissimo conclusion fools no-one into believing it any kind of “happy ending.”

The Pacific Trio fully matched the breadth and intensity of this masterpiece with their marvelously committed performance, after which no encore was needed to dispel the atmosphere they had generated for the hugely enthusiastic audience.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, LA Harbor College/ Pacific Unitarian Church, Friday/Sunday, 27/29 January, 2023.
Images: Pacific Trio: artists' website; Turina: Seattle Chamber Music Society; Muczynski: Theodore Presser; Smetana: Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Four Seraphic Voices on a First Friday

Seraphour: l-r Dana Rouse, contralto; Heidi Vass, soprano; Melissa Birch, soprano;
Emma Grace Roche, contralto.

Seraphour sing Daley, Brahms, Carrillo, Palestrina, Vass, and Thompson

Of all musical media, the human voice perhaps best evinces continuity, or at least commonality, between eras widely separated in time. This view certainly came to the fore during the February “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recital, organized as ever by Classical Crossroads, Inc., at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, in which the vocal quartet Seraphour performed works ranging from the Renaissance to last year.

Eleanor Daley.
This sense of continuity was strengthened by all six pieces setting familiar Christian texts, beginning with Os Justi (The Mouth of the Just) by the prolific Canadian composer of choral music, Eleanor Daley (b. 1955). This brief and straightforwardly enjoyable opening item, dating from 1994, was introduced by Heidi Vass (soprano), the founder of the group.

Somehow, despite the German Requiem (or perhaps because of it, in view of its non-liturgical text), one does not tend to associate Brahms with sacred vocal works, accompanied or not, so the opportunity to hear his Adoramus Te (We Adore Thee) Op. 37, No. 2, one of three geistliche Chöre (Sacred choruses) for female voices written in 1859, was welcome.

This piece, somewhat strenuously contrapuntal for a little over half its two-minute length, dissolved unexpectedly into a conclusion of sustained harmonies, beautifully enunciated by Seraphour, which made me rather regret that we weren’t hearing the full set of which Adoramus Te is the centerpiece.

César Carrillo.
Seeing the name Carrillo on the roster of composers got me temporarily confused with the long-lived Mexican Julián Carrillo, author of at least one fine symphony, but no—this was the Venezuelan César Carrillo (b.1957), whose output, like that of Eleanor Daley, seems mostly to be choral music.

Judging by the number of performances on YouTube, his warmly homogeneous Ave Maria (Hail Mary)—apparently a relatively early work, dating from 1983—is a firm favorite with female choirs and smaller groups, and Seraphour’s account of it could stand proud amongst any.

Taking over as introducer, second soprano Melissa Birch then cast back four-and-a-half centuries to one of the greatest of choral scribes, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). His Magnificat quarti toni IGP817, published in Rome in 1591 and one of no less than 36 Magnificats by him, was the recital’s centerpiece and by some margin the longest item.

Sung by a large choir in a resonant cathedral, Palestrina’s music can seem at once ineffably mellifluous but somehow forbidding, as if it exists on a plane removed from and indifferent to mere human sensibility. Here, brought “down to earth” in the best possible way in a smaller but still vibrant church acoustic, this Magnificat revealed a warmth and gentleness, even fragility, that was very appealing, with gently pulsing rhythmic emphases like an eternal heartbeat.

Emma Roach, first alto, then introduced the item that represented both the recital’s extreme in temporal separation and that commonality between all. The Angele Dei (Angel of God) by 19-year-old Aidan Vass was commissioned by Seraphour, with the completed work being a surprise Christmas present to his mother, Heidi Vass.

Aidan Vass.
This proved to be as coolly contemplative as its Renaissance predecessor, though some unpredictable harmonic shifts proclaimed its modern origins, with close-packed chords and softly clashing dissonances that momentarily hinted at Gustav Holst being skillfully kept on the rails by Seraphour.

If there had been one element somewhat absent in the recital so far, it was a sense of drama, but this was amply compensated by the final listed item, Randall Thompson’s Alleluia—composed, as second alto Dana Rouse outlined (and as Thompson himself describes here), in the dark World War 2 year of 1940.

Randall Thompson.
Beginning ppp in a confiding, prayerlike, almost fearful manner, it opens out through rising dynamics and textural elaboration to an exultant fortissimo climax which then subsides, Lento, to a peaceful Amen. Thompson’s Alleluia is in its way as effective in its dramatic arc as Barber’s ultra-familiar Adagio for Strings, and Seraphour’s interpretation was as impassioned as could be imagined with only four voices.

Finally, there was an encore that closed the circle, texturally in that it was another Ave Maria, and temporally, reaching back even further than Palestrina to the much lesser-known Franco-Flemish Jacob (or Jacques) Arcadelt (1507-1568). The amiable, songful immediacy of his setting made it easy to understand that he was apparently (thanks, Wikipedia!) one of the earliest composers of madrigals.

With the permission of Seraphour, whose origins as a group can be read about on Shoutout LA, an edited recording of most of the items in this recital can be enjoyed on Classical Crossroads’ Vimeo page for a month here, ably captured in sound and vision by Jim Eninger. 


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 3, 2023.
Images: The performers: author; Eleanor Daley: Alliance Music; César Carrillo: Discogs; Palestrina: Wikimedia Commons; Aidan Vass: Instagram; Randall Thompson: Classical Net.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Muti and the CSO play Beethoven, Lyadov, and "Pictures"

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall,
Costa Mesa

Riccardo Muti.
“Generosity” was the word that came to mind during the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s January orchestral concert at the Segerstrom Concert Hall where, before a capacity audience, Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the second concert of its current North American tour, itself part of the CSO’s 2022-23 season that also sees the conclusion of Muti’s tenure as its Music Director.

Indeed, that generosity was manifest before the concert itself when, in an interview with Classical KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen, the orchestra’s Principal tuba player Gene Pokorny and piccolo/flutist Jennifer Gunn gave patently sincere and heartfelt tributes both to their colleagues as individuals and to the CSO’s collective identity and commitment. And the generosity extended to Maestro Muti himself, who before raising his baton to launch Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, requested the audience to stand for a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of California’s two recent mass shootings at Monterey Park and Oakland.

As for the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, “generous” was an appropriate epithet as well. Lasting a solid 42 minutes, due to a (yes, generous) clutch of repeats which included the expositions of both the first movement and finale and omitted only the scherzo second half in the labyrinth that is the symphony’s Presto third movement, it had a warmth, amplitude and freshness that belied the fact that these players must have performed the symphony countless times.

Maestro Muti’s tempo for the first movement’s long Poco sostenuto introduction couldn’t have been far off Beethoven’s requested metronome of quarter note=69, resulting not so much in a sense of wide-ranging preparation for what is to come, but rather of the main drama of the movement already being under way but just beneath the surface, with the uprushing dotted scalic figures that pervade the introduction having a feeling of positive eagerness to “get going.”

Beethoven in 1814, two years after
completing the Seventh Symphony.
At the same time the woodwind chording in their long unisons spanning above those scales had a relishable precision of balance that clarified the many modulations with which Beethoven controls the levels of tension that ebb and flow in the introduction, so that the main Vivace exposition, when it finally arrived after the faux-hesitations that precede it, surged forward with naturalness and inevitability rather than any sudden jolt.

The second movement Allegretto maintained a steady, implacable tread, balancing breadth and forward motion, with in its opening measures the lower strings carefully distinguishing between piano and pianissimo statements of the main theme. Both the Presto and the Allegro con brio finale had all the requisite energy and precision without any speed records being attempted. Beethoven marks no speeding-up for the finale's tumultuous coda, and this performance had no gratuitous hastening, simply a master conductor and his great orchestra enabling Beethoven's cumulation of harmonic tension and dynamic pressure (the only place where his climaxes escalate from fortissimo to fff) to do all the heavy lifting necessary.

Mussorgsky in 1874, the year that he
composed Pictures at an Exhibition.
While this performance of Beethoven’s Seventh demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to balance full-sized string sections with his Classical woodwind and brass pairs undoubled (as far as could be seen) it took the full panoply that Ravel employs in his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to really show off what the Chicago Symphony can produce at full cry.

Along with all else that it is, the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures is also a real “concerto for orchestra,” and its opening Promenade immediately demonstrated how justified was tubaist Gene Pokorny’s admiration for his fellow CSO brass players, who richly clothed Mussorgsky’s musical self-portrait, arriving as spectator and admirer of his late friend Viktor Hartmann’s drawings and paintings.

Comparably showcased were the orchestra’s lower woodwind in I Gnomus and II The Old Castle, separated by the Promenade this time truncated, and as thoughtful in its cool low horn and high woodwind alternations as the opening had been brazenly confident. After the spectator shakes himself back to deliberate attention in a second intercalated Promenade, his attention is drawn to III Tuileries, but here the children’s play, delicately delineated in upper woodwind and strings, was somewhat more sedate than is usually the case. Then Mr. Pokorny's fellow low brass player Michael Mulcahy came to the fore on tenor tuba with as songfully eloquent a solo to open IV Bydlo as I have ever heard.

Maurice Ravel in 1925, three
years after Koussevitzky's
commission to orchestrate
Pictures at an Exhibition.
After the ox wagon’s crushingly heavy roll to the foreground and then slow recession out of ear-shot, the last of the Promenades (Ravel omitted to orchestrate the fifth and final one in Mussorgsky's original between Pictures VI and VII) was even more reflective, and that mood seemed to carry over into V Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells, where, though immaculately crisp, the flutes’ dance was again a little more measured than usual.

In VI Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the latter’s stuttering muted trumpet was less wheedling and more assertive than we normally hear, suggesting that for once he was giving his overbearing countryman as good as he got. As with the previous fast movements, VII The Market Place at Limoges scurried a little less, but the plunge into VIII Catacombs was as awe-inspiring as ever, as was the precipitation from the peak of IX The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yaga)’s flight to the splendor of X The Great Gate of Kiev.

Viktor Hartmann's unbuilt design for
the Bogatyr Gates at Kiev (Kyiv).
So granitically implacable was the incarnation by the CSO’s full forces of this final movement that it felt not so much a celebration of as a full-frontal assault upon a structure (which in fact remained unbuilt) at what we now properly spell as Kyiv. Indeed, the two quiet woodwind sections that relieve this movement’s overwhelming force were long-drawn and lamenting enough in effect (definitely not senza espressione, as marked) as to make one wonder whether there wasn’t an interpretative subtext here, in view of current events.

But the second half of this memorable concert was far from entirely concerned with spectacular orchestral effects. Before the Mussorgsky/Ravel blockbuster there had been a rare chance to enjoy live one of the exquisite miniature tone-poems of the famously self-critical and indolent Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914).

Anatoly Lyadov.
This was his The Enchanted Lake Op. 62, composed in 1919, eight minutes of delicate woodwind, celesta, and harp figuration nestling within a soft, intricate texture of divided, mostly muted strings, richly nuanced by the CSO players, and described by the French musicologist André Lischke as "the quivering of the water (divided strings) and the sparkling of the stars which are reflected there (flute, celesta), harp)."

Giacomo Puccini.
And when the cheers for The Great Gate of Kiev's roof-rattling final climax had finally died down after the capacity audience repeatedly called Riccardo Muti back to the platform, there was yet another treat in store, and one that was not listed in the printed program. 

Returning to his Italian roots, the conductor led an encore that again he dedicated to the mass shooting victims. This was a devastatingly heartfelt account of the Intermezzo that divides the middle two Acts of Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, written between 1889 and 1892. Generous indeed. 


Chicago Symphony Orchestra, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, Tuesday, January 24, 2023, 8 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Todd Rosenberg; Riccardo Muti: Conductor website; Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Hartmann illustration, Lyadov: Wikimedia Commons; Puccini: BBC. 

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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Todd Mason’s Gripping New Violin Concerto

Tosca Opdam recording Todd Mason's Violin Concerto in Budapest.


Having been able previously to at least grasp the outline of Todd Mason’s Violin Concerto via a MIDI recording generated from the computerized score, it was fascinating and revealing to really get to grips with the work through the fine studio recording that the concerto has now received.

Todd Mason.
This was made in Budapest, Hungary, during Europe's summer 2022 heatwave by the young Dutch violinist Tosca Opdam and the Budapest Scoring Orchestra under the baton of the Hungarian conductor, Peter Illényi—the recording sessions and the long build-up to them were previously documented by the composer on LA Opus here.

My initial impression, confirmed by the live performance, was how unified a work this concerto is, feeling from the start as if it knows where it’s going and where it intends to end up. Several factors combine to create this sense of direction and purpose, not least being the fact that the initial tempo mark of Allegro (quarter note=ca.128) is nowhere amended through the entire 24-minute duration.

The second unifying factor is the repeated upward-rushing 16th-note figuration on muted strings which, after a soft gong-stroke, drives the music right from the first bar. Never far from the action in its original guise, this also appears in many mutated forms—inverted, with intervals expanded, stretched to 8th notes and quarter-notes, etc. Combined with the near-ubiquitous 4/4 time signature, this figuration infuses the whole piece so that even when absent its sense of purposeful motion feels ever ready to reappear.

Driven by the scurrying strings, the substantial 47-measure orchestral introduction proceeds via quiet solo wind and brass incursions through two wave-like climaxes before the soloist enters—and it’s worth noting here that despite being economically scored for just eight winds, six brass, timpani, two percussion, harp, and strings, Mason’s Violin Concerto is far from being a “chamber concerto.” Its single movement embraces enough variety and drama to fill any auditorium.

Conductor Peter Illényi and Tosca Opdam at a break in the recording.

The greatest advantage of hearing a live performance compared to a MIDI recreation lies in the solo part (in any case a single violin is the least successful of electronic impersonations). Ms. Opdam’s assumption of this virtuoso role—which covers the gamut from high-speed articulation through wide-leaping double-stopping to rich legato, as well as the most stratospheric of harmonics— is wholly committed and as expressively varied as it is technically secure. And any lingering hint of metronomic rigidity from the MIDI version is banished for good.

Formally, after the soloist joins the orchestra, the concerto continues its busy progress until the violin gradually imposes a calmer mood, with some expressive woodwind and horn solos. This first “slow” section (though, as noted, with no modification to the Allegro marking) comes to a full close, after which two brief solo cadenzas book-end a sharply contrasted orchestral passage in which peremptory staccato chords are flipped back and forth between winds and brass.

More lyrical music now ensues, with some rather Coplandesque “wide open spaces” writing for the strings, but it’s characteristic of this concerto that no single mood persists for long. Some spiccato writing for the soloist that briefly recalls Barber’s Violin Concerto leads to a purposeful orchestral surge, but then the mood relaxes into the most overtly romantic and nostalgic-seeming music yet, which rarifies further into dreamy violin harmonics.

Eventually the violin recovers, as it were, its sense of purpose, the staccato orchestral passage recurs, and then while this is still happening the gong quietly leads off what proves to be a near-literal recapitulation of the concerto’s opening. Continuing the recapping, the violin spiccato also comes back, but this time leads to the last, longest and most varied of the concerto’s three marked cadenzas, after which the work climbs to a wholly positive and emphatic fortissimo conclusion.

In terms of 20th century antecedents, the piece is clearly in a line from the concertos of Alban Berg and Béla Bartók, but so far as American compatriots of preceding generations are concerned—aside from the hints of Copland and Barber already noted—Mason’s Violin Concerto seems to me to share much, in its mix of tough-minded near-atonality and unsentimental lyricism, with the great Violin Concerto of George Rochberg. It’s good to know that there currently seems some likelihood of its future presentation where it belongs, in a concert hall in front of an audience and in the hands of Tosca Opdam.


Violin Concerto by Todd Mason, recorded at Budapest Scoring Studio, Budapest, Hungary, by Tosca Opdam (violin) and the Budapest Scoring Orchestra conducted by Peter Illényi, July 2022.
Photos: Todd Mason.

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Saturday, January 21, 2023

String Quartets from Three Centuries at Mason House

The Zelter String Quartet, l-r: Gallia Kastner, Kyle Gilner, Carson Rick, Allan Hon.


Zelter String Quartet Plays Haydn, Puccini, Mason and Montgomery at Mason House

It was a dark and stormy night… on the quiet street outside Mason House, the homey West LA venue for chamber music. But inside, Mason Concerts was kicking off its 2023 series with a compelling program. On its second visit, the Zelter String Quartet featured works by Haydn, Puccini (yes, that Puccini) and two living composers, Jessie Montgomery and Todd Mason, Mason Concerts’ impresario.

Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano.
Perhaps because of the wild, atmospheric river-fueled weather, the evening had an even more intimate feeling than usual. Dr. Kristi Brown-Montasano’s enriching presentations on Haydn and Puccini, and how the evening’s selections fitted into their oeuvres, evolved into conversations with Mason and eventually the musicians, who were asked to play brief passages to illuminate particular elements of each piece.

Having attended classical concerts most of my life, during which interactions with the audience (beyond admonitions to be silent) were rare, I am pleased when musicians and professional educators like Dr. Brown-Montasano are included to help audiences understand and interpret what they are about to hear. In other genres it isn’t unusual for musicians to introduce their music with “This song is about...,” but often, classical music audiences only know the composer’s name and titles that only a file clerk could love, such as Haydn’s String Quartet No. 66 in G major, Op. 77 No. 1, Hob. III:81, which was the first piece performed.

Joseph Haydn in 1791, eight years before the
composition of his String Quartet No. 66.
Dr. Brown-Montasano helped the audience understand where this quartet from 1799 fitted into Haydn’s long career, including poignant details about his faltering health and some conjecture about his priorities as he saw the end of his career approaching. She also illuminated the brief Puccini piece, Crisantemi (1890), by sharing a recorded excerpt from the opera Manon Lescaut, written around the same time, comparing the music from a tragic moment therein with an identical theme Puccini embedded in the quartet.

What she brought to the second half of the show—with the help of Mason and the cheerfully cooperative quartet members—gave the 21st century works personal relevance, focusing both on the composers’ intentions in creating their music, and on details of each composition that gave listeners something to listen for—a “hook” in the jargon of pop music. Violinist Gallia Kastner and Dr. Brown-Montasano had a moving exchange on how Kastner brought Montgomery’s Strum to her attention years ago, and Mason and the quartet talked about different bowing techniques and plucking to produce distinct moods and feelings from stringed instruments, and their prominent use in both pieces.

Giacomo Puccini, c. 1890.
Thus prepared, the audience sat back and was enthralled by the Zelter's beautiful, versatile and soulful playing. These musicians—Kastner, violinist Kyle Gilner, violist Carson Rick and cellist Allan Hon—play like they share a psychic connection: performers who listen with intention. The Haydn had energy, drive and exquisite attention to detail, while the Puccini displayed the quartet's lyrical side with the sweetness and emotion of their playing—most strikingly in unison passages but octaves apart—to electrifying effect.

Todd Mason’s String Quartet No. 1 (2018, rev. 2022) is a major work, building on the tradition of two of his compositional inspirations, Beethoven and Bartók. The first movement played like a tone poem about order and meaning emerging from chaos—like dreams at the moment of birth. At its outset, the second movement was active, curious, questioning, with constantly evolving and shifting tempi, until it metamorphosed into something more grave and serious, slowing to a crawl as if the narrator was stunned by something. But the tempo abruptly picked up again at the end with a sense of purpose, fighting through a storm.

The third movement returned to the pace and solemnity of the previous movement’s awestruck passage, and at times felt like a dialogue, with voices intertwining as in a romance, suggesting the diversion was for the sake of love. At its outset the movement had a feeling of emotional immediacy, raw, fragile, and expressed in a kind of private language, but then there was a barely perceptible transition from naked emotion into memory of tender emotions recalled. The intimacy of that third movement was overpowering. 

But the reverie was broken when the fourth movement began, as if the musicians were being roughly awakened to an urgent call: time is rushing by and one must hurry to catch up. As this final movement approached its conclusion, the dreamy themes from the first movement were reintroduced, before the piece resolved in what sounded like a series of hard-won, almost breathless affirmations. As with the Puccini, the Zelter Quartet was given opportunities in Mason’s fourth movement to seize our attention, again and again, with evocative unison passages, played in a singing tone to ecstatic effect.

Jessie Montgomery.
The Zelters' quartet arrangement of Jessie Montgomery’s orchestral Strum (2006, rev. 2012)—the final listed work—was a tonal contrast to all that had come before. As the title hints, this piece employs the players’ ability to beat out rhythms, their instruments at times sounding almost like banjos, mandolins, guitars, or drums. For most of this piece, strumming, pizzicato, and bow work kept a dance beat going, giving way to contrasting legato passages. Strum was simultaneously fast and slow—a series of jigs accompanying lyric arias, leading to a furious finish—and easy to love.

That was a thrilling enough conclusion to the program, but the Zelter Quartet had an encore ready for the happy audience, an arrangement of a Danish folk song, Æ Rømesor, arranged by the Danish String Quartet. It had a childlike quality: a refreshingly uncomplicated dessert after a full, rich course of meaningful music sensitively played.

A break in the rain coincided with the end of the concert, so most of the audience took advantage of it. But those who stayed were buzzing, quaffing Ethel Phipps’ hearty beef barley soup, worshipping the quartet members like Beyoncé, and commenting how remarkable it was that Zelter could maintain such a consistently matched voice. A memorable night at Mason House, and there is so much more to come in the 2023 season.

The Zelter Quartet with Todd Mason.

Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, January 14, 2023. 
Images: The concert: Todd Mason; Haydn, Puccini: Wikimedia Commons; Dr. Brown-Montesano: website; Jessie Montgomery: Jiyang Chen Photography, artist website.