Friday, December 1, 2023

Scandinavian Passion Streams in Seattle

REVIEW: Seattle Symphony

Benaroya Hall, Seattle


Two contemporary compositions provided the framework for the haunting, ebullient Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 by iconic Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in a recent program, performed live in Benaroya Hall on Nov. 16, 2023, and streamed on the innovative Seattle Symphony+ service. Helmed by Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, who debuted with the orchestra in 2022, the program was intriguing and captivating. 

Stasevska, who holds the positions of Chief Conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director to the International Sibelius Festival, and Principal Guest Conductor of BBC Symphony Orchestra, showed her talent and expertise in a wide scope of works that were traditional, starkly contemporary, and beguilingly original.

The program opened with Nautilus from Scottish composer and sound artist Anna Meredith, which originally was composed as an electronic work and debuted with Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Meredith, known as one of Britain’s most groundbreaking composers, is equally comfortable in multiple worlds—contemporary classical, art pop, soundtracks, techno and experimental rock. She has used such unusual techniques as clapping and stomping to substitute for instruments. Nautilus, a high-energy, continuous stream of movement, appeared on Meredith’s debut album, Varmints. The composer, who claims to have created the orchestral atmosphere while tramping on a Scottish beach, uses varied rhythms that mirrored her steps.

The conductor started the piece with an appropriately aggressive energy, which is needed given the work’s repetitive nature: mostly rhythm, little or no melody. The extensive use of the brass served as a good warmup for the Sibelius to come in the second half of the program, and also an effective workout for the percussion section. One wonders if the piece would be more appealing in the electronic version.

In an intriguing twist, Stasevska shared the stage with her husband Lauri Porra, whose Entropia Concerto for Electric Bass was the second piece on the program. Porra, a great-grandson of Sibelius, is well-known in his native Finland as bassist for the popular power metal band Stratovarius and his own jazz/rock band, the Flyover Ensemble. He prefaced his performance with an engaging introductory speech about the importance of the orchestra as “the greatest instrument,” the little-known fact that the electric bass was invented in Seattle, and the use of entropy in the context of the chaos in combining the “brutal” nature of the electric bass with the beauty of the orchestra.

Entropia combines mysterious elements with a journey from tranquility to frenzied sounds and back to calmness. The electric bass provides melody and rhythm that is ever propelling forward. The combination of symphony with a bass guitar is an arresting one for the audience. Porra manages to meld the contrast between the two by connecting their two different worlds; thus the entropic allegory emerges by the meeting of musical minds that symbolically represent change in its limitless variations.

With the use of many special effects characteristic of the guitar itself, and many cadenza-type passages, the effect was at times meditative, at times chaotic, at times rock-jazzy. The orchestra writing seemed aleatoric in parts, but Stasevska controlled her forces ably, made the most of the melodic passages, and provided the steady beats needed by the orchestra, leading to a lyrical ending. The audience was pleased with the result. Concertmaster Noah Geller made an impressive showing in the extensive concerto-like violin solo.

The 1915 Helsinki world premiere of the Sibelius Symphony No. 5 celebrated the Finnish cultural hero’s 50th birthday, a national holiday in Finland, in the midst of World War I. In an unusual structural move, the composer linked together the first two movements.

One of the advantages of the streaming format is that the camera angles not only show closeups of the individual players, but those of the conductor as well. Stasevska demonstrated her affinity for her native music, not to mention a comprehensive knowledge of the score, with a clear understanding of the subtleties set forth in the opening. Her long-armed, broad strokes, rhythmic body gestures and heartfelt facial expressions drew both subtlety and splendor from the orchestra’s first-class wind and brass sections. Especially appealing were the profound brass chorales and agile dance-like expressions in the winds at the heart of the movement.

The conductor then made the most of the delicacy of the pastoral-themed second movement with a gentle touch and perfectly paced tempo, then later by emphasizing the juxtaposition of the threatening hints of storm activity embodied in the timpani and brass.

In his notebooks, Sibelius writes of the inspiration drawn from the flights of swans above his country home. The lively and energetic tempo that started the finale progressed deftly to its characteristic “swan hymn,” which came off powerfully under Stasevska’s direction and gave the excellent horn section its moment to shine. Stasevska then made the most of the striking expectedness of the final six chords, wrapping up the dynamic, triumphant climax with great command, power, and authority. 


Photo credit: Brandon Patoc  
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The LBSO Celebrates Innovation, Dance, and Diversity

Members of Long Beach Ballet dance Leonard Bernstein's Fancy Free with the Long Beach Symphony under Music Director Eckart Preu.


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

Igor Stravinsky around 1920.
The program devised by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Eckart Preu for the second concert in its 2023-24 Classical Season provided just about as rich and complex a web of musical and extra-musical cross-correspondences and references as could be imagined for a single evening. First was Stravinsky, with the Russian émigré's reach back to the late Italian Baroque for source material by Pergolesi to fuel his commedia dell'arte ballet Pulcinella K. 034—not the complete stage work but the eight-movement suite Stravinsky extracted from it two years after its 1920 Paris premiere.

I suspect that limited rehearsal time had rather short-changed Pulcinella compared to subsequent items, but after a rather generalized (at least by Preu/LBSO’s exalted standards) account of the Overture, the performance steadily gained in clarity and character as it proceeded. Unlike some, their account of the Serenata (mvt II, Larghetto) did not milk its C minor pathos-potential, but kept it moving so that Principal oboe Rong-Huey Liu’s solo had just the right degree of featherlight wistfulness.

The shifts and turns of the tripartite Scherzino (III) were nicely nuanced, though here as elsewhere the important parts for the string soloists (section Associate Principal Samuel Miller (bass), Principals Cécilia Tsan (cello), Andrew Duckles (viola), and Chloé Tardif (violin II), led by Roger Wilkie, Concertmaster) tended to be obscured in the Terrace Theater’s not ideal acoustic: it was good that they received generous call-outs from Maestro Preu at the end of the work.

Design by Picasso for
Pulcinella's costume in the 
original 1920 production.
After a fleetly scurrying Tarantella (IV), the Toccata (V) was distinguished by a particularly virile contribution from Principal trumpet Miles McAllister, while all of the small wind body—pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, and horns—relished their collective and individual prominence in the Gavotta con due variazioni (VI). Principal trombone Alexander Isles’ glissando "raspberries" were notably fruity at the start of the Vivo (VII), with a vividly characterized bass solo later on from Mr. Miller.

As with the Serenata, Maestro Preu purposefully avoided the lachrymose trudge some impart to the Menuetto first half (a) of movement VIII, so that it filled its proper role as a medium-paced introduction to the movement’s second half, (b) Finale, which in just two minutes manages to be both an affectionate call-back to reflective moments earlier in the work and a sprightly dash to the finish. Though the performance might have gained in clarity with  a desk or two fewer strings to match Stravinsky’s small contingent of winds and brass, the LBSO was by now thoroughly warmed up—as was the audience to judge by its enthusiastic response.

Among other things, this concert enshrined the LBSO’s contribution to the statewide “California Festival: A Celebration of New Music” which ran from November 3-19 and showcased some 150 performances of works written in the past five years. Maestro Preu acknowledged that to make a choice from the plethora available had been extremely challenging, but few surely would argue that his eventual selection was not inspired.

Wildfire smog engulfing San Francisco, 9 September, 2020.
This was the Hindustani Violin Concerto, the fruit of a collaboration between the American/Indian composer Reena Esmail (b. 1983) and the violinist Kala Ramnath. Indeed, though the former is the work’s nominal author, it was Ms. Ramnath's shocked reaction to the red fog which blanketed San Francisco in September 2020—caused by catastrophic wildfires—that triggered the work.

To try to express the climate disaster that this ominous pollution signaled, she selected from her wide knowledge of native Indian music rāgas to represent the five elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth—which she then provided to Ms. Esmail. Through Covid-necessitated long-range collaboration, the work evolved into a concerto whose five movements represent those elements in that logical sequence, with the Indian themes incorporated within Western harmonies and orchestration, and a coda where the soloist sings an ancient Indian text as a plea for the elemental disharmony of climate change to be corrected and healed.

So, what of the work itself, and the performance? It’s perilous to make any kind of assessment of a new piece on the strength of one hearing, but as the Hindustani Violin Concerto progressed its virtues of concision and clarity of form, timbral inventiveness, and melodic immediacy became increasingly apparent through what seemed a confident and committed account by the LBSO—here, one guessed, was where a lot of the rehearsal time had gone.

With Ms. Ramnath seated, as is the custom for Indian violinists due to the different playing requirements of their native music, her violin maintained an almost continual sliding microtonal “commentary” (usually in the instrument’s lower register) on the orchestra’s progress through the varied landscapes of the five movements, none of them longer than five minutes.

Reena Esmail.
(I) felt premonitory, largely static, its sound-world lit by flickering, oscillating percussion. Air (II) was brighter in texture and more melodically plainspoken, while Fire (III) flickered appropriately in a kind of moto perpetuo. Water (IV) struck a more somber tone and in places grew vividly pictorial, with bold wide-open-spaces horn writing reminiscent of such works as Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic.”

Bold brass chords heralded the brief Earth (V), which had a block-like, monumental quality more reminiscent of Alan Hovhaness. After a big orchestral climax, the movement devolved onto a deep chord in basses and bells, which led into the valedictory coda where Ms. Ramnath’s vocalizing left no doubt as to its haunting, lamenting message.

Judging by the audience response, the Hindustani Violin Concerto clearly connects, but this listener was left wondering whether it carries the sheer heft or sense of disjunction—in the way it melds (or doesn't) two diametrically different musical traditions—to match its apocalyptic subject-matter. That the Terrace Theater acoustic succeeded in intermittently burying the solo line may have had something to do with it: let’s hope that the work's true measure emerges through many more performances and commercial recording.

To follow Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece and Esmail and Ramnath’s interweaving of Eastern and Western musical traditions, the second half opened with another conjunction of two more, and very different, idioms. It’s fair to say that the opera Treemonisha was the rock upon which the always precarious career of the Black composer and pianist Scott Joplin (1868-1917) foundered and sank.

Scott Joplin.
Celebrated as the “King of Ragtime” he, however, aspired to master the larger forms of Western music, and among other works wrote a symphony, a piano concerto, a ballet, and two operas. The second of these was Treemonisha, completed by 1911. Joplin sank his money into publishing its vocal score, but was unable to mount a performance other than a single run-through with himself accompanying on the piano. After he died he was virtually forgotten, and in the 1960s all his extant manuscripts, including the full score of Treemonisha, were tragically destroyed—"collateral damage” arising from legal disputations over his estate.

Cover of the 1911 vocal score.
However, the inclusion of some of his published piano rags in the 1973 hit movie The Sting renewed interest in Scott Joplin’s music, and since then new orchestral scores of Treemonisha have been prepared and the opera staged and recorded. Adding to the exceptionally rich mixture of this concert, Eckart Preu programmed its overture to begin the second half.

Within a few measures of the opening, its startling juxtaposition of cheery honky-tonk tunes and chromatic progressions worthy of Wagner was immediately apparent. The LBSO played it confidently but a little carefully—perhaps again the result of limited rehearsal time. Greater familiarity might have enabled more elasticity and swing, but even after later listening to several YouTube performances a sense of an awkward clash between rather than a fruitful juxtaposition of the idioms remains. Maybe you have to experience the whole opera live to really “get” it.

Jerome Robbins.
Leonard Bernstein in 1943.
There was no difficulty in “getting” the final item. A full generation on from Stravinsky's neoclassicism firmly turning its back on the still recent horrors of World War 1, the ballet Fancy Free planted itself squarely within the USA’s involvement in World War 2. Fancy Free was the first of several collaborations between Leonard Bernstein as composer and the choreographer Jerome Robbins—both born in 1918 and thus only 24 when they got together—and following its hit premiere in 1944 at New York’s American Ballet Theatre, the careers of both were launched.

The special appeal of Long Beach's performance of Fancy Free was the recreation of Robbins’ original choreography (right) by Long Beach Ballet, but though this was danced with consummate grace and litheness, for me the real interest lay in what was happening behind the action. Fancy Free tends to be regarded as a stepping-stone to later, greater things from the Bernstein/Robbins collaboration, but the LBSO and Preu’s smokingly impactful performance simply hit the ball out of the park and into the forefront of one’s awareness of Leonard Bernstein’s achievement.

Long Beach Ballet Artistic Director David Wilcox joins the stage in the (literal) walk-on part
of the bartender.
For me no previous account has so well revealed, alongside all the score’s whiplash energy, driving rhythms, and earworm melodies, how much sheer melancholy it contains, and how vividly this adumbrates the scenario’s implicit pivot between transience and threat—three US sailors on 24-hour leave in wartime, defiantly alive and pleasure-seeking today, but tomorrow..?

One’s only regret at the end of this concert, so packed with interest and far-flung musical value, was that the sensationally fine performance of Fancy Free didn’t get quite the audience response that the orchestra and conductor deserved, due to the understandable focus of the applause on the six members of Long Beach Ballet. The orchestra pianist Alan Steinberger was just one among many who deserved a solo call-out, given how well his delivery of that manically energetic part drove the music onwards. 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, November 18, 2023, 8 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Stravinsky / San Francisco red fog / Jerome Robbins: Wikimedia Commons; Reena Esmail: composer website; Scott Joplin: Michael Ochs Archive; Treemonisha cover: Library of Congress; Leonard Bernstein: Carnegie Hall; Fancy Free original production: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

CPE Bach and Schumann in November’s Second Sunday


Einav Yarden, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Einav Yarden.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Rondo in C minor H. 283—the fourth in his set of Keyboard Sonatas, Free Fantasies, and Rondos Wq. 59—seems to be a favored repertoire item for the Israel-born, Berlin-based pianist Einav Yarden. She included it in her previous Classical Crossroads "Second Sundays at Two" recital (reviewed here), and again she chose it to open her contribution to this year’s series.

I’ve no clear memory of that previous performance, but this time her account struck me as having a just about ideal balance between acknowledging the somberness implicit in the Rondo’s tonality but also fully expressing its whimsical rhythmic capriciousness. Also, Ms. Yarden’s keen observation of its many shifts in dynamic, both subtle and sudden, left little doubt that this late addition to C. P. E. Bach’s vast oeuvre (he was 71 when it was published in 1785) reflected the prevailing early Romantic Sturm und Drang artistic ethos. Perhaps someday she will let us hear other pieces from its parent set.

C. P. E. Bach.
She followed the Rondo with the Arioso con 7 Variazioni in F major H. 54, Wq. 118 No. 4—a leap back of several decades in C. P. E. Bach’s long career. As Ms. Yarden noted in brief remarks between the two items, in 1747 C. P. E. was already branching out in a markedly different musical direction from his illustrious father, Johann Sebastian—then still alive and composing—though this work is conventionally structured, with each variation in two halves respectively of 10 and eight measures, and both halves always repeated. Ms. Yarden subtly enhanced her performance with additional decorations and changes of dynamic, mostly softer, for the repeats.

Clara Wieck (1832).
In April 1838, two years before they were married, the 27-year-old Robert Schumann wrote to Clara Wieck, then 19: “.... Oh! Clara, there is such music in me now, and such beautiful melodies always—Just think! since my last letter, I have finished another whole volume of new things. Kreisleriana I shall call it; you, and thought of you, play the chief part, and I will dedicate it to you—yes, to you and to no-one else—then you will smile so sweetly when you find yourself in it again.—

But… When Schumann published Kreisleriana, Phantasien für Piano-Forte later in 1838 as his Op. 16, the dedication went to “Seinen Freunde Herrn F Chopin” and into this already divided set of influences must be added the work’s title: the “Kreisler” in Kreisleriana was the eccentric fictional musician Johannes Kreisler featured in several books by the polymath writer / composer / artist / critic E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), a profound influence on early German Romanticism in general and Schumann in particular (who even contrived to die at exactly the same age, 46, as Hoffmann).

Kreisler: sketch by Hoffmann.
Both the imaginary Kreisler and the real-life Robert Schumann were manic-depressives, the two sides of the latter’s nature being characterized by himself as “Florestan” (volatile and passionate) and “Eusebius” (dreamy and introspective). Though Kreisleriana doesn’t follow the earlier Davidsbündlertänze with individual numbers actually being signed “F” and “E”, its eight movements are highly contrasted, with Sehr (very) before the initial marking in almost every case for additional emphasis.

Kreisleriana begins very much in media res, as if a door had been opened suddenly to reveal a whirlwind of activity already under way. Ms. Yarden captured this first movement’s Äusserst bewegt (extremely agitated) nature perfectly, her right hand flying through the teeming motion while her left articulated clearly the underlying harmonic progression in octaves, chords, and hairpin-emphasized single notes.

Robert Schumann in 1839.
Already, however, Schumann hints at an inner dualism within the individual movements, with a pp central section before the whirlwind returns, and this dualism emerges fully in the extensive second movement, marked Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very heartfelt and not too fast). The long opening melody builds up from an immediately memorable arching opening phrase, and Ms. Yarden gave a limpid beauty to its several repetitions as a kind of varying ritornello. But two Intermezzi—Sehr lebhaft (very lively), and Etwas bewegter (a little more motion)—forcefully interrupt until the melody re-emerges as a kind of homecoming.

This is short-lived, however, as the third movement, Sehr aufgeregt (very excitedly) surges into earshot, at a compressed piano dynamic this time, with Ms. Yarden inserting barely a pause between it and its predecessor to thus underline the whole work’s essential unity. Again that inner dualism asserts itself with a central Etwas langsamer (somewhat slower) section before the return, and a fortissimo Noch schneller (even faster) coda that was truly torrential in Ms. Yarden’s hands.

E. T. A. Hoffmann: self-portrait.
The next four movements maintain the (very) slow/fast/slow/fast pattern of overall contrast, with Schumann’s fertility of melodic invention never failing him. But his quicksilver mood shifts expressed through constant rhythmic, dynamic, and tempo flexibility create a pervasive sense of unease that Ms. Yarden expertly articulated throughout. And, as with the C. P. E. Bach Arioso, she subtly modified dynamics in some of Kreisleriana’s many marked repeats so as to impart a sense of constant onward progress to the music rather than any taking of literal steps back.

Though the final movement is marked Schnell und spielend (fast and playfully), it maintains the work’s overall minor key tonality, and in Ms. Yarden’s performance the implicit darkness was emphasized by her relatively measured tempo and implacably crisp articulation of its tripping, dotted motion. The central section, far from forming a lighter contrast, is Mit aller kraft (with all power), hammering out the rhythm like a nightmarish keyboard echo of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The opening returns, but as it wound down to its exhausted ppp end, Ms. Yarden gave it a hollow, haunted quality that reminded one of nothing so much as the Dance of Death at the end of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

After this fine performance of one of Schumann’s greatest piano masterpieces, as skillful in execution as it was responsive to the music’s many-sided content, an encore felt superfluous, but nonetheless Ms. Yarden gave us one, the Sarabande fourth movement of J. S. Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807. The whole recital can be enjoyed for the next month on Vimeo.


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, November 12, 2023, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Einav Yarden: Artist website; Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann, C. P. E. Bach, Hoffmann, Kreisler: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Bohemian Dances and Drama Open Long Beach Season

Soloist Andreas Boyde performing Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor with Eckart Preu and the
Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.


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

A couple of short orchestral dances, followed by a big and unfamiliar concerto, and then three symphonic poems one after the other to wrap up the evening? Such a program might at first glance seem heterogeneous, even a bit incoherent, but as assembled by Long Beach Symphony Music Director Eckart Preu, the roster for the opening concert in the orchestra’s 2023-2024 Classical Season proved to be as engaging, insightfully constructed, and thrilling in execution as any patron could wish for.

The evening’s central European folk/ethnic credentials were established right from the start with two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. His fascination with Magyar gypsy-style music stemmed from being recital accompanist to the itinerant Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi (1828-1898) when Brahms was still in his teens (an artistic partnership—otherwise harmonious until they parted ways in 1853—marred by a vehement falling-out over interpretative details of that “gypsy music,” as Maestro Preu noted in his introductory remarks).

Brahms and Reményi (left).
In the years that followed, Brahms’ continuing interest in the idiom led him to variously collect/rework/ compose many “Hungarian” melodies, until in 1869 the first set of Ungarische Tänze, WoO1 appeared in print, in two “books” of five dances each.

Originally published as piano duets, the Hungarian Dances reappeared over the years in many arrangements from solo piano to full orchestra. Brahms himself orchestrated the first, third, and 10th of them, and it was with No. 1 in G minor that the concert began.

Preu and the orchestra immediately demonstrated complete rapport with the idiom, their no-holds-barred Allegro molto urgently driving the smoothly urbane contours of the opening melody, and then generous ritardandi in the central section giving the LBSO flutes plenty of space for their trilling bird-calls.

This was followed, not by either of the others Brahms orchestrated himself, but by No. 4 in F minor, in the 1933 orchestration by Paul Juon (himself a composer worth bending an ear to). This choice was clearly for maximum contrast, with its Poco sostenuto opening hugely soulful and expansive, and then a whirlwind swirl for the central Vivace.

Bedřich Smetana, c.1878.
In Bedřich Smetana’s Czech homeland, complete stand-alone concerts of his symphonic cycle Má vlast, JB. 1/112 (My Fatherland) continue to be relatively frequent. Elsewhere such performances are quite rare, and in my admittedly limited experience, hearing all six symphonic poems consecutively live has not added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts—though the reiteration of the four-note motif representing the castle in the first of them (Vyšehrad) and then in the second (Vltava) and sixth (Blaník) adds a certain unifying factor.

To fill the second half of the concert, Maestro Preu made his own selection of three of the Má vlast symphonic poems. Though in some doubt initially as to the order in which to play them, his final chosen sequence of No. 2, Vltava (The Moldau) written in 1874, No. 3, Šárka, and No. 4, Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields)—both completed in 1875—could not have been improved upon.

“The Moldau” is by far the most familiar, due to the memorable and heart-lifting tune with which Smetana characterizes the river of the title. The LBSO players caught perfectly this vivid aural picture, from the 16th-note sextuplets on a single flute over violin and harp pizzicati that mark its source, through some 40 measures of those undulations gradually spreading through the orchestra, until the 1st violins sang out the melody.

Smetana himself described the Vltava’s course “through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. [It] swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Elbe”—and all were vividly characterized by the LBSO under Maestro Preu.

The Moldau flowing through Prague.
As succinct as Vltava is discursive, Šárka tells how the female warrior of the title springs a deadly trap on some male counterparts. The performance gave this all the stormy eloquence required, with a particularly baleful bassoon solo triggering the final slaughter. Only (for me) did a sense of diminishing returns begin to set in at From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, with its many pages of celebratory fanfaring and cymbal-crashing—though here executed with such panache and enthusiasm that the final climax elicited a comparably loud outburst of cheers and applause from the LBSO patrons.

Antonin Dvořák.
But the jewel at the heart of this immensely enjoyable and exuberant concert was the concerto. If ever there were a Society for the Restitution of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto, then undoubtedly its President and CEO would be Eckart Preu and the German pianist Andreas Boyde, whose pre-concert conversation about the work was particularly illuminating.

Look anywhere in commentaries about the Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33, B. 63 and the best you’ll likely find is damning with faint praise for this Cinderella work in Dvořák’s ouput, with particular obloquy for the piano writing. While Boyde acknowledged that the concerto is extremely difficult to play, his growing enthusiasm for its unique value and qualities that he had come to feel through performing it a number of times over the years was manifest in every moment of this account.

That he had worthy collaborators in Preu and the orchestra was demonstrated from the outset. The first statement of the main theme is confined to winds and lower strings, mezzo piano, but it is still marked Allegro agitato, and keen observation of passing accents ensured that all the drama inherent in the music was expressed to the full.

Andreas Boyde.
After 65 measures the piano’s initial entry is unobtrusive, and as the long first movement progressed the much-criticized character of the piece—as a concerto in which the piano part is essentially a hugely elaborate contributor to the overall orchestral texture rather than a virtuosic contrast with it—rapidly became apparent.

But in the face of this performance any such observation became an “any fool can see that” irrelevancy. Nowhere throughout the 20+ minutes of the first movement was the attention tempted to wonder, so integrated and eloquent was its unfolding, with orchestral writing revealed as expressive and characterful as anything in the five symphonies Dvořák had written up to that point in his career (but using forces smaller than any of them), and constantly elaborated, illuminated, and underpinned by the work of Boyde’s ultra-busy fingers.

Eckart Preu.
The Andante sostenuto opens with a horn solo that sounds as if it’s going to turn into the “Going Home” theme from the “New World” Symphony—but it doesn't, and played here with great sensitivity and attention to nuance above fabulously soft strings, the effect was balm-like after the lengthy and strenuous elaborations of the first movement.

The Allegro con fuoco finale is almost as long and elaborate, with pitiless demands on the soloist, but more than ever Boyde seemed to relish and revel in every challenge, maintaining momentum and crispness of attack, with the skipping main theme given an impish insouciance every time it came around.

If ever a neglected work deserved, and received, the best possible advocacy, this was it. Never boring for a moment throughout the 44 minutes of this performance, Dvořák’s Piano Concerto got as big an ovation as if it had been Tchaikovsky's First (see the final concert in this series next June...)


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, October 21, 2023, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Brahms and Rémenyi: Brahms-Institut an der Musikhochschule Lübeck; Smetana, The Moldau, Dvořák: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Monday, October 23, 2023

Boulanger, Sibelius, Prokofiev at Segerstrom Concert Hall

Violinist Esther Yoo, visiting guest conductor Christian Kluxen, and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra performing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The October concert in the Pacific Symphony’s 2023-2024 season at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall presented what was by any reckoning a deeply serious and often thrilling program, hewing closely to the time-honored overture/concerto/symphony model but departing from it decisively in its opening item. Indeed Lili Boulanger’s tone-poem D’un soir triste (literally “of a sad evening”) was the very opposite of anything preludial in her output, being her final completed work before her tragically early death aged only 24, in March 1918 from Crohn’s Disease or intestinal tuberculosis (there seems to be no consensus which).

Christian Kluxen.
In an informal and engagingly discursive chat to the audience following an account of the work that gave full measure to its implacable darkness and drama, the Danish visiting guest conductor Christian Kluxen opined that D’un soir triste enshrined Boulanger’s response to World War I, much of whose cumulative horror had been ground out in the mud-churned land of her native France.

This may well have been true, given that from 1915 she had been devoted to wartime charity work as fully as her fragile health allowed, but for this listener at least the piece—her largest purely orchestral composition even at just 12 minutes’ duration—carries an additional charge of personal anguish and defiance. While the inexorable cortège-like onward movement she establishes from the outset with the marking Lent (♩ = 58) could well embody public mourning, the ensuing long viola solo, seized upon here with devoted commitment by section Principal Meredith Crawford, introduces a telling personal element.

The last extant photograph of Lili Boulanger, 1917.
Throughout the first half of the work, the way in which Boulanger sets slowly climbing melodic lines against close-packed dissonant harmonies that persistently pull down into the orchestra’s lower depths felt, in this masterfully paced and skillfully controlled performance, like a depth-charge of suppressed anger. 

This eventually exploded with audience-galvanizing force in a mighty tam-tam smash (the instrument placed exact center at the back of the platform) that sliced off the orchestra’s progress to that point, followed by measured fortissimo bass drum and timpani beats as portentous as those that open the finale of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

From this central catastrophe D’un soir triste slowly rebuilds itself, at first with seeming calm, colored by long and eloquent violin and cello solos played with equal fervor respectively by Concertmaster Dennis Kim and section Principal Warren Hagerty. But the grinding weight and anger reassert themselves: after a wave of pulverizing fff climaxes, the final masterpiece of this, surely, great composer fades to its conclusion, expressif resigné, with a final ppp tam-tam stroke dissolving into silence.

Prokofiev at his dacha in 1944.
As well as the comments already noted above, Christian Kluxen also linked the theme of reaction to wartime with the one work in the program’s second half, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100. This was written, so the composer averred in interviews, in just one month in summer 1944, followed by a further month taken up by its orchestration.

As with Dmitri Shostakovich, it is impossible now to definitively disentangle Prokofiev’s actual views about his work from what he felt he was expected by Soviet bureaucracy to say. But, given that his country was grappling with a life-or-death struggle just as engulfing as that during which Lili Boulanger spent her last years, there’s no real reason to suspect any ironic subtext to his statement that “in the Fifth Symphony I wanted to praise the free and happy man, his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul. I cannot say I chose this theme; it was born in me and had to express itself. It is a symphony about the human spirit.

Apart from the perennially popular “Classical” Symphony No. 1, the Fifth has certainly been Prokofiev’s most frequently performed symphony, though its presence in concert halls seems to have diminished a little in recent years. It is also the most outward-facing and audience-friendly of his large-scale orchestral works, leading off with an indelibly memorable and aspiring theme on the potent duo of flute and bassoon. This passes rapidly from one instrumental grouping to another, with restless modulations adding to the sense of mounting excitement. As with the Boulanger, Kluxen’s ability to establish just the right initial motion immediately paid off, the almost casual start here letting the music flow forward with just the right sense of inevitability, aided by eloquently phrased playing.

Perhaps having a seat a good deal closer than usual in the Segerstrom Concert Hall aided comprehension, but Kluxen's and the Pacific Symphony’s performance imparted, as well as great impact, also clarity, not only to Prokofiev’s teeming orchestral textures but also to the formal layout of the first movement, enhancing one’s appreciation of the originality and skill with which he here used the conventions of sonata design.

Kluxen took the Allegro marcato second movement—effectively the symphony’s scherzo—very fast, thus avoiding any sense of a sinister subtext to its exuberant strut, while in the ensuing Adagio the Pacific Symphony players caught to perfection the movement’s unlikely but effective blend of plodding, ominous processional, tremulous high woodwind keening, and swooning romanticism in the upper strings.

Finally, how refreshing it was to hear the concluding Allegro giocoso taken at its face value, with all the balls kept spinning by Kluxen’s podium energy and the orchestra’s whiplash response, and no attempt to disinter any of the “…but is it really a celebration..?” aspect that some interpreters find in the comparably triumphant finale of Shostakovich’s own Fifth Symphony.

Caricature of Jean Sibelius in 1904.
The centerpiece in this marvelously rewarding concert was a performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47, completed in 1904 but extensively revised the following year. No wartime or explicit nationalistic associations here, except insofar as Sibelius’s entire career came to enshrine Finnish identity. Rather, the concerto was a painstaking and hard-won attempt to create a work worthy of the instrument with which the composer identified more than any other.

After the mortal storm of Lili Boulanger’s tone-poem, the concerto’s serene opening—solo violin line dolce ed espressivo above muted pianissimo oscillations in the 1st and 2nd violins—seemed even more balm-like than usual, but the Korean/American violinist Esther Yoo immediately showed her attentiveness to the score’s detail, beginning mezzoforte as marked rather than the whisper of tone some soloists affect, and with meticulously observed phrasing and seeming effortless command of the part’s complexities and challenges thereafter in the long first movement.

The slow movement and finale were equally keenly characterized: as before, it was perhaps sitting closer to the platform than usual which gave the impression that, firstly, the Adagio di molto moved ahead rather more purposefully than that marking would seem to indicate, and secondly, that the concluding Allegro, ma non tanto had much more energico than non tanto about it, a thrillingly relentless reading that made the musicologist Sir Donald Tovey’s dubbing of this movement as “a polonaise for polar bears” even less appropriate than usual.

All told, the performance was a triumph of cohesion, clarity and vigor for Esther Yoo and the devoted support from Christian Kluxen and the Pacific Symphony at the top of their stellar form. Her mastery in the finale of the solo part’s daunting complexities had a swift, airborne grace that was simply exhilarating, and made one wonder whether she had ever contemplated, or tackled, the even more daunting challenges of the concerto’s original version.

Ms. Yoo rewarded the ovation—which included notably whole-hearted approbation from the orchestra—not with any violinistic pyrotechnics but instead a touchingly simple arrangement of a Korean folksong entitled Milyang Arirang. But perhaps the most abiding impression from the whole concert was how, in contrast to Boulanger’s and Prokofiev’s virtuoso handling of very large orchestral forces, Sibelius had an almost uncanny ability to draw startlingly fresh and original colors and timbres from the most modest and standard line-up: a true, and cherishable, original.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday October 19, 2003, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; Lili Boulanger: Musée de la Musique, Philharmonie de Paris; Prokofiev: Colorisation by Andrew Newman; Sibelius: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review enjoyable, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Alcina: Six Characters in Search of Gender Identity


Vanessa  Goikoetxea
Sunny Martini 

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


The Baroque operas of Georg Frideric Handel number in the dozens, but they are rarely performed in a major opera house relative to the so-called “meat” of the repertoire. This does not detract from the fact that the Baroque master could write tunes with the best of them. He did not hold back on gorgeous arias and ensembles in his 1735 work Alcina, a veritable feast of continuous melody, each more beautiful than the last.

Seattle Opera made a bold choice in programming Alcina for the first time, as part of their main stage season. With only six characters and no chorus, full attention ultimately is focused on these solo performers in this complicated story based on the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. A parallel can be found in the six characters of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (which can be performed in a chamber-like version without chorus), but with a twist: in Alcina, the singers all sing above the staff, without an underlying bass voice to anchor the harmonies.

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Randall Scotting
Sunny Martini

This can be a bit challenging for the listener who is accustomed to hearing that lower voice. Fortunately, the exceptional Seattle cast, all of them returning artists, were up to the huge vocal challenges required of them, including impressive ornamentation in the Da Capo arias. The orchestra consisting of Seattle Symphony musicians accompanied them splendidly.

Heading the cast in the title role as the sorceress one loves to hate but ultimately sympathizes with was Spanish soprano Vanessa Goikoetxea, who reminded the audience that she can be at home, not only in Handel but in everything from Mozart to Bizet. The role of Alcina was made famous by iconic coloratura Joan Sutherland, but Goikoetxea created her own unique version. Her versatile voice soared, making the most of the long phrases while milking the exploitative drama of the role, and her bearing was appropriately queenly as the sorceress who wields and then loses her powers, turning people into wild beasts and more. Her vocal artistry was put to the full test in Act Two, where, required to sing almost continually, she demonstrated her ability to spin a phrase and project a crystal-clear, powerful high “C” with a beefy, full tone that filled the entire house, seemingly without any strain whatsoever.

The countertenor voice can take a bit of getting used to, but as Alcina’s paramour Ruggiero, Randall Scotting made an excellent impression. He negotiated the difficult fioratura in Act One with assurance and remained consistent throughout the evening. His dramatic conflicts were relatable and convincing.

Randall Scotting
Philip Newton
Known for performing everything from bel canto (Rossini’s Cinderella) to high Romantic drama (Carmen) with aplomb, mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson maintained her usual high quality performance standards in the gender-switching role of Bradamante. Aside from the fiendish vocal pyrotechnics, which she brought off effortlessly, Jackson managed to be riveting dramatically, playing both ends against the middle when he/she was thrust into an impossible situation: first hiding her gender, then placating other key characters and convincing them of her true identity. As always, she was enthralling to watch.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Sunny Martini

As Alcina’s sister Morgana, Sharleen Joynt, who was memorable in SO’s Orpheus and Euridice, played the ingenue to the hilt. But it was her dazzling vocal performance that most captivated the audience. Her fresh voice came across beautifully overall, but her fearless leaps into the stratosphere of high “D’s” and “E-flats” brought down the house. Never wavering, she tackled her showpieces with utmost confidence. She is a young singer to watch.

Charleen Joynt,
Philip Newton

Tenor John Marzano had the difficult task of holding his own among his formidable colleagues in a role that was dramatically challenging to play, saving up his forza for the fiendish second act aria, which was a nonstop fireworks display. He handled the rapid fioratura adeptly and showed great potential for more extensive roles.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, in the relatively small role of Bradamante’s protector Melissa, carried herself with calm nobility and anchored the drama with her presence. Unlike the others, she had only one aria, but she made the most of it, performing with ease and poise.

John Marzano
Sunny Martini

Nina Yoshida Nelsen
Sunny Martini

Making her SO conducting debut, Christine Brandes (who formerly has sung the role of Morgana) performed a major miracle in achieving the sound of so-called “authentic” performance practice from modern instruments. She maintained perfect balance in the small but well-chosen ensemble, always attuned to the vocal needs of the singers, never covering them, and allowing them to navigate their multifaceted challenges successfully. The violin and cello solos merit special mention for fine, sensitive playing.

Christine Brandes
Sunny Martini

The rest of the creative team all made their SO debuts, and the production had its hitches. While Ian William Galloway’s video designs were pleasingly evocative of the forests and palm trees of a paradise island, the constant presence of Matthew Richardson’s stage lights was overwhelming and distracting, especially when the lights were raised and lowered during the action, interfering with the sight lines onstage. Hannah Clark’s shifting chair sets were minimal but seemed to represent the fluctuating relationships between the characters.

The production overall also was problematic in that director Tim Albery had several singers disrobing, at times during some hugely difficult passagework. While this is understandable in the case of Bradamante revealing his/her true gender, it generally was disruptive, and also produced a comical reaction from the audience when it was not necessarily called for. To their credit, the singers handled what was required of them with impressive equanimity. However, Albery did excel when it came to action, moving the characters about the stage with both dramatic energy and deep emotional gestures.

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Randall Scotting
Philip Newton

Some very unique and key props included a gleaming, beautifully detailed sword, Alcina’s intricately carved snake cane/staff and matching gold snake-carved compact and lipstick, which added to her powerful sorceress effects, and an enchanted ring. 

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, John Marzano
Philip Newton

It was unclear whether an imposing, multipurpose bear rug was one of Alcina’s unfortunate beings turned into a wild beast or symbolic of her more animalistic instincts. In either case, it grabbed the attention.

Vanessa Goikoetxea
Sunny Martini

On the whole, Alcina made a positive impression. It’s worth going to see for the glorious music and courageous, proficient singing. Handel lives. 

Photo credits: Sunny Martini, Philip Newton


 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]