Monday, August 8, 2022

Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet Presents...




This Saturday, August 13, the Luckman Fine Arts Complex presents the world premiere of Seeds of Rain by choreographer Raiford Rogers, with music by Philip Glass and Zbynek Mateju. The performers include Los Angeles organist Mark Alan Hilt, pianist Helena Zakharova Weiser, with art projections by Mike Nava. The featured guest artist is Ukrainian dancer Tetyana Matyanova.

The title for the ballet-diptych, Seeds of Rain, is a line from D.H. Lawrence’s Autumn Rain, a poem about hope and renewal. Each of its two parts has a separate title: The music for Part 1 of Seeds of Rain, performed by Hilt, is a special arrangement of Philip Glass’ masterwork Mad Rush recorded at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, while the music for Part 2, recorded specifically for this ballet, is set to Czech composer Zbynek Mateju’s Three Stones Concerto—and features Weiser with the Hradec Kralove Philharmonic Orchestra.

The stage artwork is by painter Mike Nava and features projected animations: a chronological evolution of a series of paintings, photographed layer by layer. Hundreds of stages of the paintings' development slowly fade from one to the next without a static moment, providing a living environment for the dancers and a visual embodiment of the music.

After an intermission another work, Naivete of Flowers, will be performed. 

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WHEN AND WHERE: Saturday, May 13, 8:00 pm, at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex, at California State University, Los Angeles. 
Tickets: call the Luckman box office at 323-343-6600. Or go to Ticketmaster.

Friday, July 29, 2022

A New Violin Concerto, or Born of Fire in Budapest


Todd Mason (composer), Tosca Opdam (soloist), and Peter Illényi (conductor) at the recording of Mason's Violin Concerto in Budapest on July 18, 2022.

TODD MASON

The Los Angeles-born, Juilliard-trained composer Todd Mason has written a substantial body of music including numerous chamber works for various ensembles (among them three string quartets), vocal compositions, and pieces for string orchestra. Since 2014 he has hosted an annual series of chamber concerts, some including his own works, in his Mar Vista home (reviewed here, here, herehere, and here). 

During the long Covid shutdown, Todd Mason embarked for the first time on a large-scale, purely orchestral work, and this article traces the journey of his new Violin Concerto from its inception in locked-down LA to a recording venue in Budapest, Hungary during Europe's summer 2022 heatwave. 

IMPETUS

During the pandemic, I finally set myself to writing a violin concerto, something I’d been wanting to do for years but never seemed to have enough time to focus on such an ambitious project. Plus, I felt that I was still learning about the myriad complexities of a large-scale work for orchestra and soloist, not to mention the intimidating fact of so many epic concertos already in the literature. I knew this new piece had to be something very special!

I asked myself the most fundamental question: “What is a violin concerto?” It obviously has to be a piece that features the instrument, and presumably with full orchestra to enhance and color it. But it has to be more than merely pretty, for example, or just fast; it should take the listener on an exciting and engaging journey to interesting and unique places, and of course give the soloist opportunities to showcase what the violin is capable of. So I studied many of the famous scores, and some not so famous, and ultimately came up with something that I felt had my own compositional voice and a compelling musical story.

CREATION

I've always been as much drawn to single-movement as to multi-movement structures, and what emerged was a continuous 22-minute work with sharp contrasts in emotion and harmonic language, but also with a steady and driving element that involves a recurring motif, of four rising notes, which becomes a kind of glue, in many forms, for the whole piece. 

The rapid but pianissimo opening, complete with a quiet gong, is largely atonal with thick washes of 16th notes in the strings and clarion brass accents creating a high intensity of energy. When this simmers down, the soloist enters and the mood gives way to a slower, richer, melodic polyphonic texture above which the violin sings. A pensive, soul-searching meditation, with ever-building tension, gives way to a mini-cadenza that leads suddenly into a faster, playful, and rhythmically contrasting section with short off-kilter chords—the orchestra battling against the soloist.

Then another big change comes: a very emotional and slower, almost hymn-like section reveals an entirely new sonic world, embracing more traditional tonalities and in which the soloist engages in a very agreeable dialog with the orchestra. But the violinist also decides when that’s over too, and a new, somewhat eerie, section leads to a grand, designedly virtuosic cadenza and an even grander finish. My view of a "good concerto" is that it's largely about the interesting struggle for dominance between soloist and orchestra—and that in the good concertos the soloist always has the last word!

This project certainly kept me busy during much of the pandemic, even if I had no idea how I would ever get it performed. I worked on it for four months without interruption in the spring of 2021 and completed it at around the time I was able to get my first Covid vaccine jab.

NEXT STEPS

All good. I was very happy with the concerto. But how to bring it to the concert hall? I tried not to keep in mind that, after a very unsuccessful premiere it took almost 40 years before Beethoven’s Violin Concerto finally had a good performance with the 12-year old prodigy, Joseph Joachim. Unfortunately for Beethoven, he never heard (or saw) that celebrated performance. Needless to say, for the composer, getting a trio or string quartet performed is quite a bit of an easier proposition than a new full-length concerto with full orchestra.

The next step involved some luck and serendipity. I needed a top violinist. As it turned out, two dear music friends, both fellow Juilliard alums, in different countries, were the first people I asked for recommendations, and although they didn’t know each other personally, both suggested the same violinist, a young Dutch soloist by the name of Tosca Opdam (left), another Juilliard alum! And, equally fortunately, after I sent her the score and a rough computer realization (which never sound particularly great), she said she was interested in the project.

However it’s one thing—and perhaps the comparatively easy thing—for a composer to write a technically demanding piece such as a concerto, but it’s quite another for a soloist to actually find it compelling—a good concerto—and be interested enough to help find ways to make it technically playable and then want to perform it.

A whole year went by and, partly because of the pandemic continuing, it was still difficult to move forward with this project. Few orchestras were performing publicly, and from its outset early this year the Russia/Ukraine war was causing considerable worry across Europe, where any recording would be made. But then things began to look more promising. 

NEGOTIATION

Using Zoom calls and numerous emails, Tosca and I slowly went through the entire piece to make the violin part as idiomatic as possible. The wonderful thing about a top soloist is that they have suggestions that the most experienced composers simply would not know about. Is this double stop actually playable after this double stop? Can you play these non-intuitive semi-chromatic arpeggios at this tempo? Will these high notes work as harmonics? 

Tchaikovsky‘s Violin Concerto, for example, was turned down by two violinists who thought it unplayable, which certainly didn’t help the composer‘s mood. He struggled to rewrite certain passages, but when it was finally premiered, the review was savage: “The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is an inflated talent, without discrimination or taste. Such is also his long and pretentious Violin Concerto … vulgarity gains the upper hand. The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, shredded.”—Vienna Free Press.

I had a bit of a similar worry about the playability and listenability of my concerto because the very fast tempo made certain passages extremely difficult; the soloist, rightly so, suggested reducing the pace slightly in places so all the notes could be heard. But then, if it had to go more slowly, I feared it would lose some of its personality and energy.

REALIZATION

Nonetheless, a year after finishing the work, a window of availability opened up to make a recording this July. Such a real performance is extremely useful to promote a new piece for live concerts, and it also helps the composer iron out numerous crucial details before going public. So I went ahead and lined up the Hungarian orchestra that had done such a marvelous job on my Chamber Suite for String Orchestraand we went ahead and set out for Budapest.

Then, very quickly came the news of massive flight cancellations, which caused additional worry! But we somehow got our flights without losing our suitcases, scores, or violins—and then suddenly realized we were flying into one of the worst heatwaves ever to hit Europe. I guess we lucked out a bit because on the day of the recording it was only 100°F in Budapest...

This orchestra, The Budapest Scoring Orchestra, specializes in high-quality new classical music recordings and film scores, similar to the top studio orchestras in Los Angeles. The players—drawn from the prestigious Budapest Philharmonic, the Budapest Opera Orchestra, the Hungarian State Philharmonic, and a contemporary music ensemble called Concerto Budapest—are all remarkable sight-readers.

The classical music tradition in Hungary is strong and at a very high level, and as a result it has an illustrious record of producing some of history's greatest classical musicians, conductors, and composers: names like Franz Liszt, Béla Bartók, and Eugene Ormandy, to mention just a few, and also Zoltán Kodály, who in fact designed the very studio (exterior, left) where our recording was made. 

Despite the heat—the studio A/C was only partly able to keep up—over five hours Tosca Opdam and the orchestra under its superb Hungarian conductor, Peter Illényi, made this new and challenging concerto come alive in marvelous ways I didn’t even think possible. It was like drinking out of a fire hose: extremely intense but enormously exciting to hear the work for the very first time.

And then even better news… Tosca somehow did the impossible and navigated all the difficult passages at full tempo on her rare Matteo Goffriller violin (right). The result was utterly thrilling. While Illényi was fluent in English, the musicians mostly spoke Hungarian only, so there were rapid-fire discussions back and forth in both languages (which sound worlds apart!) but all negotiated deftly by Illényi.  

Where we all communicated in the same language was through the music, perhaps partly because I’ve always had an echo of Bartók in my music and they understood that perfectly. Fast, semi-chromatic runs and tricky rhythms, no problem. Stacked polyphonic divisi sliding chords, fine! But, more importantly, the very spirit of the music was intuitively embraced by these skilled musicians.

After the session, Peter Illényi said “I hear a kind of Bartók in your music,” to which I replied “Well, that’s not surprising because he is one of my heroes.” I think he was very happy to hear that. In the lobby of the recording studio is a giant portrait of Bartók.

Hearing my new Violin Concerto come to life, we all felt that it has a very good chance of being received well by audiences in the US and Europe alike. Tosca Opdam wants to perform it several times on a special tour and of course I very much hope that happens! Next up is the lengthy process of taking all the best takes and editing them into a final result, which will be posted on YouTube. But after being born of fire in Budapest, I feel this is a challenge I can handle. 

 Fingers crossed, next stop, the concert hall! Stay tuned…

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Photos: Todd Mason.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Beethoven, Mendelssohn Close Second Sundays’ Season


Click on the image to hear Trio Céleste play Beethoven and Mendelssohn at
Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

REVIEW

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

This was the finale of Classical Crossroads’ “Second Sundays at Two” 2021-22 season of chamber music recitals, impacted of course by Covid (so still not open to unlimited audience attendance), but otherwise going out on a strong note with two compact masterpieces, one late Classical and the other early Romantic.

Rather as Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony has been overshadowed by its numerical neighbors—not to mention the mighty Ninth—so his Piano Trio No. 4, Op. 11 “Gassenhauer” (in the same key, B-flat major, as the Fourth Symphony) feels something of a lightweight within that genre of his chamber music, following as it does the imposing set of three that he proudly labeled his “Opus 1,” and succeeded by, amongst others, the famous “Ghost” Trio (No. 5 in D major, Op. 70, No. 2)—named for its (literally) haunting slow movement—and the unprecedentedly expansive “Archduke” (No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97).

But not to Trio Céleste (Kevin Kwan Loucks, piano, Iryna Krechkovsky, violin, and Ross Gasworth, cello), who have it firmly in their repertoire (one previous performance reviewed here) and perform it with a concentrated energy, crispness of ensemble, and close observation of sudden dynamic contrasts that are far removed from the easy-going Gemütlichkeit of some other performances.

Beethoven in 1801, seven
years after he composed his
Fourth Piano Trio.
As you can hear from the recording linked here and above—captured live before an invited audience at RHUMC on the second Sunday in June—Trio Céleste took the Allegro con brio marking to the first movement very much at face value, and with the exposition repeat absent it had a terse homogeneity that more recalled Beethoven’s Fifth than his Fourth.

Following this, the Adagio was dignified but not lingering, and given as con espressione as the composer could require, while the finale—nine variations on the popular (in 1797) melody "Pria ch'io l'impegno" ("Before I go to work")—had all the whiplash changes of mood, pace, and dynamic that it needs, with a particular bounce added to the coda where Beethoven shifts from 4/4 to 6/8. What a wealth of wit and variety he packs into its six minutes!

The other work was Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, which as much as any other amongst his chamber music output counters any thoughts of him as a comfortably Biedermeier composer. Trio Céleste’s account of the first movement, if like the other three not quite up to Mendelssohn’s extremely fast metronome marks, was as wholeheartedly Molto allegro ed agitato as the succeeding slow movement—in the greatest imaginable contrast—fulfilled its Andante con moto tranquillo marking.

Mendelssohn in 1834, five years
 before the First Piano Trio.
Is it possible actually to play the Scherzo at Mendelssohn's metronome mark of dotted quarter note = 120? Maybe, and if any group could manage it Trio Céleste might, but even at something less than that the movement had the requisite whirlwind, elfin quality, while the finale returned to and accentuated the first movement’s intensity.

Next season, Classical Crossroads plans to return to free public live-audience concerts for both its “First Fridays at First!~fff” and “Second Sundays at Two” series, but with the innovation of simultaneous true livestreaming for those who cannot attend in person and with the resulting recording made available on Vimeo, potentially for a worldwide audience. All credit to them for having triumphed over Covid adversity while maintaining the highest artistic standards, and with the promise to come back stronger than ever—donations here

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Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Rolling Hills Estates, Sunday, June 12, 2022, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performance: Courtesy Classical Crossroads; Beethoven and Mendelssohn: Wikimedia Commons.

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

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Celebration and Inspiration at the Mason House Finale


Click on the image above for Todd Mason’s arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring,”
played as the encore to the season finale of the Mason Home Concerts 2021-22.

REVIEW

Brandenburg No. 4 & more..., Mason Home Concerts, Mar Vista
DAVID J BROWN

Though—praise be!—live concerts with audiences are (mostly) back after the long silence, schedules are still vulnerable to Covid mayhem and, for the second week running, a local event originally planned for an early/mid-season slot had to be repurposed as its season finale. But the good news was that, as for the Long Beach Symphony on the first Saturday of June (reviewed here), the present recital, played by seven of LA's brightest talents, proved a fortuitously fitting climax to the 2021-22 season of chamber concerts hosted by composer Todd Mason in his Mar Vista home.

This miscellany of no less than seven programmed items, originally planned for February but postponed due to an infection spike, therefore had an end-of-season sense of festivity, if anything accentuated by Mason’s Covid-cautious decision to move the performance from his acoustically-crafted concert room to the backyard patio—just large enough to accommodate chairs for around 50 but inevitably putting a bit of squeeze on serving space for the ample and delicious supper to which patrons of the series are regularly treated.

Sensibly, the Mason Concerts’ regular speaker, Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano of Colburn Conservatory (left), decided not to try and encapsulate this musical smorgasbord in one introductory talk, but chose instead to briefly comment on each piece before it was played. Indeed, she said, she had tried but failed to come up with an overall link between all the items—which was nearly, but not quite, a steady accretion from a single player at the start to the full muster of seven by the end.

The closest she could get was to regard the opening two works, for strings only, as an appetizer to the main, and mainly flute-oriented, platter, and as such she began by introducing cellist Bennie Fried to play two movements from J. S. Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D major for solo cello, BWV 1012—probably written, like the other five suites, some time before 1720.

To a non-performer it always feels particularly challenging for whoever plays first in a concert to seize the cold-open moment and really launch the event, and in this case for a single player to do so under the technical and interpretative demands of Bach’s solo cello writing seemed especially daunting. Mr. Fried, however, rapidly won over the audience with a spacious and rhythmically free account of the Prelude, followed by the third-movement Courant shorn of both its repeats, so that it felt like a lightweight encore to the Prelude’s breadth and seriousness.

The young Jean Sibelius.
The second strings-only hors d'oeuvre was a lingeringly affectionate account by violinist Misha Vayman and violist Virginie d’Avezac of the Duo in C major for Violin and Viola, JS 66, composed around 1891-92 by Sibelius: sweetly melodic but not to these ears very “Sibelian” in any recognizably harmonic or rhythmic sense. It was a reminder—Dr. Brown-Montesano aptly referred to it as a “song without words”—of the legion of chamber and instrumental works that Sibelius wrote in the years before his celebrated orchestral tone-poems and symphonies, and which still remain virtually unexplored, apart from in BIS’s prodigious Sibelius Edition.

Does this mean it gets louder and then quieter again?” whispered one wag on seeing that the next item was by Franz Doppler. Ms. Brown-Montesano may or may not have caught this scientific over-simplification, but she was quick to point out that Franz Doppler (1821-1883), flute virtuoso and composer, was not the same as Christian Doppler (1803-1853), the mathematician and physicist who first defined the principle that became known as the “Doppler effect.”

Franz Doppler.
Franz Doppler’s Rondo for two flutes and piano introduced the virtuoso flute skills of Sara Andon and Rachel Mellis—the presence of the former a constant for the remainder of the evening—as well as the conductor and pianist Tae Yeon Lim, playing an electronic keyboard that as the evening progressed was to prove remarkably versatile.

Their nimbly interlocking account of the piece, with its earworm-inducing main theme and secondary melody that bore a slight resemblance to “Cherry Ripe,” made one regret that time constraints didn’t allow for the Andante of Doppler’s complete two-movement Op. 25 to be included before the Rondo.

The same three performers concluded part one of the recital with Ramesh Kumar Kannan’s brief and touching A Father’s Letter, composed in 2021. For this Mss. Andon and Mellis moved to their alto flutes, and Mr. Kannan himself was present to receive warm applause.

Sara Andon, Adrianne Pope, Virginie d'Avezac and Bennie Fried play film score arrangements.

Though we’re well beyond the snobbery that film music is just generically inappropriate for concert listening, I do think it remains a challenge to present a memorable movie theme—originally designed to represent a character or enhance a piece of action—in a way that is also a satisfactorily self-contained piece when divorced from that original source.

For me this was true for the arrangements which opened the second half—after a break for more refreshments and socializing—of both Ennio Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso and John Williams’ "Princess Leia Theme" from the original Star Wars, with each having just a little too much “wrapping around” when you’re really just waiting for The Tune to come back.

That said, the performances, by Ms. Andon (now adding piccolo to her flute family resources) and Adrianne Pope (violin), together with Ms. D’Avezac’s viola and Mr. Fried’s cello, were as skilled and committed as anyone could desire, and enhanced by eloquent encomia from Ms. Andon and Dr. Brown-Montesano on the composers: Morricone, who though he created an entirely new Western “sound” for the “Dollars” movies back in the ‘60s had to wait a half-century before winning the Best Original Score Oscar (right) for The Hateful Eight; and John Williams, still going strong at 90, who may or may not be "the greatest movie composer of all time" but is certainly the most well-known, beloved, and honored.

And finally, back to Johann Sebastian Bach. All seven performers now mustered on the patio for a performance—after Ms. Brown-Montesano etched in what is known and surmised about its history—of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049. It may seem hyperbolic to say it, but with the players thoroughly warmed up and buoyed by a hugely appreciative audience, this was simply one of the most vivid and rewarding performances of a Brandenburg that I can recall in nearly 60 years of concert-going.

The first page of Bach's manuscript of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.
Led by Ms. Pope’s virtuoso account of the highly ornate Violino Principale part, and underpinned by Ms. Lim’s electronic keyboard now convincingly disguised as a harpsichord, every strand of Bach’s divine polyphony was “present” and characterful in what felt like a reaffirmation of the eternal verities of great music at a time when so little in the world seems certain.

And even this wasn’t the end. After an ovation that must have rattled the windows of Mr. Mason’s neighbors, the players stayed for an encore: his own arrangement for flutes, strings, and continuo (Ms. Lim’s keyboard now metamorphosed again into an organ) of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" from Bach’s Cantata No. 147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147. Further comment is superfluous, as you can hear this for yourself if you click on the image at the top of this review, except to say that it fittingly ended a very special evening.

l-r: Adrianne Pope, Misha Vayman, Tae Yeon Lim, Virginie d’Avezac, Ramesh Kumar Kannan,
Todd Mason, Sara Andon, Rachel Mellis, Bennie Fried.

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Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Images: The performance: Courtesy Todd Mason; Sibelius: composer website; Doppler: Wikimedia Commons; Morricone: National Public Radio; Bach manuscript: IMSLP.

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

Monday, June 13, 2022

Handel's "Giustino" Reimagined at Long Beach


Cast members for LBO's production of Handel's Giustino; l-r: Orson Van Gay, Dante Mireles,
Luke Elmer (standing), Sharon Chohi Kim (seated), Anna Schubert (behind),
Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Marlaina Owens.

REVIEW

Long Beach Opera, Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach
RODNEY PUNT

George Frideric Handel,
by Francis Kyte (1742).
Before George Frideric Handel promoted righteousness in his 25 oratorios, most famously Messiah, he trafficked in a lot of sin and skullduggery in nearly twice as many operas. Giustino HWB 37, one of his last composed (in 1737, for London's Covent Garden Theatre), was given three performances last month by the Long Beach Opera at the outdoor sculpture garden of the city’s Museum of Latin American Art. I took in the first one on May 21.

This opera seems to have been inspired by the improbable but true story of the rise of Justinian I (“the Great”), Emperor of Byzantium from 527 to 565, who, though born a humble peasant, eventually led the successful defense of his empire in time of war. Handel’s opera, a fanciful prequel to this real history, explores the dynamics of attaining leadership, which is thrust on two characters initially unprepared for the challenge.

The Emperor Justinian I,
from a mosaic at Ravenna.
The LBO’s regietheater production of the work was loads of fun, but as is the company’s wont, it takes cavalier liberties with the storyline. To understand the how, where, and why of it, let’s first consider the original version’s story as Handel premiered it in 1737.

Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople, is under rebellion. The young, widowed Empress Arianna has just married Anastasio on the rebound but is threatened by the treacherous general Amanzio and his servant Polidarte. When Arianna rejects the amorous advances of another general, Vitaliano, he seeks her downfall. To counter these worries, supernatural assurance comes from La Fortuna, who tells a simple ploughboy, Giustino (Justinian), asleep on a distant field, that he should come to her rescue. On the way to help his Empress, he rescues a lady in distress, Princess Leocasta, who is Anastasio's sister.

Handel’s theatrical instincts led him to spike Giustino with even more special effects than his earlier operas: a sea monster, furious storms, a shipwreck, even a cleaving mountain. These sorts of thrills recall the over-the-top antics of Saturday morning matinees, as revived in films like Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. They suggest why LBO Director James Darrah reimagined Giustino as a B western, with Handel’s Byzantium displaced to Southern California’s hardscrabble Mojave Desert—so that an evening of what was originally opera seria aimed for a lot of opera buffa laughs.

The action unfolds on a long, narrow catwalk stage in the Museum’s al fresco courtyard, its eight cast members playing to audiences seated on both its opposite sides and at a far end. Despite the nearly 360-degree challenge of relating to the audience, the body-miked cast seemed to cover all sides well enough, their voices nicely balanced and synched with an amplified Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra placed at some distance from the stage’s remaining short end. 

Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra in action.

Crisp, sure-handed direction from Christopher Rountree, the LBO’s newly-appointed Music Director, ensured a smooth flow of both music and dramatic action, no mean feat in this sprawling layout. The cast performed at a remarkably high level on the chilly opening night.

Much of Handel’s music was cut, including the overture. The roughly two hours of it that remained, with one intermission, were put on the musical steroids of composer Shelley Washington’s amped-up rock- and disco-inflected rescorings. I had trepidations anticipating them, but Washington’s self-described "slightly wild, slightly mysterious” interpolations were deftly integrated. (In whatever guise his music is dressed, Handel’s great tunes always register.)

Pablo Santiago and Michael Rathbun’s lighting worked best when darkness arrived a half hour into the evening’s production, which began at 7:30 pm. Outdoor screens sported distant mountains in pastel hues and a close saguaro cactus (almost all of which are in Arizona, not California). Until nightfall the printed lyrics hugging the bottom of the screens were too washed out to be readable: after darkness arrived, they were indispensable.

Giustino (Luke Elmer, countertenor)
with supernatural help La Fortuna
(Sharon Chohi Kim, soprano).
Giustino holds interest today in part for the psychological dynamics between its four principal characters: the initially inexperienced Empress Arianna, her unreliable general Vitaliano, the treacherous general Amanzio, and an almost otherworldly hero, Giustino. Betrayals, deceptions and dirty tricks abound, with fortunes flying up and down.

The male cast here, Giustino excepted, are boorish cowboys lusting after the keys to the kingdom or to Arianna’s bedroom, depending on their impulse of the moment. They mess with the female royal court in a booze-soaked, run-down motel, frequently in its bed. The women, however, dwell on some behavioral plateau above these slackers. They are savvier and, even in this downscale locale, more stylish. The ensuing struggles between them have as many double-crossings as a bin full of Dos Equis bottles.

Arianna (Anna Schubert, soprano)
and new husband Anastasio
(Marlaina Owens, soprano).
In her appearance as Empress Arianna, Anna Schubert’s crystal-clear soprano charmed in her early guise as a carefree new bride sporting a peekaboo orange dress that could draw the attention of any Byzantine, eligible or not. Velvet-voiced soprano Marlaina Owens, trouser-roled in a prairie sheepskin blazer as Arianna’s new husband, Anastasio, projected macho dominance, her self-assurance highlighting Arianna’s initial naivete.

Powerful bass-baritone Douglas Williams brought dramatic heft and menace to the traitorous general Amanzio, partnering his dark baritone with Dante Mireles’ softer-grained baritone soldier-servant Polidarte. The Baroque era’s convention of low voice roles being bad guys is here injected with steroids.

The title character Giustino, sung by countertenor Luke Elmer, is a prototype “innocent boy-savior.” Western culture is full of them: the young David who fells Goliath, the infant Jesus who redeems the world, and more recently the fresh-faced Luke Skywalker who quells the Galactic Empire. In operatic terms, the last Wagner hero, Parsifal, is comparable. In this production, Giustino is a scruffy guy with a ball cap and little inherent cunning and craft; his powers derive not from preparation but from a divine source pulling all the strings for him.

The transformed Arianna (Anna Schubert)
hogties Vitaliano (Orson Van Gay, tenor).
Once La Fortuna (sweetly chirped by Sharon Chohi Kim) tells Giustino he’s headed for good fortune, he meets every adversity with effortless, almost detached calm, first saving the aforementioned Princess Leocasta (sweet-voiced Amanda Lynn Bottoms) from a wild boar, and later slaying a sea monster. Finally, he himself is saved from harm when a mountain cleaves and a supernatural voice within tells Giustino's tormentor, general Vitaliano, to knock it off. Is it any wonder Giustino never seems to sweat in this work?

Vitaliano (pliant tenor Orson Van Gay) had engaged all evening in repeated rebellious confrontations with Empress Arianna, but at a pivotal point, with the two locked in a power struggle, she finally rose to the demands of her office. Her heroics, in contrast to those of Giustino, rely entirely upon her own wits and grit. Outfitted in designer Adam Rigg’s fire-red dress, emerald stiletto boots extending up her thighs, and armed with a cattle rope (purple-colored, no less), Arianna hog-ties Vitaliano and rolls him up in her carpet. Sitting on the rolled-up him, she sends home to the half-suffocating general just exactly who’s the boss of Byzantium. 

Where Giustino's victories essentially derive from divine interventiion, Arianna's triumph comes from the hard work of experience and grit facing down her fears and confronting her powerful enemies. There is, here, telling commentary on the war of the sexes. The opera may be named for Giustino, but it is Arianna who is the true hero in this prequel to the real Byzantium's long-reigning Justinian I. From an audience perspective as well, it is the Arianna character who holds interest, and the evening was a triumph for Anna Schubert's portrayal of her. 

Empress Arianna also proves, cheekily, that clothes do indeed make the woman. With this sure-footed demonstration of discipline, the wavering Vitaliano finally achieves his moment of clarity. He will soon be off to raise an army in defense of his Empress. The additional discovery that he's also Giustino’s long-lost brother seals the deal for his restitution.

Still, I wouldn’t trust the guy for a moment. Nor should you.

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Handel's Giustino, Long Beach Opera, Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, Saturday, May 21, 2022, 7:30 p.m. 
Images: The production: Jordan Geiger; Handel: National Portrait Gallery, London; Justinian: Wikimedia Commons; Musica Angelica orchestra: Rodney Punt.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

A Thrilling Finale to the Long Beach Symphony Season


The Silver-Garburg Piano Duo and strings of the LBSO under Eckart Preu play J. S. Bach's
Concerto in C minor BWV 1062.

REVIEW

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

This collaboration had been a long time coming, noted LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu in his pre-concert chat with Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg, real-life partners who perform as the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo. First planned pre-pandemic, their eventual appearance in February this year had to be postponed again, due to another “Covid intervention,” until this final concert of the orchestra’s 2021-22 season, on the first Saturday in June.

Back in February their planned program—a pair of two-piano concertos by Bach and Poulenc—had to be swapped at short notice with Anna Clyne’s DANCE for cello and orchestra, originally slated for the present occasion. This resulted then in a concert that was a little short on playing-time, though not on quality (reviewed here), but to compensate, the inclusion now of both concertos made for an exceptionally full season finale.

Johann Sebastian Bach.
The first of the two was J. S. Bach’s Concerto in C minor BWV 1062. The LBSO’s April concert had included, as something of an experiment, a symphony by his son Carl Philip Emanuel, and to my ears the latter’s early Classical style, based on sharp contrasts of texture and dynamic, was somewhat more successful as an aural experience in the huge space of the Terrace Theater than his father’s close-packed contrapuntal intricacy.

J. S. Bach wrote over a dozen concertos for keyboard instruments (in his day harpsichord or clavichord), most of them transcriptions of earlier works. This is certainly true of BWV 1062, the third and last of his concertos for two keyboards, and any unsuspecting listener getting a “… this sounds familiar..?” vibe during the performance will probably soon have realized that the more well-known guise of the music is as the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, composed around 1730. The two-keyboard transcription dates from later in the 1730s.

The Silver-Garburg Piano Duo.
Like its original form and its companion keyboard concertos, BWV 1062 is scored for just a string group of 1st and 2nd violins, viola(s), and continuo—essentially chamber music. As legions of performers and listeners know, Bach’s keyboard music can be just as effective on modern pianos as on harpsichord or clavichord, and the Silver-Garburg Duo, facing each other across the acreage of their two concert grands with curves nesting together, wanted nothing of expressive sensitivity, clarity, and cohesion.

But the physical breadth of the conjoined pianos formed something of a barrier—at least from our position towards the front of the orchestra seating—to hearing clearly what Maestro Preu and his string forces (6-6-4-4-2) were doing, so that much detail in the thematic interplay between them and the pianos was lost or obscured. However, the propulsive vitality of the outer movements, and the exquisite melody of the central Andante, still communicated effectively and were warmly applauded.

Click the image above for a 1960 performance of Poulenc’s
Concerto for Two Pianos played by the composer himself,
with Jacques Février (second piano), and the Orchestre
National de France (ORTF) conducted by Georges Prêtre.
More entirely successful was Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra FP 61, which followed straight on—a conjunction that some might have found a little indigestible, but I thought exhilarating in its demonstration of the variety that can exist within such a narrowly defined genre.

Some of the success was due to Maestro Preu’s careful adherence to Poulenc’s instrumentation—quite modest and with, unusually, the string numbers specified (8-8-4-4-4)—so here needing a desk added to each of the 1st and 2nd violins and basses as used in the Bach. Otherwise woodwind (with doublings) and brass in pairs plus tuba suffice, together with a small battery of untuned percussion for a single nimble player, though no timpani.

To this careful balancing of forces was added an unfailing responsiveness between orchestra, conductor and soloists, so that Poulenc’s characteristic turn-on-a-dime switches between boisterous buffoonery and withdrawn sensitivity were handled with pin-sharp precision. In the outer movements his zany, freewheeling inspiration soared and swerved, tinkled and clattered, while the Larghetto unfolded with sweet-toned inevitability from its wry, faux-Mozartean opening. No aural muffling or indigestion here, nor indeed in the four-hand version of Malagueňa by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1896-1963)—the sixth movement of his 1933 Suite Andalucia—with which as an encore the Duo made an already full program even more richly packed.

Michael Abels.
The LBSO mustered its full strength for the opening work, Michael Abels’ (b.1962) Global Warming, composed in 1990 with the expressed aim to encapsulate both the implications within its title: not only climate concern but also the then widespread optimism for improved international relations following the proclaimed end of the Cold War and dismantling of the Berlin Wall (nowadays Abels’ might well consider writing a darker sequel, Climate Change!)

Global Warming thus proceeds from drily scraping percussion, against which solo violin and solo cello (concertmaster Roger Wilkie and principal Cécilia Tsan making the first of many notable contributions to the evening) skirl up and down like ghosts of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, before segueing into an Irish jig on flutes, the first of several folk musics that interpenetrate to represent a growing global cultural cohesion. Finally, though, the arid desert-like opening returns as a renewed warming about the title’s other, and culture-transcending, issue.

All this was depicted with skill, point, and rhythmic verve by Maestro Preu and the orchestra—the largest, he noted, that the LBSO had fielded all season—but for me Global Warming fails somewhat to rise to the implications of its title, in either respect. The jaunty main body of the piece doesn’t get much beyond the Irish jig, despite its melodies and rhythms being liberally distributed throughout the orchestra, while the return to the opening desert music—effective enough at its first appearance—somehow seemed tacked-on and unmotivated.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, painted by Ilya
Repin in 1893, five years after he
completed Scheherazade. 
With its instrumental resourcefulness, Global Warming might be considered a sort of mini-concerto for orchestra. The big work that filled the second half of this concert is equally a virtuoso showcase for every department and many individual players, but there is nothing mini about Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade Op. 44

In recent decades its appearances on concert programs have so diminished in number that Scheherazade has almost passed from the category of "overplayed warhorse" to that of "under-appreciated rediscovery" when it does resurface. Certainly in a performance such as the LBSO, again at full strength, under Eckart Preu delivered, there was not a note or phrase that felt tired or shopworn.

Preu really does excel in Late-Romantic repertoire of this kind, with a just about ideal combination of clarity of beat and crispness of attack when needed—but without metronomic rigidity—and elasticity in molding and phrasing of the music's more sumptuous aspects without lapsing into any tendency to wallow. At the very opening of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” the Sultan’s theme was as firmly authoritative as Scheherazade’s reply, in the person of Mr. Wilkie’s violin, was beguilingly onward-leading, and when Sinbad’s ship hove into view it was clearly bound somewhere with purpose, often with Ms. Tsan’s cello at the helm.

Preu’s skillful terracing of dynamics and pace mitigated any tendency for the somewhat repetitive nature of the first movement to become tedious, and the Tranquillo woodwind interludes that Rimsky-Korsakov builds in between increasingly stentorian statements of the Sinbad theme were the first examples of many in which the LBSO’s woodwinds would cover themselves in glory.

The bassoon solo that introduces the main body of the second movement, “The Tale of Prince Kalendar,” was similarly characterful, and so many were the subsequent instances of memorably eloquent playing that to enumerate them all would double the length of this review. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” sang their timeless romance as ardently as any I can recall, and the final “Festival in Baghdad” and wreck of Sinbad's ship crowned the whole performance with edge-of-seat excitement.

Scheherazade’s envoi, with Mr. Wilkie’s playing as sweet-toned as ever but not lingering as the princess finally headed for her first good night’s rest in 1001 nights, rounded off a performance that came in at a trim 44 minutes, including a decent-length break between the second and third movements. In this thrilling climax to their season, the LBSO could not have gone out on better form.

Eckart Preu and the LBSO receive a deserved standing ovation for their performance of
Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, June 4, 2022, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Bach and Rimsky-Korsakov: Wikimedia Commons; Silver-Garburg Piano Duo: Regina Recht; Poulenc performance: YouTube; Michael Abels: Kraft Engel Management.

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Saturday, May 28, 2022

The New Season Opens at Mount Wilson


l-r: Rachel Mellis, Martin Chalifour, Victor de Almeida, Todd Mason, Cécilia Tsan.

REVIEW

Cécilia Tsan and friends play Beethoven, Mason, and Mozart, Mount Wilson Observatory
DAVID J BROWN

Five years and four seasons on from its inception in 2017 (2020 was wiped out due to Covid), the summer series of Sunday afternoon chamber recitals in the great Dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory—brainchild of Trustee Dan Kohne and Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan—remains unique and absolutely maintains its sense of specialness.

The tortuous drive sets up the mood, demanding care and triggering awe as you hug the base of towering cliffs of fractured granite while trying to not more than briefly glance over at the vistas across the valley. Finally you arrive, more than a mile above the level of LA but still only a couple of dozen miles north-east of the city. Then the deal is sealed by the 20-minute climb from the car park, feeling the altitude but inhaling clean air while bathed in brilliant sunshine, with the great white Dome looming ever more prominently ahead.

And then once you’re seated inside the Dome the first impact of the music is startling in its plangent immediacy, heard at the close range dictated by the annular floor layout that wraps around the mighty telescope skeleton, protruding through from its supports on the level beneath. Yet by some miracle the extraordinarily resonant acoustic seems to have no downsides. The forte chords with which the 25-year-old Beethoven kicks off the opening Marcia of his Serenade for Violin, Viola and Cello in D major, Op. 8— the initial work in this first concert of the new season—were as cleanly transparent as they were impactful.


Beethoven’s five early string trios tend to be regarded by commentators as a minor-league warm-up for his great sequence of string quartets, and amongst them this Serenade gets even shorter shrift than its companions, Op. 3 and Opp. 9, due to its clear intent to be a relatively lightweight piece for domestic music-making. This performance, however, by Martin Chalifour (violin), Victor de Almeida (viola), and Ms. Tsan herself (cello), revealed a wealth of delights.

The young Beethoven,
by Riedel (1801).
The Marcia had plenty of strut and bounce both at the beginning and at the end (Beethoven closes the curtain on the whole piece by bringing it back after the penultimate theme-and-variations), while the Adagio that followed its initial appearance (after a full-length inter-movement pause despite the score linking Marcia and Adagio as a single entity) was played with such singing radiance that the effect was more of a vocal ensemble than an instrumental trio.

Perhaps most significant, though, was the group’s clear relishing of the young Beethoven’s humor, as when he caps the ensuing and otherwise brief and to-the-point Menuetto and Trio with an affectedly insouciant 10-measure pizzicato coda, throughout which the players beamed to its ever more etiolated conclusion. Similarly, they didn’t stint on energy for the stuttering scramble of a Scherzo section that Beethoven twice intercalates into the third movement Adagio.

Again, the affection of the group’s approach to the Allegretto alla Polacca (one of the Classical era’s few pre-Chopin polonaises) didn’t stop them making the most of the way Beethoven pretends, via a couple of whole-measure rests, to lose interest in the movement at its conclusion. Finally, in the theme-and-variations, Mr. Chalifour, Mr. de Almeida and Ms. Tsan respectively seized the individual opportunities that Beethoven builds into his first, second, and fourth variations for the violin, viola, and cello to shine.

The centerpiece of the concert was the public premiere of the Trio for Flute, Violin, and Cello composed in 2021 by Californian native Todd Mason—one of several fruits of his enviably productive Covid lockdown period alongside the String Quartet No. 3 (premiered recently in his own house concert series) and the soon-to-be-recorded Violin Concerto.

If you divide American “classical” music into a few broad and by no means mutually exclusive areas, Mason aligns with those composers (e.g. Barber, Copland, Mennin, etc.) who have maintained the European tradition of through-composed developmental music, as opposed to others (think Joplin through Gershwin and Bernstein to Jake Heggie) who have engaged more with theatrical and “popular” idioms, and—off in a different area—the experimentalists like Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Harry Partch.


Mason’s Trio, cast in his oft-used three-movement fast-slow-fast form, perfectly epitomizes his carefully wrought style, but in a performance as eloquent as that given by Rachel Mellis (flute) together with Mr. Chalifour and Ms. Tsan, there was plenty for the heart and soul as well as the mind to engage with. The outer movements—a tightly constructed Allegro Vivo based around an opening unison and downward-stepping motif for all three instruments; and a contrapuntal Presto with something of the Irish jig about it, led off by the cello—are very much the supporting frame for the central Andante.

This builds steadily from a cool interweaving of seemingly indeterminate lines—first on cello and violin and then flute and violin—which, when the cello rejoins, cohere into an increasingly vehement colloquy within which a repeated motif of a falling perfect 5th and rising perfect 4th is prominent, passing from instrument to instrument with growing emotional intensity. The cantilena reaches a pitch but then suddenly falls away, as if too much has been revealed, and the glacial drifting of the opening resumes. The Pandora’s Box of subjective feeling has, however, been opened, and the music rises to further expressive peaks, driven by the falling/rising motif, before it finally falls back to the solitary chill of the opening.


There is already a fine performance of the Trio to be enjoyed on YouTube, but this concert premiere in the Dome was a different order of experience—a little more spacious overall, perhaps in response to the exceptionally ample acoustic—in which compositional skill, ample preparation and rehearsal, and immaculate playing combined to deliver real emotional heft. This was simply one of the finest of Mason’s works that I have yet heard, and it’s to be hoped that it will be taken up by other ensembles with this particular line-up of players.

Mozart in his early 20s,
by Barbara Krafft.
What to end with, given the time constraint that the structure of these afternoon events imposes? There is a limit of one hour for the recital itself, which is repeated after a reception with refreshments, to which attendees from both shows are invited to meet the musicians. The answer was perfectly judged: to bring all four players together for the first and only time in Mozart’s Flute Quartet No. 1 in D major K.285, which he composed at the end of 1777 at the age of 21.

Unlike the Beethoven and the Mason, where all three instruments are treated as equals, Mozart’s Quartet very much highlights the flute, so that the work in effect becomes a miniature flute concerto. The opening Allegro was given extra dimension by the inclusion of its exposition repeat, making the movement occupy fully half the work’s total duration, but the highlight was undoubtedly the brief central Adagio.

Mozart confines his accompaniment for the flute’s long-breathed melody entirely to a delicate network of string pizzicati, and in the Dome’s wondrous space the sound of Ms. Mellis’s flute took on an Elysian, other-worldly quality that indelibly recalled Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo ed Euridice. A mere 34 measures, and it’s over, with the Rondo finale proceeding attaca. Mozart, at an even younger age than Beethoven when he wrote his Serenade, already knew how to leave an audience wanting more, as indeed did Ms. Tsan and her colleagues with this memorable concert. 

---ooo---

100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 22 May 2022, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performance: Todd Mason; Beethoven and Mozart: Wikimedia Commons.

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