Thursday, February 9, 2017

Long Beach Symphony and Eckart Preu play Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Dukas and Berlioz

Hector Berlioz, as portrayed by Jean-Louis Barrault in the 1942 movie "La Symphonie Fantastique".


French masterpieces at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Last Saturday’s Long Beach Symphony Orchestra concert was a special occasion, the first conducted by Eckart Preu since he was chosen as the new Music Director to commence his tenure with the upcoming 2017-18 season. Indeed he began his pre-concert talk, delivered as dynamically and enthusiastically as it was warmly received, by nailing his future colors to the mast with the declaration that alongside the core repertoire he was committed to digging deeper to explore less-known and undeservedly forgotten works. “Trust me”, was his message to the large audience, “you’re going to enjoy the discoveries!”

Maestro Eckart Preu
His choice for the opening piece in the first concert of the upcoming season, on October 7, certainly looks to fulfill the promise – Zemlinsky’s glorious 1902-03 symphonic poem The Mermaid. Yes, it is based on that Hans Anderson story, like the Disney movie, but there’s nothing “little” about this mermaid (maybe it sounds more imposing under its original German title, Die Seejungfrau!). Playing for around 45 minutes and cast in three large movements, it’s as broodingly romantic and grandly atmospheric as anyone with a musical sweet tooth could desire. I for one can’t wait to hear it live for the first time (I wonder if he will conduct the 2013 reconstruction of the original version, with the five previously cut minutes put back into the middle movement?).

So, how was this concert? In short, the orchestra did their new man proud, with warm, homogeneous and responsive string playing, characterful winds including plenty of individual moments carried off with aplomb, strong but disciplined brass, and percussion that was right “there” when it needed to be. I particularly relished the uninhibited tintinnabulation of glockenspiel, harp and triangle near the climax of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the four timpani as well-tuned as you could hope for at the meticulously balanced rolling “thunderstorm” chords close to the end of the Symphonie Fantastique’s third movement, and the really hefty and ominous low bells in Berlioz’s finale.

The opening of the first work on the program, Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, immediately demonstrated maestro Preu’s care over dynamics, with his close observation of the way they differ widely, so cunningly calculated by the composer, for first horn, harp and divided violins. This formed the perfect backdrop for concertmaster Roger Wilkie’s re-tuned violin to strike in boldly and devilishly. Also clear was the conductor’s concern with the long view, through steady tempi that took sure anticipatory aim at the work’s climax (I thought here, and later, that he must be a fine Bruckner conductor).

Following this highly promising start came a particular moment to treasure: the solo flute heralding Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune stole in over motionless silence without any apparent conductorial cue, filling and stilling the hall with its effortless beauty. Indeed this performance was for me the highlight of the concert: the spacious pacing, the sensitive playing both individually and collectively, and (again) the attention to dynamics were virtually flawless, with everything warmly embraced in the Terrace Theater’s expansive acoustic.

I suppose one could argue that the program-planning played it a bit safe, with these two familiar favorites followed by Dukas’s real warhorse crowd-pleaser, and that it could have been more interesting to substitute a less-known piece by any one of them (e.g. how about Saint-Saëns’ Phaeton instead?). However, no-one could argue that the three pieces didn’t work well together, even forming a sort of three-movement “proto-symphony”, with the Debussy as the middle “slow movement”. In his talk, maestro Preu drew attention to the climax when the sorcerer returns and puts a stop to the broomstick’s shenanigans once and for all, and his own interpretative choice to broaden the moment as much as possible. Personally I felt the effect a little overdone, but kudos for trusting the audience to be interested in and see the musical and dramatic reason for the decision.

I did, however, regret that his additional spoken intro before the Symphonie Fantastique was pretty much devoted to Berlioz’s sensational scenario, rather than the work’s dazzling array of ground-breaking features, of which the five-movement form and dramatic program are only the most notable among many. Berlioz was arguably the most original composer of the 19th century, and this work is his signal calling-card. In the teeming, miraculous score Berlioz asks his musicians to do things no composer had ever done before, but never once as any kind of gimmick. Everything – the unprecedentedly detailed expressive markings and instrumental innovations wherever you turn – enhance and add vividness to the artistic whole. Nothing so brilliantly calculated could just have poured out in a lovesick and drug-fueled splurge, and Berlioz’s continuing concern to get the work exactly right was demonstrated by his several careful revisions to it in later years.

Conductor and orchestra mostly did this masterpiece proud. They shaped and graded the long and complex first movement finely, though I did regret the omission of the short exposition repeat (wherein Berlioz first introduces the idée fixe that represents “the beloved” all through his scenario, and then sensibly adds the repeat so that the audience gets it thoroughly fixed in its collective mind). 

The succeeding Un bal movement was the one disappointment, I thought – too relaxed and “Viennese gemütlich” a waltz to retain the nervous edge needed – but the long Scène aux champs came off beautifully at a basic tempo just about as slow as the music can take. Conductor and orchestra seemed to have complete confidence in each other, and right from the opening duet between onstage English horn and offstage oboe it twisted and turned inexorably towards the timpani “storm” already noted, and then the exhausted postlude.

The Marche au supplice’s repeat wasn’t there either, but no worry: whenever it is included it always seems a bit odd for a march to the scaffold to go back to the beginning and start again. As for the final Songe d’une nuit du sabbat, its constant starts and stops and kaleidoscopic changes of texture were held surely together despite coming at the end of a long evening when everyone must have been getting tired. The pair of tubas managed to sound almost as raspingly rude and blasphemous, in their Dies Irae parody, as the ophicleides that Berlioz wrote for invariably do in period-instrument performances, for once with something like the required nasal bray rather than the tubby honk you usually get with the modern instruments. The Symphonie roared to a unanimous and blazing final chord that would surely have earned M. Berlioz’s approval, and the audience cheered in response.

Roll on October 7!


Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 4, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Eckart Preu: Courtesy Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Jean-Louis Barrault as Berlioz

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