Wednesday, April 26, 2017

South Bay Chamber Music Society Season Finale

REVIEW: Pacific Trio play Zemlinsky and Schubert piano trios

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

The Pacific Trio: l-r Edith Orloff, John Walz, Roger Wilkie

Alexander Von Zemlinsky
at approximately the age
he composed his Piano Trio.

The instrumental line-up specified on the title-page of the Trio in D minor Op. 3 by Alexander von Zemlinsky (1870-1942) is clarinet in B flat, ‘cello and piano, and of the 15 recordings of the work currently listed on ArkivMusic, all but four employ the clarinet. Nonetheless, the published parts include a violin as alternative, and in many sources the work is actually referred to as a “piano trio” (i.e. for violin, ‘cello and piano).

So… you pays your money and you takes your choice, and for mine neither is “better” than the other. The clarinet has the more pungent stand-out tone, but the greater aural homogeneity of the two stringed instruments is its own virtue, and the powerful unanimity of this performance by the Pacific Trio (Roger Wilkie violin, John Walz ‘cello, Edith Orloff, piano) – the first item in the final concert of what has largely been an outstanding season from the South Bay Chamber Music Society – certainly showed the validity of presenting Zemlinsky’s Op. 3 as such. 

The on-line program note, copied from the Allmusic website, did the trio a disservice by dwelling overmuch on its perceived derivativeness (not to mention describing its composer, who lived through most of the first half of the 20th century and composed a lot of his best music in the 1920s and 1930s, as “a minor master of the fin de siècle”!). While not as distinctive as some of those later works, it certainly held the attention with its memorable themes and strong structure, delivered through a forceful performance that was committed enough to include the long exposition repeat in the first of the three movements, pushing it up to around 15 minutes’ duration, more than half the total. 

It was warmly received by the audience, and anyone who enjoyed it will surely respond just as warmly to the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Zemlinsky’s large-scale Romantic masterpiece Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), with which Eckart Preu opens his inaugural season as their new Music Director on October 17.

Franz Schubert after 1825:
engraving by Josef Eduard Teltscher.
In his 1964 acceptance speech for the first Aspen Award in the Humanities, Benjamin Britten remarked that arguably “the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history is [… ] the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise, the C major Symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces” – i.e. from the summer of 1827 to November 1828, when he died.

Even leaving out the Ninth Symphony, which later scholarship has shown to date from around two years earlier, this roster of late Schubert masterpieces is simply jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring, and not least among those “dozen other glorious pieces” is the Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, Op. 100 D. 929, almost certainly completed by the end of 1827. The Pacific Trio could hardly have chosen a more imposing work to conclude their concert, or the SBCMS its season, and the players did it proud.

The original version of the finale of this very long work underwent a significant cut by the composer before publication (as well as the removal of its previously-marked exposition repeat), and I had wondered whether the Pacific Trio might choose to play the original version, which was only published in 1975. It was not be, but – while one always respects interpretative decisions – I was a little more disappointed when they also chose not to observe the exposition repeat in the almost equally long first movement, which is retained in Schubert’s published version – particularly as they had included the Zemlinsky first-movement repeat. 

However that said, this was still a treat of a performance – robustly forthright from beginning to end as the Zemlinsky had been – and not only delivering with maximum force such highlights as the Andante con moto slow movement’s dissolution, from the dogged march that has propelled it so far, into the blackest sfff climactic tragedy, but also a sensitive grading of that same movement’s subsequent tentative return to the mood of the opening, truly here un poco più lento as Schubert asks, feeling his way note by note, cadence by cadence, back from the abyss onto solid ground once more. 

I did miss a certain tenderness both in those parts of the first movement where the music withdraws suddenly from the robustness of the first subject to the staccato pp second subject, and similarly at the miraculous moment in the finale when, after what has already been a long and complex exposition, Schubert unexpectedly adds yet another element to his potent mix with a reprise of the Andante’s dogged march. However, this could have been a consequence of the Pacific Unitarian Church acoustic’s apparent inability to deliver a true pianissimo. A pity, this – the one drawback to what is otherwise a perfect concert venue near the summit of the Palos Verde peninsula, on this occasion for a work that is undoubtedly at the summit of the chamber music repertoire. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, April 23, 2017. Photos: Pacific Trio: SBCMS; Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schubert: Wikimedia Commons.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bizet, Ravel and Dvořák at Rolling Hills


COSB and Itamar Zorman, Norris Theatre, April 8

An appealingly light-hearted and light-textured program marked the end of the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay’s main 2016-17 season, though an additional non-subscription concert, with the Poulenc Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani as its highlight, is still to come on May 7. To the three main works in the present concert – Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53 B.108 plus two contrasting French suites, Bizet’s Jeux d'enfants and Ravel’s Ma mère l'Oye – Music Director Frances Steiner added the first of Dvořák’s Legends Op. 59 B.122 before the concerto. To my ears it didn’t quite work to have a piece so brief (under four minutes) and gently amiable as a stand-alone opener; a diptych with, say, the more energetic Allegro giusto Op. 59 No. 3 added as contrast would have been more substantial and effective. But about the choice and positioning of the Violin Concerto as the main first-half work there was no doubt.

Itamar Zorman
In his pre-concert talk Chuck Klaus outlined the history of the Violin Concerto, a work of the composer’s maturity falling between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Unlike that of many of his works, this was tortuous and protracted. Dvořák wrote a first version in 1879, and sent it to Joseph Joachim, who was slated to give the first performance. The following year Dvořák rewrote it completely, and sent this “new arrangement” once more to Joachim. 

The violinist did not respond for over two years, and when he finally did it was to request further changes. Even when these revisions had been agreed between composer and performer, the music advisor to Dvořák’s publisher Simrock requested yet more alterations, some of which – but only some – he acceded to. When the concerto was at last published and premièred, it was by another soloist; indeed, Joachim never performed it in public. 

Mr Klaus had noted some particularly difficult features of the solo violin-writing, like its first entry: within a handful of bars there are wide leaps, double-stopping, and rapid arpeggios ending on a high E, but guest soloist Itamar Zorman took them all in his stride, and went on to deliver a sensitive and mellifluous performance of the entire concerto. Particularly easeful was the transition from the first movement to the central Adagio, ma non troppo – “ma non troppo” enough for at least this listener to be jolted into a mental double-take that this was, in fact, where we had arrived… After this, a really ebullient account of the rondo finale made for a joyous sense of release. 

Under Ms Steiner, the COSB gave a vivid performance of Bizet’s “Children’s Games,” with some particularly alert and piquant woodwind in the opening Marche – this is a “petite suite” indeed, all five movements over and done with in 12 minutes or so. I had wondered how the almost supernaturally delicate scoring of Ravel’s “Mother Goose” would fare in the unforgiving Norris Theatre acoustic, but in the event it proved more than resilient, with its magic preserved intact. 

A seat in the Norris’s steeply sloping balcony gives a useful bird’s-eye view of the orchestra, and this brought to sight aspects of Ravel’s eternally wondrous orchestration that the inattentive ear can sometimes take for granted: the sotto voce growling contra-bassoon “Beast” conversing with “Beauty” in the fourth movement, of course, but also the muted violins (really sensitively played here) at the beginning of “Little Tom Thumb”, the soft tam-tam strokes in “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas”, and the remarkable scoring for solo piccolo in its low register in the same movement.

Frances Steiner
This being a “gala” concert to mark the end of the season, it concluded not only with a generous reception in the foyer but also, before that, an introduction by Ms Steiner to the five varied and splendidly unhackneyed programs she has planned for the upcoming 2017-18 season. Particular pleasures to be anticipated, for my taste, are the toothsome opening French confection of Delibes, Saint-Saëns (“the” piano concerto – No. 2, as one might have predicted: I would have been even more pleased had it been No. 5!), Fauré and Ravel; Prokofiev’s exquisite Violin Concerto No. 2 in the second concert; two most intriguing arrangements for strings in the third (Weber’s Clarinet Quintet and Mahler’s version of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet); and – for a Brit expat – a very welcome excursion into English music in the fourth concert: Vaughan Williams’ quite rarely performed Concerto for Oboe and Strings and Britten’s Simple Symphony. Roll on October!


Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay, Norris Theatre, Rolling Hills Estates, 8.00pm, April 8, 2017 Photos: Itamar Zorman (photo Jamie Jung); Frances Steiner.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Kevin Langan on Operatic Idols and Vocal Longevity

Ashraf Sewaillam, Aris Argiris, Kevin Langan, photo Ken Howard
INTERVIEW: Kevin Langan

Civic Theatre, San Diego

American bass Kevin Langan, who has earned the distinction of having one of the longest, most prolific solo singing careers of the past few decades, will again grace the San Diego Opera stage this month as Grenville in Verdi’s La Traviata. Having made his debut as Duke of Norfolk in Henry VIII in 1983, Langan has returned to SDO numerous times in a cluster of classic and contemporary roles. A mainstay of the most celebrated companies in North America, Langan has performed with such opera luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Marilyn Horne. 

EM: Congratulations on reaching this amazing pinnacle - 19 productions with the company.

KL: I believe this may be the record for the most productions done by a leading artist at SDO in the history of the company! Maybe even more performances than Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has been a regular here almost as long as I have! After roughly 80 performances with SDO, I feel like this has been my second home! 

EM: What was it like to debut in Saint-Saëns’ rarely performed HENRY VIII in 1983? 

KL: The work was mounted for Sherrill Milnes. The cast included Christina Deutekom, Brenda Boozer, Jacque Trussell, and Robert Schmoor. Antonio Tauriello conducted and Tito Capobianco directed. Milnes's presence was inspiring for a young 28 year old bass making his debut with the company! The weather was like paradise here in San Diego - I told myself I had to come back here as often as possible! 

EM: What happened afterward?

KL: I was concerned after Tito left I might not be invited back, but Ian Campbell, the new SDO General Director, who had seen me performing often in San Francisco, brought me back in 1986 for Bartolo in NOZZE DI FIGARO. Ian and I got along very well, and he was pleased with my work, so I was back here 16 more times over the next 28 years – now under David Bennett's administration! David and I worked together in a 1994 Dallas production of CORONATION OF POPPEA when he was a young singer. To come to San Diego now and work under him is an honor for me! It constitutes 34 years for me as a singer with SDO! 

EM: You mentioned on your Facebook page that as a 9th grader, seeing The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show “opened the world of music to me for the first time.” 

KL: I was only 8 years old when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. The moment was pivotal for me. Music entered my life that night in a magical way. From that moment on I was one of their biggest fans, buying every album they made in America, and becoming a lifelong collector of their memorabilia. I now own one of only two existing 1st edition copies of John Lennon's first book "In His Own Write" from 1964 that contains autographs from all four of the Fabs, signed by them on their first US Tour that summer! When I joined my Jr. High School choir in 9th grade and was asked to do my first public vocal solo, I chose "Yesterday." A photo of the moment was taken and made it into my school yearbook. It is rare to visually capture your very first moment doing what would become your life's work. 

EM: Indeed. 

KL: A high school choir tour of Europe in 1972 introduced me to classical music. In my senior year I decided to take voice lessons, go to music school for college and pursue studies toward an operatic career. In 1991, I actually met Paul McCartney at a break in the dress rehearsal of his Liverpool Oratorio at Carnegie Hall, thanks to my dear late colleague Jerry Hadley, who was the tenor soloist . I told Paul that seeing The Beatles on TV in 1964 had been my inspiration to embrace music and eventually pursue a career in opera. He chuckled and said that was a first to hear that The Beatles had inspired someone to go into opera! 

EM: What was your experience studying at Indiana University? 

KL: The main reason I went there was to work with soprano Margaret Harshaw, arguably at the time the best vocal pedagogue in America, who sang most of the major Wagner roles and much of the Italian repertoire at the Met. She was known for turning out great singers in all fachs, female and male. Two students, Vinson Cole, and Alma Jean Smith, had won the Met Auditions, as Harshaw had done herself back in 1942. 

EM: How did she approach teaching? 

KL: Harshaw taught that the key to longevity and a successful opera career is to learn and understand a secure vocal technique that will carry you beyond just the first decade of simply singing on one's youth, to decades of good solid healthy vocalism based on discipline to master technique. As a result  I have sung professionally now for 38 years, and the voice remains strong, secure, and healthy. Many talented singers take off in their youth like Roman candles only to fizzle out and disappear from the business after only 10 years or so because they haven't a clue what they are doing technically and have no discipline to embrace technique. Once in your thirties, you must rely on pure technique to carry you further. During my early professional years I returned to see Harshaw at least once a year for 17 years until she passed away. We fixed bad habits that crept in, and continued to polish the technical aspects. When she died, I felt confident I knew all that was necessary to sing technically proficiently, so when a coach would tell me something was amiss, I knew exactly what to do to fix it. 

EM: That’s extraordinary. 

KL: Harshaw's goal was to teach her students how to teach themselves until she became obsolete. She said we possessed the natural gifts to sing, and merely showed us how to do it using our own gifts of voice and, just as important, the brain that controls the voice. 

EM: What was the turning point in your early career? 

KL: Walter Legge and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were touring the US giving master classes in the summer of 1978. I sang for them at IU. They were both taken with my ability as a bass to sing fast coloratura passages in Baroque arias as well as the standard song literature repertoire. Mr. Legge wanted me to come to Europe to study with him for a year to prepare me for what he felt was a major career as a recitalist and opera singer. I felt I needed more time with Harshaw to perfect my technique, so Legge offered to sponsor me in a recital the following year at Wigmore Hall, then take me around to audition for European impresarios. He had guided and supported Maria Callas through much of her career. I spent the next year preparing the program in Bloomington with Harshaw that I would present at Wigmore. Two months before the recital, in March 1979, Mr. Legge suddenly passed away. I thought that would end the whole affair. Ms. Schwarzkopf contacted me and said the recital would go on as scheduled and I would be be presented as Mr. Legge's last protégé. I credit Schwarzkopf with giving me the ability to delve into my soul to find the artistry within myself to attach to the technique Harshaw had instilled in me to make me a complete professional singer. 

EM: Was the recital successful? 

KL: Yes! Then I sang for some of Europe's best impresarios, was offered a position as a young artist in a Covent Garden program, but I had already been accepted into San Francisco Opera's Merola Program. Ms. Schwarzkopf enlightened San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler about me, how she and Legge had been impressed with my abilities. As a result, after Merola Adler offered me a six-role contract with SF Opera for the fall of 1980. That began a 30-year association with that company - over 300 career performances 43 different productions. I am currently only behind mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook holding the record for the most performances by a leading artist since the company’s beginnings in 1923! We are the sole members of "The 300 Club!" I have Walter Legge and Elisabeth Schwarkopf to thank for being in the right place at the right time when I needed that lucky break. 

EM: Is it true you met Maria Callas? 

KL: In 1974 I met Callas during her final US tour with Giuseppe Di Stefano. I told her I was hoping one day to make a career as a singer. She smiled and said, "I will give you one piece of advice. People will tell you constantly how to sing. Make it louder, softer, faster, slower." Then she put her hand over my heart and said, "Always remain true to this when you sing no matter what they tell you!" I thanked her profusely. 

EM: Your career has had extraordinary lasting power: 38 years, 1300-plus performances, 80 roles.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, Kevin Langan, photo Ken Howard
 KL: I have been fortunate to have sung every role I ever wanted to do, save for Boris Godunov. I focused on many Handel roles early on, all the Mozart bass repertoire  and bel canto repertoire from . I have always prided myself on controlling my own career, not letting others tell me what I should or should not do. One other person I trusted, my primary coach who taught me most of my repertoire, was Martha Gerhart, whom I initially met at Merola. Just as important is my wife, Sally Wolf, also a Harshaw student, who was famous for her signature role, Queen of the Night. She is on the voice faculty at Westminster Choir College. Those two women were the only set of ears I relied on and trusted - unbiased, honest, frank, and trustworthy in a music business known for its ruthlessness. 

EM: What were your favorite roles? 

KL: My all-time favorite is Leporello in DON GIOVANNI, which I have done more than 80 times. I could easily sing it year-round and never tire of it! I have two favorite moments onstage. One was an historic night, AIDA in San Francisco, 1981. I was singing the King. Leontyne Price stepped into the title role for an indisposed Margaret Price, and Luciano Pavarotti was singing his first-ever Radames. Standing onstage holding both of each of their hands as we sang the Triumphal Scene was a moment forever frozen into my memory. The other was 1984, DON CARLO in San Jose, Calif. I sang The Grand Inquisitor to Cesare Siepi's King Phillip. Siepi was my idol since the day I began to study singing and opera. How often does one get to sing the greatest bass duet in the operatic repertoire with their idol? I was very proud of that opportunity. I remained friends with Siepi until he passed away in 2010 and was honored to speak about him at a special memorial service in New York at the request of his daughter.   

EM: What were some of your most memorable orchestra concert and recital appearances? 

KL: Wigmore Hall in London was the highlight. I also gave a solo recital at the old Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall) in 1984, as well as the Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco in 1997. The Verdi Requiem, my favorite orchestral work, I have done with the Richmond, Santa Fe, Calgary, Dallas, and Seattle Symphonies. I especially loved doing concert opera performances of PETER GRIMES and FIDELIO with Michael Tilson Thomas and The San Francisco Symphony. Singing Rocco opposite Nina Stemme as Leonore was simply thrilling. MTT is one of the best opera conductors around - a true singer's conductor! 

EM: Tell us about your seminar on “Financial and Professional Implications For The Professional Self-Employed Opera Singer.” 

KL: Singers are Self-Employed Independent Contractors regardless of how large or small their solo career. That means we get no pension. A professional singer can potentially earn a significant amount of money over a relatively short period of time. It is important to know what your options are regarding setting up IRAs while you are earning a lot of money so that you will have something to live off of in your golden years. Many successful singers live opulent lifestyles while engaging in their careers. Inevitably when even the greatest singers come to the end of their singing careers those great fees suddenly vanish. If you have learned to invest and save a significant amount during those highly productive years, one can end up in retirement with a nice investment return that you can live on comfortably. Most singers have never been educated in how to achieve this. The responsibility is yours to obtain this information well before you reach the lofty heights in your career. I also spend time on the tax implications of a singing career. I try to enlighten singers at Young Artist Programs as to these opportunities early on, so they can sensibly maximize those wonderfully productive years, financially. 

EM: That sounds tremendously valuable, Kevin. Thanks so much for enlightening our readers and your fans. Have a great Traviata!


SDO’s La Traviata runs from Apr. 22-30 at the Civic Theatre.

Photo credits: Ken Howard, courtesy of the artist 

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Amicus Piano Trio play “masterpieces from the Soviet era”


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Melody Chang.
Coleman Itzkoff.
Alin Melik-Adamyan.
Shostakovich’s mature Piano Trio No. 2 (he wrote only two) is one of his most searching, original and frequently performed chamber works, and has considerably overshadowed its predecessor, the Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor Op. 8. This was composed in 1923 when he was not yet 17 (just two years before his brilliantly precocious First Symphony took the musical world by storm), and it was a particular pleasure to find the Amicus Piano Trio (Melody Chang, violin; Coleman Itzkoff, ‘cello; Alin Melik-Adamyan, piano) choosing the earlier trio to open their April “First Fridays at First!” lunchtime recital.

I don’t know how much inner meaning the flyer subtitle “masterpieces from the Soviet era” was intended to convey, but for me this extraordinary one-movement piece, alternating sharply as it does between a somber, yearning romanticism and gadfly humor, has a pervasive freshness and excitement that perhaps embodies the sense then that the new régime, still only six years old, could deliver anything, artistically, culturally and socially. Certainly there is an unmistakable ebullience and optimism in Shostakovich’s letters from this time to his mother (which mention the trio several times), despite the straitened circumstances and already fragile health of the young composer.

Arno Babajanian.
A generation later the dead hand of tyranny, the first clenches of which were barely detectable during Shostakovich’s teens, had already been stretched for many years across the Soviet empire, which included Armenia, birthplace of Arno Babajanian (alternative spellings, under which the curious may find more information on line, include Babadjanian, Babadjanyan, and even Babadzhanyan). He was a new name, and his 1952 Piano Trio in F sharp minor a new work, to me, and boy – did it make an impression in the Amicus Trio’s electrifying performance!

Ms Melik-Adamyan introduced it, noting that Shostakovich is said to have referred to Babajanian's Piano Trio as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. It certainly sounded like a masterpiece here, from the compulsive and tragic unfolding of the first movement’s Largo introduction and whiplash cut-off at its height, through the long-breathed, narrow-compassed melodic lines (reminding one again and again of Rachmaninov) in both the first and second movements, to the festive, folk music-infused finale, which at the end turns a sharp corner and slams stunningly into a reprise of the work’s opening tragic tones. Here the musically satisfying tying of the cyclic knot could also be taken as a fist shaken at Soviet oppression – who knows?

All three players gave it their all, as they had for the Shostakovich First Piano Trio, with Ms Chang’s slightly thin but pure and intense violin tone, delivered with light fast vibrato and vehement attack, making as strong an impression as the soulful richness of Mr Itzkoff’s ‘cello and Ms Melik-Adamyan’s dynamic pianism. After two such outstanding performances the standing ovation so routinely give at southern Californian classical concerts was for once deserved, and the enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore in the shape of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 6 in D flat major, done with teasing slyness and all the idiomatic joy and passion that by now one was anticipating from this hugely talented group.


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, April 7, 2017.
Photos: Performers: Amicus Piano Trio; Arno Babajanian: Wikimedia Commons.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

UCLA Camarades play Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” at Rolling Hills


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

UCLA Camarades is the title given to the chamber music program at UCLA. From it, ensembles of various sizes and combinations are drawn, and for this Palm Sunday performance of the string quartet arrangement of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross Op.51 Hob XX/1B (Hob III/50-56), Professor of Violin Movses Pogossian and Professor of Cello Antonio Lysy were joined by undergraduates Joyce Kwak (violin) and Julien Altmann (viola).

This was the first time I’d heard a live performance of the quartet version of the Seven Last Words. Haydn originally composed the work in 1786 in response to a commission from the Oratory of Santa Cueva in Cádiz (left) for music to form part of a Lenten service. During the service the bishop was to intone the seven last words (or sentences) claimed in the Gospels as having been uttered by Christ during the crucifixion, with each “word” followed by music. Haydn composed seven slow “Sonatas” for orchestra, with an introductory movement, Maestoso ed Adagio, preceding the first “word”, and the last segueing attacca into a depiction, Presto e con tutta la forza, of the earthquake said in Matthew 27:51 to have immediately followed Jesus’ death.

Haydn’s orchestral original doesn’t seem to be performed often these days, as neither does the piano solo version prepared by the publisher (with Haydn’s approval) in 1787. Most frequently given are this string quartet version, also from 1787 and said to be the work of Haydn himself, and a choral/orchestral arrangement that he made in 1796. In this performance (which marked the 230th anniversary of the premiere in Cádiz) each “word” was spoken by Annette Jaquette before the movement concerned, and there was a fine contrast between her subdued delivery and the vivid musical depictions that followed. The UCLA quartet, led with passionate intensity by Prof Pogossian, devotedly followed the twists and turns, the highs and lows, and the alternations of lamenting and consolation that mark the long progress of Haydn’s remarkable score. (This performance ran three minutes shy of a full hour; had the first-half repeats that are marked in Sonatas II-VII been observed, it would have extended to around 80 minutes.) 

However I confess, both as a lover of Haydn’s music generally and as an unbeliever for whom its religious context has no personal significance, to some misgivings about the work itself (and I realize that this casts me into the outer darkness both on faith and musical grounds!). Haydn himself noted that “it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners”, and despite his use of an innovatory key scheme from movement to movement to help mitigate this, for me at least by the time the earthquake arrived a degree of monotony had set in. 

I have seen comments to the effect that the string quartet version is a little perfunctory, omitting some melodic elements from the orchestral original, and possibly not fully authentic Haydn. I have never heard the latter, but from concert performances many years ago of the final choral/orchestral version I do not recall any sense of ennui. Apparently Haydn in 1796 also reworked the orchestration as well as adding vocal parts (in a first collaboration with Baron van Swieten, his future librettist for The Creation and The Seasons – Haydn also added a marvelous additional Introduzione for winds only between Sonatas IV and V), and it may be that this, virtually an oratorio, is the most thoroughly satisfying way to experience the Seven Last Words. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear the string quartet version on the present occasion, and cannot imagine it more persuasively and eloquently done.


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, April 9, 2017.
Photo: Oratorio de la Santa Cueva en Cádiz, España: llamo Caleteron.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

String quartets at Palos Verdes

REVIEW: California String Quartet play Mozart, Smetana and Beethoven

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

Katia Popov
Neel Hammond
Zach Dellinger
Mia Barcia-Colombo
The California String Quartet seems to have a fairly fluid line-up of personnel: the four players named on its website and who appeared in the group photograph on the SBCMS’s flyer differed by two (2nd violin and ’cello) in the printed program listing for this concert, and by the time the quartet actually appeared before the audience last Sunday afternoon a further re-substitution (’cello again) had taken place. So to keep the record straight, the two constants in the line-up – Katia Popov (1st violin) and Zach Dellinger (viola) – were joined on the stage by Neel Hammond (2nd violin) and Mia Barcia-Colombo (’cello).

I wonder if these changes impacted available rehearsal time – certainly their performance of the opening work, the 16-year-old Mozart’s three-movement Divertimento in B flat, K.137/125b, was somewhat broad-brush and lacking in subtlety. The Andante first movement seemed sluggish and the many dynamic alternations between piano and forte were largely ironed out to a mp-mf range. (I can’t be the only person to speculate that if this work’s movement order was somehow changed to put the slow movement second as in the two companion so-called “Salzburg Symphonies” K.136 and K.138, it would never be queried, particularly as the harmonies in the Andante’s opening bars feel in media res, as if the musical discourse has already been going on out of earshot and is only now becoming audible.)

While one must always respect interpretative decisions, the biggest problem for me was the paucity of repeats. The score marks both halves of all three movements to be repeated, and while taking both the Andante’s pair does bring its timing up to a hefty 8+ minutes – more than half the work’s total even if all the others are included – to omit both, as here, gave a perfunctory effect. The inclusion also of only the short first repeats in the Allegro di molto (not very molto in this performance but strong and decisive) and the final Allegro assai (nice and vigorous) brought the whole work in under 10 minutes, making it seem much more minor early Mozart than I think it is.

So far so hum, but things improved a good deal with Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor T. 116 (From My Life). Mr Dellinger introduced the work, first noting Smetana’s reputation as the “father” of Czech music, a role in which he was well established – more than anything by the success of The Bartered Bride (1866) – by the time he wrote this quartet at the age of 52 some 10 years later. Though not particularly innovative formally (sonata-form first movement; second-movement polka plus slower central section standing in for scherzo-and-trio; lyrical slow movement; fast finale, at least initially), its explicitly autobiographical program seems to have been a first for the chamber music repertoire, and Mr Dellinger went on to outline this, movement by movement: from youth (I), through high-spirited dance (II) and then radiant love (III), to (IV) joyous embracing of Czech national music and finally the fateful onset of deafness as represented by a sustained high E on the first violin forte against ominous tremolos from the other three instruments.

Clearly this work means a lot to these performers, and Mr Dellinger went on to deliver the first movement’s main theme with vigor and commitment (a rare shining moment for viola-players). This was matched by Ms Barcia-Colombo’s eloquent account of the long espressivo ’cello solo at the start of the Largo sostenuto third movement, not to mention Ms Popov’s almost painfully intense assault on that high E near the end of the finale. Altogether they did the work proud; I wonder if they’ve ever tackled Smetana’s Second Quartet in D minor, completed a year before he died.

After the interval, it was on to a supreme masterpiece of the string quartet repertoire, and one that appears much more often in concert programs than the relatively rare Smetana. The on-line program notes for some reason attached the subtitle “Eroica” to Beethoven’s String Quartet in C, Op. 59 No. 3 (of the so-called “Razumovsky” set) – a spurious appellation that I was glad to see not carried over into the printed programs, in case anyone thought they might be getting a string quartet transcription of the Third Symphony. This was generally well done, particularly in the California Quartet’s carefully judged tempo for the (so carefully marked) Andante con moto quasi allegretto second movement, conveying its relentless, surreptitious and haunting progress without actually becoming monotonous.

This almost made up for the omission of the first movement exposition repeat. I know I can be a bit OCD about repeats, and will admit that at the time of the Mozart, more than 30 years earlier, sections were so often routinely marked for repeat that observation of every one can easily lead to surreptitious watch-glancing, but when the most transformative genius in music’s history, in a mature masterpiece, indicates that he wants one, surely he means it?

Enough said. After a quite weighty account of the third movement Menuetto grazioso (no problem with giving that a bit of heft) the quartet tore into the fugal finale, surely the equivalent for sheer dynamism in Beethoven’s string quartets of the finale of the Seventh in his symphonies. I remember reading in a long-defunct music magazine many years ago an English critic’s comment that this movement alone was more exciting than anything to be found in what then was often lumped together as “pop music”. Of course he got a lot of stick in the correspondence columns of the next issue, but this performance, the first I had heard live in a very long time, made me think – yes, he just might have been right.  


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, April 2, 2017
Photos: Katia Popov: Barbra Porter; Neel Hammond: Spike TV; Zach Dellinger; Mia Barcia-Colombo

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