Thursday, May 25, 2017

Michael Jinsoo Lim Dances Over the Strings

Michael Jinsoo Lim, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis

INTERVIEW: Michael Jinsoo Lim

McCaw Hall

From soloist to chamber player to concertmaster of the “best ballet band in America,” award-winning violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim’s capable hands have serenaded music lovers in concerts in the top halls of the US, in recordings for well-known labels, and even on NPR.

A co-founding member of the Corigliano Quartet and artistic director and violinist of the Seattle-based ensemble Frequency, the ever-versatile Lim recently premiered a violin concerto written for him by Andrew Waggoner and appeared as a theater artist in Tempo of Recollection, a show about composer Erwin Schulhoff, directed by Nick Schwartz-Hall.

Few Ballet orchestra concertmasters have had as many major solo opportunities as Lim. In Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker, Lim grabbed audience attention with a solo of concerto-like proportions and also has performed Stravinsky’s hugely demanding Violin Concerto with the company. In PNB’s upcoming Pictures at an Exhibition, opening June 2, 2107, Lim performs the equally challenging Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 in the ballet Opus 19/The Dreamer, choreographed by Jerome Robbins and staged by PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal.

Lim, William Forsythe, photo Angela Sterling
 EM: Michael, you studied at Indiana University with iconic violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold. What was that experience like? 

MJL: Studying with Josef Gingold was one of the great joys and honors of my life. Every time I pick up my violin I think about him. He was an amazing violinist, with the most beautiful sound you can imagine. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument, and a kind and generous way of imparting his wisdom to his students. On top of that, he was one of the nicest, most genuine people you would ever hope to know in life. Gingold had wonderful stories about his experiences with legendary artists like Toscanini, Heifetz, Kreisler, and Ysaÿe, whom he studied with. He loved being a violinist, and he loved teaching the violin. I’ve often said that the single greatest thing that I got from Mr. Gingold was the love of the violin. Before I studied with him, I didn’t have much of a relationship with the instrument; playing the violin was something that I did and was good at. After studying with Gingold, I loved the violin and couldn’t live without it. 

EM: High praise indeed for a great master. You have become known as a champion of contemporary music. When and how did you first become involved with new music? 

MJL: When I was in college. At that time, it made you a bit of an outsider, which I liked. I started to really like the experience of playing pieces no one had ever played before. With new music, you can really create your own path. Instead of following a traditional way of playing a piece, you can start a new tradition that others who follow can embrace or reject. Toward the end of my studies at Indiana, my wife (violist Melia Watras) and I founded the Corigliano Quartet, to play one concert for a contemporary music festival at Indiana. We were asked to play John Corigliano’s then newly-composed String Quartet, which won a Pulitzer Prize. After the concert, John took us out to dinner and told us how impressed he was with the way we played his piece. He was surprised we were not an established group; that we had just formed for this concert with no intention of continuing on. John encouraged us to try to make it as a string quartet. We took the plunge, and named ourselves in his honor. 

That was 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, with the quartet, and as a soloist and chamber musician, I’ve had the pleasure of working with numerous composers, commissioning new works and recording quite a bit. The quartet made new music a big part of its repertoire, for which we were awarded an ASCAP/CMA Award for Adventurous Programming. Don’t get me wrong, I love the standard repertoire; but I strongly believe we need to keep Classical music alive and moving forward by playing works that are being created today. 

Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Michael Jinsoo Lim, Melia Watras;
photo Michelle Smith-Lewis
EM: Tell us about your ensemble, Frequency.

MJL: Frequency is comprised of violist Melia Watras, cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir and myself. In addition to being a trio, we are what I like to call a modular chamber music group: breaking into other formations and playing with distinguished guests to present programs with a variety of styles and instrumentation. We play all kinds of music, from Bach to Berio and beyond. We formed in 2016, and just completed our first season together. I feel fortunate to get to work with Melia and Sæunn; they are such incredibly creative and wonderful musicians, and two of my favorite people in the world! We’re really excited about next season, as we have a lot of interesting music on tap. 

EM: How did you first become interested in playing for PNB? 

MJL: Melia and I moved to Seattle in 2004. She was hired as the new viola professor at the University of Washington. I had started a job in NYC, playing in the first violin section of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, and for a few years split time between New York and Seattle. I remember attending a performance of PNB in 2005, when Peter Boal had just become artistic director. Melia and I used to watch Peter dance when he was at NYCB, and were excited that he was hired at PNB. The performance was wonderful; I loved hearing the orchestra, and I thought at the time, if there was one job that I really wanted in Seattle, it would be concertmaster for PNB. Of course, you never know if a job like that will open up for many, many years. I was fortunate that 4 years later PNB was looking for a new concertmaster. It really is a dream job for me. I love working with amazing people like music director Emil de Cou and our fantastic orchestra, and getting to collaborate with dancers, choreographers, composers and ballet masters.

Lim, Seth Orza, Kylie Kitchens; photo Erin Baiano

EM: I remember feeling the same when I played for ABT. How would you describe the difference between performing a solo piece with orchestra on stage as opposed to in the pit? 

MJL: I find playing in the pit more challenging. There is certainly more physical discomfort to deal with: less room to operate in and less lighting! It can also be difficult to judge your own sound and how it is carrying in the hall. But you learn to block out the physical things, and begin to develop a sense of how to translate your sound from the pit to the audience. I’d say the biggest difference when playing a concerto for ballet is that you have to be very flexible with tempos. The tempo that sounds the best doesn’t always look the best. There are also slight changes from night to night, depending on who is dancing. On the other hand, there is something about performing music when you are not visible to the audience. Everything you are producing is with sound, with no visual elements from the musician to communicate to the audience. In a way, it’s a very pure way of making music. 

EM: Aside from performing the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1 with PNB next month, what is coming up for you in the near future? 

MJL: Next season at PNB will include Swan Lake, with all of those beautiful concertmaster solos that Tchaikovsky wrote. I’ll also play week two of the run of Red Angels, which is danced to a solo work for 5-string electric violin by composer Richard Einhorn. After the season ends in June 2018, the company is off to Paris for a tour, and I’ll get another opportunity to play the Prokofiev Concerto there. Of course, lots of fun stuff coming up with Frequency, and next season in Seattle I’ll perform music by UW composers Melia Watras and Richard Karpen, and the Beethoven Triple Concerto with cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, pianist Cristina Valdés, and the UW Symphony conducted by David Rahbee. I’m also excited about recording the world premiere of Andrew Waggoner’s Violin Concerto, with multiple Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman. It should be a busy and fun year! 

EM: Sounds fantastic. Thanks so much, and Toi, Toi, for the Prokofiev!

Michael Jinsoo Lim, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis

PNB’s Pictures at an Exhibition will be performed at McCaw Hall Jun. 2-11.


Photo credits: Michelle Smith-Lewis, Angela Sterling, Erin Baiano
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, May 22, 2017

Young virtuoso wows the SBCMS Patrons’ Concert

REVIEW: Ray Ushikubo plays Chopin, Beethoven, Suk and Wieniawski

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

Ray Ushikubo
Having nothing more than a layman’s notion of how arms, hands, and digits work as biological engineering, I wondered at points during this recital whether the training and practice needed to excel at violin or piano are inimical to what is required for the other instrument. Given 15-year-old Ray Ushikubo’s remarkable prowess both as a pianist and violinist, will he have at some point to curtail the keyboard so as to develop further his violin skills, or vice versa? I hope not, but should it prove necessary, then his future as a virtuoso of whichever is his chosen instrument must be assured.

From the start of the SBCMS’s celebratory end-of-season Patrons’ Concert, the breadth of Mr. Ushikubo’s musicianship was clear in an account of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major Op.61 that not only embraced both the pianistic accuracy and wide dynamic range the work requires, but just as importantly the long-range planning for tempo relationships and maintenance of underlying pulse needed to sidestep the pitfalls of the work’s length and discursiveness.

These qualities were yet more evident when he turned to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor Op.27 No.2. The Moonlight’s celebrated opening slow movement is marked Adagio sostenuto, but his approach to it entirely avoided the kind of torpor-inducing crawl that can sometimes follow an over-literal aim at timeless profundity. Not only did he keep the movement alive and in motion, but his strict observation of the attacca into the following Allegretto, coupled with a quite measured view of that tempo, ensured continuity between these first two movements where the wrong kind of jolt can sometimes happen. And then the final Presto agitato was indeed just about as fast as human fingers can manage, keeping thoroughly at bay any audience dozing tendencies on a very warm Sunday afternoon.

Dr Jason Lo
The other (relatively) large work was also by Beethoven, his Violin Sonata No.1 in D major Op.12 No.1, and for it and the remainder of the recital the soloist duly relinquished keyboard for violin, his place at the piano-stool being taken by Dr. Jason Lo. Here, I wasn’t quite as won over as I had been by Mr. Ushikubo’s pianism. For one thing, the tempo of the first movement (no exposition repeat taken) seemed too slow for Allegro con brio, and judged by the highest standards his violin tone, though brilliantly incisive, was to my ears just a little hard and undifferentiated. The theme-and-variations second movement, however, was led off at just the right tempo by Dr. Lo, whose unobtrusive excellence came into its own in the expansively skirling piano writing of the minor-key third variation, a relatively early (1798) example of Beethoven’s endlessly surprising and wonderful variation-writing.

The duo concluded with a couple of what the late great English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham would have termed “lollipops”, both from composers only a handful of years older than Mr. Ushikubo when they were written. The first of Josef Suk’s Six Piano Pieces Op.7, subtitled Love Song, was composed in 1891, but in its arrangement for violin and piano it sounded, even more than the piano solo original, as if it was prefiguring the accompaniment to some Golden Age Hollywood scene of Bette Davis sweeping down a grand staircase in a ball gown. 

Finally, Wieniawski's 1853 Polonaise brillante No.1 Op.4, which also exists in a version with orchestral accompaniment and is sometimes titled Polonaise de Concert, formed a neat and no doubt entirely intentional closing of the circle with the similarly nationalistic concert opener by his illustrious Polish predecessor. One of those “So that’s what that’s called…” pieces, its pyrotechnics, including some stratospherically high fortissimo double-stopped octaves, were handled by Mr. Ushikubo with a dazzling display of virtuoso aplomb that had the SBCMS audience on its feet and cheering. Let’s hope he can be heard here again in future seasons, as pianist, violinist, or both.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Saturday, May, 2017
Photos: Ray Ushikobo: AU Photography; Jason Lo.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Good friends play Schubert at Rolling Hills


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Cécilia Tsan
A few weeks ago we lucky South Bay chamber music aficionados enjoyed a powerful performance by the Pacific Trio of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 100 D.929 in the SB Chamber Music Society’s last concert of its 2016-17 season at the Pacific Unitarian Church on top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Last Sunday, halfway down the hill at RHUMC, it was the turn of the “other one”, the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 99 D.898, performed by three avowedly good friends, Martin Chalifour, Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cécilia Tsan, Principal ‘cellist of the Long Beach Symphony, and virtuoso pianist Steven Vanhauwaert.

Scholarship seems not to have settled whether these two masterpieces were composed sequentially, if so in what order, or concurrently, though the balance of opinion tips towards the numbering being correct. What is not in doubt is that both belong to what Benjamin Britten called arguably “the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history [… ] the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise […] his last three piano sonatas, the C major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces.”

Martin Chalifour
Despite their similarity – both being large-scale, four-movement structures (sonata-allegro/ slow movement/ scherzo-and-trio/ fast-paced (the B-flat) medium-paced (the E-flat) finale) – the two trios are different in mood, a difference that seems in a way to radiate outwards from their respective slow movements. Whereas that of the E-flat is a dogged march, from the outset seemingly anticipating strife, that rises to a pitch of anguish and despair from which the composer seems barely able to recover, the B-flat’s Andante un poco mosso keeps darkness thoroughly at bay, blithely turning at the smallest hint of clouds into yet another sunlit vale.

Steven Vanhauwaert
Overall this work, from its proudly unison opening to the bounding conclusion of the rondo finale, enshrines collaboration and smiling conversation between all three protagonists, but the shining exception where one of them sings out soloistically is the ‘cello solo that opens the slow movement. Ms Tsan’s pace here was easeful and flowing, entirely avoiding indulgent sentimentality and with a clear-eyed tenderness that was exactly matched by Mr Chalifour when he took over Schubert’s heavenly melody, both strings firmly but discreetly supported by Mr Vanhauwaert’s chordal piano accompaniment.

Indeed this was throughout a fleet and affectionate performance, coming in at a few seconds under 37 minutes, sans repeats in the first and second movements for time considerations, but nowhere feeling rushed or neglectful of the myriad subtleties in Schubert’s wondrous score. There was still time, however, for a short encore, the first of the five Novelletten Op. 29 by the Danish composer Niels Gade. Like so many early-mid 19th century Romantics whose names are not Mendelssohn, Gade has by now virtually disappeared under that master’s shadow, but is well worth looking out for. I hope that these three friends some time let us hear live those other four Novelletten (which a quick YouTube listen shows to be quite varied and different in mood from the bubbling jollity of the first).


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Photos: Martin Chalifour (Gary Coronado, LA Times); Steven Vanhauwaert; Cécilia Tsan: Courtesy Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Melia Watras Reveals The Power of '26' Strings

Melia Watras, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis

CD REVIEW: Melia Watras

Sono Luminus Records

The much-neglected viola finally gets its due in this fascinating new recording featuring performances by multitalented composer and violist Melia Watras and three colleagues: Atar Arad, former Cleveland Quartet violist; Garth Knox, former Arditti Quartet violist; and Michael Jinsoo Lim, concertmaster of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Also included is a work by composer and digital arts pioneer Richard Karpen.

The pieces contained herein were written since 2008, some as recently as 2014, and all are world premiere recordings. The works themselves provide a wealth of contrast in their nature, from ancient and tuneful to starkly contemporary. Watras, currently Professor of Viola and chair of Strings at the University of Washington in Seattle, composed 5 of the 9 works compiled for the CD, which are sprinkled throughout in combination with works by Arad, Knox and Karpen and performed by Watras and Arad on viola, Knox on the viola d’amore, and Watras’s violinist husband Michael Jinsoo Lim.

Michael Jinsoo Lim, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis
The CD’s title, 26, is based on the total number of strings played on by the various combinations of instruments included: four each for violist Watras and Arad and violinist Lim, plus 14 “playing and sympathetic” strings for Knox’s viola d’amore.

In Toccatina a la Turk (2008) for 2 violas, Arad and Watras combine their well-matched, crystal clear tones to portray a polyphony influenced both by the rhythms of Dave Brubeck’s iconic Blue Rondo a la Turk and by the mood and character of the Balkans. One also hears definite rhythms and melodic patterns reminiscent of the 2-violin duets of Béla Bartók. Originally written by Arad for two violins, the violist was so pleased with the results that he arranged it for two violas. Played so deftly, the piece works beautifully in its present incarnation.

Arad was Watras’s viola teacher, and she credits him for her interest in composing. Moreover, his concept of the Prelude to the Bach Unaccompanied Suite No. 3 in C major served as inspiration for her 2014 piece, Prelude, for viola solo. The improvisatory nature of the work shows off Arad's velvety sound and keen sense of phrasing.

Atar Arad, photo Hideki Isoda
Watras and Arad join forces for Arad’s Esther from 2008. Dedicated to Arad’s Bulgarian-born mother, the piece evokes his mother’s spirited singing of songs from her native land during his childhood. The work makes full use of the lyrical qualities of the viola, from top to bottom of the instrument’s range, and the players expertly weave and intermingle their sounds to create a nostalgic atmosphere.

An ancient Irish tune believed to have been written by a 17th century “harper” was the basis for Knox’s 2014 Stranger for viola and viola d’amore, which he dedicated to Watras. Knox and Watras collaborate in this traditional-sounding sentimental tune, which is enhanced by bits of col legno technique and gentle pizzicati. Watras proves her mettle in the swaying, wistful melodies of this piece. One can almost visualize the mist of Ireland hanging over the instruments as they are played.

Garth Knox, photo François Figlarz
Watras writes that her Liquid Voices (2013), performed by her and Lim, was inspired by the short story, The Fascination of the Pool, of Virginia Woolf. Indeed, the ethereal nature of the piece, punctuated by “special effects” of which stringed instruments are capable, gives the work a certain elusive quality; and the half-step-apart dissonances cast the work in a definite modernistic mode. The two players’ sounds meld perfectly together – which, as Watras points out in her notes, is a good thing, since they are married.

Lim demonstrates his polished technique and glowing sound in Watras’s 2013 violin solo piece, Luminous Points. The arpeggios, recalling those in Eugène Ysaÿe’s solo sonatas, are executed with flair and gentility, the leaps smooth and effortless, and the left-hand pizzicati are impressive. Likewise, Watras’s writing and playing in both her Sonata and Photo by Mikel (2012) for viola solo demonstrate a clear command of the technical capabilities of the instrument. Each of the four movements communicates its own individual emotion, from tenderness to introspection, with thoughtfulness and grace.

Richard Karpen, photo Steve Korn
 The meditative quality of Richard Karpen’s 2014 Bicinium for violin and viola, composed for Watras and Lim, provides a highly contemplative finale to this varied program. Karpen has proved to be a forward thinking force in the world of computer applications for music composition; yet this piece shows his versatility in more traditional contemporary modes.

Taken individually and together, this collection of works gives the listener a wide range of textures to assimilate and enjoy many times over.

Melia Watras: 26
Label: Sono Luminus SLE – 70007
Produced by Judith Sherman


Photo credits: David Hartig, Brianna Houston
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Photo credits: Michelle Smith-Lewis, Hideki Isoda, François Figlarz, Steve Korn

Berlioz’ apocalypse restrained at San Francisco


San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Davies Symphony Hall

Berlioz in 1839, two years after the
Requiem’s composition: portrait miniature
by Paul de Pommayrac.
In the program book for the three performances of Berlioz’ Requiem Op.5 H.75 (Grande Messe des Morts) conducted by Charles Dutoit on May 4–6, the note on the work’s instrumentation was headed “For this reduction by Charles Dutoit–” … an ambiguous wording which could be taken to mean that M. Dutoit has his own preferred edition of the work, or that reductions were necessitated by (presumably) space limitations.

Berlioz’ score specifies 192 players including four extra brass groups placed at the corners of the main body of performers, an array unmatched before or since by any work in the standard repertoire; for whichever reason, this was reduced to a total of 113. As well as the anticipated boiling-down of his prescribed string strength (totaling 108) to normal full-orchestra strings (60 players), this halved in number the main orchestra’s bassoons and horns and the roster for each of the four brass groups, which are used only in the three movements (Dies irae, Rex tremendae, and Lacrymosa) principally responsible for the Requiem’s famous (or infamous) reputation for “musical gigantism.”

It was, therefore, a pity that this “musical gigantism” was the very aspect of the work emphasized in the pre-performance publicity and the pre-concert talk. I wonder how many audience members expecting to be flattened by an 80-minute sound barrage were surprised to find the Requiem predominantly quiet and contemplative, with even the “big moments” relatively underwhelming.

Charles Dutoit. 
In his talk, SF Symphony Program Annotator James Keller gave a concise and entertaining account of the somewhat convoluted background to the Requiem’s composition and first performance (as well as a well-deserved plug for Berlioz’s Mémoires, surely the greatest work of literature to come from the pen of a great composer), but in his booklet notes he also stated that “the Requiem is usually given with the forces reduced rather than increased, and it is probably for the best.”

At risk of laboring the point, and with respect, no it isn’t. Berlioz cared passionately about this work and calculated precisely the resources he needed to achieve his expressive intent, which surely embraced maximum contrast between awe, terror and majesty on the one hand, and supplication, tenderness and pity on the other. The huge instrumental forces are not an unrealistic ideal to give leeway for comfortable adaptation to circumstances, but his required accompaniment to equally precisely calculated choral forces, totaling 210 singers. Berlioz states: “If space permit, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased [my italics].” 

On this occasion the combined SF Symphony Chorus, Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco, and Golden Gate Men’s Chorus numbered 215 and, lest this review seems over-negative thus far, they excelled throughout. However, Berlioz wrote for sopranos, tenors and basses only, rather than the normal soprano/alto/tenor/bass divisions of today, and so these performances used the recent edition by SF-based musician and editor Adrian G Horn, which “constructs a dedicated alto part out of the second soprano and first tenor parts”. This makes the work far more accessible for modern choirs, and I could detect almost no difference from previously heard live performances and recordings.

I wonder, though, if it is a feature of Mr Horn’s edition that the full choral forces are only used in the Dies irae, Rex tremendae, and Lacrymosa? After M Dutoit’s precise, measured, but to my ears slightly matter-of-fact orchestral opening to the initial Requiem et Kyrie, followed by successive quiet divided choral entries (beautifully terraced here), the first fortissimos, marked “unison” by Berlioz, were sung by the SF Symphony Chorus only. The ladies of the Choral Projects and the men of the Golden Gate remained seated and mute. This made for a regrettable loss of impact, and even more so when the same thing happened in the final Agnus Dei, where Berlioz returns to the music of the opening and closes the circle of his colossal structure.

First page of the Tuba mirum, from Berlioz’ holograph manuscript.
The other outsize orchestral demands for the Requiem lie in the percussion department. Starting at the Mors stupebit section of the Dies irae, Berlioz uses no less than 16 timpani plus bass and tenor drums, tam-tams and cymbals. The timps were all present and correct, but after the brass fanfares rang down left and right from the balconies (rather etiolated from the halving of their numbers), M Dutoit quashed the initial ff dynamic for the massed timpani onslaught when the choral basses entered, also fortissimo. Berlioz does not amend that ff marking for the drums when the voices begin, and the effect of strain and visceral terror generated by forcing them to sing through the roar and thunder was all but lost. (Also, sad to say, Berlioz’ ferocious percussion reinforcement for the brass, timpani and chorus, when they come back for the movement's climactic Judex section, was severely emasculated by reducing his required quartet of tam-tams to one only.)

After all this sound and fury, the lonely, wandering choral tenor line of the brief Quid sum miser, punctuated by plaintive English horn with ‘cello and bass underpinning, formed the perfect contrast before the next onslaught, this time triumphant, of the Rex tremendae, while the following unaccompanied Quaerens me (Berlioz once again securing maximum effective contrast from movement to movement), for mixed chorus in six parts and very soft throughout, was for me one of the choral highlights of the performance.

Then came the last of the three brass-and-timps blockbusters, the Lacrymosa. Berlioz sets this juggernaut to Judgment under way with a thrillingly original progression of upward ‘cello and bass rumble, woodwind fanfare, fortissimo violin and viola slash, and dissonant horn blast repeated again and again through the first pages of the movement. Over this swaying, hypnotic repetition, the chorus intones a long-breathed melody with almost incantatory effect. Everything swung forward with seemingly unstoppable momentum, apart from rather disaffected slashings from some upper strings, and when the bands and massed timpani finally joined the fray the effect was suitably overwhelming (how skillfully Berlioz calculates his ascent to the summit!).

The final chord of the Lacrymosa, however, lacked its clearly marked long diminuendo, seeming instead just to stop and thus negating Berlioz’ careful stilling of the previous tumultuous mood for the sublime Offertorium that follows. At the outset of this seventh movement, he allots all the melodic interest to the orchestra, with just intermittent oscillations on Domine Jesu Christe muttered by the chorus. But there’s a conundrum. The final edition of the Requiem published in Berlioz’ lifetime has metronome marks heading each of the ten movements, and if strictly followed, the quarter note=84 marking for the Offertorium results in almost a march tempo. M Dutoit adhered pretty closely to it, but for me the price of such fealty was to lose the sense of slow, winding desolation that other conductors, taking slower tempi, have achieved in this movement.

The brief Hostias eighth movement – another oasis of calm – introduces yet another unprecedented effect. Intoned monotonous chants by the male chorus are interspersed by long-held, stratospherically high flute chords against deep trombone pedal notes offstage. This extraordinary sense of space and distance, from the celestial to the cavernous, with the centrally placed flutes answered by the trombones from left and right, came off marvelously in this performance, as it did again in the final Agnus Dei where Berlioz reintroduces this combination of instruments near the start.

In between these two movements comes the Sanctus – surely one of the cruelest tests for a vocal soloist in the concert repertoire. Berlioz makes his single tenor wait for over an hour until this moment and then requires him to sing his long, exposed high-lying solo with virtually no orchestral introduction, each phrase repeated by the female chorus, pp dolcissimo, against a delicate background of solo flute, four solo violins, and tremolando violas. Any hint of operatic wobble or throatiness kills the ecstatic mood stone-dead, but here the American tenor Paul Groves was outstandingly sure-voiced, firm but without any effortful stridency. At the end of the solo a robust choral fugue on Hosanna in excelcis breaks in, but when this comes to its natural close the opening section returns, the string accompaniment yet more elaborately delicate this time around. And this time around Mr Groves outdid even his earlier effort, floating his high tessitura with the utmost radiance and purity of tone.

This was the high point, in every sense, of a performance of this extraordinary and unique masterpiece which, flawed though it was, still thrilled the capacity audience in Davies Symphony Hall. 


San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, Thursday, May 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

Photos: Berlioz: Courtesy Musée Hector Berlioz and the Hector Berlioz website; Charles Dutoit: Courtesy SFSO; Berlioz manuscript: IMSLP Petrucci Music Library.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

San Diego’s Ling Ends Tenure on High Note

Photo David Hartig

PREVIEW: San Diego Symphony

Copley Symphony Hall

On May 26, 27 and 28, 2017, Jahja Ling will take his final bows as longtime Music Director of the San Diego Symphony. Ling’s dedication in building the orchestra into a major symphonic force has won him many devotees, among both audiences and the orchestra’s fine musicians. 

The award-winning conductor enjoys a deservedly fine reputation on numerous levels: his innovative and creative programming, his proficiency in engaging players who have contributed valued expertise to the excellence of the orchestra’s performances, and a canny proficiency in introducing music never before performed with the ensemble. He has contributed his own unique spirituality to the overall concept of each program. His legacy and vision will undoubtedly continue to have a profound influence upon the orchestra long after he gives his final downbeat. 

Since taking over the ensemble during a post-bankruptcy transitional period, Ling has added 70 excellent new musicians, released 10 CD recordings, and has received enthusiastic receptions from the orchestra’s first appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall and on a groundbreaking China Friendship Tour. The diverse composers whose pieces, too numerous to list, that Ling has premiered with SDS run the gamut from Bernstein to Schnittke, Bach to Mozart, Higdon, Sheng, Harbison and Glass. 

Ling has a special predilection for the late Romantic symphonic composers. Recently he helmed the ensemble in a powerful performance of Mahler’s monumental 3rd Symphony. He had waited until more than a decade of his tenure with San Diego Symphony had passed before programming Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 in November, 2014. Though he had conducted this work elsewhere, his performance was the orchestra’s first in its 103-year history. That was also the time that he announced his departure from the orchestra after a 14-year tenure  making him the longest serving music director since the orchestra's inception. This current season he realized his long-standing dream of conducting the colossal and deeply spiritual Bruckner 8th Symphony. 

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Indonesian-Chinese parents, now a U.S. citizen, Ling is the first and only conductor of Chinese descent to become music director of a major U.S. orchestra, and has conducted every prominent symphony orchestra in North America. His enduring relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he has been guest conducting for 33 seasons, is a mutually respectful, affectionate one. 

Notwithstanding his ethnicity, Ling’s musical background is steeped in European tradition. His history of studying with such conducting icons as Leonard Bernstein, Christoph von Dohnányi and Kurt Masur, he says, has contributed “to all of the accomplishment of making music in the most profound way to move people's hearts.”

Photo David Hartig
Ling enjoys instant recognition around his adopted hometown of San Diego, and the orchestra stands as one of the most important lynchpins of the city’s cultural life. As the only member of the San Diego arts community chosen by the San Diego Tourism Authority to participate in its 2011 San Diego Ambassador Campaign, Maestro Ling likens the city to an orchestra of many diverse instruments put together. 

“There are many facets of color that San Diego represents,” he says. “We have great music, great culture, beautiful ocean and beaches, like an orchestra. A flute, which can represent joy… a cello’s depth, combined with the very warm sound of the horn. People here are really eager to hear excellence in the arts, to be inspired with this great city.” 

Ling started playing piano at age four, won a Rockefeller grant to study at the prestigious Juilliard School, medaled at the Arthur Rubinstein International Competition, and then was awarded a Tanglewood fellowship to study conducting with Bernstein. Some of his more unusual undertakings include conducting at the state visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in San Francisco, and accompanying Whitney Houston’s national anthem at Super Bowl XXV. 

There is also a deeply personal musical theme in the maestro’s life: the love story with his concert pianist wife, Jessie Chang, whom he married in 2001. Chang, who grew up in Taiwan and, like Maestro Ling, began to play piano at age four, has won a constellation of awards for her outstanding artistry and is known among her colleagues and teachers for her virtuosity, lovely tone, and unique, distinctive piano style. She was a graduate student in piano at the Manhattan School of Music in 1999 and sang in the choir at the Chinese Community Church of New York when she and the maestro met, and had previously greeted Ling at a Juilliard concert he was conducting. 

“Because of our church relationship with him, we got to go backstage and say hello, like a three-second greeting,” says the soft-spoken Chang. “But it was a very memorable performance.” Later on they got to know each other better when Ling directed the choir at the church, and eventually spoke on the phone everyday about music and religion. 

Chang also impressed the maestro with her deep intellect and a sense of musical feeling that he found mesmerizing. As their romance burgeoned, she showed tireless devotion with her participation in his musical life, traveling with him and serving as an ambassador to his numerous public events, and, along with the couple’s two brilliantly talented young girls, continues to be a shining presence in the maestro’s personal and professional life. 

“Without question Jahja Ling’s legacy as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony will be felt for decades to come,” says SDS CEO Martha Gilmer. “I speak on behalf of so many people - musicians and audience alike - to express our profound gratitude to Jahja Ling for his devotion to his role… and for creating so many magical musical moments in our lives.” 

Ling’s final program with the orchestra will consist of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, performed by famed pianist Yefim Bronfman, along with one of Ling’s signature pieces, the Sibelius Symphony No. 2. 

A fitting finale and tribute to the man who has transformed the San Diego Symphony into one of the music world’s most admired and esteemed ensembles.

Photo Brianna Houston

Jahja Ling’s final performances as SDS Music Director take place at Copley Symphony Hall on May 26, 27 and 28. 


Photo credits: David Hartig, Brianna Houston
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Charles Dutoit takes on Berlioz Requiem In San Francisco

The forces numbered 330 for a San Francisco performance of the Berlioz Requiem under Charles Dutoit.
(Photo by Rodney Punt)
(Reprint of post on May 9, 2017 in Classical Voice North America)
By Rodney Punt
SAN FRANCISCO — Performances of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem are rare and special events. This masterpiece has a huge yet mysteriously elusive score whose noisy flirtation with chaos in three of its ten sections has typecast it as mainly a work of temple-bursting grandeur. Between those moments, however, it conveys far quieter meditations on human vulnerability, with gentle supplications tinted in the strange primal sounds of antiquity.
It took until 1950 for Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony to attempt the work here in the city that has since that era become the de facto capital of Silicon Valley start-ups. Word must have gotten around on the internet, because there were more than a few of the younger set in the audience at Davies Hall when the work was presented on May 4 for the first time since 1988. Herbert Blomstedt was then on the podium. This time around, conductor Charles Dutoit was the work’s able, if subdued and controlled, champion.
Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit (Victor Fraile)
Born in Lausanne and trained in Geneva, Dutoit inherited dual traits of Gallic passion and Swiss precision almost as birthright. Long the chief conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, he earned his mantel as a French music specialist, rivaled in the works of Berlioz only by the late Colin Davis. Since departing Montreal in 2002, Dutoit has toured the world, guest conducting heavy doses of the French composer. His 2010 rendering of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliettesymphony at the LA Phil was revelatory. Now 80, Dutoit shows no sign of slowing down, but, based on this performance, he does seem to be mellowing.
The Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts) was commissioned in 1837 for a public occasion in Paris at the massive Chapel of Saint-Louis des Invalides. The unwieldy space was later divided into two chambers, one of which, the Église du Dôme, now houses Napoleon’s tomb. Over 400 instrumentalists and singers participated, with four supplemental brass bands at the stage corners. Contemporary critics, often hostile to Berlioz, were dazzled and tamed by the work’s effective novelty. An unqualified hit at its premiere, it remained a popular success for the rest of the composer’s lifetime.
Because the Requiem is what we would today call a “site-specific” work, it needs modification in scale when performed in modern concert halls. Dutoit has fashioned a practical touring version of it, slightly reducing its original size. The forces on this occasion numbered a total of 330, still a mighty collection on any night.
Choral specialist Adrian Horn tinkered further with the score, “correcting” Berlioz’s omission of alto singers. The composer’s aversion to the voice type reportedly stemmed from his disappointments in two early love affairs; one assumes both ladies in question were altos. Horn pulled notes from the second soprano and first tenor parts to construct a new, independent part for altos. No new notes, just reassigned ones, making it more practical with the usual voice complement of today’s choruses. (I detected no damage to Berlioz in the performance.)
The combined singers and orchestra, augmented with those four brass bands, were arrayed in the generously proportioned semi-circular area defined by the Davies Hall stage and organ choir loft behind it. The 130-strong San Francisco Symphony Chorus, prepared by Ragnar Bohlin, was complemented in the Lacrymosa and the Dies irae-Tuba mirum segments by Susan McMane’s  Young Women’s Choral Project and Joseph Piazza’s Golden Gate Men’s Chorus. At this performance, Dutoit’s way with the Requiem was never bombastic or forced. Establishing a deliberate, natural pace from the start, he brought the work in at 87 minutes, somewhat longer than the program booklet estimate of 80 minutes. With orchestra, choirs, and extra brass ensembles in the extended Davies stage sightlines, there was never a moment when any elements fell out of sync with each other or with Dutoit, who had cannily gauged the work and its hall.
The resulting aural landscape – ranging from cataclysm to depictions of human frailty and entreaty – registered orchestral and choral shadings warmly, text articulations somewhat less effectively. Sonorities were secure, precise, and beautifully projected.
Highlights were many: The choir’s trailing-off of dynamics in their Requiem chants, the tenors’ sweet supplications of Sion, the anxious cries of the Kyrie, with its ascending string tremolos, the Dies irae’s brass and bass drum outburststhe Quid sum miser’s tenor and English horn interactions. Dissonances reigned in the Rex tremendae, purity in the a cappella, overlapping choral lines in the Quaerens me, obsession in the appoggiaturas embroidering single choral notes in the Offertorium, unintentional humor in the later tuba-characterized “bottomless pit.”
The trombone contingents, placed high in the rear balconies during the Hostias, were particularly effective in contrast with the flutes in the front-of-hall orchestra, their aural separation and distant timbres emphasizing the distance between earth and heaven.
Only the Lacrymosa, with its seasick-like syncopations that make of human tears an ocean of sorrows, disappointed. Here, Dutoit’s deliberate pacing just missed capturing the existential crisis that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s more urgent strokes effectively caught in the LA Philharmonic’s 2004 outing of the work at Disney Hall.
Tenor Paul Groves’ pleas in the penultimate Sanctus were bright and resonant, once the long-waiting singer took a few measures to center his voice. He sailed through the punishingly high tessituras with ease, and his well-projected articulation overcame the general limits of the hall.
If the smiles on the faces of departing patrons were any indication, the years have not tarnished the dazzle factor of the Berlioz Requiem.
Rodney Punt writes about music and theater for San Francisco Classical Voice,  LA Opus, and The Huffington Post. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.
Posted first on classical voice North America on  MAY 9, 2017