Tuesday, May 2, 2017

An all-Mozart program at Long Beach


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Members of the Long Beach Camerata Singers with their Artistic Director, Robert Istad. 

Besotted as I’ve been from an early age by the engulfing scale and drama of the “big” Requiem settings from Verdi, Dvořák, Stanford and above all Berlioz, Mozart’s Requiem in D minor K.626 has always seemed underwhelming by comparison, as well as far less emotionally affecting than the intimately-scaled settings by Fauré and Duruflé – notwithstanding the pathos of Mozart’s unsuccessful struggle to finish his final work as he lay dying and, in some respects still, the mysteries surrounding the Requiem’s posthumous pathway to the version we heard last Saturday. 

Robert Istad.
However, this performance – the main item in the LBSO’s penultimate concert of the season – was by some margin the most impressive live account of Mozart’s Requiem that I can recall, and I at last began to “get” the work’s unique qualities. Conductor Robert Istad in his pre-concert talk noted that it is very much the product of a vastly skilled opera composer, and thus a dramatic piece as much as a religious or reflective one.

The ensemble singing of the exceptionally homogeneous solo quartet (Elissa Johnston, soprano; I-Chin Lee, contralto; Nicholas Preston, tenor; Randall Gremillion, bass) was the perfect exemplar of this. Individually they registered finely too, particularly notable being Ms Johnston’s expansive first entrance at Te decet hymnus, Mr Gremillion’s sonorous Tuba mirum spargens, and Mr Preston’s tender restraint at Liber scriptus proferetur (though elsewhere he demonstrated plenty of firepower). 

Added to this was strong work throughout from the obviously well-rehearsed Long Beach Camerata Singers, whose sensitivity was well demonstrated at the outset, with finely graded entries as they introduced themselves section by section in the Introit. Then right from the start of the following Kyrie, they seized their opportunities to both project strongly and enunciate clearly the rapid, overlapping semiquaver runs that indicate how much Mozart had imbibed from Handel, most likely as a result of having reworked Messiah a couple of years earlier. 

Orchestrally too, it was a distinguished performance, with the strings of the Long Beach Symphony first demonstrating their quality in the sweetly liquid counterpoint that accompanies the Introit’s soprano solo, already noted. But… for what it’s worth, I still have doubts about the work and they center on the orchestral score, as it has come down to the present in a kind of palimpsest of Mozart’s original fragment overlain and added to by Eybler and Süssmayr, plus whichever editor(s) were involved in the version you’re listening to. 

The bass solo that begins the Tuba mirum is indeed a marvelous inspiration, but what about the solo trombone (just as authentically part of Mozart’s fragment) that introduces it, even when played as robustly as it was in this performance? I do wonder whether had he lived to finish the work and prepare it for performance he might have rethought this. And then there is the overall woodwind instrumentation – rather than leave just the doleful timbres of the Introit’s basset-horns and bassoons to do duty throughout the rest of the piece, as Süssmayr did, might not Mozart himself have opened out into a wider palette of woodwind colors later on? We’ll never know. 

This concert designedly linked brilliant early and timeless late Mozart, and the first half paired what is generally regarded as his first symphonic masterpiece, No. 25 in G minor K.183 (the “little G minor” as opposed to the late Symphony No. 40 in G minor K.550) composed at the age of 17 in 1773, with the overture to The Magic Flute, which immediately preceded start of work on the Requiem in late 1791. 

Mr Istad’s talk elegantly elucidated the Masonic symbolism in The Magic Flute, paying particular attention to the significance of the three chords from the full orchestra that launch the overture – the three “knocks” by initiates on the door of the Masonic temple. In the performance, however, these did not sound as momentous as they might have; maybe there’s an intrinsic conflict between the spaciousness that Mozart’s Adagio tempo requires, and the unanimity of impact implied by his ff markings from top to bottom of the first page of the score. The venerable Otto Klemperer, for one, was able to nail it, but this performance, elegantly played though it was, did not match his majestic gruffness. Also the Terrace Theater’s ample acoustic, finely supportive to spacious orchestral and choral effects, is not so much a friend to projecting instrumental incisiveness. 

Symphony No. 25, however, was very successful. As in the other two works the full string strength of the LBSO seemed to be mustered (I couldn’t be sure as it is impossible to count heads from the orchestra stalls!) – and Mozart’s unusual inclusion, along with pairs of oboes and bassoons, of four rather than two horns, which particularly make themselves felt in the first movement and the finale, certainly justified and complemented the impact of all those strings. 

It was noticeable that after the wide-leaping impact of the first movement’s initial subject (which I can never hear without seeing in my mind’s eye the snowball fight from part one of Abel Gance’s silent movie epic Napoléon, co-opted as it is for musical accompaniment by the English composer Carl Davis, who prepared the five-and-a-half-hour score), Mr Isted did not daintify, as sometimes happens, the tripping second subject in the first violins, where Mozart does not deviate from his opening Allegro con brio marking. And the grand inclusive sweep of the whole movement was expanded by observing the exposition repeat. Mozart actually marks both halves of the first, second and fourth movements, each of which is a sonata design, to be repeated, but arguably to do so would be too much of a good thing. Unless you’re a diehard purist the sensible compromise, as was the case in this performance, is to observe the first half repeats only.

The first manuscript page of Mozart's unfinished Requiem.

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, April 29, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Robert Istad, Long Beach Camerata Singers: courtesy Long Beach Symphony Orchestra; Mozart autograph: Public Domain, courtesy IMSLP Petrucci Music Library.

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1 comment:

Peanut Sez said...

Hi David, Thank you for your excellent review of Long Beach Camerata Singers role in our presentation of Mozart's "Requiem" with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra this past April. The concert was doubly sweet for us, as Dr. Istad left us at the end of the season and we now have a new Artistic Director, Dr. James K. Bass.

I am writing today to let you know that we will be hosting interviews with Dr. Bass next week on Tuesday, August 15. Dr. Bass is the Director of Choral Studies at UCLA and Associate Director of Seraphic Fire. He also has an active career as a professional singer and is currently performing as part of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. He is the recipient of 3 Grammy nominations. We had an absolutely jaw-dropping audition with him last year and he was the clear choice to continue the growth and artistic vision of LBCS. Here is some information about him: https://www.music.ucla.edu/bass-james

We have a 4:00pm time slot available for an interview with James if you are available next Tuesday. The interviews will be held at my home in Long Beach. We are also hosting a meet-and-greet event on Wednesday, August 16 to introduce James to community leaders in Long Beach as well as to make our season announcement. Please let me know if you are available for either of these dates.

Again, many thanks for your review and I look forward to meeting you soon.


Jan B. Hower
President, Board of Directors

PS -- check out my blog at https://peanutsez.wordpress.com