Tuesday, June 13, 2017

JoAnn Falletta’s all-Russian homecoming at Long Beach


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

JoAnn Falletta
This was the first time I had seen JoAnn Falletta conduct as opposed to just hearing her work on numerous CDs, not having been local to Long Beach during her 1989-2000 tenure as the LBSO’s Music Director. That was clearly a fond memory for many in the audience, whose affection when they greeted her as soon as she appeared to give the pre-concert talk was palpable. That this affection extended to the orchestra was plain to see when she came on stage to conduct the first item in the concert, movements from Shostakovich’s The Gadfly Suite Op.97b

In her talk Ms Falletta had outlined Shostakovich’s background in, and copious experience of, working with movies, from his earliest days as a piano accompanist to silent films and then on through the total of no less than 36 movie scores written during both the silent and sound film eras. The Gadfly from 1955 was the 28th of these, but despite its prominence amongst them, and the diligence with which his lesser-known works have appeared on disc in recent years, the original score for the whole movie seems not yet to have been recorded.

The Gadfly Suite, however, is well known, and four movements were played from its total of twelve. Anyone imagining from the title that the movie is some sort of wry comedy would have been rapidly disabused by the martial seriousness of the Overture, though after the sumptuously expansive account of the ensuing Romance (made virtually into a full-blown symphonic adagio, with sensitive and almost vibrato-free solo violin work from LBSO Concertmaster Roger Wilkie), a party atmosphere was well-and-truly established with the brief Gallop and Folk-Feast movements, performed with enthusiastic virtuosity and greeted with cheers.

I guess it’s being a bit of a party-pooper to say that, rather than this opening selection, I would have preferred something more unfamiliar from Ms Falletta’s long list of recordings, concentrating as she has both on contemporary Americans and neglected or forgotten composers from the past, American and foreign – the chance to hear, say, a tone-poem by Novák, or a rhapsody by Moeran, or a new work from Kenneth Fuchs, would have been very welcome. However, it was not to be: maybe at a future return?

Mariinsky Theatre production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, 2002. 
What came next was music from Prokofiev’s Cinderella Op.87. This full-length, three-act ballet is not, in fact, all that long, and its division into no less than 50 very varied numbers over a total playing time of under two hours means that several different groups of items from the score can successfully be extracted. The composer himself produced three orchestral Cinderella suites, but for this concert Maestra Falletta made her own selection of eight numbers from them.

She had noted that despite the fairytale subject, there is a good deal of darkness in Prokofiev’s treatment, and this was well pointed up by the spacious and somber performance of the Introduction – the opening number in both the whole ballet and Prokofiev’s own first suite. Thereafter her selection traced the story from beginning to end (which no one of Prokofiev’s suites does), following the Shawl Dance, the Dancing Lesson and Gavotte, the Spring Fairy and Summer Fairy, Cinderella’s Arrival at the Ball, and finally the lowering sense of portent in Cinderella’s Waltz, with a splendidly ferocious attack on the fateful strokes of Midnight from the LBSO’s percussion team. I did think, though, that it was a mistake to reprise Cinderella’s Waltz as a final item after the rapt Amoroso that followed Midnight. As Ms. Falletta herself noted, it is in the minor, and its clouded brevity being repeated left something of a shadow over the whole performance. Maybe that was the intention, but my preference would have been to end with the Amoroso movement, particularly as its exquisite celesta arpeggios are the final sounds of the whole ballet.

George Li.
After the interval came that Russian warhorse of warhorses, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor Op.23. Whenever I see it on a concert program, my first reaction is “oh, not again!”, but in practice this quirky and extraordinarily original concerto always captivates anew once that introduction is over and done with. And in this case that introduction was not as we usually hear it, for if my ears did not deceive me soloist George Li played the original score’s arpeggiated versions of the opening piano chords, far more sensitive and eloquent than the grandiose unisons substituted in the final published version (in his pre-concert conversation with Ms. Falletta, Mr. Li said something about going back to Tchaikovsky’s first thoughts).

Not least of this concerto’s quirkinesses is the Prestissimo section that flies from nowhere into the middle of the delicate and medium-paced Andantino semplice movement, and this Mr. Li threw off with other-worldly speed and lightness of touch. In the first and last movements, he brought no lack of weight and seemingly effortless virtuosity to the many big moments, but overall this was a devoted and thoroughly musical rather than a barnstorming performance, marked by rare unanimity between soloist and orchestra under Maestra Falletta’s never-failing attention.

George Li's performance of "Tchaik 1" duly got the ovation it deserved, and then the audience was rewarded with a fleet and airborne account of one of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. I think it was the penultimate one, Op.32 No.12 in G minor, but I stand to be corrected… 


 Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, June 10, 2017, 8p.m.

Photos: JoAnn Falletta: David Adam Beloff; Cinderella; George Li: Christian Steiner.

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