Thursday, July 13, 2017

Music beneath Hale’s mighty eye


Works for violin and ‘cello, Mount Wilson Observatory

I wonder whether Dan Kohne and other Trustees and members of the Mount Wilson Observatory staff experienced a real “ah-ha!” moment when they first thought of using the dome of its 100-inch telescope as a music venue? One hopes so, because the concerts by Ben Powell (violin) and Cécilia Tsan (‘cello) on Sunday 9 July demonstrated the concept’s viability with stunning success (we heard the 5 p.m. recital; the artists had already played the same three works, by Johan Halvorsen, Reinhold Glière, and Kodály, at 3 p.m.) 

Everything contributed to a sense of specialness—the long drive out from LA’s teeming traffic and 100˚F heat and up the increasingly winding and precipitous road to the 5700ft. mountain-top elevation; glimpses of the great white dome amidst bare pine-trees; once inside, climbing the lofty open stairway to the floor level of the telescope itself; first sight of the vast cool interior with its skeletal blue-painted giant vertical in the center; and finally the majestic drawing apart of the roof aperture (to allow natural light) and slow, near-silent revolution of the entire dome, complete with audience in situ, before the performers made their entrance.

Ideally, a guided tour is needed to get a proper sense of the sheer audacity of the Observatory’s builders over a century ago, and of the propelling vision behind them—Chicago astronomer George Ellery Hale’s determination to build ever more powerful telescopes to reveal the hidden wonders of the universe. After a brave but abortive attempt in 1889-90 by Harvard and USC astronomers to establish a permanent observatory on Mount Wilson, Hale arrived in 1903 and, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, took over the task. 

Most ambitious were his two giant reflecting telescopes, the first with a 60-inch mirror—not quite the largest-ever, but far more sophisticated in design and flexible in use than any previous. Then, while the 60-inch was still being built, Hale—this time with funding from LA hardware magnate John D. Hooker—pushed forward with the mirror casting and then construction of Mount Wilson’s crowning glory, the 100-inch reflector, a century old this year. 

In such a unique venue with that background, it would be easy to view the actual performance as secondary, but this was emphatically not the case due to the interest of the program chosen by Ms. Tsan and Mr. Powell (right), and the passion and commitment of their playing. The order of items changed: the first piece, listed as Passacaglia [by] Haendel-Halvorsen, was moved to the end to act effectively as an encore, and this worked very well. 

The now rarely-heard Norwegian composer really deserves most of the compositional credit, as the 29-year-old Halvorsen in 1893 subjected Handel’s harpsichord original, published in 1720, to a very free and furiously virtuosic reworking that pits the two soloists as equal high-wire athletes, requiring razor-sharp ensemble and spot-on intonation. It came as quite a shock from a composer I’d tended to think of as amiable and a little unexciting, and Hale’s dome reverberated with deserved audience cheers for a performance of edge-of-seat excitement. 

The opening item comprised the first three and penultimate of Glière’s Eight Pieces (“Huit Morceaux”) for violin and violoncello Op. 39: Prélude, Gavotte, Berceuse, and Scherzo. Glière was Ukrainian by birth (he adopted the French-style spelling of his name around 1900), and by the time these pieces were written in 1909 he was thoroughly installed as a teacher in Moscow’s Gnesin Institute. 

Befitting the cosmopolitan musical climate that prevailed in pre-Revolutionary Russia, there is nothing audibly Slavic in the style of his Morceaux, but rather—after the slightly ominous Prélude—a gentle and tuneful sensibility across what amounts to a small-scale suite, which fits with the French of both of the movement titles and that of the complete work. These four short pieces, with their even-handed distribution of melodic interest between the two instruments, benefited just as much from the care and commitment with which Ms. Tsan and Mr. Powell projected them as did the more demanding music that followed. 

The main work was Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7, composed in 1914. While not as rare a figure in the concert-hall as Halvorsen and Glière, Zoltán Kodály is by no means a program staple, but among violin/cello chamber works his Duo must surely stand as one of the genre’s masterpieces. Equally surely it is undersold by its title, being in three movements totaling nearly a half-hour, and thus outbulking many a sonata. Its rhetorical intensity is established from the very first measure of the opening Allegro serioso, non troppo, with a passionate cantilena from the ‘cello outlined against slashing chords on the violin. The combination throughout of leaping melody and highly chromatic tonality, dynamics that range from ff outpourings to delicate pp pizzicato ostinati, and abrupt changes of tempi, all against an earthy underpinning of Hungarian folk-music influence, make for a pungent and compulsive whole, and I would love to hear Ms. Tsan and Mr. Powell, absolutely at one and surmounting all its challenges, play it again. 

After such a triumphant success it’s good to know that this is intended to become a series, with Ms. Tsan as Artistic Director. Meanwhile, even without the lure of great live music, Mount Wilson Observatory is a wonderful place to visit


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 9 July 2017, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Photos: Interiors: Cécilia Tsan; Exterior: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis, courtesy Los Angeles Magazine.

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Rodney Punt said...

This is an outstanding review, David. You have incorporated this wonderful, now historic, observatory with the marvelous music of the later afternoon concert, into something like a music of the spheres commentary. Bravo.-- Rodney

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