Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Dvořák and Sibelius at the Segerstrom


Joshua Bell, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Joshua Bell.
Though this concert – an item extra to the Pacific Symphony’s 2017-18 classical season and generously sponsored by Yasuko and Seth Siegel – was billed as “An Evening with Joshua Bell”, the soloist did not appear until after the interval, when he played the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47. The first half was occupied by the rather longer Symphony No.9 in D minor “From the New World” Op.95 B.178 of Antonín Dvořák, and while one may regret that the program didn’t take a chance and opt for something a bit further from the very center of the mainstream (and it surely wouldn’t have been much of a risk, given Mr. Bell’s audience pulling power), there was still much to relish in the performance. 

This was only my second experience of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall’s acoustic, so I’m still at the stage of being knocked out by its remarkable blend of spaciousness, clarity, and effortless-seeming truthfulness (doubtless achieved with a great deal of effort and expertise by the acousticians and architects!). There was something almost shocking in the sheer beauty of the sound of the lower strings’ pianissimo, as PSO Music Director Carl St. Clair gently coaxed their opening measures of the symphony’s first movement Adagio introduction.

Antonín Dvořák.
However, as he navigated the progressive entry of other instrumental groups in this “upbeat” to the main body of the movement, I did find the very slow pace and degree of expressive intensity a bit much. Dvořák’s metronome mark alongside that Adagio instruction is sixteenth note=126, and neither changes throughout the 23 measures before the main Allegro molto kicks in. This is way faster than any performance I have come across, and while in no way would metronomic rigidity be desirable, it would be interesting to hear an approach to that speed, so that the slow(ish) intro feels actually like a lead-in to the main movement and not a separate piece in itself.

It was not a surprise that Mr. St. Clair omitted the first movement exposition repeat, as is the case more often than not with this symphony. I realize that this review is beginning to sound a bit of a nitpick, but… a master in his maturity such as Dvořák was when he wrote the "New World" surely knew what he wanted, particularly as he took the trouble to write four lead-back measures to this particular repeat; and first-movement repeats clearly were not automatic for him, given that he does not ask for one in either of his preceding symphonies.

Enough! Beauty abounded throughout the performance, from the gorgeous flute that introduced the transition to the first movement’s second subject (neither slowed unwontedly), to the easeful legato of the English horn “Going Home” in that solo in the Largo second movement (but with its limpid purity not descending into any hint of droopiness), to the dramatic driving fury of the end of the finale. And I noticed detail as never before – the brief tremolo on the double-basses toward the end of the Largo’s central section, and for once the triangle in the Scherzo sounding “right” and not like an unanswered telephone offstage. Hearing the "New World" afresh in such a performance also made one note how angry and even tragic much of it sounds, despite its manifold ear-catching tunefulness.

Delaying Mr. Bell’s presence until the second half of this “Evening with” gave his eventual appearance an almost rock-star degree of deferred gratification for the audience, amped-up by Mr. St. Clair’s microphoned invitation just before his entry to “enjoy the artistry of Joshua Bell!” And unquestionably there was a great deal to enjoy.

  Jean Sibelius, sketched by Albert Engström
in 1904, when the Violin Concerto was written.
It’s a truism to say that Sibelius’s Violin Concerto is one of the great masterpieces of the genre, but it had a difficult genesis, due not only to problems over the original dedicatee’s availability, as noted in the program book, but also to Sibelius’s battle with alcoholism. After the premiere he withdrew and extensively revised it (I wonder whether Mr. Bell has ever played, or considered playing, the even more excruciatingly difficult original version?), and even then it was decades before it broke through from Finnish provinciality to a solid place in the repertory, following Jascha Heifetz’s 1935 recording.

This work almost miraculously “has it both ways”, in that its overall structure of a large and complex first movement followed by much shorter and simpler slow movement and finale is firmly in the pattern of the great violin concertos of the past, pre-eminently the Beethoven and the Brahms, but also in that its sound-world is entirely of Sibelius’s highly original maturity. The very opening, a pianissimo haze of muted tremolos on divided first and second violins, out of which emerges the long and unmistakably Sibelian first theme on the solo violin, is unlike any other. Mr. Bell floated the melody (much more quietly than the marked mezzo-forte, but with all the dolce ed espressivo that the composer also asks for) on a thread of tone, expansive, and as flexible as a living thing. 

As the first movement progressed, once again the extraordinary acoustic of the Segerstrom Hall revealed details I had never consciously been aware of before, like the violin’s brief duet with a solo viola about five minutes in, and later the bassoons’ entry after the cadenza. Indeed, throughout the work the acoustic, quite as much as it clothed Mr. Bell’s sinuous, expressive line, pointed up the sheer originality of Sibelius’s orchestration – its spareness, rawness, almost primeval quality – all the more remarkable as it is achieved with absolutely standard orchestral forces.

The opening of the Adagio di molto slow movement is as original as, but completely different from, that of the first movement, though those musings in thirds by the pairs of clarinets and oboes lead to a melodic line on the solo violin as expansive and memorable as its counterpart in the first movement. Here I did miss a certain warmth in Mr. Bell’s playing, though his control of pitch and intonation were as total as elsewhere. 

Carl St. Clair.
This technical mastery, which seemed simply to melt away the concerto’s difficulties, enabled his performance to be variously mercurial, tender, ferocious, and with an improvisatory quality that must have been a challenge for conductor and orchestra to follow. Indeed, there were places, particularly in the fast and often insistently rhythmic rondo finale which is full of spots that require exact coordination between soloist and other instruments, where I felt that one more rehearsal to tidy up some shaky moments wouldn’t have come amiss. Nonetheless, everyone was right “there” at the movement’s climax – seismic, or sea-swelling: either metaphor will do – and few capacity audiences can have been so fast onto their feet cheering. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Saturday, September 23, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Joshua Bell: Lisa Marie Mazzucco; Carl St Clair; Antonín Dvořák; Jean Sibelius.

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