Wednesday, September 13, 2017

More new stars shine at Mount Wilson


Works for flute quartet, Mount Wilson Observatory

l-r: Sara Andon, Alyssa Park, Cécilia Tsan, Alma Fernandez.
Of course, subsequent visits can never quite match the impact of one’s first encounter with such an astonishing new music venue as the dome of the 100-inch reflecting telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, but the pleasurable anticipation that built up while re-negotiating all those hairpin turns on the road up to the Observatory made up for it. Once again Cécilia Tsan, Artistic Director of this new venture of Sunday afternoon summer concerts in the dome, had devised a fascinating and unhackneyed program for herself (playing ‘cello—probably the largest instrument that can be safely carried up the long and precipitous metal ladder leading to the telescope floor!) and her colleagues Sara Andon (flute), Alyssa Park (violin) and Alma Fernandez (viola). 

Three works by three highly prolific masters from the 18th and 20th centuries, Mozart, Martinů, and Villa-Lobos, formed the main part of the program. Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major K.285 is the first of his four in the genre, probably composed in 1777-78. It’s a slender three-movement piece in which the flute is the star of the show from the outset, and this immediately demonstrated the extraordinary clarity and impact of high woodwind tone within the great steel dome. Due I am sure to the long delay time of the acoustic, the quartet took the first movement Allegro and Rondo finale at fairly relaxed speeds, and avoided the consequent lengthening of playing-time by omitting not only the rarely-observed second-half repeat in the first movement but also that of the exposition.

Bohuslav Martinů.
This was not a problem in my book, particularly as the title of the ensuing Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola H.313, composed by Bohuslav Martinů in 1949, belies their scale, range, and power just as does that of Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7, which Ms Tsan included in her previous recital here. The Martinů indeed for me was by some measure the highlight of the concert.

This great composer by some alchemy makes his two instruments sound like an orchestra, with Ms Park and Ms Fernandez seizing every one of the huge range of stylistic, rhythmic and timbral effects deployed across all three movements: simultaneous and alternating ostinati superimposed on Bohemian-Moravian folk rhythms in the first; overlapping tremolandi, like ripples on the seashore, overlain with what recalled a susurration of muted birdsong in the second; and a wild peasant dance in the third, where the violin and viola twirl and swirl uninhibitedly around each other. 

Having given the spotlight to the other string members of the group in this marvelous piece, Ms Tsan’s clever programming then led herself and Ms Andon to step forward in Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Assobio a Játo (The Jet Whistle) for Flute and ‘Cello W.493, like the Martinů a fairly late work in its composer's output, composed in 1950. It is similarly in three movements, the medium-paced first movement opening with a wide-ranging ‘cello cantilena against rhythmic tics and oscillations above from the flute. This is succeeded by a pensive Adagio meditation where the flute in its low register takes the melodic lead while the ‘cello gravely explores the depths beneath, and then a final hell-for-leather Vivo movement that ends in a Prestissimo carrying the following footnoted injunction in the score: “The only way to achieve the effect the composer wishes, as indicated by the words imitando fischi in toni ascendenti, is to blow into the embouchure fff as if one were warming up the instrument on a cold day(!).” Ms Andon blew as lustily as could be imagined, achieving a sound I’m sure had never been heard in the dome in its entire 100-year history…

Next came four film-music selections. Big film-music fan though I am, I can’t avoid the built-in problem that what can superbly underpin and intensify the mood of a movie scene may not stand up so well as a whole musical experience when it appears in a concert setting divorced from the visuals. There’s often not much to be done with a self-contained romantic theme other than to noodle around and then restate it, and for me diminishing returns began to set in when, after two pieces from Georges Delerue’s score to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (“Contempt”) and one from John Williams’ Star Wars, a set from Ennio Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso rather outstayed its welcome. 

The late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
in the original "Star Wars."
However, as arranged by Patrick O’Malley for these forces (in all the above items), the husky magic of the much-loved “Princess Leia’s Theme” played on an alto flute in that unique environment was unmissable and unforgettable, while in conclusion John Williams’ versatility was underlined (as if it needed to be!) with the brief “Double Trouble” number from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, arranged for flute, violin, viola and ‘cello by Simone Pedroni. 

I very much hope that this short initial season of concerts has been as big a success from Mount Wilson Observatory’s viewpoint as it undoubtedly was from the audiences’, and that after winter snows have come and gone, more great music will be heard in the great dome next year. 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 10 September 2017, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: Ruth Borst Punt; Carrie Fisher: People Movies; Mount Wilson Observatory: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis, courtesy Los Angeles Magazine

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1 comment:

Rodney Punt said...

Wonderful take, David Brown, on the last concert review in this estimable first year series in the Mount Wilson dome. Agree on the Martinu being a highlight work. Lovely descriptions of the others too.