Friday, October 13, 2017

Eckart Preu’s triumphant takeover at Long Beach


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

Only fireworks were missing last Saturday from Long Beach’s celebration, in true style, of the arrival of the Symphony’s new Music Director, Eckart Preu. For the party before the evening’s concert, the broad, spacious plaza that fronts the Performing Arts Center was laid out with tables for al fresco dining, bars, and even a dancing area, all against the backdrop play of floodlit fountains and searchlights piercing the gathering dusk. And there were speeches, first from Kelly Lucera, Executive Director of the orchestra, then from Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, and finally from Maestro Preu himself, who after expressing his thanks and appreciation for the lavish welcome, went on to give a short introduction to the evening’s season-opening concert, in place of the usual pre-concert talk inside the Terrace Theater. 

My initial reaction when first learning of his opening-night program had been elation... and slight concern – elation at the brave choice to open with such a substantial but little-known late-Romantic masterpiece as Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), but concern that the very unfamiliarity of this "Fantasy in three movements for large orchestra" would be an audience turn-off and thus jeopardize the conductor’s clear intent to avoid in his first season tired and hackneyed programming, and provide instead a stimulating mix of both tried-and-trusted and unusual repertoire.

Alexander Zemlinsky at around the time he composed Die Seejungfrau.   
Alma Schindler in 1900,
shortly before she became
Zemlinsky’s student.

I need not have worried. Whether it was effective publicity, orchestra loyalty, or other factors, very few of the 3000+ seats were empty when Herr Preu bounded onto the platform. And then he proceeded to win over any doubters with a winning account of the real-life story behind Die Seejungfrau – the fated romance between the (diminutive, unprepossessing) 30-year-old music teacher Alexander Zemlinsky and his (tall, beautiful) pupil, the 20-year-old Alma Schindler. After some torturous months, she abruptly terminated the relationship in favor of marriage to Gustav Mahler, 20 years her senior and already the hugely celebrated – and controversial – Music Director of the Vienna Opera. 

Bronze statue by
Edvard Eriksen of
"The Little Mermaid"
in Copenhagen Harbor.
Zemlinsky’s musical response to his heartbreak was to be a “Symphony of Death”. The work as such was never written, but initial ideas for it were repurposed into a large-scale orchestral work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Little Mermaid”. Having assured the audience that there was nothing “little” about this mermaid, Herr Preu outlined the narrative behind Die Seejungfrau’s three movements – her doomed love for a human prince, heartbreak at his marriage to a human, and eventual dissolution and redemption as a disembodied spirit of the air. 

But what of the performance itself, given that the work was likely to be as unfamiliar to the players as to the audience? Again, no concern was needed. Not only was Herr Preu clearly familiar with every corner of this lengthy and complex score, but right from the hushed, portentous, fathoms-deep groundswell in the bass with which Zemlinsky unveils his oceanic mis-en-scène, it was clear that the conductor had totally secured his orchestra’s involvement. Seven measures in, the first violins’ initial entry, in four parts, following the marked pianississimo to the edge of inaudibility but not beyond it, was of rapt tenderness, like a grey haze of early morning mist over gently shifting waters. 

Zemlinsky’s imagination is undeniably prolix in this work, and though it has sometimes been described as a symphony in all but name, it has little of the Classical form’s firm structural framework. Maestro Preu managed its progress masterfully, shaping the overall structure and entirely avoiding any potential longueurs, and with equal skill propelled the great climaxes to maximum dramatic effect and allowed plenty of space for its manifold quieter beauties to be fully revealed. Assistant concertmaster Agnes Gottschewski, standing in for concertmaster Roger Wilkie (doubtless holding himself in readiness for his joint solo appearance, with principal ‘cellist Cécilia Tsan, in the second half), bodied forth in sovereign fashion the substantial violin solo part that enshrines the themes and character of the mermaid herself. Indeed, the whole orchestra covered itself in glory, not least Zemlinsky's full complement of six horns (generously bumped to seven here).

Composed in 1902-03, Die Seejungfrau was premièred in 1905, but even before it went into rehearsal Zemlinsky made cuts to each of the first two movements. It was played twice more, in 1906 and 1907, but then heard no more in his lifetime; indeed the score was broken up as an indirect consequence of the composer’s flight from Nazi persecution. Since its reassembly in the 1980s, however, it has become in Europe one of Zemlinsky’s most-recorded and often-played works. A performance as fine as this cannot have failed to bring it many new friends on this side of the pond as well. 
Eckart Preu, Cécilia Tsan, and
Roger Wilkie after the performance.

Herr Preu’s program-planning skill was evident in his structuring the concert with the Zemlinsky as its first half, thus avoiding any risk of faint-hearted departures at the interval, as happened at another recent concert when the audience noticeably shrank once the star soloist had done his thing in the first half (and the second-half piece was by no means as novel as Die Seejungfrau). 

At Long Beach the more familiar main work following the interval was in fact still far from hackneyed. Why is Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor for Violin and ‘Cello Op. 102 still the least-performed of his four? Do program-planners blench at the thought of stumping up for two big name soloists rather than one? If so, then this performance showed the answer. Instead of flying a pair of stars in and then out the next day, trust the skill and musicianship of your own home team section leaders! It would be difficult to imagine a more empathetic collaboration than that between Roger Wilkie and Cécilia Tsan, with Eckart Preu drawing their LBSO colleagues into full partnership in this richly satisfying performance of Brahms’ final orchestral masterpiece. 

Brahms in 1889.
However, what a spare and challenging work it is, particularly for the ‘cellist: after only four measures of powerful orchestral tutti – the first movement’s first subject, thrown out like a challenge – the soloist must respond with a long and entirely unaccompanied recitative. Ms. Tsan seized it and played the heart out of it, as did Mr. Wilkie when his (much shorter) solo turn came, after the ensuing quiet woodwind statement of the second subject. 

With the long and elaborate first movement, full of complex contrapuntal interplay between the soloists, safely accomplished, the remaining two movements – together barely its equal in duration – felt almost like an earned reward. Mr. Wilkie's and Ms. Tsan’s unison statement of the slow movement’s main theme was so perfectly aligned that it sounded as if it was one instrument, and when they came to the finale, the manner in which they tossed the impish, chugging rondo-theme between them, never missing a perfect catch, was cherishable. 

And so to conclude, Herr Preu conducted Johann Strauss’s most famous waltz – more like a larger-than-usual encore than a listed program item – which Brahms famously lamented was not composed by himself. Sometimes, when the star conductors who in recent years have taken over the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concerts come to the inevitable penultimate item, they seem to overload An der schönen blauen Donau Op.314 with super-sensitive schmaltz and weight. Nothing like that here… Maestro Preu conducted “The Blue Danube” with plenty of feeling but straightforwardly, letting the music speak for itself. Willi Boskovsky would have been proud, and the Long Beach audience loved it. 

Roll on the next concert, for Veterans Day on November 11, and a rare chance to hear live a symphony by William Grant Still that isn’t his “Afro-American.” 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, October 7, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Zemlinsky: WDR Radio; Alma Schindler: “Alma” stage presentation; The Little Mermaid: Avda-Berlin; Eckart Preu, Cécilia Tsan, Roger Wilkie: Connor Bogenreif, LBSO; Brahms: C. Brasch, Berlin. 

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1 comment:

  1. Beautiful and very accurate description of what I also experienced at this concert!


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