Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Harp rarities at “The Interludes”

David J Brown

Cristina Montes Mateo.
Self-portrait of
Louis Spohr.
The Spanish harpist Cristina Montes Mateo’s January recital in Classical Crossroads Inc.’s “The Interludes” series proved to be not only a fascinating tour of some 150 years of solo harp repertoire but also a mini-seminar on the instrument itself. After opening with Spohr’s 1807 Fantaisie in C minor Op.35, in which an affectingly lachrymose Adagio molto introduction leads to informal variations on an ear-catching little tune, full of half-smiles and shrugs (n.b.#1, to self: explore more Spohr), she briefly talked about the basic structure of her instrument. 

Jesús Guridi.
Then again, following the lilting “old dance” of Jesús Guridi’s Viejo Zortzico from 1949 (n.b.#2, to any reader: it’s well worth seeking out other works by Guridi – notably the Sinfonia Pirenaica), she went into more detail about both the functions of the harp’s seven pedals and the color-coding of its 47 strings to aid player navigation. 

The next two names on the composer roster were wholly unfamiliar; later online research made me reflect that probably nearly all instruments have their own coteries of composer-specialists who rarely if ever venture further. Thus you won’t, for example, see works in any other genre by the organ composer Flor Peeters decorating concert programs, and in checking out the Belgian Félix Godefroid (1818-1897) and Frenchman Marcel Grandjany (1891-1975), both proved to be harpists first, last, and all points between. 

Félix Godefroid.
The profusion of florid decoration in Godefroid’s Danse des Sylphes, composed in 1880, as well as its tripping main melody had, in addition to danceability, more than a touch of the bel canto aria about it, though I did feel that the piece had said all it had to say by about half-way through. The Rhapsodie by Grandjany, dating from 1921 and unsurprisingly somewhere downstream from Debussy harmonically – but none the worse for that – was more substantial, an extended meditation on a Gregorian chant, Salve festa dies.

Saint-Saens in 1893, the year he
wrote his Fantaisie for harp.
Ironically, the one truly great French composer in Ms. Monteo Mateo’s recital was Saint-Saëns, who was famously antipathetic to Debussy’s music (a dislike that was reciprocated), and who died in the year Grandjany wrote his Rhapsodie. Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie in A minor pour Harpe Op.95 was composed nearly three decades before (during one of his many stays in Algeria), though such was the length of his compositional career that it is very much a work of his maturity. Admittedly a minor chipping from the workbench of a master, it nonetheless effortlessly juggles and subtly varies across its nine-minute length no less than three memorable melodies – an easy-going waltz, a rhapsodic arioso, and what sounds a bit like but presumably isn’t a folk-tune. This work, for me, was definitely the highlight of the recital. 

The listed program concluded with two shorter items by 20th century Spanish composers: Apunte bético by Gerardo Gombau (1906-1972), who seems to be very little-known beyond his native country, and the thoroughly familiar “Spanish Dance No.1” from Manuel de Falla’s opera La Vida Breve, transcribed for the harp by Grandjany. Not content with this very full program for a nominally short afternoon recital, Ms. Monteo-Mateo had an encore ready. This shifted decisively north from the main French/Spanish axis to Russia, as tucked away in Prokofiev’s early 10 pieces for piano Op.12, is one item for piano or harp, the No.7 Prélude

It was the perfect conclusion to a recital in which even the slightest of these eight works was illuminated and made alive by Ms. Montes Mateo’s deliciously subtle and pointed playing (what is it about the sound of a harp that almost sends one into a trance?), as well as her illuminating discussion of the instrument itself, and her graceful stage presence. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, January 20, 2018.
Photos: Cristina Montes Mateo: website; Spohr: Wikimedia Commons; Guridi: Eresbil; Godefroid: Marie-Alexandre Alophe; Saint-Saëns: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Ludovic Morlot, Part 2: The Next Chapter

Lisa Marie Mazzucco
INTERVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall

Erica Miner: With regard to the Seattle Symphony, I’m so sad that you’re leaving us. 

Ludovic Morlot: I just felt it was the right timing. It’s hard, a few years ahead of time, to decide what that is going to be. I always had in my mind, coming in, the kind of journey I wanted to have with the orchestra. I thought by the time we reach 8 years it will feel very good about what’s been happening. I wanted them to keep being challenged at the best possible level. The same for me. It was a beautiful chapter and I prefer to leave it with that kind of feeling. When all feel we are growing together, it’s amazing that it can inspire the next chapter as well. With Thomas (conductor designate Dausgaard) they’re now all engaged in what they want to learn and be better every day. If that’s a part of my legacy it’s a beautiful one. Inevitably at some point the journey can start fading. I didn’t want to reach that, but instead to leave it on a high level. 

EM: Can you talk about your next chapter? 

LM: Not really, but I can tell you that making music in Europe is important for me. I’ll be 45 when I leave the Seattle Symphony next year. It’s a good time for me to be spending more time in Europe. I’m now in a place in my life where I’m in no rush. I want the next thing to be right - feel right. I’m not anymore in that space where I want to jump on any opportunity. I want to take the time, sit back, contemplate what that would mean for me and for my life, and then make a move. I guess it’s my “middle period” coming up. 

EM: You don’t feel the need to take on another music directorship yet? 

LM: Artistically it would be a beautiful thing. You can have a vision, grow week after week with the same instrument, same orchestra. By the same token, you want to make sure all the players - and I’m not only talking with me on the stage - are people you can work with and everybody is on the same page. This is also what I’m looking for. Somewhere I can have a team that is completely supportive, collaborating. That’s as much a priority as the level of the orchestra. It’s the whole picture, part of the environment where you can be the best musician you possibly can be. It can be difficult to find, but that’s what I’m trying to create for myself. It’s not so much about the prestige of the move - prestigious is nice, but for me it’s more important to see what kind of journey I can have. As far as opportunities, I hope I can make the right call. 

EM: Change is exciting, but also scary. 

LM: It is. Feeling comfortable is the enemy of music. When I was in Berlin with the Philharmonic in May, I worked with the concertmaster, Daishin Kashimoto, on a documentary from Japan. He kept saying that phrase that is so simple but true: No risk, no fun. The minute you go to work as an artist and it feels a little bit of comfort, something is not quite right. 

EM: That’s why musicians have to be so brave. 

LM: Sure. You start learning about yourself when you get out of the comfort zone. You don't want to be completely vulnerable all the time, but you want to allow yourself to open some windows to vulnerability so you can learn. That’s why I find it fun to collaborate with musicians of different genres; completely out of my comfort zone, and we learn something along the way. It adds layers - not only musicianship but to our beings, and that makes us better artists. My decision to move on next season is part of that dynamic. Still feeling on the edge and in danger. I think my performances will be enhanced by that feeling. 

EM: After Béatrice et Bénédict here in Seattle, do you anticipate doing more opera in the future?

Benedict costume Deborah Trout

LM: I love opera. it’s always been very important to me. In the same way, I think a musician is only complete when he plays onstage, in the pit, chamber music, it’s valid for us, too, as conductors. Working with the voice is very constructive and enjoyable. But I sometimes feel a little frustrated by working with an opera production, that it can take more time than is needed to do justice to the music and the play or whatever it is. I think there’s a future for me doing more opera in the context where either the productions are very simple and the main focus remains on the music and the story. Or even in concert performances. I have a great time doing those. First of all, you rehearse in a much more thorough, intense way musically. And the performance is more satisfying musically; the singers are right there and there is real collaboration between the dialogue, the music and the voice. 

EM: Does that apply to which productions you’ll choose? 

LM: I think I’ll be more careful about what productions I’ll embark on because I want the music to remain the thing that drives it, not the production itself, the theatrical part of it. I have to find a balance that sometimes has been misbalanced. I find many companies now are more interested in what people will say about the production than creating a beautiful environment for the music. I’ll be careful with committing to productions where the director has his focus on the right place. It’s not always the case. That’s become something more important to me, having done productions that have gone in all directions. I only felt happy working in the pit when the director really was working alongside me and the music, not like two different bodies trying to compromise on everything; that happens too often. But I love opera very much, so I’d be very sad if that dynamic prevents me from being involved with that repertoire. 

EM: Is there any particular repertoire that you would opt for?

Brandon Patoc
LM: I’m quite fussy when it comes to opera repertoire. I’m not a bel canto guy. As much as I enjoy it, I don’t feel I have to perform it. I would love to conduct Wagner in my life - Tristan, of course, but also Lohengrin and Parsifal are very important works for me. A few Verdi would be nice. Falstaff, Don Carlos, Otello. I love conducting in the language I understand, so French opera is very important for me. I’ve done Pelléas but would love to do it again. Ravel, Massenet. Chabrier is a composer I’m very interested in. He wrote a lot of operas that are never played. Then some of the Slavic repertoire - I love Janáček. I’ve done Jenůfa but I’d love to do Cunning Little Vixen, which I’m doing a suite of here, House of the Dead, Katya - any Janáček really works for me. Martinů wrote 14 operas - The Greek Passion, Julietta. In concert I’m thinking Bluebeard, Erwartung. And always Mozart. 

EM: Any Strauss? 

LM: I’m a little more on the edge with Strauss. I would love to do Elektra. I like Rosenkavalier very much. I have more difficulty with Salome. For me sometimes Strauss is a bit too schizophrenic. I’m not eager to do Capriccio or Frau Ohne Schatten. It’s wonderful music but not for me. I like to do something I really feel a connection to. I like Berg. I would love to do Wozzeck and Lulu, especially Wozzeck

EM: Wozzeck is more accessible. And Lulu is so hard to play. I really feel sorry for anyone who has to sing it. Or conduct it. 

LM: [Laughs] I get very moved by Wozzeck. It’s such beautiful craft; the form of each of the scenes is so perfect. It feels like a real joy to me to study the score. I love Puccini, I’m a good audience for it, but I’m not dying to be in the pit for that. 

EM: Puccini affects me deeply, but Verdi I can’t love enough. On a musical level, nothing compares. Don Carlo, Falstaff… 

LM: And Otello is amazing. Very dramatic. I love Traviata but I’d be okay if I didn’t perform it. Don Carlos is one of those I’d have something to say about. And of course, I must not forget Berlioz. I hope I can find a place to do Les Troyens, Cellini and more. I really would love to do the big Berlioz. The language gives me another reason to do it. 

EM: That makes perfect sense. All the Italian conductors who came through the Met were organically one with that repertoire. Like Pavarotti was. 

LM: The mastering of the language. I love Czech music and feel a real affinity with it, but I don’t know the language. When I did Jenůfa I surrounded myself with a team of Czech speakers, so it worked out, and I had a wonderful time. But doing it I always felt a little short of mastering the language, that maybe I wasn’t the best person to be doing it. So, it’s a bit problematic for me. 

EM: Do you feel the same about the Russian repertoire? 

LM: I think it’s a little easier. Usually you just go with Russian singers. It’s also true for the Czech. If you have the right singers, you can survive. But some languages I would stay away from the repertoire just because I have no relationship with the language.

Brandon Patoc
EM: How would you explain your affinity for Janáček? 

LM: What I like with Janáček and I’ve learned from spending time with those speaking it, the rhythms are so complex because they’re the rhythm of the language. Spoken Czech sounds very much like the music. It actually changed my mind about how to play Dvořák. At first, I was taken by his beautiful melodies but actually it’s really fashioned after the Czech language, too, just like Janáček and Martinů. The big lesson for me was when I conducted the Czech Philharmonic in Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. They played it like they speak it, with such articulation that it changed my perspective of this music. It was really fascinating. One of my teachers, Charles Mackerras, adored this music. He got me the bug for it. When you see him doing Cunning Little Vixen - it’s such a world of fantasy. So, unique. That’s my feel for it. We’re doing some Janáček next year. I’m going to do a big focus on Debussy, for the century, and Wagner and Janáček around that idea. In the same way, Pelléas is difficult if you don’t speak the language. It’s so full of subtleties, theatre, poetry. The rhythms in Pelléas are so natural to the French spoken language. I think Janáček is as well. Once you get into that with Janáček and you understand exactly how the text is being spoken, it makes complete sense. 

EM: I look forward to hearing that. It’s fairly rare to hear just orchestral Janáček. 

LM: We’ll do the suite from Cunning Little Vixen and a beautiful piece with solo violin that I adore, The Eternal Gospel. The notation is very difficult in Janáček. That’s what I learned doing Jenůfa. Once I had people speaking the text to me, I found my own understanding of the notation. It’s not like, triple-dotted-16th and 64th, it’s [emphasizes syllables], kind of two different things. It’s about what story he’s telling. 

EM: It goes back to what you were saying about not being in your comfort zone. You can’t play Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets forever. 

LM: Well you can, but when you do you should never feel you’re in your comfort zone. It’s what I tell my students when I do Beethoven’s 5th. I try to remain very open to something I hadn’t thought of yet. There’s nothing wrong with playing the same repertoire over and over, as long as you push the envelope every single time. What I don’t like is, “Oh, another Beethoven’s 5th.” It should feel like a gift, an opportunity. That’s very important, as a musician. To have the curiosity of trying to see another perspective. 

EM: I know that feeling. Thank you so much, Maestro. 


Photo credits: Liza Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc, Deborah Trout 
Erica can be reached at:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Ludovic Morlot, Part 1: The Importance of Being Berlioz

Brandon Patoc

INTERVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall

On Feb. 24, 2018, Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot will make his Seattle Opera debut in Berlioz’s rarely performed comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Shakespeare’s delightful comic romp Much Ado About Nothing. Written relatively late in Berlioz’s career, the so-called “feather-light one-act divertissement - a caprice written with the point of a needle” embodies the composer’s love for the Bard. Morlot had much to say about his relationship with this French music master.

Erica Miner: Congratulations, Maestro, on your Seattle Opera conducting debut!

Ludovic Morlot: Thank you. It’s not for lack of trying. With Speight (Jenkins) we tried many times, we had many ideas. He made it very clear to me, which I really appreciated, that he wanted artists to be there from day one of the production, so the schedule was a challenge. We tried again with Aidan (Lang) and finally we could find that window of time, in a year when I really wanted to focus on the music of Berlioz, and the anniversary of Shakespeare throughout town.

EM: So, you chose Béatrice et Bénédict because of the Shakespeare connection?

LM: Yes, in part, but I love Berlioz as you know. With the Symphony we wanted to focus on his earlier works. We started with his Requiem, Symphonie Fantastique and Les Nuits d’été, all music from under the age of 30, really. We’ve had opportunities in the last few years to do the middle stuff - Damnation, Roméo. Béatrice et Bénédict is one of the last things he wrote. I felt in my last season it was a nice way to find that balance between very young and visionary. Not only innovative, but a revolutionary voice. He started being ambitious with new ideas like Beethoven was at the end of his life. Beethoven came to that in maturity. Berlioz goes back to something classical in Béatrice - an orchestra smaller than he ever used before, and a play that’s centuries old, a classic and a comedy. It’s very funny that he would go that way. Very interesting arc.

EM: You have a special relationship with Berlioz.

LM: For me Berlioz has always been a more important composer than people give him credit for. He did so many new things that opened the way to Romanticism in the symphony. The fact that he writes for different groups in different parts of the hall is a very new idea. The use of the space, like in the Requiem, Troyens, it’s everywhere. Symphonie Fantastique with the distant oboe - that’s actually where Mahler takes it from. I don’t think Mahler invented this, I think it’s just by reading the orchestration treatise of Berlioz and getting the idea. And of course, the literary inspiration, Byron, Shakespeare, Goethe - this is a very 19th century idea, that Schumann, Liszt and Mendelssohn adopted. In some ways for me Berlioz is as much of an innovator as Beethoven was, for many different things. Not so much the harmonic language, which is a world of its own, but more for this kind of invention - the influences and inspirations that would be reproduced by his fellow composers.

Lisa Marie Mazzucco
EM: Béatrice started as a kind of divertissement. I love the overture, but I’ve never heard the whole opera. He wrote it in French, based on Shakespeare, but then it was performed in Germany. Why is it done so infrequently?

LM: [Laughs] It’s good you mentioned that, because this is the one point that made me agree to do it in English. At first, I was contemplating the singing in French and the dialogue in English because we’re having actors as well. But then I thought, he was fine with the performances in German, and it was a great success, and it’s Shakespeare after all. There are enough historic points to validate doing it in English. We decided to rewrite the dialogue, because the Berlioz dialogue is quite weak.

EM: Because of the language?

LM: Because of the translation, mostly. The dialogue is a problem. He was a great writer but I think he might have done this a little quickly, so I’m glad we’re going back to the Shakespeare play, which I think will make it more appealing. Also, you think Berlioz and you think big -Troyens and Cellini. Béatrice is much more intimate. We don’t associate that with Berlioz. That makes it appealing to me, especially that it comes at the end of his life. There are so many subtle touches. I also find it very difficult. It’s one of the reasons it’s not done very often. And rhythmically quite complex. Vocally it can be uncomfortable to sing Berlioz, because the instrument would try to replicate the voice and in that case it’s often the reverse. It’s written for a very virtuoso orchestra, and sometimes not as rewarding in the pit. Even the overture is very challenging, not done often.

EM: A lot of stops and starts, great delicacy.

LM: It’s a scherzo. Nothing more difficult to play than music in one, you know? A lot of the musical numbers have that rhythmic complexity that sometimes singers are not that skilled to embrace the rhythmic challenges. I think that’s why some singers stay away from it. In the pit, we are always confronting different kinds of issues when it comes to ensemble. When you stage a comedy, you want a lot of action and rhythm onstage so that makes it even harder to synchronize. When I worked with (director) John Langs we decided to give a little more depth to some of the characters. We added a few numbers, in some ways very controversial, but I feel good about those because we borrowed from Berlioz’s earlier works. Cellini - a whole new revenge aria for Claudio - then from Damnation of Faust we added a little aria for Somarone, "Voici des roses" on the text, "Sigh no more," and a number for the chorus from L’enfance du Christ. I think it gives more depth to those little roles. 

EM: That will make the actors very happy.

LM: True. We worked a lot to find the right addition to the music underscoring the dialogue. What’s not so successful about doing it as Berlioz wrote it - it becomes like a “number” opera, which can be fun but with Shakespeare we needed more continuity. I underscore the music with dialogue, or start the music as the dialogue is ending. At the very end of the first act, when Hero is caught in a kind of sinful act, whenever in the dialogue you have Don John and Borachio being bad, I reemphasize that music; even if it’s not conscious, you have that memory.

Béatrice costume, Deborah Trout
EM: It’s very subtle. I hope the audience gets it.

LM: I think they will. Our aural memory is quite strong. It will be quite interesting to have those little reminiscences of the music linking back to the story.

EM: Can you possibly compare Béatrice to Berlioz’s other three big operas?

LM: Not at all. Every one of these pieces is a different universe. I wouldn’t even put Cellini and Troyens in the same bag, though they’re big and based on legends from the past and somewhat the same part of the world. For me Damnation and Roméo et Juliette are more like concert works. He called Damnation "légende dramatique" and Roméo "symphonie dramatique." Something dramatic about it, theatrical, but I don’t think they are visual enough to be staged.

EM: What about the vocal writing in Troyens and Cellini? They’re both pretty heavy.

LM: I find his writing for the voice very instrumental. He treats the voice the same way he writes for the violin. So many melodies we find again in the operas are actually in the overtures; Roman Carnival with the cor Anglais you find sung by Cellini. Instead of the instrument trying to replicate the voice, in Béatrice it’s often the reverse. You think of Berlioz as a great orchestrator but he didn’t play any of the orchestra instruments. He played guitar skillfully and flute very badly, and never had any interest in learning any others - not piano, not violin. It’s a curious combination, and what makes him so unique. Yet everybody was reading his orchestration treatise. Quite fascinating. Vocally it can be uncomfortable to sing Berlioz. Beethoven as well. Missa Solemnis, even the 9th, impossible to sing.

EM: Not to mention Fidelio, Florestan’s aria.

LM: I think both Beethoven and Berlioz didn’t really care about how it would sit on the voice. The Missa Solemnis is a big question mark for me. The piece is great but I’m lost with it. How the soprano can sing this, I still don’t understand. I don’t know any singers that get pleasure from it. Vocally impossible and not very rewarding. The big violin solo - so hard, yet quite unrewarding.

EM: Wagner certainly didn’t care. Look how he tortured both singers and orchestra.

LM: The argument was that they wrote for posterity. People, especially 200 years ago, weren’t able to play it anyway. It’s a good thing they weren’t satisfied with what people were able to play at the time. It would be very unchallenging today. They had this vision of posterity. I think that’s remarkable.

Next, Part 2: The Next Chapter

Seattle Opera’s Béatrice et Bénédict will be performed at McCaw Hall from Feb. 24 through Mar. 10 (


Photo credits: Brandon Patoc, Lisa Marie Mazzucco, Deborah Trout
Erica can be reached at:

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Elgar’s great Symphony No.1 triumphs at the Segerstrom


Ray Chen, Michael Francis, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa


Sir Edward Elgar, OM, KCVO (1857-1934).
Asked by host Alan Chapman, at the beginning of the pre-concert talk, for his assessment of Elgar’s Symphony No.1 in A-flat major Op.55, English guest conductor Michael Francis unequivocally called it a “true masterpiece”, noting in his answer to the natural follow-up question that, unlike in America, this symphony is a staple of British concert programs. Mr. Chapman joked that every American knows one piece by Elgar – the use of the “Pomp and Circumstance” tune at graduation ceremonies; though in American concert-halls this may be extended to the Cello Concerto and Enigma Variations, beyond these works Elgar’s music is severely underplayed and little-known in the U.S.A. 

Both in this talk and again when he took up the microphone before conducting the symphony in this concert’s second half, Mr. Francis gave an insightful and eloquent account of its four movements’ emotional narrative – a “massive hope in the future” that ultimately wins through against turmoil and doubt – and how that unfolding may relate to Elgar’s complex personality, describable in modern psychological terms as bipolar. This is represented by the tritone span of three whole tones – the Diabolus in musica (“the Devil in music”) – between the symphony’s nominal key of A-flat major, in which its long and eloquent motto-theme is played at the outset, and the plunge into dark D minor when the turbulent main body of the first movement gets underway.

Michael Francis.
So far so good and explanatory, but how well did Mr. Francis convey his obvious commitment and interpretative insights to an orchestra that had never played the work before? To my ears, the result showed the Pacific Symphony to be more responsive and skillful in their realizing of such an unfamiliar and complex masterpiece than one dared to hope, aided and abetted of course by the glorious acoustic of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. 

That A-flat major motto-theme, played first piano and dolce by woodwinds and lower strings, and then resplendently on the full orchestra, is marked Andante, Nobilmente e semplice. Elgar also gives it a metronome-mark of quarter note=72, but though Mr. Francis conducted it well below this speed (even Elgar’s own remarkably fleet recording doesn’t take it quite as fast as his own marking), the focused concentration of the PSO’s playing avoided any feel of dragging, and the vigorous D minor Allegro that followed came with the proper sense of almost shocking contrast. 

Hans Richter, dedicatee and
conductor of the first performance
of Elgar's Symphony No.1 in 1908.
The symphony’s first movement is not only lengthy (in this account almost 20 minutes) but also complex in the extreme: throughout its expansive sonata design tempi, dynamics, and textures constantly change, a rich harmonic and melodic stew seethes and bubbles, sometimes boiling up, elsewhere simmering and cooling but never still. Mr. Francis’ control of all this was masterly, not yielding to the becalming temptation of its passages of withdrawn beauty, but still giving full value to the emotional highs and lows as well as the progress of the symphonic structure, bodied forth in the ebb and flux of Elgar’s masterly orchestration. 

Both of Elgar’s symphonies are in the “standard” four movements, the middle two in the order fast/slow for the First Symphony, reversed for the Second. After all its far-flung strenuous turmoil and haunting ambivalence, the first movement sinks to a close on the last of its several reminiscences of the opening motto-theme, followed by long-held ppp woodwind chords and a single pianissimo low A-flat plucked on ‘cellos and basses. The ensuing Allegro molto, a scherzo in all but name, springs feverishly out in utmost contrast, building to an implacable fast march. Mr. Francis and the PSO got this exactly right – abrupt and threatening rather than exhilarating – and driven by thrillingly uninhibited fff percussion crashes. This scherzo duly has a trio section, again in all but name, amidst the martial fury an idyll of sylvan reflection, which Mr. Francis made feel appropriately threatened by the return of the fast march. 

Then follows one of the most sublime transitions in all music, the long diminuendo and slackening of tension through which Elgar passes from the Allegro molto into his exquisite Adagio movement. Mr. Francis took this transition pretty slowly, leading to concern that, as in some recordings of the symphony (but not Elgar’s own!), the Adagio would be simply too slow and start to feel interminable. At around 13 minutes it was fairly slow, but the concentration of the PSO’s playing and Mr. Francis’s control carried them safely through. 

The pin-sharp Segerstrom acoustic ensured that the soft bass drum rumble which heralds the turbulent finale was audible as never before (maybe the player’s enthusiasm led him to play it a notch or two above the marked ppp), but the sense of ominous prescience was spot-on. In the later stages of the movement the pair of harps duly made the most of their moment in the sun when, after a heart-stopping return of the motto-theme played on the last desk only of the upper strings (such is the genius sensitivity of Elgar’s orchestration), the finale’s second main theme comes back in a glorious romantic peroration. Then it was all sure-footed progress to the movement’s, and the symphony’s, volcanically positive conclusion. 

Beethoven in 1804 or 1805, shortly before
the composition of his Violin Concerto.
I’d not consciously realized before that both Elgar’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 open with subdued (but portentous) timpani, in the former underpinned by murmurs on the ‘cellos and basses. I’m sure this didn’t loom large in the planning for this concert, but as well as both openings being remarkably original, how they are paced sets the scene for how performances will unfold. 

Thus Mr. Francis’s measured tempo for Elgar’s two soft timpani rolls led to the spacious opening to the symphony already noted, while his pacing of Beethoven’s four quarter-note taps on the D drum, piano and Allegro ma non troppo, equally heralded an expansive performance of the concerto, which came in at around 46 minutes, the first movement alone taking 26 minutes. 

Ray Chen.
For me, this performance by star visiting soloist Ray Chen (to whose participation a good 90% of the Pacific Symphony’s publicity seemed to be devoted) was strangely unmoving, despite the constant stream of perfectly-focused golden tone that issued forth from his 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius. Occasionally Mr. Francis seemed to be trying to inject a little more drama when the orchestral tutti took over, but then the pervasive enervation resumed… until the first movement cadenza. Beethoven left no cadenza for his concerto, so soloists have to choose. Mr. Chen selected one by Jascha Heifetz which may have worked in the context of Heifetz’s own interpretation of the concerto, but seemed horribly and inappropriately florid here. 

The performance, having been dealt something of a body-slam by this choice of cadenza, then received virtually the coup de grâce of having the opening of the Larghetto, surely the most fragile and chamber music-like of all slow movements amongst the great violin concertos, punctured by a group of late-comers being inadvisably admitted when the music had already begun, and effortfully seating themselves near the front of the orchestra stalls. But somehow the professionalism of all on the stage held it together… 

The finale began properly jubilant and propulsive, and included plenty of characterful woodwind playing, but somehow it too felt in imminent threat of running out of steam. Nonetheless, Mr. Chen’s numerous admirers in the audience clearly loved his performance, and were rewarded with a virtuosic encore – Paganini’s Caprice for solo violin Op. 1 No.21 (i.e. not the one that all those sets of variations by other composers have been based on). 

After this, will the Pacific Symphony invite Mr. Francis back to conduct Elgar’s equally great Second Symphony? Let’s hope so. I would certainly welcome it instead of, say, a few more superfluous Mahler Firsts or Thirds or Fifths. And I wonder whether Mr. Chen has ever played Elgar’s Violin Concerto? Heifetz did, and recorded it. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, January 11, 2017, 8 p.m.
Images: Elgar: Reginald Haines/Getty Images; Michael Francis: Marco Borggreve; Hans Richter: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Beethoven: Josef Willibrord Mähler; Ray Chen: Tom Doms/LA Times.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Gluck, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Chopin from Robert Thies


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Robert Thies.
One of the pleasures of the South Bay's several series of daytime chamber concerts is their informality, and when the performer is not only a gifted interpreter but also a communicator, a delightful conversational dimension is added to the event. Such is certainly the case with Robert Thies, now further embedded in the local musical culture with his recent Artistic Directorship of the South Bay Chamber Music Society. On this occasion, however, he appeared in his most familiar role as solo pianist, before a very welcoming audience that filled the ample space of Rolling Hills United Methodist Church to the point of late-comers having to stand at the back.

After a measured account of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Act II of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice that to my ears had a good deal of baroque sensibility despite being from a later piano arrangement, he picked up the microphone for some career reminiscence to his student days, when he was first introduced to Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.8 in A minor K.310/ 300d. Mozart composed it in 1778 at around the time his mother died, and it is one of the rare minor-key works in his output. Thirty years ago as a student, Mr. Thies said, he had rapidly realized that he wasn’t yet ready to tackle it, and indeed only in the past year had learned the sonata to add to his repertoire. This would be his first public performance of it. 

1777 copy of a painting of the young Mozart. 
Mr. Thies took a quite deliberate approach to the opening Allegro maestoso, giving a real stabbing quality to the groups of four eighth-note chords that underpin the clipped dotted-note first subject. This combination of spaciousness and intensity enabled him to move into the gentler second subject without loss of momentum, and it was good that he observed the exposition repeat, enabling listeners to thoroughly absorb the movement’s thematic substance. 

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t take the second-half repeat in the first movement, nor that of the exposition in the central Andante cantabile con espressione. In this movement, which would have been over-long with the repeat, his quite slow pace enabled the music’s intrinsic expressivity to reach full power. In this sonata Mozart maintains the intensity into the short but driven Presto finale, still in A minor, making the whole the very antithesis of the cozy Viennese chocolate-box view of the composer. Later Mr. Thies remarked that after a first performance he would go home and think about what needed changing… not a whole a lot with this piece, I would say. 

The first known photograph
of Chopin, from 1846 or 1847.
Rachmaninoff in 1909.
After a complete change of pace, mood, and dynamic with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major, Op.32 No.5, in which Mr. Thies articulated with relishable clarity its melodic line over the rippling arpeggiated accompaniment, he moved on to the other main work in the recital – also, he said, a first performance for him – Chopin’s mighty Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52. The great English pianist John Ogdon described it as “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions... It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.” Perhaps it is a tribute to the performance that one simply marveled at the unfolding genius of the work itself, rather than being consciously aware of the skill with which Mr. Thies explored and laid bare its complexities. 

Finally he returned to the platform for an old favorite as encore – Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5, which (for no really good reason) continues to remind me of the TV footage of precision displays by the high-stepping Lippizan stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that used to punctuate broadcasts of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concerts… 


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, January 14, 2017.
Photos: Robert Thies:; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Rachmaninoff: Portrait by Robert Sterl, ©picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library; Chopin: