Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mature Brahms, youthful Mendelssohn at "The Interludes"


Los Angeles Ensemble at First Lutheran Church, Torrance

… or maybe not so much? In his informal but informative remarks before the Los Angeles Ensemble’s performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op.60 at the March “The Interludes” afternoon recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, the Ensemble's violist Tanner Menees outlined the work’s long and complex gestation. Despite its “mid-period” opus number and completion in the mid-1870s, the quartet’s origins went back two decades to the 22-year-old composer’s involvement with Robert and Clara Schumann at the time of Robert’s mental illness and Clara’s becoming, of necessity, the family’s vital lynchpin. 

The Los Angeles Ensemble: l-r Bingxia Lu, Joanna Lee, Tanner Menees, Sung Chang.

The complex ties of Brahms’ esteem for Robert, love for Clara, and sense of obligation to both left their mark on the music he was composing at the time, and though such earlier versions that the Piano Quartet No.3 went through from 1855 are now lost, the final work remains something of a hybrid, or rather, as Brahms wrote to a close friend “a curiosity – perhaps an illustration for the last chapter about the man in the blue coat and the yellow waistcoat.” At the time this would have been an obvious reference to the eponymous hero of Goethe’s hugely influential novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, who at the end shoots himself due to his love for a married woman whose husband he admires… 

Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann and Robert Walker as Brahms, with Henry Daniell as Liszt,
from the 1947 movie “Song of Love.” 

The Piano Quartet thus comprises, on Brahms’ own testimony, a first-movement Allegro and second-movement Scherzo reworked from 1855-56 originals, and a third-movement Andante and Allegro comodo finale newly composed in 1873-74. Though there is an audible feeling that the work falls into two halves, the wonder is that ultimately the whole is so integrated and its emotional progress so sure, though in this case the superbly committed account by the Los Angeles Ensemble was as powerful advocacy as could be imagined. 

From the emphatic piano octave and falling two-note sigh on the strings (easy to hear, as some have opined, as “Cla-ra, Cla-ra”), that open it, the first movement is as full of passion as the Scherzo is relentlessly agitated. Then with the third movement comes consolation, opening with one of the greatest and most moving ‘cello solos in chamber music, which Ms. Lu played with just the right blend of unhurried warmth and sensitivity, but no attempt to overstretch beyond its Andante marking. And the finale? This is one of those movements that always seems to tease as-yet-unrevealed depths, its ambiguity blending forthright forward movement (here with the long exposition repeat observed) with turbulence in which anxiety and regret seem mingled, and its abrupt ending with two cut-off forte chords failing to disguise the “all-passion-spent” coda that precedes them. 

Felix Mendelssohn at age 12 in 1821:
Drawing in oil by Carl Joseph Begas.
No such ambiguities haunt Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet No.2 in F minor, Op.2, which opened the recital. But “youthful”? Mendelssohn was one of the most remarkable musical prodigies who ever lived, if not the most remarkable, and the completion of this work at the age of 14 followed that of much other music, including chamber works, several singspiels, concertos, and no less than 12 symphonies for strings. 

Tightly organized and totally self-assured technically, the Piano Quartet No.2 is in its entirely different way as driven a minor-key piece as the Brahms, conveying the sense of a composer who knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it (as my wife murmured to me immediately after the conclusion, “Mendelssohn was already there”). 

The work does, however, have a piano part that is torrentially full of notes, with busy figuration for pages on end, and so any performance stands or falls by the pianist’s ability to cope with everything the youthful genius throws at him. Fortunately, Mr. Chang was fully up to the challenge, clearly articulating his part from the first entry, and the strings were fully his match, often playing with very little vibrato to maintain their clarity at the fast speeds. If anything, the Ensemble’s energy increased as movement succeeded movement, so that the Allegro molto vivace finale became an irrepressibly playful moto perpetuo. With all repeats intact, it was a performance to cherish. 

Not content with delivering two substantial works for a purportedly short afternoon concert, the Los Angeles Ensemble added an encore, appropriately from what is generally regarded as the first significant work for the piano quartet medium, Mozart’s K.478 in G minor from 1785. Its finale was delivered as captivatingly and exuberantly as everything that had gone before. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, March 17, 2018.
Photos: Los Angeles Ensemble: website; Movie still: Courtesy Radio Alicante; Mendelssohn: Wikimedia Commons.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Scottish Fantasy, with rain, at Long Beach


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

The ruins of Holyrood Chapel, Mendelssohn’s original inspiration for the Scottish Symphony.

A rare wet evening for Southern California did not deter, fortunately, the Long Beach Symphony faithful from turning out to what proved to be – for this listener at least – a more satisfactory concert experience than the orchestra’s previous country-themed one (Spanish), despite there being, as Maestro Eckart Preu acknowledged at the start of his pre-concert talk, no actual Scottish composers on the bill (n. b. there are some good ones!). 

He began, however, with a great master who had, so far as is known, no Scottish connections –J. S. Bach and his beloved “Air on the G String” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major BWV 1068. So why was Bach here? Well, said Maestro Preu, this year marked his 333rd birthday, or as he said (tongue right through cheek) his “schnapps number”… averred by Leipzig natives to be a state of repetition caused by over-imbibing (and no, I couldn’t find it in a Google search either). More seriously, there was a kind of link with Scotland via Mendelssohn, who composed the "Scottish" symphony that filled the remainder of the concert first half and whose performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, the first for a century, was a crucial element in the rediscovery of Bach’s music. Fair enough… 

Felix Mendelssohn in 1833.
Maestro Preu and the strings of the LBSO gave a lovely and loving performance of the “Air”, quite slow and with beautifully graded textures, but also with enough (HIP-inspired?) lightness of vibrato to avoid any tendency for those textures to coagulate. The whole orchestra followed it with a fine performance of the Symphony No.3 in A minor Op.56 “Scottish”, begun in 1829 under the specific inspiration of a visit to the roofless ruins of the chapel of Holyrood Castle near Edinburgh. The symphony, however, was not finished until 1842 and thus became Mendelssohn’s last, despite its number, and as Maestro Preu opined in his talk, his finest. 

Tempi throughout the performance seemed to me just about spot-on. The long (but not, with the marking Andante con moto, particularly slow) introduction was again characterized by the graceful shaping of string lines already evinced in the Bach arrangement. The main body of the movement was suitably Allegro un poco agitato, though I regretted the omission of the exposition repeat (if a composer writes in first-time measures, then surely… yadda yadda yadda). If the development got (to my ears) a little stiff-jointed rhythmically, nonetheless the coda whipped up a fine storm, and its energy carried right over into the second-movement Vivace non troppo, courtesy of Mendelssohn’s attacca marking. 

The Adagio – surely Mendelssohn’s finest and most moving symphonic slow movement – was full of radiance and epic heft, while the “Scotch snap” rhythms bit hard in the main body of the finale, which got as close to Allegro vivacissimo (can there be a more emphatic marking?) as one could reasonably expect. I wonder whether the major-key coda, in which the composer introduces a wholly new theme, is really as out-of-place and questionable a challenge for interpreters as some commentators aver? This performance made as good a case for its rightness as any I’ve heard, with Maestro Preu making the expressive most of its lengthy and hushed preparation, and then plenty of sprightly energy – more perhaps, than its marking Allegro maestoso assai might imply – for that big new “gathering of the clans” tune with which the symphony ends. 

Max Bruch.
The first half of this concert was fine enough, but the second half really hit it out of the park. Had Max Bruch left in place its original designation as a violin concerto, his Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra in E flat major, Op.46 would have fallen chronologically between his now-neglected second and third concertos, but the way in which its Scottish folk melodies rather than structure lead the ear, together with its introduction-plus-four-movement layout, make the final title more appropriate.

The soloist was Caroline Goulding. Though still only in her mid-20s she had – as she said in her on-stage interview with Maestro Preu – been at the point in her career where she felt the need to withdraw for several months of meditation and self-discovery at a retreat in rural Montana. Now she is back on the concert platform, and if this performance was any indication, the timeout paid off big-time. Her playing was simply spellbinding, ranging from the veiled, husky, almost hesitant tone of her first quasi recitative that followed the Introduction’s somber opening orchestral chorale, to the whirlwind scales with which she, seemingly without effort, matched the conductor’s very fast speed for the finale (and with which the whole performance came in noticeably under its usual 30+ minute mark). 

Caroline Goulding.
In between came passages of hushed, withdrawn stasis, elsewhere an almost vocal confiding quality, in places a wayward sense of fantasy, and at times, as in the second movement Scherzo, a skipping, improvisatory quality that extended even to a bit of nifty footwork, Ms. Goulding’s slight lavender-dressed figure twisting and sliding to and fro as she interacted with individual orchestra members, strikingly contrasted with Maestro Preu’s tall presence rooted to the podium. The only regret one could have about the whole extraordinary performance was after it ended when (unless I missed it), there was scant acknowledgment of the sterling work of the harpist, Marcia Dickstein: not for nothing does the full title of Bruch’s work spell out that it is “for violin with orchestra and harp”. 

Peter Maxwell Davies on Sanday in Orkney.
The final programmed item was the only one to have been written within the British Isles. The English composer Peter Maxwell Davies spent the last 45 years of his life living first on Hoy and then on Sanday in the Orkney Islands north of the Scottish mainland, and in 1985 he memorialized a local Hoy wedding in An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. Humor is notoriously difficult to bring off in music, and for me the central section of the work, after the engaging opening depicting the guests arriving and the revels getting underway, sags a bit: notated out-of-tune playing to represent the wedding band getting increasingly boozed-up is only so funny for so long (not that the LBSO didn’t do it wonderfully well!), and it does rather go on. For my money, if you want faux-Scottish musical inebriation, Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture is twice the fun in half the time. 

Ian Whitelaw.
However, the coup de théâtre that concludes Max’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise worked its magic as ever – the stately spotlit entry stage left of kilted bagpiper Ian Whitelaw for the last few minutes, playing in the titular sunrise as the wedding finally draws to a dawn close, was a majestic sight and sound.

As the bagpiper appears only in the last few minutes of the piece, Mr. Whitelaw’s playing was the centerpiece of the encore – Amazing Grace with discreet orchestral underpinning drawn from his willing orchestra by Maestro Preu: the perfect end for the audience to go out with swimming around in its collective head, as it navigated home through the SoCal rain. 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, March 11, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: The ruins of Holyrood Chapel: painting by Louis Daguerre (1824); Mendelssohn: pencil drawing by Eduard Bendemann; Caroline Goulding: Girgia Bertazzi; Max Bruch: Wikimedia Commons; Ian Whitelaw: Courtesy GMT Releasing; Peter Maxwell Davies: Courtesy The Guardian.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Southeast Symphony Celebrates Bernstein & Diversity

Southeast Symphony, Anthony Parnther, Music Director (at L.A.'s First Congregational Church)


Southeast Symphony in Bernstein at L.A.'s First Congregational Church

It was the Southeast Symphony’s turn last Sunday to celebrate protean American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial birthday has spawned a year-long slate of local celebrations. Until that evening, however, the champagne had hardly bubbled trouble free. Two earlier uptown productions of his works proved at least as star-crossed as they were star-kissed.

LA Opera’s revival of Candide confirmed - once again - that its cardboard-caricatured parable is at best a succès d’estime, even with an imaginative staging by Francesca Zambello, solid vocals and fine pit-work by James Conlon’s orchestra. Likewise, the LA Phil’s rafter-rattling production of Mass, Bernstein’s paean to the turbulent 1960’s (and his middle-aged bid to connect with new audiences), though expertly handled by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, his orchestra and singers, seemed to lose dramatic focus along the way in Elkhanah Pulitzer’s over-busy staging.

If these two premiere organizations couldn’t fully bring off the banner-waving for America’s most famous musician, could that daunting task be accomplished by the venerable yet modestly funded Southeast Symphony? It turns out it could be, and it was, in the resonant space of First Congregational Church, the Gothic-styled cathedral near downtown Los Angeles.

In a program that had top-flight Bernstein bookending works by three other composers simpatico to his vision, the evening became more than a performance; it was an event to remember and savor, for itself and for what it represented to today's Los Angeles in all its busy, sprawling diversity.

Anthony Parnther
For the past eight years the Southeast Symphony's music director and conductor has been the charismatic, multi-talented Anthony R. Parnther (a fine bassoonist when not on the podium), whose family background is equal parts Jamaican and Samoan. His handling of the orchestra and singers throughout the evening kept rhythms crisp and colors bright in an acoustic environment that could easily have gobbled up both. Parnther’s witty introductions to the works were delivered in deep resonant tones that invoked actor James Earl Jones. In the First Congregational Church's cavernous acoustic, his narration sounded like the voice of God, but with a kindly wink.

Displacing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Verona to the ethnically tense streets of New York City lent dramatic spine and relevance Bernstein’s now iconic West Side Story, and inspired some of its composer’s best lyrical outpourings. An orchestral medley of songs from the score (arranged by Jack Mason) opened the program, whetting the appetite for more Bernstein.

Conveying the stage drama of Candide has been problematic from its first performance and through several subsequent revisions (blame Voltaire’s wooden protagonists), yet two excerpts have been recognized from the beginning as top-flight Bernstein: the scintillating overture (often performed as a stand-alone piece) and the work's denouement, “Make our Garden Grow,” a vocal duet that urges humanity to remain hopeful and rise above calamities and cynicism. Concluding the program, the latter's fine performance by orchestra and chorus featured lilting solos by tenor Gustavo Hernández as the wised-up naïf, Candide, and soprano Golda Berkman as his chastened gold-digger wife, Cunegonde.

Between the evening's Bernstein were three other works, two by Americans and one by a Russian exemplar of the splashy colors and cross-cultural influences that characterize Bernstein’s own work.

Adrienne Albert
Adrienne Albert’s Western Suite is an appealing early work by the oft-performed Los Angeles-based composer. Her substantial Bernstein connection came in her early career as a singer and friend of the composer, collaborating with him on recordings of his Mass and West Side Story. (Before that, her collaboration with Igor Stravinsky included a vocal recording of the Russian composer’s very last song, The Owl and the Pussycat.) Albert’s Western Suite is an evocative, tuneful piece in the worthy tradition of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon and Mississippi suites and the American ballets of Aaron Copland. It teems with impressionistic vistas: an oboe-led Western sunrise, a bustling pizzicato workday, some spiky hoedowns, and an exuberant apotheosis of peeling bells under a wide Western sky.

Florence Price
The piece that most surprised me - in fact it knocked my socks off - was a tone poem by American composer Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), the first African-American woman to have a symphonic piece performed by an American orchestra, when Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave Price that distinction in 1933 with her Symphony in E Minor. This evening’s piece, The Oak, was a deeply mysterious tone poem that reminded one of Rachmaninov's spooky Isle of the Dead, or the more somber orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The work, never completed, was characterized by Parnther as “a torso.” If this is a torso, I want to hear more so.

Annelle Kazumi Gregory
Lending colorful benediction from an earlier century to the evening’s ethnic mash-up, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s evergreen Scheherazade reminded all concerned that exotic sounds from distant musical traditions were always, as they remain today, the spice of musical life. Providing a lovely musical simulation of the fabled heroine's spoken lines in The Thousand and One Nights was the evening’s musical Scheherazade, violinist Annelle Kazumi Gregory. A native of Southern California and a rising young soloist of mixed ethnic background (reportedly African-American and Japanese), she has already achieved distinction in a number of venues around town and abroad. Her solo outings here glistened like sinuous silver threads streaming their way in the vast interior space of the neo-Gothic church. This young artist has a bright future awaiting her.

Mention of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky in the same article reminds me that the former was teacher to the latter, and the latter was teacher-collaborator to featured composer Adrienne Albert in this evening's recital. The torch of musical tradition passes from one generation to the next. (For additional information on Rimsky’s influence on Stravinsky, see my review of the older Russian’s last opera.)


Celebrating this year its own seventieth season, the Southeast Symphony is an L.A.-based professional community orchestra closely associated with the city’s vibrant African-American musical life. The symphony’s complement of musicians more closely resembles multicultural Los Angeles than any other like ensemble I am aware of. A post-concert check of the orchestra’s ethnic make-up yielded this: Of the 73 musicians who performed on Sunday, 59 of them (that’s 80%) identified as either African-American, Latin-American, Native-American, Pacific Islander, Filipino-American, Asian-American or other non-European backgrounds. And that’s not counting the 13 African-American musicians who had to miss this performance because they had higher paying gigs elsewhere. (The latter conflict is, in fact, one to celebrate, not regret: these musicians are making real money in tinsel town's creative-artistic factory to the world.)

First Congregational Church is the oldest continually serving protestant church in Los Angeles, housing also the City’s largest pipe organ. Even more significant, its social outreach embraces the full diversity of the people of Los Angeles, making it an exemplar institution to bring the fractious city together and to lead the way to the embracing, inclusive society Los Angeles is becoming in this new century.

First Church’s association with the Southeast Symphony is a fortunate pairing of two great Los Angeles institutions with diversity in their DNA. But embracing multiculturalism wasn’t always the way of Los Angeles. Prior to my taking up pen and paper as a music critic a score of years ago, I served for a quarter century as Deputy Director of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department (originally named “Municipal Arts”). One of my first experiences in that capacity, in the late 1970’s, was defending to the City Council’s Finance Committee the Department’s recommendations for grants to private arts organizations.

Here’s what I encountered one day: Two Councilmen on the three-member Finance Committee questioned our selections. (Both were from the then predominantly white San Fernando Valley, inclined to secede from the rest of the City.)  Councilman one declared: "Aman Folk Ensemble? What’s that? It sounds foreign. We don’t need to fund foreign stuff here. Denied.” Councilman two joined in: “Watts Symphony Orchestra? Are you kidding? Those people don’t even know what an orchestra is. Denied.”

True statements, I am ashamed for them to report. Fortunately, Mayor Tom Bradley, then in his first term, supported our original recommendations and kept the two grants in his budget. To their credit, the full City Council had the courage and heart to fund both of them. That’s where Los Angeles was, at least in part, some four decades ago. Since then we’ve come a long way.

The Southeast Symphony is one of the reasons we've come the distance, and it remains one of our continuing musical joys.


Photo credits: Southeast Symphony at top by Eugene Carbajal. Anthony Parnther by Konstantin Golovchinsky. Other photos are courtesy of Southeast Symphony.