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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