Monday, May 21, 2018

Love Stories at Long Beach


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

Love stories – but of the doomed and/or selfless and/or tragic variety – were the theme, said Music Director Eckart Preu, of most of the pieces comprising the penultimate Long Beach Symphony concert of the 2017-2018 season. The exception was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3 in G major K.216, which was given a vigorous and thoroughly involved performance, full of dynamic contrast, by the American violinist Benjamin Beilman with an LBSO that, though its string section was appropriately scaled down to something like 8-6-4-4-2 (so far as I could see) to match Mozart’s slender wind forces, nonetheless delivered a “big orchestra” sound under Maestro Preu. 

Benjamin Beilman. 
This was spontaneous, alive Mozart, far removed from Dresden china wallpaper (to mix a couple of metaphors). The muted strings at the opening of the Adagio conjured a background of prayerful intimacy against which Mr. Bellman’s probing but not overtly sweet-toned playing kept concentration focused on the line of the music. 

As with the opening Allegro, the modest, shapely cadenza he played (his own?) was in keeping with the movement’s intimacy. The final Rondeau remained beautifully airborne despite its relatively measured pace, with an improvisatory freshness throughout. Its central Andante episode was as irresistibly wistful as ever, while Mozart’s throwaway “that’s all, folks” ending on its cursory-seeming upward flick on the oboes and horns, as ever, momentarily wrong-footed the audience. For an inside view of the performance from a player’s perspective, don’t miss LBSO violinist Laurie Nile’s wonderfully insightful blog post.  

Richard Strauss in 1888. 
I wish I could now find chapter-and-verse for the story told (I think) by André Previn about the approach of some maestro of yesteryear to the notoriously difficult opening of Strauss’s Don Juan Op.20: to take the orchestra by surprise so that the unison fortissimo strings’ Allegro molto e con brio came out as a kind of torrentially messy and desperate upward surge that set the neurotic tone for the whole performance. Maestro Preu’s handling of it couldn’t have been more different. Even though Don Juan was the first item on the program, with the orchestra “cold”, it got off to a splendid start, not precipitously fast but clear, urgent, and together. 

The whole performance followed through from that opening – at around 18 minutes with plenty of time to breath, characterful wind solos in the tranquillo interludes, and at the final climax before the Don’s virtual suicide at the hands of a father avenging his daughter’s honor (in the version of the story taken from Nikolaus Lenau), first the horns and then the massed strings gloriously carrying the anti-hero’s theme above the remainder of the orchestra. 

Jennifer Higdon and her cat Beau. 
If the love story – if it thus can be called – in Don Juan is one of doomed selfish obsession, then the love enshrined in blue cathedral, composed in 1999 by the contemporary American, Jennifer Higdon, could hardly be more different, selfless, and tragic. 

Its subject matter, a meditation upon the death of the composer’s younger brother through the vision of an aerial cathedral of blue glass, inevitably recalls that of another Strauss tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, but Higdon’s approach and soundworld could hardly be more different from Strauss’s. 

The work grows out of a kind of sigh – downward pairs of chords played by two violas and two ‘cellos against a soft, rather Schrekerish, tintinnabulatory background on tuned percussion – through a central passage of timpani-driven anger, to a transcendental hushed conclusion, sounded by many small Chinese health reflex balls being gently shaken by dozens of orchestral players. 

Maestro Preu and the LBSO gave this also a spacious and devoted performance, as if it were as much a repertoire piece for them as the Strauss, allowing the intricate beauties of Ms. Higdon’s orchestration to tell clearly. I felt that in places the work marks time a little, relying on the intoxicating quality of soaring, shimmering string writing – slightly reminiscent of Michael Tippett – but which doesn’t really go anywhere in particular. However, overall blue cathedral is a concise, beautiful, and immediately affecting piece, and it was no surprise that the near-capacity Long Beach audience greeted it with as much enthusiasm as it has surely received from others for the astonishing c.600 performances it has so far received. 

Prokofiev in 1936, playing chess. 
Finally, perhaps the most familiar love story of all – Romeo and Juliet, as envisioned in music by Prokofiev. Maestro Preu chose not to go with any one of the three suites which the composer extracted from his massive score in 1936 and 1946, but rather five of the ripest plums from Suites 1 and 2 – “Masks”, “Romeo & Juliet” and “The Death of Tybalt” from Suite 1, and from Suite 2 the familiar “Montagues and Capulets” to open, and “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet” to close. Has Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet become rather overdone in concert programming? I think so: there is so much other fine music by this composer that is still rarely programmed. However, if you’re going to include it, you could hardly have made a more juicy selection and given it with more verve than it was done here. 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, April 28, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Benjamin Beilman: Performer website; Richard Strauss: Frederick Müller, Munich; Jennifer Higdon: Candace DiCarlo, courtesy wrti; Prokofiev: Courtesy Chess History.

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