Saturday, June 30, 2018

No Fake News in POP’s Rossini Newspaper!

Front row: Scott Ziemann (Monsu Traversen), Jessie Shulman (Madama la Rose),
and Kyle Patterson (Alberto).


Rossini’s “La gazzetta”, Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club

Gioachino Rossini was still only 24 when he composed La gazzetta in 1816, though such had his productivity already been that it was no apprentice effort. It was the 18th of his total of 39 operas (or 37, or 38, or 40, depending on how you count the couple that were revisions of earlier works, and another that remained unfinished), and directly followed The Barber of Seville – posterity’s choice for greatest hit in his canon. La gazzetta in fact fell near the end of the first major phase of Rossini’s career, which mostly comprised comic operas; of the operas that followed it, only four were comedies. 

The youthful Rossini: undated
portrait by an unknown artist.
It was apparently well received by audiences at its first run in Naples in autumn 1816, but there were negative critical comments on both the music (which included some borrowings from earlier Rossini operas) and the libretto. After one revival in Palermo in 1828, La gazzetta was forgotten for the best part of a century and a half. Its immediate successor in Rossini’s output, La Cenerentola (which in its turn borrowed La gazzetta’s overture, thus accounting for the music’s familiarity when the present performance started), proved to be a durable hit, so La gazzetta’s failure then inevitably raises the question now of how good a piece is it… or not? 

Well, since the first modern performances – for broadcast in Italy in 1960 and staged in Vienna in 1976 – the opera’s viability seems to have been confirmed, if the gathering pace of revival is anything to go by. This century has seen productions in England, Italy, Spain, and Germany, some of them preserved on CD and DVD, and in 2013 it reached the US, courtesy of New England Conservatory in Boston. La gazzetta’s West Coast debut by Pacific Opera Project is the latest stage in the process, and POP’s sharply sung, brilliantly colored, and highly athletic production, premiered on July 28 and with its run through July 7 now sold out, carried a fervent conviction of its quality. 

Brooke DeRosa.

There were a couple of compromises. Economics required Music Director Brooke DeRosa to construct a new score, reducing the orchestra from Rossini’s original double woodwind (one bassoon), horns and trumpets, trombone and strings, to an ensemble of single winds (no oboe), horn, three violins, viola, ‘cello, bass and continuo. Also the auditorium of the Highland Park Ebell Club, between Chinatown and Pasadena, was not an ideal venue, having a very hard, dry acoustic (not to mention a sphincter-squeezing paucity of public restrooms!). 

On the other hand, the room’s square layout enabled the performing area to extend along most of two adjacent sides, thus fronting the audience with a broad, angled expanse of hotel lobby set design that seemed to owe something to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (not to mention the hotel staff costumes).

Ms. DeRosa and her 10 intrepid musicians delivered their crisply accented playing from a podium behind the action on the right-hand panel of the set (apart from the stalwart harpsichord continuo of Zach Neufeld, which emanated from the outer darkness somewhere far to the right). Above the cusp of the two stage areas, a supertitle board kept the audience abreast of Production Director Josh Shaw’s updated version of the words (yep, the “fake news” joke WAS in there, and it got a hearty laugh!). 

E. Scott Levin as Don Pomponio.

POP’s stellar cast gave their all, individually and collectively. Front and center was bass-baritone E. Scott Levin, a perfect embodiment of smug, gold-waistcoated rotundity as Signor Don Pomponio, the “Neapolitan businessman” whose ad for his marriageable daughter Lisetta in the eponymous newspaper sets in motion the freewheeling chaos of misunderstandings and mismatchings that serves as plot.

Lisetta was sung by soprano Rachel Policar, in a performance that matched his outbursts of posturing self-importance with alternating flurries of wheedling and petulance (though her upper register was sometimes rendered a little shrill by the unforgiving acoustic). Armando Contreras sang the hotel owner Filippo, Lisetta’s true but father-forbidden love, with honeyed baritone tones and a smooth line in confiding asides to the audience. 

Rachel Policar (Lisetta), E. Scott Levin (Don Pomponio), Kyle Patterson (Alberto),
Armando Contreras (Filippo), Molly Clementz (Doralice).

Worthy support came from Kyle Patterson, whose light, bright opening tenor aria as the love-lorn hotel guest Alberto gave clear indication of the vocal excellence to follow, as well as Molly Clements (Doralice), Jessie Shulman (Madama La Rose), Scott Ziemann (Monsu Traversen), and Phil Meyer (Anselmo).

Alongside their rhythmically precise and pitch-secure vocal performances, they all in various combinations adroitly handled the choreographed ensemble numbers with a plethora of smartly unison bobbing, shoulders-hunching, hearts-clasping, and appropriate facial gestures. All this was topped off by the lighting design, which at times took on an almost demented life of its own, with strobe-like ons-and-offs of groups of light sources from every which way on the stage, in strict time to the beats in Rossini’s measures. 

The title-page from Rossini's manuscript full score.

The epitome of these ensembles, at least in Act One, is an elaborate quintet for Lisetta, Doralice, Alberto, Filippo, and Don Pomponio. Though present in the original printed libretto, it was absent from Rossini’s manuscript score and all subsequent musical sources when the critical edition of La gazzetta came to be published by the Rossini Foundation in Pesaro in 2002. For the POP production, Brooke DeRosa painstakingly reconstructed the quintet out of fragments from various sources that some deft musicological detective work had demonstrated belonged together. 

In terms of sheer vividness and energy, Act Two managed even to top the best of Act One, with Ms. Policar delivering one number while being swung around and lofted shoulder-high by the small, stalwart group of chorister/dancers who variously did duty as hotel staff and guests, all with a daring and energy that would have done credit to Beyoncé and her team. There was more precarious athleticism when Filippo leapt onto and off of his hotel reception desk while brandishing a pistol, all the while delivering a recitative about blowing his brains out, while later on some vigorous and inexpert pretend-swordplay between Alberto and Filippo added to the fun. 

E. Scott Levin (Don Pomponio), Kyle Patterson (Alberto), Armando Contreras (Filippo).

Despite the updating of the mise en scène and the translation, there was (blessedly) no attempt to shoe-horn the action into the digital age with cellphones or tablets replacing good old newsprint, and when the Act Two finale concluded with real-life newspapers (or to be exact, copies of the program that had been printed as tabloid sheets) being whirled around by the entire cast as props, honor had been thoroughly done both to the spirit and letter of Rossini, and the need to create as vibrant and fun-filled an evening’s entertainment as could be wished for.

If you've missed this production of La gazzetta so far and now can't get tickets, there's some compensation in that the final performance on Saturday July 7 will be broadcast live on Pacific Opera Project's Facebook home page. Bravo POP! 


Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club, 8 p.m., Thursday, June 28 2018.
Images: Production photos: Josh Shaw; Rossini: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; La Gazzetta title page: Courtesy IMSLP; Brooke DeRosa: Courtesy IMDB.

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Santa Fe’s Candide the Best of All Possible Productions

Alek Shrader, Brenda Rae; photo Ken Howard

REVIEW: Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, New Mexico: John Crosby Theatre

In Jamie Bernstein’s new book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest daughter writes about the night her parents, Leonard and Felicia, were about to step out to the premiere of Candide, leaving 4-year-old Jamie behind. “But I want to see candy, too!” she cries. “Can-deee!”

Last night, the Santa Fe Opera audience got to see the candy, and it was sweet indeed. It was fitting of the company to open their vibrant new season with a work that not only celebrates the centenary of Leonard Bernstein but also heralds a time of momentous change for Santa Fe Opera.

After a decade leading the company to greater heights in every aspect of its being, outgoing General Director Charles MacKay will pass his baton to Robert Meya, who heads what the latter calls a “new generation of leadership”—a synergistic triumvirate of high-powered leaders consisting of Meya, along with Alexander Neef as artistic director, and Harry Bicket, the first designated music director in the company’s history.

What better way to initiate this new era in the company’s history than with Bernstein’s youth-oriented mid-twentieth century work, in which major writers of the time contributed to the original version of the story and lyrics: Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein himself. Voltaire titled his novella Candide, ou L’Optimisme—or more likely, “Blind Optimism”—with emphasis on the latter in this cleverly directed production.

Despite a promise to his mentor Serge Koussevitzky to shift his focus from popular to so-called “serious” music, Bernstein could not resist the draw of setting what Hellman called “the greatest satire…the greatest piece of slap-dash ever written” to his incomparably ingenious music. Indeed, Bernstein managed to say something serious with Candide at a volatile juncture in world politics, while maintaining his artistic standards. Notwithstanding its many edits and iterations, causing great frustration to the composer over the decades from its initial New York premiere in 1956, Candide has prevailed as a much-beloved and oft-performed work.

It is frequently debated whether Candide is an opera, an operetta, or a Broadway show. Perhaps, like Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, Candide can best be described as a “Broadway Opera.” The same could be said of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène—though with a French twist. Certainly Cunegonde’s tour-de-force aria “Glitter and Be Gay” is operatic. On the other hand, the Old Lady’s “I am Easily Assimilated” is as campy a show number as it gets.

This production, using lyrics by Wilbur, Sondheim, La Touche, Hellman, Parker and Bernstein, brought an engaging mix of American and French artists, with a dash of British, to the Santa Fe stage. The singers were the main event, and though at times they were difficult to hear, overall the cast made a positive impression. 

Cunegonde and Candide can be thought of as the equivalent of a royal couple in this most ironic of tales, but, with their panoplies of mind-bending misadventures and sorrows, they are hardly Meghan and Harry. Nonetheless, tenor Alek Shrader and soprano Brenda Rae lit up the stage with their exuberant portrayals of the two protagonists.

Shrader, last heard at Santa Fe in 2010 in the title role of Albert Herring, made quite a splash this past season in the Seattle Opera’s much-touted Beatrice and Benedict. His lyrical tenor was dulcet and fetching, and although he could have been a bit more varied in his use of dynamics, his portrayal of the beleaguered Tom Rakewell-like character was appropriately ingenuous.

Grammy-nominated Rae, who dazzled last season’s Santa Fe audience as Lucia di Lammermoor, made her role debut as Cunegonde. One awaits her “Glitter” aria with as much anticipation as the Zerbinetta’s Großmächtige Prinzessin aria in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (to be performed here this season), and Rae delivered her showpiece with panache. Her middle range was somewhat lacking, but her high notes were solid, and as if they were not already high enough, she added a few stratospheric tones to please the discriminating ear.

Kevin Burdette, SFeO chorus; photo, Ken Howard
As is traditional, several of the roles are multiple cast. Baritone Kevin Burdette shouldered the heaviest burden, playing Voltaire, Pangloss, Martin and Mocambo, and he carried it very well indeed. His considerable comic gifts, which he demonstrated superbly in last season’s Seattle Opera Cosi Fan Tutte, were even more splendidly displayed in each of his scene-stealing scenes, especially those in which he delightfully channeled Adolph Green as Pangloss.

Helene Schneiderman was a delight to watch. Her bright mezzo was lighter and airier than the typical timbre for the role of the Old Lady, and at times she was difficult to hear, but with her great comic flair, she fit perfectly and with ease into her character.

Helene Schneiderman; photo, Ken Howard
Also making his debut in multiple roles was American tenor and former apprentice Richard Troxell as the Governor, James, Vanderdendur and Ragotski. Troxell, who is at ease in both traditional and contemporary repertoire, recently performed to great acclaim in Elizabeth Cree, a new work with a libretto by Mark Campbell, librettist for last season’s Santa Fe hit, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. He easily transitioned from one character into another.

Susanne Sheston’s chorus, a luxury ensemble of potential solo voices, handled the many physical demands of their roles with aplomb.

The duo of stage director and costume designer Laurent Pelly, and Parisian-born scenic designer Chantal Thomas, brought a French twist to this production. Pelly, who debuted with the company in 2003, is known for his forays into his native repertoire, both theatrical and operatic, and showed his Gallic sensibilities, both in his direction and in his designs. A veteran of comic works such as Massenet’s Cendrillon and Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict, Pelly showed his affinity for pratfalls and mugging to its optimal best. There was quite a bit of movement and activity on the stage, perhaps too much at times. The costumes were brilliantly executed and uniquely French. Who else but a Frenchman could bring off women’s dresses fashioned of 10-franc notes festooned with an image of Voltaire himself?

A frequent collaborator with Pelly, Parisian-born scenic designer Chantal Thomas created a unit set that featured books in various shapes and incarnations, symbolizing the kind of storytelling of which Voltaire was a master. Props such as a toy boat in the sea storm scene added to the storybook atmosphere. With the stage opened to the background of mountains, strata of mystical clouds, and an ever-changing sunset lit sky, the overall effect was quite appealing.

Duane Schuler's lighting was impressively creative, and the eye-catching, stunningly varied projections done by Benjamin Pearcy (who designed last season's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs) worked beautifully in every scene, culminating in an exquisite, multihued garden that grew before the audience's eyes.

Former chief conductor Harry Bicket made an auspicious first appearance as Santa Fe’s new music director. With his vast experience in Baroque repertoire with the English Concert and other widely known period orchestras, he brought a Baroque sensitivity and delicate balance to the refined subtleties of Bernstein’s finely wrought score. Bicket is a true professional; every inch the conductor in the most positive sense.

To quote MacKay, “In opera, as in life, always expect the unexpected.” In this vibrant production of Candide, the unanticipated went hand in hand with the tried and true. In these trying times, the political implications of Voltaire’s cautionary tale ring truer than ever—little digs at politicians in the dialogue emphasized the relevance of the story in contemporary terms.

Candide cast, SFeO chorus; photo, Ken Howard
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide runs from June 29 to August 25, the latter Leonard Bernstein’s actual 100th birthday.


Photo credits: Ken Howard
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Tchaikovsky on Brahms: A Pedestal without a Statue?

Pedestal of Johannes Brahms, without its statue, at the 2018 Ojai Music Festival
Photo credit: Rick Ginell


Brahms relic at the 2018 Ojai Music Festival


There's this weird connection between the 2018 Ojai Music Festival that concluded on the same Sunday (June 10) that, down the freeway at Disney Hall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed the Brahms Requiem. In my review of the latter, I noted that two composers associated in previous Ojai festivals, David Lang and Caroline Shaw, were featured as preludes to the Brahms. Turns out, in what seems a cheeky if coincidental tit for tat, Brahms made his own cameo appearance at Ojai -- not with his music but as kind of spectral presence.

Pictured above is an eerie artifact encountered by music critic Rick Ginell at Ojai. It's the pedestal of a broken-off statue of Brahms, a prop employed by the Festival as if to say, "What is past is fractured memory; our musical forefathers are buried and forgotten." Brahms had been deconstructed at Ojai, along with others in the Austro-German classical music pantheon. 

Herein lies a story. Composer Peter Tchaikovsky did not highly regard the compositions of Johannes Brahms, finding them cold and uninspired. There's an urban legend in music circles that the Russian composer characterized Brahms's music as "a pedestal without a statue." That could explain the depiction at Ojai, especially with Moldavian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born in what was then the Soviet Union, as this year's Music Director.

Not content with a hand-me-down stories, however colorful, I searched on line to verify what Tchaikovsky had actually said. Turns out, in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck in 1880, Tchaikovsky did write something similar (relevant quote in red):

"Brahms's [Violin] Concerto appealed to me just as little as everything else he has written. He is of course a great musician and even a master, but [in his works] there is more mastery than inspiration. Lots of preparations as it were for something, lots of hints that something is going to appear very soon and enchant you, but nothing does come out of it all, except for boredom. His music is not warmed by genuine feeling; it has no poetry; what it has instead is enormous pretension to depth. However, in this depth there is nothing — it's just empty space. For example, let us take the opening of the concerto. It is beautiful as the introduction to something; it is like a splendid pedestal for a column, but the actual column is missing, and, instead, what comes immediately after one pedestal is simply another pedestal. I don't know whether I'm adequately expressing my thoughts, or rather the feeling which Brahms's music instils in me. What I'm trying to get at is that he never actually says anything, and if he does, then he fails to say it completely. His music consists of skilfully pasted-together fragments of something. The overall design lacks distinctiveness, colour, and life. However, I think that quite apart from all these specific criticisms I should above all say that Brahms, as a musical personality, is simply antipathetic to me — I can't stand him. No matter how much he tries, I always remain cold and hostile. This is a purely instinctive reaction."

In another letter, Tchaikovsky wrote: "I've met an incredibly large number of people here. Amongst these Brahms and Grieg stand out in particular. Brahms is a pot-bellied boozer, together with whom I got myself pretty drunk yesterday at Brodsky's house. Grieg is an uncommonly nice man of my age."

Click the link to find a comprehensive summary of what is known about the several encounters between Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and as an added bonus, their having been joined on several occasions by the Norwegian Edvard Grieg, who was admired by both Brahms and Tchaikovsky. (By the way, Tchaikovsky spoke fluent German, as did Grieg.)

The touching thing about Tchaikovsky and Brahms is that, over a period of time in the 1880's, getting to know each other over several bottles of wine, they actually became merry drinking buddies, despite never becoming admirers of each other's music. By the end of the next decade, both were in their graves.

It would have been fun to eavesdrop on the conversations between Grieg, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Erica Miner talks about her new novel, Death by Opera

INTERVIEW with novelist Erica Miner


LA Opus contributor Erica Miner posted her first article for this journal in December of 2013. It was a remembrance of her years as a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and especially her work with America's most famous classical musician, Leonard Bernstein. Miner later made a transition from performance to writing about music, as both reviewer and novelist. She has by now published two novels in a genre one could describe as "opera murder whodunits." The setting of her first, 2010’s Murder in the Pit, was New York's Metropolitan Opera. This spring her second one, Death by Opera, takes place in Santa Fe. LA Opus Publisher Rodney Punt talks to Miner about her life and her latest murder mystery.

Punt: Let’s open the discussion with your earlier career as a violinist. What led you to gravitate to opera orchestras, and how did you end up at the most famous pit orchestra in the world, that of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra?

Miner: Opera has always been a part of my life. When I was a kid, my mom used to listen to the Met radio broadcasts every Saturday. I was more interested in violin solo and orchestral music at the time, but the opera definitely filtered in. After graduating from university, I moved to New York with my then-husband who was an opera conductor. We were doing a production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia with Bel Canto Opera, a small ensemble in the city. Steuart Bedford, who was conducting Britten’s Death in Venice at the Met, came to one of our performances. He was impressed with my playing of a super difficult violin solo in the Britten, and invited me to audition for the Met with its concertmaster, Raymond Gniewek. I sight-read the prelude to Act 3 of Wagner's Siegfried, to his great satisfaction. That’s how it all began.

Punt: Tell us something of your professional and friend relationship with the late Leonard Bernstein, whom the world is celebrating in his centennial year of 2018. 

Miner: Like many other kids who grew up in the latter half of the 20th Century, I was glued to Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on TV, but I never dreamed I’d actually someday work with him. That opportunity came when he took over as head of the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center), the celebrated training program for young musicians that was started by Bernstein’s mentor, Serge Koussevitsky, in the 1940s. I had the great fortune that summer to be sitting right at the front of the first violin section in the student orchestra, where I could see Lenny’s every gesture, mannerism and raise of the eyebrow. Learning and performing Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 with Bernstein was unforgettable, a life changing experience. But because my then-husband was one of Lenny’s conducting students, I also got to hang out with the maestro and other students  outside of the concert hall. He would give us rides around the Tanglewood grounds in his big boat of a car, often along with his kids Jamie, Alex and Nina. He gave parties for his students as well -- he was so committed to his teaching, so inspiring in every way. Later, when I was at the Met, he came to conduct, and I was able to spend some time with him. On those occasions, and in other encounters, he always remembered me, always knew details about my life, my family. He had an astonishing memory. He just loved people.

Punt: Why and how did you make the transition from playing violin at the Met Opera to writing opera mysteries, music reviews, and interviews?

Miner: I had always written, since I was a kid. I actually started writing in elementary school, even before I played the violin, when I was placed in an afterschool program for creative writing. I found that I loved writing; it became a lifelong passion. When I started playing at the Met I kept writing and took writing classes whenever I could fit them into my schedule. A car accident -- in which I injured my hands -- spelled the end of my professional music career. I then went back to my love of writing as a creative outlet. I began by writing screenplays, then progressed to novels. It occurred to me that with the usual rumors of goings-on at the opera house, some true, some fictitious, I could write a knockout of a mystery novel. In the world of fiction, one can do away people who make life miserable. After that first novel, Murder in the Pit, was published, I started getting offers to write music reviews and interviews online. Since then, I’ve been blessed to meet and chat with some of the music world’s luminaries. I try to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction writing; but no matter what kind of writing I do, it’s always about music in some way or another.

Punt: Tell us about your latest novel, Death by Opera. Is it a sequel to Murder in the Pit? What was your inspiration for writing it? And why the Santa Fe setting?

Miner: Death by Opera is the first sequel to Murder in the Pit. There are others in the planning stages. I was inspired by requests of the readers of the first novel. One of them thought the protagonists -- a young Met Opera violinist and her cohort, an NYPD detective -- were great, and that I should send them off on a new adventure. But I honestly didn’t know where to send them, until another fan, who was eagerly awaiting a sequel, suggested I set it at the Santa Fe Opera. It made perfect sense, for a number of reasons. First, over the years many Met Opera musicians have gone to Santa Fe to play at the opera there for the summers. Second, the setting and atmosphere in Santa Fe, as I discovered last summer when I went there to research the book, are unique. There’s an air of mystery there -- in its mysticism, spirituality, rich history and many ghost stories handed down over the generations. And most of all the opera house itself is a spectacular outdoor venue, with glorious sunsets and sudden thunderstorms adding their own operatic effect. I couldn’t ask for a more fantastic setting.

Punt: Is this latest novel of interest mainly to opera lovers and musicians, or can general audiences also identify with it?

Miner: As I’ve discovered in the book signings so far, this book is of interest to everyone: opera lovers and musicians, of course; but anyone who loves a good mystery will enjoy the read, as will just general readers of fiction. There’s a lot to love about opera. It’s wonderful. It’s fun. It can also ..... kill you. But that’s another matter entirely. You’ll have to read the books to find out more about that! 


Note: Erica Miner's new novel, Death by Opera, is available on all formats at She will be also reviewing some of the Santa Fe Opera productions next month for LA Opus.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Hero's Life at the Segerstrom

Anne Akiko Meyers and Carl St. Clair, with Dennis Kim (left) and the Pacific Symphony.


Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

It’s doubtless a coincidence, surprising but nonetheless welcome, that the final concerts in the 2017-18 seasons of the relatively adjacent Long Beach Symphony and Pacific Symphony orchestras both began with works by Glinka. A couple of weeks ago we had an affectionate and insightful account of Kamarinskaya from the LBSO under Music Director Eckart Preu (reviewed here). Kamarinskaya arguably remains, for all its merits, on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire, but the Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture sits squarely in the center of it as a staple concert-opener, and it was impeccably done by the Pacific Symphony under its Music Director, Carl St. Clair.

Glinka during the composition of the opera “Ruslan
and Lyudmila”: 1887 oil painting by Ilya Repin.
The program annotator rightly observed that this piece has become a bit of a speed-playing test for orchestras and conductors, an excuse to push ever further the limits of string players’ fingers to get around those opening runs of 16th-notes without them blurring into a gabble, but nothing like that happened here. The opening is marked Presto, but Maestro St. Clair couldn’t have been far off the Urtext metronome mark of half-note=140 – fast, but not so fast that when the more lyrical second subject arrives (with no tempo change in the score), the brakes don’t have to be slammed on to avoid it sounding over-hasty.

As a result, the performance was truly integrated, coming out “all in one” with lithe, precise strings throughout propelled by imperative, crisp timpani tuned almost to the point of sounding like period instruments (shout-out to timpanist Todd Miller here). Scorning any attempt to break the five-minute barrier, this performance of Glinka’s overture was a joy, and a great start to the concert.

In her pre-concert conversation with host Alan Chapman, the star violinist Anne Akiko Meyers (programming an interesting miscellany of three short items rather than the more usual single concerto) waxed eloquent about the unique quality of the sound that can be drawn from the instrument which she now plays, the violin made by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1741 once owned by the 19th century Belgian composer/virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps.

Maurice Ravel.
There could surely have been no clearer demonstration of this than her account of Ravel’s Tzigane, the long opening Lento quasi cadenza solo of which she projected with raw, passionate intensity. In the Glinka I’d found the video projection of conductor and players screened above the orchestra rather distracting, but here there was no gainsaying the added value of seeing in close-up the nimbleness, range and energy of Ms. Meyers’ playing technique, from searingly intense double-stopping to the airiest of pizzicati, as she triumphed over Ravel’s bristling difficulties. When the orchestra entered (with strings reduced by a couple of desks from the Glinka), there was more to relish in the soloist’s immaculate duetting with the prominent harp part played by Mindy Ball.

Anne Akiko Meyers with the
Vieuxtemps Guarneri violin.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Ms. Meyers’ other two selections. She’d also talked to Alan Chapman about how she finally persuaded an initially reluctant Morten Lauridsen to undertake a commission, agreeing on an arrangement of his O Magnum Mysterium. Originally written for mixed a cappella choir, this new version for violin and orchestra joins a range of other reworkings of this enormously popular work, including for male choir, voice and piano, violin and piano, orchestral brass, symphonic wind band, and string orchestra. But devotedly though it was played and conducted, the transfer to instruments didn’t, I felt, particularly enhance or reveal new facets to what is in any case, for me, a rather cloying and anodyne piece.

Her third item was a similarly new arrangement of “Somewhere” from Bernstein's West Side Story, here decked out in harmonies that seemed to sidestep almost perversely those of the original, resulting in a quasi-Delian haze surrounding a solo line that felt unnecessarily over-decorated in places. However, for a concert whose second half was to be filled by one of the most majestic of orchestral blockbusters, this was nonetheless an inventive and unusual first half that studiously avoided all the usual suspects.

Two studies of Richard Strauss conducting, c.1900.
An arrogantly world-bestriding hero erupts onto the scene; he’s met by barbs and flails of criticism; he battles his enemies; he triumphs over them; he elaborately praises his own achievements… remind you of anyone? No, I thought not. In any case, Richard Strauss at the age of 34 already had plenty to boast about, though his Ein Heldenleben Op.40 has always come in for head-shaking on account of its shameless self-aggrandizement, alongside recognition of the musical splendors that have continued to ensure its place in concert programs with the resources to supply the close on 100 players that the score demands.

Following an exceptionally informative account from the podium by Maestro St. Clair of the “hero’s life” enshrined in the work’s six lengthy sections, he proceeded to conduct a gloriously rich and expansive performance of it. With a duration of around 50 minutes it most reminded me in its epic breadth of Sir John Barbirolli’s final recording, on a treasured LP of decades ago. However, from the very first bar of the opening “The Hero” section, the PSO’s massed lower strings and principal horn Keith Popejoy (rapidly to be joined by his eight colleagues) thoroughly outclassed in their thrilling boldness and unanimity the playing on that recording, matching any other world-class rival ensembles you might care to name.

When after the climactic fff statement of the “Hero” theme, the “Critics” made their first appearance on a large array of woodwind, they were almost too immaculate to achieve the schnarrend (snarling) that Strauss asks for, but the tenor tuba/bass tuba duo that represent the nineteenth-century Viennese music critic Doktor Dehring (a particular bugbear of Strauss) were something else. Previously I had thought of them rather as the Statler and Waldorf of the critics, just grumbling away in the background, but St. Clair cleverly isolated and emphasized them so that their four-note motif, repeated again and again throughout the work, became a potent undermining force of chilling negativity.

Dennis Kim.
The next section of Ein Heldenleben, depicting “The Hero’s Companion”, takes up nearly one-third of its entire length, and can easily seem a near-interminable waiting around for something (the Battle) to happen. The central figure is represented by solo violin in a part easily as substantial as many concerto movements, and here the performance of Dennis Kim, the PSO’s new Concertmaster-Designate, was beyond praise. Variously capricious, tender, abrupt, impassioned, querulous, soulful, contemplative, his playing led the ear on and on, so that for once the section seemed not a bar too long.

I confess that doubts about the overall conception of the performance did begin to creep in as the Hero advanced through his fourth (“Battlefield”, starting with some nicely distanced offstage trumpets), fifth (“Works of Peace”), and sixth (“Retirement from this World and Consummation”) sections. Was Maestro St. Clair drawing it all out just a little too lovingly for overall coherence and balance? Perhaps. I recalled another classic recorded performance, the one under another knighted Brit, Sir Thomas Beecham, where more seemed to be achieved with less. However, there was no resisting the power and beauty of this great orchestra at full stretch enrobed in the Segerstrom Hall’s wonderful acoustic. After a final knell-of-doom reminder from the tubas, Mr. Kim’s fabulously tender solo violin playing against soft multi-subdivided strings brought that Consummation to a conclusion which really justified the standing ovation that it received. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, June 14, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: The performers: Courtesy Anne Akiko Meyers website; Glinka: Wikimedia Commons; Ravel: Courtesy WRTI; Strauss: Wikimedia Commons; Dennis Kim: Courtesy The Buffalo News.

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