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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