Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Russian Roots and Branches at Long Beach

Eckart Preu and the Long Beach Symphony.


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

On the first Saturday in June, Eckart Preu’s inaugural season as Music Director of the LBSO came to a splendid conclusion with an all-Russian program that drew a chronological arc between a fount of that nation's concert music and one of the two most popular piano concertos in the world, via a lesser-known symphony (with which it shares the same home key) by the composer of the other most popular piano concerto in the world – though the order of items didn’t proceed in that sequence. 

Rachmaninoff in 1906: four years after the
première of the Second Piano Concerto.
I admit that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op.18, the centerpiece of this concert, is not one of my favorites. Though saying it might feel like heresy, given the work’s unshakeable hegemony in Western audience affections for over a century, “Rach 2” for me always wobbles on the cusp of homogeneity and tedium: meaning that as its three movements – rare for a concerto in being almost identical in duration – are not hugely varied in overall momentum and mood (unlike just about any Classical concerto you care to name), a performance can easily turn into an undifferentiated and rather suffocating romantic/nostalgic wallow if the crucial contrasts between the movements and within their individual architectures that Rachmaninoff carefully wove into his score are not equally carefully observed by conductor and soloist. 

Fortunately, right from the outset the Chinese-born pianist Fei-Fei Dong and Maestro Preu showed smart heads firmly in command of, respectively, 10 astonishingly nimble digits, and a baton that conveyed supple responsiveness to both her playing and the dictates of the score. Ms. Dong’s account of the opening unaccompanied progression of chords, though taken (like almost all performances apart from Stephen Hough’s remarkable Hyperion recording) well below Rachmaninoff’s metronome mark of half note = 66, was meticulous in its dynamic growth from pp to ff and crystal clear in articulation with very sparing use of the sustaining pedal. And if the opening statement on the strings of the first movement’s main theme nearly submerged her, well fair enough: the solo part here does comprise accompanying figuration while Rachmaninoff asks for the violins and violas to play out the theme fortissimo con passione, which they did with a lowering intensity that was almost brutal. 

Fei-Fei Dong.
Throughout the first movement, Ms. Dong’s seemingly effortless keyboard fluency was matched by her conductor’s sharp awareness of dynamic ebb and flow and structural cohesion. Towards the movement’s end, first horn Teag Reaves brought rich, rounded tone and consummate security to his big solo moment with the lyrical second theme and, following this, one appreciated anew the originality and abrupt economy with which Rachmaninoff brings down the first curtain. Wonderfully tender pp muted strings ushered in the Adagio sostenuto, where the playing from soloist and orchestra alike was again of contemplative, subtle, but clear-eyed sensitivity – not exactly the “storm of emotions” mentioned in the program note and all the better for it. Principal clarinetist Gary Bovyer’s playing of the main theme ebbed and flowed like a living thing. 

The finale was marked by much deliciously precise tossing back and forth of melodic fragments between pianist and orchestra, so that for once the movement really lived up to its Allegro scherzando marking, with all the twists and turns therein relished for the virtuosic tour de force that it is, rather than – as one sometimes feels – just a “get-it-over-and-done-with” preparation for the Big Tune. Nonetheless, that great Maestoso moment when it came worked its magic as ever on the audience, whose cheers of appreciation were rewarded by a charming native Chinese encore from Ms. Dong. 

Glinka in 1840: Portrait by J. F. Yanenko.
By now LBSO patrons will have come to appreciate their new Music Director’s skill at imaginative theme-based program building, and this final concert of his first season was no exception. The esteem and affection felt and often expressed by Rachmaninoff towards Tchaikovsky, whose Symphony No. 2 in C minor Op.17, the “Little Russian” – composed in 1872 and extensively revised in 1880 – occupied the concert's second half, mirrored Tchaikovsky’s own reverence for Glinka, and in particular for his 1848 Kamarinskaya, which began the evening, preceding the Rachmaninoff concerto.

Maestro Preu and the LBSO gave sonorous weight to Kamarinskaya’s opening page, making it seem more like the portentous start to a symphony than a “Fantasy on two Russian Folksongs.” The piece doesn’t turn up too often in concerts, so it was good that here it received a performance that not only keenly distinguished between those two Russian folksongs, the slightly somber and haunting “Wedding Song” and then the endlessly downward-tripping “Dance”, but also elucidated the skill with which Glinka intertwines them.

Tchaikovsky’s encomium that “all of the Russian symphonic school is contained in Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, just as all of an oak tree is in the acorn” was justly earned. (To appreciate how extraordinarily original this piece is, it’s well worth seeking out some of Glinka's previous orchestral works – fluently central European in style, and arguably sounding more like early Schubert than anything else, impossible though it would have been for him of all Classical masters to have been an influence!) 

Katia Popov.
Before raising his baton for the “Little Russian”, Maestro Preu reflected on his first season, thanking in turn the orchestra, its management team, sponsors, and the audience for making it so memorable, and then delivered a heartfelt tribute to Katia Popov, Principal of the Second Violin section, who had died only two weeks earlier. This concert, he said, was dedicated to her memory, and Teag Reaves’ playing of the long horn solo that opens the symphony’s first movement had a duly elegiac, memorializing quality – truly the molto espressivo that Tchaikovsky asks for. Principal bassoonist Jonathan Stehney’s taking up of the melody – a Ukrainian folksong more than a little reminiscent of the first of the two Glinka quoted in Kamarinskaya – was equally eloquent. 

Tchaikovsky photographed
some time between 1880
(the year he revised the “Little
Russian” Symphony) and 1886.
The subsequent little-by-little stealing in of the vigorous main body of the movement was beautifully paced by Maestro Preu, who in his pre-concert talk had argued strongly for the special qualities of Tchaikovsky’s relatively neglected first three symphonies, each concerned in different ways with landscapes, as compared with the regularly-programmed Nos.4-6, where the subject of the music is essentially Tchaikovsky himself. 

I did think he took the solo-timpani-introduced second movement just a shade too slowly, so that the insouciance Tchaikovsky maybe sought to convey with his ambiguous Andantino marziale, quasi moderato marking came across as a little muted. However, the following Scherzo sparkled as it should, while the Finale was nicely poised between the implications of its hefty 1812-ish opening, and then the contrasting and rather breathlessly tripping folksong (so reminiscent in its motion of Kamarinskaya!) plus lyrical second melody out of which the movement is mostly woven.

Maestro Preu and the orchestra handled the back-and-forth between them with an aplomb that cheerfully embraced this movement’s rather sectional nature, and made me think that he might well be a fine Bruckner conductor (cf. in particular the finale of that composer’s Third Symphony, with its alternations between grandiose chorale and nonchalant ländler) – maybe one day we will find out! Meanwhile, this season finale was rounded off with an affectionately chirpy account of the “Dance of the Little Swans” from Act Two of Swan Lake as encore. Roll on next season… 


 Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, June 2, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: Glinka: Wikimedia Commons; Eckart Preu: CaughtInTheMoment.com; Fei-Fei Dong: Ellen Appel–Mike Moreland, Courtesy Concert Artists Guild; Rachmaninoff: Courtesy Moscovery; Katia Popov: Barbra Porter, courtesy LACO; Tchaikovsky: Wikimedia Commons.

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