Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Transfigured Night in Mount Wilson’s Great Dome


Brahms, Babcock, and Schoenberg, Mount Wilson Observatory

The 100-inch mirror, crated and standing vertically in the
back, being driven up the Mount Wilson Toll Road in 1917.
On its lofty, clear-aired, pine-clad eyrie in the San Gabriel Mountains, thousands of feet above the smog of Los Angeles, the Mount Wilson Observatory is in the midst of a golden celebratory period. Last November saw the centenary of first light for the 100-inch Hooker telescope, and now in 2018 the sesquicentenary of the birth of George Ellery Hale (1868-1938), founder and first Director of the Observatory, is being celebrated with open days including tours, astronomy lectures, viewings through the 100-inch and 60-inch telescopes, and general enhancement of the Observatory’s public face. 

Most importantly (it could be argued), for these last two years Mount Wilson’s enlightened management has also added music to the mix, with chamber concerts programmed under the Artistic Directorship of the ‘cellist Cécilia Tsan and performed on the first Sunday afternoons of each month from May through October in the marvelous acoustic of the 100-inch telescope dome, some of which have already been reviewed on LA Opus here, here, and here.

The weekend of 30 June/July 1, being the closest to Hale’s 150th birthday, was the climax of the celebrations, and on the Sunday afternoon it fittingly brought what was to my ears the finest concert yet (this was the 3 p.m. performance – as is customary in this series, the program was repeated again at 5 p.m. after a wine-and-cheese reception included in the ticket price). 

l-r: Tereza Stanislav, Alma Fernandez, Bruce Babcock, Cécilia Tsan, Jessica Guideri,
Rob Brophy, Eric Byers.
Not to begin with a downer, but I’m still uncomfortable about extracting single movements from multi-movement pieces, even though Brahms himself transcribed just the second movement of his String Sextet No.1 in B-flat major Op. 18 as a birthday present for Clara Schumann. If anything might sway opinion, though, it would be a performance of the movement in its original form as eloquent as the one by Ms. Tsan and her colleagues Tereza Stanislav and Jessica Guideri (violins), Rob Brophy and Alma Fernandez (violas), and Eric Byers (‘cello), which opened the concert.  

Marked Allegro ma Moderato, this movement takes the form of a theme and six variations; the first three and the fifth of them are all in two eight-measure halves both marked to be repeated, and it was immediately indicative of the thoughtfulness of this performance that the second-half repeat of the first variation was distinguished by an unmarked drop to pianissimo by the first violin, lending extra tenderness and dynamic range to what can become a rather obviously formulaic structural device in less skilled hands. 

Following this, the rushing up-and-down forte scales from the two ‘cellos in the fourth variation were particularly rich and sonorous, enhanced as they were by Hale’s great steel dome, and the long dying fall of the sixth and final variation only made it the more regrettable that the performance had not been preceded by and was not proceeding to the subsequent movements. Maybe in a future concert we can hear the full radiant expanse of this work, or its companion String Sextet No.2 in G major

Bruce Babcock.
As a Brit immigrant still finding my musical way around here, I had not previously encountered any music by the LA-born and based composer Bruce Babcock, but I am glad that I now have. His string quartet Watcher of the Sky was commissioned to mark the Hale anniversary, and to introduce the performance, Mr. Babcock outlined his family’s connection with the astronomer, beginning in 1893 when at the Chicago World’s Fair his grandfather as a child saw the then world’s largest telescope, the 40-inch refractor built by Hale and still in operation at Yerkes Observatory (the rest of the story can be read here). 

George Ellery Hale
in his 20s.
The quartet is in four movements, titled “In 1903” (when grandfather Harold Delos Babcock wrote a poem based on Hale’s first trip up the mountain on horseback), “Night of the First Light” (November 2, 1917, for the 100-inch), “1938” (the year of Hale’s death), and “Palomar” (the other mountain location of Hale’s last and greatest telescope, his 200-inch reflector).

All four are brief (around three minutes each), medium-paced, and opening with bold, clear melodic statements rather Coplandesque in their wide-spanning gait, though I am sure greater familiarity would reveal more clearly the work’s own individuality, as well as, perhaps, other American antecedents. The total effect is rather more that of a short suite of easy-going meditations than a cumulative, developmental work, but saved from any feeling of sameness by finely calculated textural shifts within each movement, such as the agitated rhythmic interchanges suddenly introduced into the first. 

The string quartet as a compositional medium is often described as “challenging” or ‘difficult”, but here Mr. Babcock seemed thoroughly comfortable with it, balancing and exploiting with apparent ease the individual and collective resources of the four instruments. One’s only regret is that a long and fruitful career in TV and movie music seems not to have allowed time for the creation of many concert works… let's hope there are more to come. 

“Blue” self-portrait by
Arnold Schoenberg, 1910.
I’m sure both Mr. Babcock and the shade of Brahms will forgive me for saying that their items were just starters to the concert's main course, Schoenberg’s fin de siècle first masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string sextet, composed in 1899 at the age of 25. Expansive in scale at nearly 30 minutes’ unbroken duration and already starting to push the boundaries of tonality (an early comment was that it was “as though someone had smeared the score to Tristan und Isolde when the ink was still wet”), it drives all six instruments to extremes of expressivity and technique in the service of a hyper-romantic and sensual program (the note generously printed the whole poem by Richard Dehmel on which it is based, though in a rather lumpen translation – “He grasps her around her ample hips”, anyone?). 

These marvelous players were fully equal to the score’s exceptional demands, articulating clearly the intricate contrapuntal layering woven through the work for much of its length, and projecting wave upon wave of increasingly tumultuous climaxes until the resolution was at last attained. Could that final plateau of calm, where the first violin floats above hushed oscillating sextuplets on the second violin against soft harmonies from the other four strings, have been taken even more spaciously? Perhaps, but the final effect of exhaustive, even exhausting, emotional catharsis (Schoenberg’s first private pupil, the distinguished composer Egon Wellesz, confessed that for him Verklärte Nacht suffers from “an excess of climax”) stayed with this listener, and I know for more than one other, long after the performance ended.

"Verklärte Nacht", 1975: Silver gelatin print, by Rolf Koppel.

This was a wonderful continuation of Mount Wilson’s current season: still to come are works for string quartet on 5 August, jazz on 2 September, and to conclude, more string quartets (two of the greatest, by Schubert and Debussy) on 7 October: details at the concert web page or by emailing [email protected]


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 1 July 2018, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: Mount Wilson from the air: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis, courtesy Los Angeles Magazine; Transporting the 100-inch mirror: Carnegie/Huntington Library; The performers: Courtesy Cécilia Tsan; George Ellery Hale: University of Chicago Photographic Archive; Bruce Babcock: Mount Wilson Observatory; “Verklärte Nacht”: Courtesy the artist; Schoenberg: Arnold Schönberg Center.

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