Thursday, September 20, 2018

ACEing it in the South Bay


ACE Trio, “The Interludes”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Cal State Northridge alums Ryan Glass (clarinet), Shannon Canchola (flute), and Jason Stoll (piano) (left, l-r) came together around a year ago to form ACE Trio, which “derives its name from the common triad in Western music and is considered consonant, stable, never requiring resolution.”

This seemed to hint a mission statement, and indeed the program they presented to the season’s first “Interludes” program at First Lutheran Church consisted entirely of “their own innovative arrangements and accessible contemporary music from living composers from around the world”, all cheerily introduced by Ms. Canchola and Mr. Glass. 

The first item, Doppler Effect, by Adrienne Albert (b.1941) was indeed an arrangement, but her own – one of over a dozen (as listed on her website) of the 1998 original for flute, viola and harp. Given that the “Doppler effect” is of changes in wave frequency (i.e. rise or fall in pitch in the case of sound) as source and observer move toward or away from each other, I was anticipating maybe some microtonal shifting, but instead Ms. Albert’s piece proved not to stray far from the blithe, somewhat Gallic, woodwind melody over a piano ostinato with which it opens. 
Adrienne Albert.

In due course tendrils of dissonance do insinuate themselves into the flow, and around the mid-way point the piece tilts sideways into a tango before getting back on track with some swapping around of the melody and ostinato. All in all it was for me an engaging introduction to a previously unknown American composer, and a fine initial showcase for ACE Trio’s skills. 

The program had gone through some changes on its way to the First Lutheran platform. The initially announced City Boy by Judd Greenstein had, by leaflet printing time, given way to Armando Ghidoni’s L’étoile Inconnue, but this also was dropped due to excessive running time, so we went straight onto Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), of which Mr. Glass introduced his own new arrangement for flute, clarinet, and piano. 

It’s worth noting that Piazzolla wrote the movements as separate compositions between 1965 and 1970 and only then decided to assemble them into a suite, so its unity is not a given. Any one of these Estaciones is pleasant enough, but for me the work as a whole yielded diminishing returns. I've no particular memory of the one previous live performance I'd heard (in the arrangement by Desyatnikov for violin and strings), but this time around after 25 minutes I was pretty much tangoed out, and no amount of enthusiastic advocacy by the trio could shake my continuing suspicion that Piazzolla is a one-trick pony. 

The downward spiral of interest continued with the first two of the three movements of Dance by Oliver Davis (b.1972), again arranged by Mr. Glass, in this case from a violin/strings/piano original. As Davis is a fellow Brit it’s painful to say that this vapidly pretty piece, each movement seemingly tailored to the three-minute pop music attention span, had (for me) about as much substance as a Hallmark greetings-card. Apparently he is a big hit over there *sigh*. 

Russell Peterson.
Fortunately interest perked up, and indeed peaked, with the Trio for flute, alto saxophone, and piano (sax part duly recast for clarinet by Mr. Glass) by American saxophonist Russell Peterson (b. 1969). 

From a coolly Ravelian unison opening on all three instruments, the Andante first movement gained textural complexity and propulsiveness before returning to stasis, while the ensuing Adagio comparably moved seamlessly from a bleak melody of somewhat Oriental cast on flute followed by clarinet against deep piano octaves, to a whirling central section, and then back. The final Allegro was a moto perpetuo requiring exceptional ensemble work at high speed and spectacularly virtuosic individual flights from all three players. It got both in spades from the trio. 

Guillaume Connesson.
Last on the program came Techno-Parade by the Frenchman Guillaume Connesson (b. 1970), a pulsing squib of a piece featuring flute overblowing above the piano pounding out rhythms that threatened to turn into the “Mission Impossible” theme. Everyone including the audience had a great time but it was a relief that it didn’t go on longer than four minutes. After this, the encore couldn’t have been more contrasted – the tender Interlude (entr'acte) before Act 3 of Bizet’s Carmen, which apparently had special significance for the players. 

Despite reservations about some of the repertoire, this was a vivid debut performance by ACE Trio, and I certainly hope South Bay music-lovers can look forward to hearing them again. In the meantime, if Mr. Glass is looking to arrange other works for the flute/clarinet/piano medium, I wonder whether he knows Arnold Bax’s exquisite Elegiac trio for flute, viola and harp


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, September 15, 2018.
Photos: ACE Trio: Courtesy; Adrienne Albert: Composer website; Russell Peterson: Composer website; Guillaume Connesson: © Jean-Baptiste Millot (composer website).

Saturday, September 15, 2018

“Debussy, the Painter of Sound”


Robert Thies, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

To honor the centennial year of Claude Debussy’s death (from cancer, at the early age of 55 on 25 March 1918, while German guns shelled Paris around him), the pianist Robert Thies (left) gave us fortunate listeners in the South Bay a program devoted to the composer that sought to draw links between his music and art via commentary on and performances of some of Debussy’s most celebrated pieces. This was accompanied by a slideshow of paintings, in which Mr. Thies was careful to distinguish between those known to have been a conscious influence on the composer and those others that he, as interpreter, proposed as appropriate visual corollaries. 

The first item celebrated a specific literary connection rather than a visual one – an exceptionally sumptuous and contemplative account of the familiar Clair de lune third movement from Suite Bergamasque L.82, composed in 1890 and inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem of some 30 years previously (thoughtfully printed in the program leaflet). This was, noted Mr. Thies, the earliest work in the recital and thus an appropriate place to start. 

The first visual pairing was between one of the Water Lilies series (right) by Monet, a founding father of French Impressionist painting, and Reflets dans l'eau, the first of Debussy’s Images, Book 1 L.105, though Mr. Thies noted that there was no evidence of a specific relationship between this painting and this piece (inter alia it’s worth noting that Debussy disliked, to put it no stronger, the term “impressionism” applied to music). His performance, as with every item in the recital, combined intimate identification with the composer’s sound-world along with the technical chops to encompass its most virtuosic flights, and – perhaps most importantly – the sensibility to delineate seamlessly the work's musico-dramatic arc. 

Next came an influence not from painting but from non-Western music: the Javanese gamelan ensemble (left) that Debussy first heard at the 1889 Paris International Exposition, sublimated in this instance into Pagodes, the first of the three Estampes L.108 of 1903. Mr. Thies noted Debussy’s instruction at the beginning that it should be played “almost without nuance”, and made a valiant attempt to observe this, though as the piece progresses the composer incorporates dynamic and expressive markings a-plenty, generating as much harmonic and dynamic tension and release as any other of the items included and thus demanding just as much “nuance” in the playing. 

The second of the three Estampes followed. La soirée dans Grenade is literally half a world away from the Orientalism of Pagodes, and here Mr. Thies expressed to the full the work’s wonderfully premonitory quality, as ominous in its way as Ravel’s La Valse, as well as its impulsive discursiveness – while we gazed at the swirling image of the dancer in Baille flamenco (right) by Ricardo Canals y Llambi. 

One of the very first pieces of music ever to get under the skin of my imagination was La cathédrale engloutie, No. 10 of the first Book of Préludes L.117 (1910), as sumptuously re-imagined for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski and endlessly replayed in this form by my young self on a long-lost open-reel tape-recorder.

I guess I never quite recovered from that youthful seduction and to this day the piano original for me somehow fails quite to do justice to the image of the legendary cathedral rising from its watery grave off the Breton island of Ys with ghostly priests chanting and bells clanging, all underpinned by the organ’s seismic rumble. Mr. Thies came as close as any pianist I have heard to the ideal and I particularly admired the acuity of his pedaling, supporting but never muddying the textures above. For me, however, the pictorial counterpart of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral (above left, one of many that he painted) was only tangential to the mood of this particular work. 

More apposite as visual accompaniment was James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket (right) to Feux d’artifice, the 12th and last of the second Book of Préludes L.123 (1913), in view of the subject-matter of both, as well as Debussy’s admiration for Whistler’s art and for his philosophy of aesthetics. The piece was again vastly different from the previous work, but Mr. Thies was as much the master of the fireworks’ explosive scintillations as of the sunken cathedral’s stately, mysterious progress. 

The penultimate listed item had another specific literary reference: the postscripted title of No. 4 in the first Book of Préludes, "Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir", is the third line lifted verbatim from Baudelaire’s 1857 poem Harmonie du soir, the whole of which was printed, like the Verlaine poem that inspired Clair de lune, in English translation in the leaflet.

Both the title of the poem, and the extracted line as title to the piece, imply a peacefully contemplative mood, but of neither is this true. The poem becomes increasingly suffused with blackness and bloody imagery and, in parallel, Debussy’s Prélude sustains a mood of inquietude and submerged bitterness through close-packed dissonant harmonies, as though the poem’s latter bleakness had bled into the texture of the music. Visually Mr. Thies added Van Gogh’s familiar Starry Night (above) and though again there’s no specific Debussy/Van Gogh corollary, its hallucinatory swirls were certainly appropriate. 

The 1904 standalone piece L’isle Joyeuse L.109 did have a specific artistic inspiration, the very un-Impressionistic L’Embarquement de Cythère (right) painted almost two centuries earlier by Jean-Antoine Watteau, which depicts a group of revelers on the mythical Mediterranean island of Cythera, birthplace of the goddess Venus.

Mr. Thies gave this glittering, exuberant seascape the most virtuosic performance of all, and for the visuals added a further element. Debussy greatly admired the English landscape master J. M. W. Turner, so it was appropriate that alongside the rococo elegance of the Watteau, Turner’s stormy vision of Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (left) be juxtaposed. 

After sustained and clamorous applause for this hugely enjoyable and insightful lecture-recital, Mr. Thies paid tribute to the indefatigable Jim Eninger for mounting the slideshow, and then returned for a perfectly chosen encore, the limpid elegance of the first of the two early Arabesques L.66 (1888-91). 

(N.B. The complex relationship between Debussy’s music and visual art is argued through in Leon Botstein’s paper “Beyond the Illusions of Realism: Painting and Debussy's Break with Tradition” from the 2001 Bard Festival Debussy and his World volume (ed. Jane F. Fulcher, Princeton UP, 2001).) 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, September 9 2018, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Artworks: Courtesy Jim Eninger; Robert Thies: website.

Monday, September 10, 2018

An Organ Pot-pourri to Start the Season

Namhee Han.


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The Korean organist Namhee Han has become an annual regular at the Classical Crossroads Inc. “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recitals in the South Bay, and following her last two appearances, pre- and post-Christmas respectively in 2016-17 and 2017-18, this year she moved up the season’s batting order to lead off for 2018-19. 

Gaston Litaize.
Of all the instrument-specific composer catalogs, those for the organ are perhaps the most hermetically sealed to non-specialists, and I was unsurprised once again to encounter a couple of whom I had never heard in the characteristically wide-ranging line-up of composers that Ms. Han presented. Right at the start came the completely unfamiliar name of Gaston Litaize (1909-1991) who, though blind virtually from birth, nonetheless became a powerful force in the world of 20th century French organ music, inspiring both other performers and composers.

Litaize’s own works include a set of 24 Préludes Liturgiques, No. 8 of which in Ms. Han’s hands started bold, stately, and rather ceremonially. Within its concise span of not much more than two minutes the composer manages a nice contrast onto a “second subject” on woodwind stops before the imperious opening returns in bright trumpet tones; a perfect recital opener. (The few more Préludes Liturgiques that can be found on YouTube evince a good deal of variety across the set, which is concise enough to fit onto one of the five CDs that comprise Litaize’s complete organ music.) 

After this, another French piece, this time quite familiar, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the transcription of Gabriel Fauré’s “Sicilienne” from Pelléas et Mélisande, its airborne flute-and-harp opening melody taking on a somewhat tubby quality transferred to the organ. On the other hand, there was no sense of anything missing in Handel’s Organ Concerto in F Major, Op.4 No.5, HWV293 without its oboe/strings/continuo accompaniment. Ms. Han’s solo account of its four brief movements, Larghetto-Allegro-Alla Siciliana-Presto, contained plenty of timbral variety to enhance the changes of pace. 

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).
In March 1789, Joseph Haydn wrote to his Viennese publishers, Artaria: “In a moment of great good humor I have completed a new Capriccio for fortepiano, whose taste, singularity and special construction cannot fail to receive approval from connoisseurs and amateurs alike. It is… rather long, but by no means too difficult.”

The Fantasia in C Major, Hob.XVII:4, for which Ms. Han moved to First Lutheran’s piano, is indeed quite lengthy – its single span only a minute or so shorter than the whole of Handel’s concerto – and quite difficult: full of unpredictable harmonic and melodic twists and turns, it swivels on a dime from ebullience to flashes of irascibility and introspection and back again, but withal never losing coherence. It is, in short, a minor masterpiece, and was by far the finest and most substantial work in Ms. Han’s recital. By-and-large she did it proud, though I wondered whether some passing lack of crispness in articulation was due to fingering technique by someone who is an organist first and foremost. 

Gerre Hancock.
Then it was back to the 20th century for the last two composers, and across the pond in this direction for the first of them, another scion of the (US) organ fraternity wholly unknown to me. This was Gerre Hancock (1934-2012), whose brief Variations on “Palm Beach” made up in contrast what they lacked in number (I counted four): the syncopated second variation was particularly catchy, while the final one was stirring and trumpet-toned enough to have made a strong conclusion to the recital.

But there was still one more item to come, and in “Salamanca” from Trois Préludes Hambourgeois by the Swiss Guy Bovet (b.1942), Ms. Han really pulled out all the stops (well, I had to put it that way, didn’t I?). Goodness knows what this riot of a piece would sound like on a really large pipe organ, but even on First Lutheran’s relatively modest instrument she ran it through an extraordinary gamut of timbres and moods, from the neo-mediaeval pipe-and-tabor opening through increasing contrapuntal elaborations and hints of other composers as varied as Bach, Bizet and Tchaikovsky, to a pew-vibrating conclusion.


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, September 7, 2018.
Photos: Namhee Han: website; Gaston Litaize: private collection; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Gerre Hancock: The University of Texas at Austin.