Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bernstein @ 100 @ the PSO

Leonard Bernstein coaches conducting student Carl St. Clair at Tanglewood, July 1985.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Carl St. Clair in action.
While details of inclusion or exclusion can always be nitpicked, this concert – the second in the PSO’s ambitious 40th anniversary season – was surely one of the most comprehensive and insightfully programmed of the many devoted entirely to the music of Leonard Bernstein during the ongoing centennial juggernaut. And it was made all the more significant and, indeed, moving by Carl St. Clair’s recollections from the platform of his personal association with "Mr. B" over the last six years of the composer's life, as was also documented fully in his interview with Timothy Mangan earlier this year on the PSO blog. 

Bernstein in 1945.
The program got off to a hyper-energized start with the 1949 Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble. I did wonder – as smoochy glissandi on three muted trumpets followed the Prelude’s opening snap on the other two trumpets, trombone quartet, bass drum and double bass – whether the Segerstrom Concert Hall was just too big, and its acoustic too cool and analytical, for such intimate, smoky music, but I was persuaded by the clarity it imparted to the Fugue for quintet of saxophones that followed after a blink-and-you-miss-it transition, and then the sheer impact of the final Riffs "for Everyone" (as specified in the score).

Joseph Morris.

Bernstein makes his featured solo clarinet wait until this last of the three brief movements, but Pacific Symphony principal Joseph Morris seized his moment when it came and joined “Everyone” in a viscerally exciting conclusion under Carl St. Clair’s baton. Aside from the sheer ripsnorting brilliance of the performance, it was a reminder of the uncanny skill with which Bernstein could capture and precisely notate music that is really antithetical to notation – the free improvisatory spirit of jazz. When the underlying lyrical impulse of so much of his music is so familiar, it was good to be recalled again to this contrasting aspect of his mastery.

Augustin Hadelich.
The program note’s claim that the Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) is “actually a violin concerto in five movements” was fine if you simply define a concerto as a work for soloist and orchestra, but the writer’s later speculation that Bernstein may have been “shy of the showiness behind that loaded word ‘concerto’” was surely also spot-on.

In an illuminating pre-concert interview with PSO host Alan Chapman, Augustin Hadelich, the soloist for the performance, remarked how difficult the solo part was to articulate, and how in this work technique had very much to be in the service of its spirit (he also noted that reading the Symposium had not been very useful as a guide to the piece!). Bernstein himself wrote: “There is no literal program for this Serenade, despite the fact that it resulted from a re-reading of Plato's charming dialogue, ‘The Symposium.’ The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love […]” 

The soloist, conductor, and PSO harp, percussion and strings (their strength reduced to around 8-8-6-6-2) gave a slightly understated, but intelligently thought-through and integrated account of the Serenade. The most recent live performance of it that I heard had given much prominence to the soloist, but here Mr. Hadelich’s unaccompanied Lento start to the initial, “Phaedrus”, section of the first movement was as the almost hesitant and even reverential initiator of a conversation that continued seamlessly into its main “Pausinius” Allegro

Plato's Symposium, painted in 1869 by Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880).
So skillfully did the performers maintain line and continuity throughout the remaining four movements that one was more conscious of an underlying commonality of mood than of the actual, and considerable, contrasts between them. But there was no under-characterizing of the wry delicacy of the ensuing Allegretto “Aristophanes”, or of the brief “Erixymachos” Presto's mysterious scurrying, or indeed the chaste, songful beauty of the “Agathon” Adagio

The unison strings opening to the bipartite “Socrates: Alcibiades” finale was dramatically impassioned, and out of its weighty sfffz climax Mr. Hadelich's violin emerged, wonderfully self-effacing as ever, to engage in probing conversation with the principal ‘cello. Then the Allegro molto vivace of the concluding “Alcibiades” section began. In that previous performance the sudden levity of this had jolted the wrong way for me, but here a relatively steady tempo with no exaggerated raucousness made for a convincing conclusion to the whole work, broadening and lightening its overall mood rather than rudely puncturing it.

Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England, for which
Chichester Psalms was commissioned
by the then Dean, Walter Hussey.
After the interval, the strings – now up to full strength and with the addition of brass, percussion, and two harps – were joined by the 120-strong Pacific Chorale for Chichester Psalms, written in 1965, a decade on from the Serenade, and surely one of the most successful of all Bernstein’s purely concert works in its memorability, range and concision.

Between the compulsively rhythmic and frequently dissonant first movement and the extended, warmly consolatory finale, Bernstein’s sublime setting of Psalm 23 is framed like a jewel, with one of the most radiant melodies he ever wrote entrusted to a male alto, the part here taken by 12-year-old Angel Garcia. 

Angel Garcia.
Bernstein makes what is already a challenging entry for the soloist – in low register and unaccompanied apart from off-beat harp chords –  even more so by his instruction to sing semplice senza cresc. o dim. (non-sentimentally), but Angel almost managed it, apart from sounding a little hard and forced at first. On his return after the movement’s choral Allegro feroce central section, he sounded rather more secure.

Throughout the work, the Pacific Chorale achieved the widest expressive range, from the ferocity in that movement and elsewhere to the exquisitely hushed (pppp – count ‘em!) Amen conclusion. In the outer movements the brief SATB solos were taken by Chelsea Claves, Jane Hyun-Jung Shim, Nicholas Preston and Matthew Kellaway from the Pacific Chorale’s ranks.

The Pacific Chorale.

Celena Shafer.
Last came five vocal items, in which soprano Celena Shafer was very much the star. I was sorry that timing only allowed for two of the six songs from Arias and Barcarolles (Nos. V “Greeting” and III “Little Smary”, in that order), and here I have my only criticism of the program – either none at all or the entire work, Bernstein’s last, composed in 1988, would have been better. These two songs in isolation made only a fragmentary impression, despite maestro St. Clair’s touching reminiscence of his conversation with the composer’s mother, Jennie Bernstein, about her text for “Little Smary.” 

Ms. Shafer followed this with a juicily histrionic rendition of “A Little Bit in Love” from the two-act 1953 musical Wonderful Town, and then upped the ante with a positively gymnastic performance of “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s subsequent operetta Candide, climaxed by an ascent to the top of the tall, narrow stool she had been using as a stage prop that swung one’s attention away from her marvelous vocal pyrotechnics to the security of her balance – but she triumphed here as elsewhere.

Finally she was joined by tenor Nicholas Preston and the Pacific Chorale in a fervent account of the final number from Candide – “Make Your Garden Grow” indeed! Mr. B could certainly write them, and this whole concert was a vibrant and memorable tribute to his enduring genius, his inclusiveness, and his lifelong belief in the enriching power of music. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, October 25, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Bernstein and Carl St. Clair: Walter H. Scott, courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra archives; Other Bernstein: Courtesy Bernstein 100 website; Carl St. Clair: Courtesy Schmidt Artists; Joseph Morris: Cheryl Savan, courtesy artist website; Augustin Hadelich: courtesy artist website; Plato’s Symposium: Wikimedia Commons; Chichester Cathedral: Paul Hudson, Visible Landscape; Angel Garcia: Courtesy America’s Got Talent; Pacific Chorale: Stan Sholik, courtesy of Pacific Chorale; Celena Shafer: Ryan Thompson, courtesy Colbert Artists Management.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Liszt and Vianna da Motta at Rolling Hills

Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro.


Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Last month, a Debussyan picture-gallery with local keyboard virtuoso Robert Thies as guide; this month, extracts from Lisztian travelogues from the distinguished Portuguese pianist Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro plus a couple of music-pictures from his native country: RHUMC’s series “Second Sundays at Two” has certainly kicked off its 2018-19 season with a feast of illustratable pianism. 

If you were to draw a fanciful analogy between the sizes of output of some composers and various types of land-mass, then Liszt’s vast corpus would correspond to a veritable continent—and one that remains largely unexplored even by most knowledgeable music-lovers. Across this Lisztian continent are several particularly prominent mountain-ranges, among them being that of the solo piano music, and within which the three Années de pèlerinage (“Years of Travel”) visit some of the most thoroughly explored peaks. 

The current William Tell Chapel on Lake Uri, Switzerland,
photographed in 1885, a few years after its construction.
I guess that some pianists with a taste for marathons have given the complete published cycle in concert (a very long evening though equaled, amongst Liszt’s choral/orchestral works for example, by his mammoth oratorio Christus), but normally the 26 individual pieces that comprise Années de pèlerinage 1-3 form a rich resource from which recitalists are able to pick and choose.

Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro selected a nicely contrasted sequence: “The Chapel of William Tell”, the initial item from the First Year Switzerland S.160; “Sonnet 123 by Petrarch”, the penultimate piece from the Second Year Italy S.161; and the brief “Sursum Corda”, which concludes the Third Année de pèlerinage S.163

The earliest known
photograph of Liszt,
dating from 1843.
He further welded the three into a single suite, leaving very short pauses and thus maintaining concentration to meet fully the wide range of Liszt’s technical and expressive demands: in turn, the solemn majesty of Tell’s Chapel (and giving a more than usually dramatic treatment to the Allegro vivace central section); the contrasting limpid beauty of the Sonnet 123—appropriate to the poem’s subject of angelic grief at the world’s woes; and finally the rather theatrically prayerful uplift of “Sursum Corda”. 

Statue of Vianna da
Motta in the Jardim
do Torel, Lisbon.
Then came a complete change of pace, mood, and location, with two short pieces by one of the central figures of Portuguese musical Romanticism, José Vianna da Motta. There were nice links here: Vianna da Motta is said to have been, at his death in 1948 at the age of 80, the last surviving pupil of Franz Liszt. The youthful Portuguese composer studied with the master in Weimar all of 63 years earlier in 1885, a year before Liszt himself died, and much later went on to teach Helena Sá e Costa, who was Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s teacher. 

If Liszt’s 1000+ compositions form a continent of music, then Vianna da Motta’s compact output of around 30 each of solo piano pieces and songs, plus small numbers of nonetheless substantial chamber and orchestral works, is more like a large and somewhat remote island—one mostly unknown to music-lovers outside Portugal itself. ArkivMusic, for example, lists a bare half-dozen CDs devoted to his music. The nostalgically romantic Barcarola No. 1 Op. 1 and the cheerful dance “Chula”, second of the 3 Scenas Portugezas Op. 9, were brief enough to be, in Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s affectionate accounts, merely enticing tasters for Vianna da Motta’s music. 

Oscar Lorenzo Fernández.
After this we were treated to one more Lisztian extravaganza, a lengthy virtuoso showpiece incorporating the widest range of pianistic challenges. This was the 12th of the 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies S.244, and Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro proved himself totally its master, moving from playfulness to aristocratic wryness to rhetorical thunder as the music demanded.

Finally, after a brief chat about his forthcoming CDs with host Jim Eninger, he delivered a brief but wildly dynamic encore, “Jongo”, the third and final dance from the Suite brasileira No. 3 by Oscar Lorenzo Fernández (1897-1948). I wonder what Fernández’s symphonies are like? 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, October 14 2018, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro: Rita Carmo, courtesy performer website; William Tell Chapel: Courtesy Summit Post; Liszt: Wikimedia Commons; Vianna da Motta statue: Manuel Correia, Wikimedia CommonsFernández: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Pair of Masterworks at the Summit

l-r: Sarah Thornblade, Ambroise Aubrun, Cécilia Tsan, Andrew Duckles.


Schubert and Debussy string quartets, Mount Wilson Observatory

The last of this year’s Sunday afternoon concerts in the 100-inch telescope dome at Mount Wilson Observatory comprised two chamber masterpieces: one latish Schubert, the String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, Op. 29 D.804 from 1824, and one earlyish Debussy, his sole String Quartet in G minor Op. 10 L.91, completed in 1893 (at the same age at which Schubert died). The performers were Ambroise Aubrun and Sarah Thornblade, violins; Andrew Duckles, viola; and Cécilia Tsan, ‘cello, who has also been the artistic mastermind behind both last year’s and this year’s series.

Mist enshrouding the 100-inch telescope dome.
Waiting for the doors to open for admittance, the abrupt chill cast by the thick drifting banks of mountain mist that kept obscuring the October sun struck me as a not altogether fanciful metaphor for the major/minor oscillations that constantly occur in Schubert’s later music, where warmth and optimism are suddenly shadowed as if by doubt.

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 is so prevailingly somber, however, that the opposite might be said to be the case. Apart from the Allegro moderato finale which is decisively in A major, for the remainder of the work the major-key shifts form passing lightenings of the overall gloom. This is particularly so in the long first movement whose foreboding opening—a bleak ostinato on second violin against a juddering rhythm from viola and ‘cello, above which a long-breathed and haunting melody is unspooled downwards by the first violin—casts a long shadow over the remainder of the work.

Schubert in 1825: Watercolor
by Wilhelm August Rieder.
The external chill permeated into the dome to the extent that it reached the performers’ fingers, which had audible difficulty in articulating this opening clearly. But by the end of the long first movement exposition (which sadly was not repeated, doubtless due to time constraints), their playing had arrived and remained at a model blend of clarity, insight and passion.

The bitter exultancy that climaxes the first movement development rang around the steel interior, which must have an acoustic decay time of several seconds, like a colossal distant bell being struck. Most listeners in any regularly shaped auditorium are seated some distance from the players, and if the building, be it cathedral or hall, has that much resonance then the music can be fatally drowned in enveloping echoes. In the Mount Wilson dome, however, simple proximity makes this extreme resonance not just bearable but positively thrilling for the audience.

The doughnut shape of the viewing platform where the concerts are held (the telescope itself projecting up through the hole in the center) necessitates audience and players being grouped together on one side. Even at the tips of the resulting crescent moon-shaped seating layout, there are only four rows of seats, while most listeners are in the center in just two rows. The players are thus extremely close, but the music is saved from oppressiveness and enhanced by the aural halo bouncing back from the surrounding metal interior. It is a unique sound, in my experience, and must be heard to be believed.

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 is commonly nicknamed “Rosamunde”, because the main theme of the second movement is borrowed from the Act 3 Entr’acte in that incidental music, composed the previous year. Interestingly, after identical (apart from instrumentation) statements of that theme, the music in each diverges sharply, with the quartet version maintaining a far more purposeful tread than the dreamy musings of the Entr’acte.

Then before the finale, there is one of the least joyous Menuettos in all music, led off and permeated throughout by a long-held low ‘cello note that in this measured performance was intoned by Ms. Tsan’s instrument with an almost Norn-like sense of foreboding and solemnity. The finale does at last maintain a relatively positive momentum, though this account seemed to underline those Schubertian major/minor shifts, signaling that all is never going to be well for very long.

Debussy playing the piano at the home of the Chausson family, 1893.
Debussy’s String Quartet predates his other three major chamber works by over 20 years, and stands at a crossroads between the classically influenced styles of Franck and Fauré and his own imminent breaking free from harmonic and structural constraints. Its Animé et très décidé first movement in this performance was powerful indeed, with Debussy’s muscular, close-packed harmonies energetically projected and climaxed with double-stopped ff chords from all four players of almost shocking impact.

The second movement, marked Assez vif et bien rythmé and a scherzo in all but name, is in the greatest possible textural contrast to the first, with teeming pizzicati that in this account went pinging around the dome like audible fireflies. Following the traditional four-movement layout, but eschewing tradition in much else, the slow third movement was marked by some truly other-worldly muted pianissimo playing towards its close by Ms. Thornblade, who had swopped the first and second violin roles with M. Aubrun between the two works.

After a slow introduction that includes some of the most chromatic writing in the whole piece, the main body of the finale returns to the close-packed tension of the first movement, and only in its last few pages achieves a sense of struggle exuberantly overcome. Such was the energy generated here that it seemed even to have warmed the air in the dome!

In his introduction before the musicians came on to perform, Mount Wilson Observatory Trustee Dan Kohne commented on how these concerts in this place embrace and combine the best that humans can achieve, the quest for knowledge and the profundity of great art. Never a truer word… and long may both continue on this particular mountaintop. Previous concerts at Mount Wilson were reviewed here, here, here, and here.


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 7 October 2018,
3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: the author; Mount Wilson: Courtesy Mount Wilson Observatory; Schubert: PinterestDebussy: DEA/G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images; Cello: Cécilia Tsan.

Monday, October 8, 2018

“American Fusions” open Long Beach Symphony's season

Eckart Preu and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.


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

The American melting-pot, the seeking of new forms of expression, and the way some American composers have sought to synthesize disparate genres to embrace popular appeal, were the themes behind LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu’s ambitious opening concert for the orchestra’s 2018-19 season. In his pre-concert talk he noted that all four composers in the program had used blends between “classical” and various popular idioms: for Frank Zappa it had been rock, for George Gershwin jazz, for Mason Bates technopop and electronica, and for Leonard Bernstein the Broadway musical among others.

Frank Zappa.
Zappa’s public reputation has probably been for outrage as much as anything, but behind the gigs and the stunts was a gifted polymath who in his teens had been captivated as much by Edgard Varèse and Stravinsky as by R&B and doo-wop, and whose notated concert works were loved, and recorded, by Pierre Boulez. (In Paris the love affair continues—on the evening following this LBSO concert, the Philharmonie de Paris put on an elaborate production of Zappa’s magnum opus 200 Motels, complete with the Strasbourg Philharmonic and many other musicians, multiple video feeds from cellphones, a Zappa marionette onstage, and a bathrobe-and-towel clad Zappa lookalike interjecting from the audience.) 

Long Beach was content with G-Spot Tornado, a four-minute firecracker scherzo which, after a drum tattoo, is driven by a ferocious ostinato figure that spreads like a virus through the large ensemble of winds, brass, guitars, pitched and unpitched percussion, keyboards, and string quartet, metamorphosing constantly in rhythmic shape and timbral quality, and overlain by fragmentary melodic blasts from the brass. All this was delivered conscientiously by the orchestra, directed by Maestro Preu with his characteristic fervor, though I think a bit more familiarity is needed for them to play the work with the full defiant abandon coiled in its DNA. 

Terrence Wilson.
In the pre-concert talk, Preu had brought on stage pianist Terrence Wilson, the soloist in George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and his far less well-known Second Rhapsody composed seven years later; the latter preceded its famous sibling in the program, the two together filling the first half after the Zappa.

Both maestros lauded the virtues of the Second Rhapsody, which they agreed had been hobbled by its mundane, functional title—perhaps it should have been left as “Rhapsody in Rivets”, one of several labels it went through in its course from movie-music origins to final concert-hall form. 

Jayce Keane’s admirably readable program notes came clean that Rhapsody in Blue “had been hastily thrown together”, which I confess is how the piece has always struck me. Nonetheless it succeeds due to its unforgettable opening clarinet glissando (successfully wailed in this performance by LBSO Principal Gary Bovyer), memorable tunes, and sheer unpredictability and verve.

George Gershwin.
It’s easy to conclude that in the Second Rhapsody, though seemingly a more through-composed piece, Gershwin strove but failed to achieve the same effect, with climax after climax building up effortfully only to collapse in disarray. However, while it’s always risky to pin the apparent emotional climate of a work on external circumstances, I wonder whether something in their differences at least reflects the contrast between 1931’s Depression-era zeitgeist and that of the Roaring Twenties, of which Rhapsody in Blue remains a key musical signature.

Wherever the truth lies, Mr. Wilson played both works not only with affectionate brilliance but also an engagingly improvisatory manner, which Maestro Preu and the orchestra faithfully followed through every twist and turn. Rhapsody in Blue was performed in Ferde Grofé’s orchestration of 1942, the Second Rhapsody as re-orchestrated by Robert McBride in 1951. It would be interesting in some future concert to hear Gershwin’s recently restored original orchestration. 

Mason Bates.
Mason Bates’ work Mothership opened the second half, and I confess that after it I remained on the outside looking in at the phenomenon of this reputedly most-performed American composer of his generation. I respect my LA Opus friend and colleague Rodney Punt’s high opinion of Bates’ Steve Jobs opera at Santa Fe this year, but for me Mothership was no more interesting than my one previous experience of his music live at Hartford, CT, a few years ago—the “symphony” Alternative Energy, a tedious exploitation of a thin gimmick (used car parts as percussion). 

In Mothership, Bates “imagines the orchestra [being] ‘docked’ by several visiting soloists, who offer brief but virtuosic riffs on the work’s thematic materials over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration.” The trouble is that these contributions are as unmemorable as they are brief, while the subminimalist orchestral background and rhythmic underpinning are simply dull—nothing here to compare with Zappa’s defiant resourcefulness, to look no further. Bates’ use of electronica seems similarly mundane when seen against the long history of electronic music, of which Varèse was perhaps the most significant founding-father. 

One could hardly imagine a more pointful contrast than Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, whose rhythmic and textural variety and sheer melodic richness burst out in a brilliant performance from the LBSO and Maestro Eckart who, after what looked like a fairly metronomic task piloting the Mothership, was galvanized by this last performance of the evening, his tall figure constantly mobile, seemingly everywhere at once with his orchestra, coaxing from them playing that was as impactful and subtle as the music demanded. 

l-r: Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal.
While it’s at least arguable that more than a little of the impact and brilliance of the Symphonic Dances is owed to the full orchestral score prepared in 1960-61 by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, there’s no doubting Bernstein’s genius, at least in West Side Story, as was acknowledged 30 years later by Ramin in his touching prefatory note to the published score: 

“It was an orchestrator's dream to work with Leonard Bernstein; Lenny, lrwin Kostal and I discussed every note in every bar of the score at great length [and] it's no wonder that we hoped someday to be able to re-orchestrate this very inventive and difficult music… Somehow, the Symphonic Dances manage to be both ‘serious’ and ‘popular.’ This suite brings music of Broadway into the concert hall, orchestrating with symphonic character the music every theater-goer loves. Miraculously, Lenny could do it all. I'll always consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have been one of his devoted helpers.” 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, September 29, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: LBSO and Eckart Preu: Caught in the Moment, courtesy Long Beach Post; Frank Zappa: Courtesy BBC Music; Terrence Wilson: Courtesy LBSO; George Gershwin: Courtesy CMUSE; Mason Bates: Ryan Schude/composer website; Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal: Courtesy SecondHandSongs.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

A Bouquet of Forget Me Nots on First Friday


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya.
What makes a melody truly memorable? This thought came to mind during most of the items in this recital by the Japanese violinist/ violist Ken Aiso and Ukrainian pianist Valeria Morgovskaya, the second in  Classical Crossroads Inc.’s Friday lunchtime series. Google the question and you’ll get more answers than you could ever be bothered to read through: one that I quite liked involved achieving, in the melody’s progress, a balance between repetition and non-repetition, and between predictable and unpredictable elements.

For me this certainly fits the pairs of falling 2nds and 5ths followed by upward scales, hesitant and imploring, that herald “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, played here in an arrangement for viola and piano that suffered nothing in its translation from the original’s ‘cello and two pianos. The close rapport between Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept it cool and up to the Andantino grazioso marking, no drawn-out Pavlovan “dying swan” effect here. 

Another recipe for memorable melody I came across was that they often move mostly in single scale steps. This is certainly true of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”—the last of his 14 Romances Op. 34 originally written for high voice and piano—which like “The Swan” has been given many arrangements. The performers again chose the one for viola and piano, and here I wondered at first whether their playing of this often lachrymal piece needed a little more overt emotion. However, their carefully graduated turning up of the flame as they approached its single ff climax in the central section proved me wrong. 

Elgar and Caroline Alice,
shortly after their marriage.
Yet a third short piece with an unforgettable main melody followed, and one within which all the above ingredients for earworming can be found. Elgar’s Salut d’amour has probably been arranged for as many different combinations of instruments as the Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninoff pieces, but here we had it in its original form for violin and piano, as composed in 1888 by Elgar as an engagement present for his fiancée, and once again the lack of swooning in Mr. Aiso’s playing was all gain—a legacy perhaps of his years with London’s premiere period-instrument band, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose programs were high on my list of must-listens when I lived there.

Koichi Kishi (1909-1937).
Entirely new to me were both the next piece, Dance of the Dragon for violin and piano, and its composer Koichi Kishi. Thank you as ever, Wikipedia, for outlining Kishi’s humbling range of achievements in his short life of only 28 years… not only as a violinist, composer and conductor (of his own works, with the Berlin Philharmonic, no less!), but even as a film director.

The brief Dance of the Dragon was an explosive change of mood before yet another of those ineradicable melodies—and one whose its predominance of wide leaps largely undermines recipe #2 above. This was the “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera Thaïs of 1894, and all of Mr. Aiso’s virtues of discreet vibrato, spot-on intonation, and judicious choice of tempi were once again on full display.

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908).
Then came the final and biggest piece in the listed program, and one that really allowed him to show off his virtuoso credentials. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen Op. 20—this time in the composer’s own arrangement for violin and piano from his orchestrated original composed in 1878—is a 10-minute, four-part fantasy on “Gypsy Airs”, and for the violinist full of fearsome challenges.

These, whether fast double-stops, seamless spiccato runs, ringing pizzicato chords, or high harmonics of other-worldly eeriness, were  all negotiated by Mr. Aiso without the slightest ruffling of the aplomb he displayed throughout the recital. All this got a deserved standing ovation from the fortunate audience in First Lutheran, after which Bach’s famous “Air on the G String” as encore formed the perfect return to earth. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 4, 2018. Photos: The performers: Courtesy Loyola Marymount University; Elgar: Medium website

Koichi Kishi: YouTube; Sarasate: Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The PSO’s Ambitious 40th Season Makes a Starry Start


Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Where’s the rest of me?” Reagan’s famous filmic cri de coeur came unbidden to mind while listening to Frank Ticheli’s Shooting Stars, the opener in the lengthy first concert of the Pacific Symphony’s highly ambitious 40th anniversary season. In fact, I rather wish I’d not known in advance (thanks to the program book) that it also functions as the first movement of his Symphony No. 2, so that innocent ears could have encountered Shooting Stars as a standalone item with no allied pondering as to whether it worked as a satisfactory whole when shorn of its companion movements. 

Frank Ticheli.
But this wasn't quite the case, as was clarified in an interval chat with Mr. Ticheli which clarified the relationship. In 2003 simultaneous commissions had arrived from the PSO for a short orchestral work to celebrate its then 25th anniversary, and from Florida State University for a piece to honor its retiring Director of Bands, Dr. James E. Croft. The solution was to craft the music so that the first movement of Florida’s wind band symphony could also transfer to full orchestra for the PSO’s 25th (the other two movements of the symphony remain in concert band form only). Now, to buff up the work for the 40th anniversary celebrations, he had replaced the original six measures of Shooting Stars’ conclusion with 50 new measures for a more spectacular ending, lengthening it by around 80 seconds. 

After prior audition on YouTube of the (admittedly poorly recorded) wind band version, hearing the PSO blaze away in the Segerstrom Hall’s wonderful acoustic was like going from 16mm film to IMAX, a scintillating panoply of orchestral color dominated by multifarious pitched and unpitched percussion, though not to the point of drowning out trenchant motifs in the rest of the orchestra. So does it work as a standalone piece? Not enough! Let’s have the other two movements reworked and the whole symphony played by the PSO… how about a commission of that for the 50th anniversary?

Rachmaninoff in 1909, the year he
composed the Third Piano Concerto.
Regular PSO host Alan Chapman in his pre-concert talk got a good laugh by quoting from the 1954Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians: “The enormous popular success some few of Rakhmaninov's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor. The third pianoforte Concerto was on the whole liked by the public only because of its close resemblance to the second…” —not Grove V editor/annotator/polemicist Eric Blom’s most prescient moment.

The performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 by the Russian pianist Olga Kern and the PSO under Music Director Carl St. Clair, the main item in the concert’s first half, in fact underlined how different it is from Piano Concerto No. 2—monumental and granitic where its predecessor is fulsome and heart-on-sleeve, much more structurally complex, and also with parallel moments in each handled in hugely dissimilar ways (like the beginnings and ends of the respective first movements). 

In a video thoughtfully posted by the PSO on Facebook, Ms. Kern called it a “symphony for orchestra and piano”, and it’s easy to agree. In this half-hour exposition from the keyboard, she averred that she prefers the longer and (even) more difficult version of the first movement cadenza, which she regards as the crucial climax in the whole work. 

In the packed Segerstrom Hall, the useful video feed above the players showed that even in this passage of surpassing complexity she did not lose the contained and apparently relaxed posture that characterized her whole performance: no extravagant theatrics, just liquidly pliable wrists and fingers maintaining crystalline articulation which nonetheless was of great flexibility, from romantic expansiveness as in her treatment of the first movement’s second subject, to the headlong dynamism with which she lit into the Alla breve finale. 

Olga Kern, Carl St. Clair, and the Pacific Symphony in action.
In all this she was devotedly partnered by Maestro St. Clair and the orchestra, which both collectively and individually stayed on message to a remarkable extent considering the extremes of romantic rubato to which they were subjected. Only in the final pages of the last movement, where Rachmaninoff lays on a plethora of tempi adjustments and expressive marks in a perhaps over-anxious attempt to give the climax every last erg of energy, did I feel that the performance, in trying to follow them all to the letter, became a little over-studied and unspontaneous. Nonetheless, overall it was a triumphant account of a towering work (pace the shade of Mr. Blom). 

Mozart in c.1780.
Fine though this was, however, for me the performance after the interval of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major K.364 for Violin and Viola was even more memorable. In contrast to the standard Romantic wind and brass forces Rachmaninoff employs, the Sinfonia Concertante is remarkably economical in its scoring for Mozart in a mature large-scale orchestral work from 1779, with just pairs of oboes and horns as well as the strings. The latter, though also scaled down, were still relatively numerous, at around 10-8-7-5-3 (I couldn’t be sure from where I was sitting), and under Maestro St. Clair’s expansive direction, produced a rich, warm sound. 

What made the performance so special, however, were the soloists Dennis Kim and Meredith Crawford, respectively the PSO’s new Concertmaster and viola section Principal. Searching around for a metaphor to describe their playing and interaction, to me they seemed perhaps like a pair of probably new but already very good friends, enthusiastically exploring and discussing an inexhaustible range of ideas in common, and finding nothing to disagree about. 

Their playing was muscular, joyful, quietly plangent by turns as the mood of the music demanded, both players always acutely aware of and responding to what the other was doing. It was a performance to treasure.

I wonder if they might consider giving us others in the (admittedly limited) repertoire of concertos for these instruments: the Bruch Double Concerto in E minor, say, or perhaps the Arthur Benjamin Romantic Fantasy.

Ravel in 1928, the year
he composed Boléro.
However much the prospect might seem wearying of once more hearing Ravel’s Boléro uncoil itself from the tiny snare-drum taps at the start to the conclusion’s tumultuous tonal side-slips, in a performance as devoted and focused as that with which the PSO and Maestro St. Clair concluded this concert the magic worked yet again, and one was left with that tune as an earworm that wouldn’t depart for days! And I guess that is the secret of the piece: that tune is just so damned good and such a gift to each and every player that no-one is ever going to sound bored and lackluster as their turn with it comes around. 

This performance came with visual accompaniment—a video show of 40 years of PSO history that, while intermittently interesting (“I didn’t know that he had ever conducted the orchestra”, etc.) seemed a bit superfluous or at least out of place, a misguided concern that Ravel's “orchestral tissue without music” somehow needed eye-candy to hold the interest. No, it didn’t; indeed I shut mine from time to time just to concentrate on what was music by any definition, superbly played by a fine orchestra. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Friday, September 28, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Performance photos: Doug Gifford, courtesy Pacific Symphony; Frank Ticheli: Charlie Grosso, courtesy composer website; Rachmaninoff: portrait by Robert Sterl, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Mozart: detail a from painting of Mozart and his family by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Ravel: Bibliothèque nationale de France, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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