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.

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