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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