Monday, November 19, 2018

Brazilian Recorders at "The Interludes"

Quinta Essentia: l-r l-r: Gustavo de Francisco,
Pedro Ribeirão, Francielle Paixão, Renata Pereira. 

Quinta Essentia,
“The Interludes”,
First Lutheran Church,

David J Brown

The fact that the South Bay has several chamber music series, most of them master-minded by Jim Eninger, means that—like the weather in New England—if whatever is current is not to your taste, then just wait as something different will be along shortly. And usually that something different is really different…

I don’t know about in America, but way back when I was in post-war English primary school the last resort of hopeful music-teachers faced with a class of terminally unmusical kids was to hand out an armful of treble recorders and hope for the best. As one of those kids, it was quite a few years before I realized that those wayward plastic whistles had larger, deeper, and more respectable cousins, but I’d not comprehended quite the sheer range of instrument types and sounds that come under the heading “recorder” until last Saturday’s recital in Classical Crossroads’ “The Interludes” series by the Brazilian group Quinta Essentia.

Daniel Wolff.
After the first couple of items, by the Brazilian contemporary Daniel Wolff (b. 1967) and his countryman from an earlier generation Radamés Gnattali (1906-1988) (yes, he was named after that character in Aida), Gustavo de Francisco as spokesperson for Quinta Essentia explained about the unusual square cross-section of their largest recorders. These were the invention of a mid-20th century German recorder builder named Joachim Paetzold, who modeled his innovatory design on square wooden organ-pipes, with keys so that they could be played over two octaves.

The extraordinarily deep, woody sound of these instruments featured in all nine of the works (all Brazilian) included in the recital, though in the first, Wolff’s Flautata Doce composed in 2013, light cheerful dance rhythms rather than particular timbres dominated the outer parts of its aural landscape, enclosing a cool, slower central section of arching melody on the treble recorder.

Radamés Gnattali.
Unlike those of his older contemporary, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Gnattali’s music and reputation seem not to have traveled much beyond Brazil, and this was my first encounter with his music.

His affinity with dance rhythms was everywhere apparent. The brief Lenda (Legend) from 1936 that followed the Wolff laid in flourishes of brilliant tone-color alongside lugubrious close-packed harmonies and a wayward melodic line on tenor recorder, all over a foundation of basso burblings on the big Paetzold instruments. In his 1930 Seresta (Serenade) No. 1, the samba came specifically to the fore as the work’s subtitle, though the piece also included some surprising dissonances.

Heitor Villa-Lobos.
The three works by Villa-Lobos in the program were all arrangements for recorder ensemble by Senhor de Francisco. First up was the familiar “Ária” that is the first of his 1938 Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5’s two movements. This was an interesting experiment, but not one that I would look forward to hearing again in preference to Villa-Lobos’s original scoring for wordless soprano and an orchestra of ‘cellos.

Even more extensive and bewilderingly wide-ranging in style, scale and scoring than the Bachianas Brasileiras is Villa-Lobos’ earlier series of Choros, ranging from the colossal Choros No. 11 for piano and orchestra, which out-bulks any piano concerto in the repertoire apart from the one by Busoni, down to small single-movement pieces like the Choros No. 4 from 1926, originally scored for three horns and trombone.

Choros No. 4 segues from cool contrapuntal musings to a kind of village dance-band tune, and to my ears worked just as well on recorders as on brass. The same was even more true of A lenda de caboclo (1920), its dreamy, repetitive melody even more hypnotically drowsy as breathed through the recorders than in its original keyboard form.

Radamés Gnattali in later years.
Quinta Essentia played no less than five works by Gnattali, of which the most extensive—indeed the largest piece in the whole recital—was his four-movement Quartet No. 3 (1963). 

Here I felt that the string quartet original might have given more of an insight into this composer’s sound-world than Senhor de Francisco’s transcription, though maybe I should have spent less time trying to envisage on four stringed instruments its progression from staccato playfulness in the first movement, through angular high-flying tango in the second, a wayward solo against insistent triple-time rhythms in the third, and back to airborne staccatos in the finale, and instead simply enjoyed the timbres on offer, from the piercing treble to the extraordinary depths emanating from the contrabass.

I’m not sure whether Gnattali’s short Cantilena from 1939 that immediately preceded the quartet, or his Seresta No. 2 (1932) that closed the recital, were transcriptions or not. Either way however, the recorder quartet conveyed with equal vividness the arid, haunting mood of the first (apparently a lament from the desert area in the north-east of Brazil), and the alternately chirpy and boozy wit of the latter.

This was a fascinating recital, though I confess that by the end of around an hour and a quarter’s continuous music my ears were growing a little tired of undifferentiated recorder tone, however skillfully played; maybe it would have been better to omit one or two of the pieces.

What was not at issue was the disarming charm of Quinta Essentia who clearly as much love their instruments as they are adept at playing them (the "quinta" in their name refers to the four players plus the recorder!). To round everything off came perhaps the most charming touch of all, in which Senhora Pereira called out her three companions in turn by name, while they repeated again and again the inimitable chugging rhythms of the Brazilian folksong transcription that formed their encore. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, November 17, 2018.
Photos: Quinta Essentia: artists’ website; Daniel Wolff: Musica Brasilis; Gnatalli: Courtesy Marco Antonio Bernardo; Villa-Lobos: Courtesy Virginia Commonwealth University; Gnatalli in later years: Courtesy Opera Musica; Performance: author photo.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Two Knowns and an Unknown Unknown at Long Beach

Roger Wilkie, Eckart Preu, and the Long Beach Symphony play Brahms' Violin Concerto.


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

I wonder if it’s possible to define what differentiates a concerto performance where the soloist is a section principal of the orchestra concerned from one with a “star” soloist who’s flown in specially for the occasion? This thought crossed my mind while listening to Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major Op. 76 in the warmly satisfying account last Saturday by Roger Wilkie, Concertmaster for the past 27 years of the Long Beach Symphony, together with the LBSO under its Music Director, Eckart Preu. 

Roger Wilkie and Eckart Preu discuss Brahms'
Violin Concerto before the concert.
Maestro Preu noted wryly in remarks at the reception after the concert that there are concertmasters who think they can be soloists but actually can’t manage it, and then there are those that can… and no-one listening to Mr. Wilkie’s performance from his very first entry could have been in any doubt that he is among the latter. 

That particular entry, though, might point the answer to my initial question. Many a “star” performance makes a great dramatic business of it—delayed as it is until 90 measures into the first movement after an elaborate exposition of the first and second subject groups—but this was not Mr. Wilkie’s way. Rather, he emerged from the dotted fpp orchestral tutti with which that exposition ends not (like some star virtuosi) as a spectacular point-maker making a sudden interruption, fist-shaking or finger-wagging, but as the natural leader, first amongst equal colleagues, of a long and intricate discourse that unfolds throughout the remainder of the work. 

Brahms (left) and his close friend, the
violinist Joseph Joachim, in 1855,
some 23 years before the composition
of the Violin Concerto.
And thus the performance continued, which is not to say that Mr. Wilkie did not make the most of the great moments for the soloist with which this concerto abounds. The whole passage between his solo reintroduction of the first subject themes until he reached the one second-subject melody that Brahms does not introduce in the opening exposition (and arguably the most beautiful of all) was memorably spacious, unaffected, and pointful, and supported by some truly dolce playing from the strings.

After the cadenza (I think by Joachim, but stand to be corrected), the final part of this long, complex first movement—with its structure as clearly elucidated by Maestro Preu as I’ve heard it—was as tranquillo as Brahms in his marking might have wished for, and the following far briefer Adagio and Allegro giocoso movements were respectively as seamless and ebullient as anyone could want.

Only the clarity and homogeneity of the overall orchestral sound left something to be desired, and that could have been down to the effect on Brahms’ sometimes rather thick orchestration of the Terrace Theater’s acoustic, which could be generously described as generous, or less flatteringly dubbed as “tubby.”

To my ears this was not the case, though, with the big work that filled the concert’s second half, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor Op. 70 B. 141, which Maestro Preu laid out in a masterfully inexorable progress from the ominous Allegro maestoso opening theme in the depths on violas and ‘celli against a rumble on timpani, basses and horns, to the final tumultuous and tragic weight of the finale’s coda, some 39 minutes later.

Antonin Dvořák in 1882, three years before
the composition of the Seventh Symphony.
With the fewest measures and (along with the three-movement Third) shortest duration of any of Dvořák’s symphonies, not to mention being the most economical in its orchestration—no “extra” woodwind or percussion added to the 2222, 4230, timp, strings line-up—the Seventh can fairly be said to punch way above its weight. This was projected at full octane by the LBSO, their woodwind and horns particularly piquant and colorful throughout, and there was no sense of the heft being sucked out of the strings, as had sometimes been the case with the concerto.

Afterwards I had an interesting chat with an esteemed friend and critical colleague who felt that Maestro Preu’s handling of the third, Scherzo, movement lacked something in charm and Bohemian lilt. To me, this was one of those instances of music that is so great that quite small differences in tempo and emphasis simply reveal other facets of its manifold nature. Slow the tempo and turn up the warmth a little, and this movement becomes a smiling interlude in otherwise grimly serious surroundings. Drive it a little harder, as here, and it remains wholly a piece with its companion movements as a stage in Dvořák’s drama. Either way, what a symphony!

Lilian Elkington, from a 1920s
concert program (date unknown).
Thus the two “knowns.” As for the opening “unknown unknown” item in this second concert of the LBSO’s 2018-19 season: herewith Full Disclosure. It was I who way back in the 1970s discovered—as I was invited to discuss with Maestro Preu as part of the pre-concert talk—the original manuscript of the "orchestral poem" Out of the Mist by Lilian Elkington (1900-1969), so I suppose that in a way rather disqualifies me from but also uniquely qualifies me for writing about their performance of the piece!

Rather than repeat here the history of Out of the Mist, its composer, and its rediscovery, I’ll just refer to the article I wrote some 10 years ago in Signature, the Journal of the Maud Powell Society. which can be downloaded here. At that time the work had received only five performances in its 87-year history, the most recent being the fully professional studio recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones that is still available on the UK’s Dutton record label.

H.M.S. Verdun, which carried
the casket containing the
body of the Unknown Warrior to
Dover on November 10, 1920.
Since then, it will have received six more performances by the end of this year, all but one in 2018 alone and unsurprisingly so, given its subject-matter of the return of Britain’s Unknown Warrior by the destroyer H.M.S. Verdun, accompanied by a flotilla of battleships, up the foggy English Channel from the World War 1 battlefields (the moving history of this event can be found on Wikipedia). (That other pre-2018, post-2008 performance, given live at London's Cadogan Hall on 11 November 2010 by the Orion Symphony Orchestra under Toby Purser, has just reappeared on CD on the Lyrita label.)

The tomb of Britain’s Unknown Warrior
in Westminster Abbey, London.
It’s equally unsurprising that a highly talented young composer should have sought to immortalize this in music but, as the spacious and eloquent performance by Maestro Preu and his fine orchestra again showed, what is surprising is that in her first and only orchestral work she did it with such masterful economy. There’s not a redundant note in Out of the Mist’s scant 71 measures, from the halting, upward-reaching pianissimo on solo 'cello (played in this performance by LBSO Principal Cécilia Tsan more eloquently than I’ve ever heard it before) against ppp divided lower strings, harp arpeggio, timpani and horns, to the seismic fff conclusion.

Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946) was not only a notable
musical educator but also a gifted and prolific composer.
He gave the first British performance and was dedicatee
of Sibelius’s Third Symphony, which Eckart Preu
and the LBSO will perform on March 9, 2019.
Elkington originally marked this conclusion Largamente Appassionato, but on the manuscript Appassionato is crossed out and Trionfale substituted in a different hand—that of her composition teacher, Sir Granville Bantock, who was principal of the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music, where she studied.

Her manuscript bears other expression marks by Bantock; whether these were added during her tuition or at the time of the first performance, conducted by him with the Institute orchestra in June 1921, we shall never know.

In the otherwise model program note for the LBSO concert, the only error was the statement that her daughter “hadn’t known her mother had been a composer.” What is true is that Mrs. Mary Williams thought that all of her mother’s music had been destroyed, as she made clear in a letter of July 1984, when the material I discovered was included in an exhibition at the Barbican Music Library, London, of music by British composers associated with World War 1 which received some publicity in a local newspaper that she chanced to see.

The only other extant photo of Lilian Elkington
(date unknown).
Mrs. Williams also clarified in that letter that the four works I discovered were the only ones by her mother that she had known of, and so it’s as certain as can be that Lilian Elkington’s oeuvre remains one of the tiniest in all of music.

Apart from Out of the Mist (to be performed next on 9 December 2018 by the Beethoven Orchester under Dirk Kaftan in Bonn University Auditorium), there is a song entitled Little Hands, dated 1928, to a (very sentimental) text by one S. J. J. Wise, and rather more substantially, a Romance and a Rhapsodie, both for violin and piano, and undated. None of these three has been performed… 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, November 10, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: Roger Wilkie and Eckart Preu: Caught in the Moment; Brahms and Joachim: Conservatory CultureDvořák: Wikimedia Commons; Lilian Elkington: author collection, from the composer’s family; Tomb of the Unknown Warrior: Wikimedia Commons; HMS Verdun: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons; Bantock: Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: A Journey in Graphics

A wonderful line-drawing journey of Beethoven's 5th Symphony: fun, respectful of the composer's vision. A marvelous way to visualize what happens within the music itself. Click here.

Thanks to Jenine Bsharah Baines for finding this one.