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 in 2006 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.

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