Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Last and First Thoughts at the Pacific Symphony

The demon Chernabog, from the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney's Fantasia (1940).


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

The Pacific Symphony’s intelligently planned first concert of 2019—Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony—was the perfect cleanser for any lingering holiday staleness. It was vividly played, insightfully conducted by guest David Danzmayr, and in Gabriela Martinez showcased a soloist who drew from the Segerstrom’s Steinway sounds that were an ideal blend of clarity and warmth.

Mussorgsky in 1865.
Still ineradicably associated, after nearly 80 years, with the Disney Fantasia animators’ vision of Chernabog the demon unfurling his wings atop the titular “Bald Mountain”, the music that formed an unholy alliance with that image went through several metamorphoses before it reached cinemas in 1940.

For it, conductor Leopold Stokowski heavily re-orchestrated and made considerable cuts to the version of Night on Bald Mountain edited in 1886 by Rimsky-Korsakov, which itself drew from both the original 1867 tone-poem and Mussorgsky’s late insertion of parts of it into Act One of the unfinished opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi (1874-1880).

Portrait of Rimsky-Korsakov
by Ilya Repin (1893).
It would have been instructive to hear the startlingly different Mussorgsky original, not to say fun to get the sliced, diced, and beefed-up Stokowski version with a Blu-ray® projection via the Hall’s deluxe a/v system, but I had no issue with the familiar and consummately orchestrated and structured Rimsky version.

Its initial Allegro feroce has no metronome mark (Vivace in the original, at a virtually unplayable quarter note=184!), but Mr. Danzmayr’s fairly measured way with the opening violin oscillations made space for a truly ferocious digging-in to the dotted strings-and-woodwind chords that introduce the heavy brass’s baying out of the ominous main theme. Couple that with whiplash-sharp skirls and emphatically punched-out sforzandi for the full forces, and this performance was clearly going to be one to remember. 

Perhaps the most telling moments came with the eloquent playing by section principals Joseph Morris (clarinet) and Benjamin Smolen (flute) of their solos in the consolatory “dawn” conclusion (entirely missing from Mussorgsky’s original, where the demonic revels continue unabated to the end). Maybe it would have added even more atmosphere to have the bell offstage, but who’s complaining?

It might seem a bit perverse to start talking about the performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 with the orchestra’s contribution, but it does have the first movement exposition all to itself before the piano enters, and Mr. Danzmayr and his forces certainly made the maestoso most of it. The employment of the PSO’s full string complement added to the almost Brahmsian heft, though without any exaggerated slowing when the violins introduced the beautiful cantabile second subject.

Gabriela Martinez.
When Ms. Martinez finally entered I did feel her opening solo statement in octaves of the first subject (Chopin in 1830 sticking to the Classical precedent of a second exposition led by the soloist) to be slightly underpowered—not quite the fortissimo he asks for. But then the crystalline beauty of her fingerwork was immediately in such exquisite contrast to the richness of the preceding orchestral tutti that to object would be churlish.

Portrait of Chopin (1829),
by Ambroży Mieroszewski.
Throughout the performance, indeed, the most notable characteristic of her playing was a mellifluous songfulness that in the first movement really came into its own in the long passages where Chopin dwells on his second subject so much that it seems as if he cannot bear to leave it. Fine playing from first horn Keith Popejoy and principal bassoon Rose Corrigan of the passages where they counterpoint the piano line underlined how skillfully and sensitively Chopin could write for other instruments, and indeed the many felicities in the PSO’s fine account made me regret that Chopin composed so few works for orchestra.

His pp string writing at the start of the Romanze is exquisite, and the successive overlapping entries of each section, muted, were conducted and played with hushed concentration; Ms. Martinez’s entry was the perfect continuation of the same musing thoughtfulness. By contrast, after a relatively measured take by Mr. Danzmayr and the PSO on the Vivace opening of the finale, she bounded cleanly away with the main rondo theme into an account of the movement that abounded in delicious give-and-take with the PSO, both individually and collectively.

David Danzmayr with the Pacific Symphony.
Before the concert began, Mr. Danzmayr had picked up the microphone for a few introductory words, almost entirely about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, which filled the second half and was, he said, by far his favorite of Prokofiev's symphonies. Composed in 1952 and thus one of his last works, written in poor health amidst financial insecurity, it is anything but the simple, tuneful piece that many commentators describe (a notable exception is a talk by the English musicologist Stephen Johnson, which can be heard on the BBC here.) 

Prokofiev in 1952, with the 'cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
It began life as a piece for Soviet children’s radio, but grew into much more, and the very opening belies any unambiguously benign impression. A single bell-like unison C-sharp on piano, harp, and brass releases the main theme on first violins, an indelibly memorable inspiration that manages to combine both aspiration and a sense of resignation in its wide-spanning arc. Mr. Danzmayr played this quite straight, letting the music speak for itself, as he also did when the second main theme—radiant, almost painfully optimistic—arrived. 

Prokofiev, however, proceeds to undermine this with sharply accented ironies plucked and dotted all over the orchestra, led by high woodwinds, and played here with impeccable point by the PSO. Eventually the radiant second theme reappears in the movement’s recapitulation, but this time Mr. Danzmayr conducted it very slowly, and even quieter than the specified piano dynamic, with the effect of further emphasizing a sense of uncertainty about the work’s direction.

The remaining three movements, each in its different way, embody a subverting or undermining of the initial mood, and in every case Mr. Danzmayr meticulously, almost mercilessly, revealed and emphasized the underlying darkness. In his hands the second movement Allegretto metamorphosed from its relatively benign opening into a sharp-edged nightmare, a waltz as recklessly driven and haunted as Ravel’s La Valse, while the chill that eventually overtakes the slow movement’s initial nostalgic beauty (played much more slowly than the Andante espressivo marking would suggest), was similarly given full weight, with plangent English horn coloring and deep brass chords echoing into the depths.

Prokofiev's grave in
Novodevicij Cemetery, Moscow.
At the conductor’s very fast tempo, the hectic gallop that dominates the first half of the finale had a hysterical tinge, a “bound-to-end-in-tears” quality that gave the eventual return of the first movement’s aspiring second theme an overwhelming emotional impact, accentuated by the dissonances Prokofiev now inserts into its fabric. From this tragic peak the movement winds down through a long ostinato on glockenspiel, xylophone, and piano, punctuated by ominous brass chords—every stroke made to count like faltering heartbeats by the PSO players under Mr. Danzmayr’s baton—to a single final quiet string pizzicato.

Perhaps to clarify the program note’s unfortunately misleading reference to a “vigorous, optimistic resolution”, Mr. Danzmayr had noted in his introductory remarks that this symphony has two endings. It was suggested to Prokofiev by the conductor of the first performance that a more upbeat conclusion would aid the work’s chances in the Soviet climate, and so as an alternative he marked the final pizzicato to be omitted and added a quick build-up of the galloping theme to end with a bang. Amazingly, most early performances of the symphony included it, but this fervently committed account demonstrated conclusively that first thoughts were best, as can be seen and heard from the PSO's blog here.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, January 10, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Chernabog: Courtesy Disney Fandom Wiki; Mussorgsky: Wikimedia Commons; Rimsky-Korsakov: Wikimedia Commons; Gabriela Martinez; Artist website; Chopin: Wikimedia Commons; David Danzmayr: Matt Masin, courtesy Orange County Register; Prokofiev: Wikimedia Commons; Prokofiev's grave: Wikimedia Commons.

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