Friday, February 8, 2019

Slava!, Shostakovich, and Scheherazade at the PSO

Scheherazade and Sultan Shahryar, painted in 1880 by Ferdinand Keller (1842-1922).


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

Leonard Bernstein and Mstislav Rostropovich.
The Bernstein Centenary juggernaut may be departing, but its echoes are still around, as evinced by the PSO opening its most recent concert with Slava! A Political Overture (1977). Carl St. Clair directed this late, brief, orchestral explosion by his late mentor “Mr. B” with tons of energy, to which the band responded with equal enthusiasm—every growled trombone glissando and wah-wah trumpet wail relished.

Slava! was composed as a tribute to Mstislav Rostropovich on the latter’s becoming Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and there didn’t seem much about it that could be called “political”, other than by association with its dedicatee’s fraught relationship with his homeland. However, it does draw themes from Bernstein’s White House musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and post-performance investigation found (good old YouTube!) that the work actually includes a brief collage of taped political slogans and cheers, so fair enough.

Perhaps, though, that should be “included”, as the only vocal sound I could detect in the PSO performance was the “Slava!” shouted by the orchestra at the work’s conclusion: the earlier “oompah” get-ready measures for those inserts had maybe seemed excessive because the sloganeering never arrived, or was too quiet to be noticed. Whatever, it’s a fun piece, though the raucousness fails to conceal that its themes are far less distinctive and varied than those of that wonderful other four-minute Bernstein overture, Candide.

Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich.
Clever program-planning maintained the Rostropovich connection through the choice of concerto to follow the Bernstein overture. The ‘cellist’s friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich dated from his wartime studies at the Moscow Conservatory where the composer was one of his teachers.

His rise to fame in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in eastern Europe was meteoric, and he was already long established as one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent soloists when Shostakovich wrote his Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major Op. 107 for him in 1959 (a second concerto for him was to follow in 1966).

Leonard Elschenbroich.
Rostropovich’s commercial recordings and concert accounts show his interpretation to have been more tense and urgent than that of the young German ‘cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, making his Californian debut here. The brief first movement opens with, and proceeds to be dominated by, a four-note motif based on Shostakovich’s musical “signature” DSCH (D-Eb-C-B in German notation), but instead of the nervous, nagging effect in performances by the dedicatee, the more measured approach of Elschenbroich with the PSO under St. Clair brought a plaintive bleakness.

The movement’s later stages feature increasingly prominent interjections by a single French horn (the only brass instrument in the score), played here to minatory effect by principal hornist Keith Popejoy. The Moderato second movement, considerably slower in this performance than those predecessors, opens with a soft and melancholic string chorale, radiantly delivered by the PSO players, after which the horn threats erupt again.

The end of the movement, following one more horn interjection, devolves into one of those passages of suspended animation that Shostakovich made his own. Against a wandering, muted first violin line, the ‘cellist plays high harmonics against isolated celesta notes, like stars seen through night mist, before passing without a break into the unaccompanied Cadenza that forms the entire third movement. Mr. Elschenbroich’s concentrated account of this, delivered like the inward musings of a philosopher puzzling his way towards the solution of a conundrum, held the audience rapt until the brief fast finale burst in to relieve the tension. Despite some passing shaky ensemble between soloist and orchestra—understandable as this was his first performance with them, who in any case hadn’t played the concerto since 2006—this was a fine performance of a powerfully original, demanding, and enigmatic work.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonic Suite Scheherazade used to be as familiar a concert-hall staple as, say, any Brahms or Beethoven symphony, but in recent years it seems to have slipped a bit in frequency of appearance, though the PSO itself played it as recently as March 2017. Whatever, it was an unalloyed pleasure to re-encounter concert music’s most guileful seductress, particularly when her manifold charms were unfolded in such a glittering, sumptuous array as by the PSO and Maestro St. Clair.

If ever a work could be subtitled “concerto for orchestra” it is Scheherazade, and first amongst equals here was the violin of Concertmaster Dennis Kim who—after a very portentous account of the opening Sultan Shahryar motif on heavy brass, low woodwind, and full strings pesante, followed by spaciously separated woodwind chords in perfect unison—presented a heroine as alluring, tender, confiding, and passionate as anyone could desire.

The PSO under Carl St. Clair play Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, with
Dennis Kim (left foreground).

Later in the first movement Rimsky-Korsakov gives almost as much prominence to a solo ‘cello, here in the hands of Principal Timothy Landauer, representing the undulating motion of the waves that bear forward Sinbad’s Ship. I did feel in this first movement that Carl St. Clair slightly overdid the breadth at the expense of onward motion, though the orchestra’s generosity of phrasing, collectively and individually, was more than adequate to sustain it.

Rimsky-Korsakov by Ilya Repin (1893).
Overall, this was an exceptionally spacious performance, clocking in at some six minutes more than the program book’s admittedly optimistic estimate of 42, but in all three of the remaining movements there was no sense of dragging. In “The Tale of Prince Kalendar” the principal woodwinds become the stars of the show, and Maestro St. Clair gave the clarinet (Joseph Morris), bassoon (Rose Corrigan), oboe (Jessica Pearlman Fields) and flute (Benjamin Smolen) all the time in the world to luxuriate in their successive long moments in the sun.

In their turn, the strings eloquently sang out the great romantic melodies of “The Young Prince and the Princess”, with the burnished tone of the massed 'cellos being particularly notable when they took over the tune. Finally “The Festival at Bagdad” was a torrent of instrumental color, expertly terraced through its increasingly frenetic scurrying until Sinbad’s Ship hove at last back into view, the first movement's principal theme returning magisterially on the trombones before its destruction on the rocks, the tam-tam that crowns the cataclysm struck at just the right forte dynamic against the sfff, and fff elsewhere in the orchestra (just one example among hundreds in the score of Rimsky's extraordinarily detailed markings).

After this, Mr. Kim’s postlude was eloquently long-drawn, the book of “One Thousand and One Nights” slowly and lovingly closed to conclude a performance that more than equaled any that I can recall. For once, the standing ovation that southern Californian audiences seem compelled to give any performance, however workaday, was thoroughly deserved. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, January 31, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Scheherazade: Courtesy WRTI; Bernstein and Rostropovich: Courtesy Alicia Storin website; Shostakovich and Rostropovich: Pinterest; The performers: Doug Gifford, courtesy Pacific Symphony Orchestra; Rimsky-Korsakov: Wikimedia Commons.

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