Friday, March 15, 2019

“Northern Lights” viewed from Long Beach

The aurora borealis (Northern Lights) seen from Finland.


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

“Northern Lights” was a good title for LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu’s March program, coming as it did on an unusually wintry evening for southern California, though fortunately without the downpours and lightning that have recently become familiar. Perhaps this helped to boost the size of the audience. Either way, the cavernous Terrace Theater was reasonably well-filled for a concert in which the only well-known items were a brief tone-poem, Sibelius’s Finlandia, and one of Tchaikovsky’s second-string concertante works, the Rococo Variations.

Sketch by Albert Engström of
Jean Sibelius in 1904, the year
he began the Third Symphony.

The symphonic weight in the first half was relatively unfamiliar, most of it lying, not in one of the more popular Sibelius symphonies like the First, Second or Fifth, but in the Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52—and immediately “weight” isn’t the right descriptor for this lean and subtly original masterpiece.

In his exceptionally illuminating pre-concert talk, Maestro Preu averred that this was his favorite Sibelius symphony, and paid particular attention to the way in which the composer ends his movements: when he has said all that he needs to say, he simply stops without any fuss or overt “wrapping-up”, a characteristic that in my experience of the piece can be hard to bring off without sounding cursory or ill-conceived.

Indeed, the Third is an exceptionally difficult symphony to get right, particularly in terms of tempo relationships, but Maestro Preu and his forces hit the ground running—or to be precise, at a pace for the opening Allegro moderato that conveyed just the right sense of purposefulness, of a long journey properly prepared and confidently begun, with the groups of four sixteenth notes in the lower strings that so dominate the first movement quietly and cleanly chugging, like a well-serviced and tuned engine.

A few passing raggednesses aside, the LBSO followed his lead faithfully, with rich dynamic breadth and clean articulation. One of the most testing passages is in the first movement development, where those groups of sixteenth notes quietly unspool seemingly endlessly on the violas only, with almost nothing else happening in the orchestra (Sibelius told Sir Granville Bantock, one of his English champions and dedicatee of this symphony, that this represented the fog banks rolling along the English coast!).

It’s easy for this passage to sound as if the composer has lost his way—but not here, with an interpreter who knew, loved and trusted the work, and controlled the pace and dynamics masterfully. And then the movement’s coda, where a new and almost hymn-like chorale breaks in on the winds and brass, can sometimes sound abrupt and unmotivated—again not here, where Maestro Preu gave it all the space required to sing out as the movement’s noble and natural culmination.

Eila Hiltunen’s Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, created in 1967.
The central Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto movement and the Moderato–Allegro (ma non tanto) finale were equally fine: the former’s long and insidiously memorable main theme eloquently sung by the pairs of flutes and clarinets, and the characteristically “all done” conclusion becoming a profoundly inward meditation in Preu’s long-drawn and sensitive account. Sibelius’s finale is a masterclass in perfectly calculated anticipation, preparation, realization, and release, and here again the performance perfectly enabled the master to work his magic, so that when the noble main theme at last emerged, initially on divided violas, it was with thrilling inevitability.

The only Finnish composer since Sibelius to have achieved breakout celebrity is Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), due mostly to his engaging, if slender and arguably a trifle gimmicky, Cantus Arcticus from 1972, for taped birdsong and orchestra (pub quiz question: how many “classical” works can you think of that use real animal sounds?) and the Symphony No. 7 “Angel of Light”, composed in 1994, the first movement only of which preceded the Sibelius to open the concert.

Einojuhani Rautavaara.
I remain in two minds about the appropriateness of this. There’s a multitude of definitions of "symphony"—overlapping, complementary, sometimes contradictory —but for me it’s an orchestral work that undertakes a melodic, harmonic and timbral journey to end up in a different place emotionally and spiritually from where it began. This is certainly the case across the four movements of Rautavaara’s Seventh (the most approachable of his eight), but by the same token, does it not torpedo the composer’s concept simply to extract one section, in this case the final stage of that journey?

Maybe such a view is too precious, and certainly Rautavaara’s combination of bold Pesante unisons, beatific serenity on strings, harp, and vibraphone, implacable climbing brass, and fluttering (angels’ wings?) woodwind—here a bit smudged at what might have been slightly too fast a tempo for the acoustic—made a powerful impression. Knowing the symphony as a whole, I couldn’t help missing the rest of it, but I’ve no idea whether an “innocent ear” encountering just that finale would feel any absence, or simply take the music as it stands—or rather soars, in the same spiritual realm as Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, a “palpable hit” a few LBSO concerts ago. Maybe some will be moved to seek out those preceding stages of this particular symphonic journey so powerfully concluded here. 

In his talk, Eckart Preu had sketched Finlandia’s origins in the music for a patriotic pageant, its emergence as an independent piece, and the political background to its adoption as a rallying anthem for Finland’s national emergence from the buffeting domination of Sweden and Russia. The performance of it that opened the second half of the concert was notably insightful, the highlight for me being the way the first quiet emergence of the hymn-like melody representing Finnish independence had an almost hesitant, “can’t-quite-believe-it’s-real” quality. (It’s typical of Sibelius’s economy that he refrains from pouring out the whole tune on full orchestra, but instead confines himself to just its opening phrase at the end.)

Daníel Bjarnason.
On to the new, or newish, piece. Only the first and third movements of Bow to String for solo 'cello and ensemble (or rather, ensembles, as it exists in several versions), composed in 2010 by the Icelander Daníel Bjarnason (b. 1979), were included, but seeking out and listening the morning after to the three-movement whole on his website did not reawaken any feelings about the need for completeness.

Joshua Roman.
Despite the best efforts of the LBSO and Maestro Preu, plus the energetic and amplified work of soloist Joshua Roman, the tightly-packed, claustrophobic buzzing of the first movement was rendered, maybe by the Terrace Theater’s acoustics, into an arrhythmic slurry, something like the aural equivalent of an angry toddler stirring a muddy puddle with a stick, while the stasis of the third movement, drifting into Messiaen-ish motionlessness on the sweetly rarefied tones of Mr. Roman’s instrument, felt simply unearned (and, to recap, that missing second movement to my ears adds nothing—try it here). 

Tchaikovsky at the time he
composed the Rococo Variations.
Mr. Roman stayed, without amplification, for an affectionate, confiding, and in places quite brisk account of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (in Fitzenhagen’s version, as usual), notable for brilliantly light and seemingly effortless passagework from the soloist, and some of the LBSO strings’ most delicate and precise playing of the evening. An air of civilized conversation and conviviality abounded, though Finlandia would have made a more powerful end to the concert.

As it was, the Tchaikovsky was followed by an encore, 'cellist/composer Mark Summer’s Julie-O for solo ‘cello. This slight piece of quasi-Irishry certainly demonstrated a wide range of Mr. Roman’s skills, and would have been fine in a solo recital, but here it was a rather bathetic back-to-earth anticlimax after the airborne brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s final variation and coda—a bit like grabbing a handful of Cheerios after an exquisite dessert.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, March 10, 2018, 8p.m.
Photos: Aurora: GoodFreePhotos; Rautavaara: Wikimedia Commons; Sibelius: Wikimedia Commons; Sibelius Monument: Brian Cohen, courtesy The Gate; Bjarnason: Börkur Sigthorsson, courtesy Harrison Parrott; Joshua Roman: Courtesy TED; Tchaikovsky: Library of Congress, courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

String quartets across five centuries at RHUMC

The Hausmann Quartet: l-r Bram Goldstein, Alex Greenbaum, Angela Choong, Isaac Allen.


The Hausmann Quartet, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

I don’t know whether this was the first appearance at RHUMC’s monthly Sunday afternoon recital series by the San Diego-based Hausmann Quartet, but it was certainly my first encounter with them, and their cool, incisive sound proved a refreshing contrast to the richer, saturated tones more common among the LA/South Bay ensembles I’ve heard. Their program, too, was markedly different, beginning deep in the remote musical past of Elizabethan England, then vaulting five centuries to a contemporary American work, and finally settling in the height of Classicism for the “main course”, with nary a note of Romanticism anywhere. 

A possible likeness of John Taverner
in an ornamental capital E from
a contemporary manuscript partbook.
As a musical form, the In Nomine developed as a short, self-contained, four-part instrumental piece from the “in nomine Domini” setting within the Benedictus of a mass by John Taverner (c.1490-1545); dozens of composers wrote In Nomines over the next 150 years or so. In the RHUMC’s generous acoustic, the Hausmann Quartet’s austere, vibrato-free playing in two—one by Taverner himself and the other by his near-contemporary, Christopher Tye (c.1505-c.1573, and apparently the most prolific composer of In Nomines, with 24 to his credit)—had a timeless beauty and gravity that made any concern about inappropriate “modern” instruments for this ancient music quite irrelevant.

Before playing Source Code, by Jessie Montgomery (b.1981), the Hausmann Quartet’s ‘cellist Alex Greenbaum read some explanatory notes by the composer:

“The first sketches […] began as transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the Civil Rights era [...] I experimented by re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax […] into musical sentences and tone paintings. Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining, and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres […] This one movement work is a kind of dirge, which centers on a melody based on syntax derived from black spirituals. The melody is continuous and cycles through like a gene strand with which all other textures play.” 
Jessie Montgomery.

The work opens with strong, held unisons for all four players, out of which a long-breathed melody on the first violin slowly grows; the unisons become closely-packed chords, glissandi spawn harmonic shifts, and the pace of activity increases. For me, “dirge”, with its memorial overtones, wasn’t quite the right word; Source Code seemed more of a meditation, passingly beautiful but inconclusive as it devolved back into another unison, now very quiet, after nine minutes or so. Had the explanation not been given, I would have entirely missed any aural hints of the source material, but that’s down to my untutored ears. 

Beginning in 2016, The Hausmann Quartet and the Maritime Museum of San Diego have partnered to present “Haydn Voyages: Music at the Maritime”, a quarterly concert series aboard the Berkeley, an 1898 steam ferryboat that operated for 60 years on San Francisco Bay, that is intended eventually to encompass all 68 of Haydn’s string quartets. Last Sunday, the RHUMC audience was privileged to hear them in the String Quartet No. 62 in C major, Op. 76 No. 3, Hob. III:77, commonly dubbed the “Emperor” due to its slow movement, a set of four lengthy and resourceful variations on the melody that Haydn himself composed, shortly before the string quartet, as a personal anthem for Emperor Francis II (and which in later years was adopted as the German national anthem).

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).
The near-absence of vibrato gave this great tune, of which Haydn is said to have been particularly proud, a stately and unadorned beauty, and the Hausmann Quartet's relative uniformity of dynamic in the variations (Haydn is sparing of expression marks in his score) had the effect of binding them tighter together into a whole, rather then underlining differences between them.

There was, however, no lack of infectious bounce in the first movement’s dotted rhythms, nor indeed in the countless opportunities for lively interplay between the four parts that Haydn’s mature mastery of the quartet medium provides.

The basic tempo for the third movement Menuetto was quite spacious, as indeed the Presto finale also seemed to be, though this marking is deceptive: the opening subject in quarter notes has to be at a speed that allows the cascade of triplets that Haydn subsequently hurls all over the score to be clearly articulated. No problems here for the Hausmanns. With all repeats intact except the rarely-observed second half of the first movement, the whole performance was a joy; enough so, indeed, to have one eyeing Groupons for San Diego…

Carlos Paredes by Bottelho (2007).
Romanticism, at least in the form of an eloquently nostalgic Portuguese folk idiom, actually did make an appearance—in the encore, an arrangement for string quartet by Osvaldo Golijov of the guitar piece Canção verdes anos by Carlos Paredes (1925-2004). This sounded like it was constantly about to turn into Gershwin’s "Summertime", and none the worse for that!


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, March 10 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Hausmann Quartet: Sam Zauscher, courtesy artists’ website; Taverner: Wikimedia Commons; Jessie Montgomery: Jiyang Chen, courtesy Community MusicWorks; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Paredes: the artist, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.