Friday, March 15, 2019

“Northern Lights” viewed from Long Beach


The aurora borealis (Northern Lights) seen from Finland.

REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

“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.

---ooo---

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.

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