Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, with the PSO

Rafael Schächter, organizer and conductor of 16 performances of Verdi's Requiem
at the Terezín concentration camp, 1942-1944.


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

Poster created by GUT Instinct Creative.
To quote directly from the history of The Defiant Requiem on its website:
“The story ofDefiant Requiem began in Minneapolis, MN in the mid-1990s when noted conductor and educator Murry Sidlin, then on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, happened upon a book entitled Music in Terezín, 1941-1945 by Joža Karas. The book was stacked among many others in a sidewalk sale of used and out-of-print titles, and Maestro Sidlin opened to a short chapter about a man named Rafael Schächter.”

The rest, one might say, is history, and in more ways than one. The passage of time inevitably imposes distance between past events and the present, and brings with it the dangers of blurring, distortion, misinterpretation and, worst of all, denial of those events. However, it also can bring understanding, remembrance, honoring, and perhaps most important when those events were monstrous, a sustained determination that they should never again be emulated or repeated.

Terezín, or Theresienstadt, was a concentration camp established by the Nazis in 1941 as a holding-place for Jews before being sent on to their murders at Auschwitz and elsewhere. But it was also conceived as a propaganda tool, a seemingly self-governed Jewish community supposedly run on humane lines, where education and cultural activities were encouraged. Music was a particular focus of activity at Terezín as many Jewish composers and performers were interned there, among them the young Czech composer, pianist and conductor, Rafael Schächter.

Verdi photographed by Giulio Rossi in 1874,
the year of the Requiem’s first performance.
It was the series of no fewer than 16 performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, composed 1868-1873, under Schächter’s direction at Terezín between 1942-1944 that caught Maestro Sidlin’s imagination and eventually altered the course of his life, leading him first to learn more about Schächter and the performances, then to seek out survivors’ eye-witness testimony, and finally to create the multi-media “concert-drama” Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, first performed in 2002, which reached the Segerstrom Concert Hall this month.

Sidlin’s dramatic concept successfully walks the fine line between being true to the great masterpiece that so inspired Schächter by performing it complete, and surrounding it with visual and aural connective tissue that vividly tells the nature and circumstances of those performances three-quarters of a century ago. In addition, by the end the whole experience delivers a sledgehammer emotional impact quite aside from that of Verdi's music per se.

Murry Sidlin.
Video recordings of three surviving Terezín chorus-members, Edgar Krasa, Vera Schiff and Marianka Zadikow-May, projected on the big screen above the Pacific Chorale and the PSO, opened the evening and appeared later between some of the Requiem’s movements. After the first video, concertmaster Dennis Kim played part of the great Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin BWV 1004, and this led in to Maestro Sidlin’s scene-setting introduction from the rostrum.

A collage of sounds followed, representing Terezín’s teeming musical activity, to be suddenly broken off by a piercing whistle, and then the opening of the first movement, Requiem aeternam, on muted strings, with the chorus sotto voce. Sidlin drew this to a halt at measure 56 of the score, and picked up the microphone to speak again about Schächter’s character and charisma, his drive, and his motivation in mounting the work. From this point on, actors John Rubinstein and David Prather—playing, respectively, Schächter himself and a commenting “Lecturer” on spotlit podia set back left and right in the orchestra—added dramatic intensification to the documentary aspect.

All Schächter had to work with was a single vocal score of the Requiem, and the use of a damaged piano in the basement of the men’s barracks housing where he rehearsed, teaching the work by rote to his 150 singers. One of the most telling features of Sidlin’s concept was, from this point on, to introduce and conclude each section of the Requiem with just a piano playing the accompaniment, the orchestra being cued a few measures in and then giving way again to the piano shortly before the end of the movement.

The effect of this, with the piano part devotedly played offstage by Rita Sloan, was for the performance to pass repeatedly from an echo of how it must have been in their squalid conditions at the camp to the ideal—as one of the survivors recalled Schächter saying to them—of how they would eventually sing it, back in their native Prague with a full symphony orchestra. As one tragedy within the incalculably greater one that was the Holocaust, this was never to be.

The continuation of the Requiem aeternam from measure 56 through to the movement’s conclusion introduced for the first time the solo quartet: Aga Mikolaj (soprano), Ann McMahon Quintero (mezzo-soprano), Edgaras Montvidas (tenor), and Nathan Stark (bass-baritone). The Requiem has often been called “Verdi’s best opera”, with extensive solos for each, duets, trios, and quartets with and without the chorus. All four were thoroughly on top of their richly expressive and yes, operatic, parts, singly and collectively, but without drawing undue attention as might have happened with more “starry” soloists.

l-r: Aga Mikolaj, Ann McMahon Quintero, Murry Sidlin, Edgaras Montvidas, Nathan Stark.

“We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them...” Of no section of the Requiem could this have been more true than the cataclysmic Dies irae, the first of nine sub-sections of Verdi’s mighty Sequence which, through to its closing Lacrymosa, comprises in total nearly half of the whole work. Maestro Sidlin played the Sequence without interruption for commentary, setting off with a whiplash attack on the Dies irae characterized—as was the entire performance—by fervent, committed, singing and playing from the Pacific Chorale and the PSO.

Though the whole event ran through its two hours’ total without an interval, the end of the Sequence marked the mid-point just as it does in “straight” performances of the Verdi Requiem. From here on, between the final five movements, the narrative centered on the circumstances of the last of Schächter’s 16 performances. In June 1944 a delegation from the International Red Cross visited Terezín to inspect conditions.

The only known photograph of Terezín inmates singing the Requiem, taken during the final performance on June 23, 1944.

The Nazis hastily smartened up the camp to give a good impression, and among other cultural activities for the benefit of the visit, Schächter and his chorus were made to give what would be the final performance of the Requiem to an audience of the visitors and Nazi hosts. What rendered this even more appallingly poignant was that his original chorus had been repeatedly decimated by deportations to Auschwitz, so that despite new recruiting, there were not many more than half the original number of choristers remaining.

A couple of months after the Red Cross visit, a propaganda film was made, showing carefully selected “humane” aspects of Terezín. The last three movements, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna and Libera me, interspersed with final interview clips of the three survivors, were accompanied first by some of this fake propaganda footage, showing apparently contented inmates, adults and children alike. Then, as Verdi’s great work wound to its close this was replaced by other silent footage—prisoners crowded into trucks, doors closed on haunted faces, the trains steaming away, carrying them to their deaths.

The soprano and mezzo-soprano duet in the Agnus Dei,
beneath footage from the Nazi propaganda film.

The Defiant Requiem Foundation is in no position to maintain a chorus and full orchestra to travel to the many venues that continue to host performances, so perforce the performers in each case are local, as with the Pacific Chorale and PCO at Costa Mesa. The benefit surely is that they come as fresh, if not to the Verdi itself then to the “concert drama” and its power, as the audience, and several choir members reported having been in tears when rehearsing and by the end of the evening itself.

The last long-held Libera me faded away, chorus and orchestra slowly filed off into the wings followed by the soloists and Maestro Sidlin, and Dennis Kim was left seated alone on the bare, darkened platform playing a Jewish melody. Then he, too, departed. No applause. The audience got up and left in silence, reflecting perhaps on the pitiless fate of Rafael Schächter, the architect of all that noble, sung defiance. With the remainder of his chorus, he was sent to Auschwitz, and though he survived the camp, he died on one of the death marches as those prisoners still left alive were moved from location to location in advance of the liberating armies. He was 39. 


“Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín,” Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Tuesday, April 16, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Rafael Schächter: DW–Made for Minds; Poster and Schächter performance: The Defiant Requiem Foundation; The performers: Courtesy Pacific Symphony; Verdi: Composer website.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Clarinet Rarities at “The Interludes”

Micah Wright.

Micah Wright and Friends,
“The Interludes”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The extremely long-lived Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)—organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris for no fewer than 64 years—was one of the most noted composers for the instrument, with 10 symphonies for organ solo, amongst other works, to his name. This concentration of attention is unfortunate as it has obscured his large output in other forms: for orchestra, for various chamber forces, and keyboard, plus many songs and choral pieces, in toto considerably outnumbering those for his signature instrument.

Charles-Marie Widor.
The audience at the April “The Interludes” recital from Classical Crossroads Inc. had a rare opportunity to glimpse one corner of this hidden massif of music, when Micah Wright and Hui Wu opened a substantial and imaginatively planned program with Widor’s Introduction and Rondo for clarinet and piano, Op. 72, dating from 1898.

Though not a great deal more than an appetizing bonne bouche, it showcased the skills of both players in its pretty much equal distribution of musical interest across an eight-minute span that’s notable for disguising its titular division into two parts much more than some other similarly-named pieces, the wistfully-tinged main rondo theme maintaining a preludial air throughout.

Hui Wu.
That wistful tinge also imbues the deceptively relaxed but insidiously memorable opening theme of Prokofiev’s Sonata in D major Op. 94. Originally composed for flute and piano but arguably more well-known in the version for violin that Prokofiev himself made, the sonata was also transcribed for clarinet by the American composer and academic Kent Kennan (who in addition orchestrated his version), and it was this that Micah Wright and Hui Wu played.

Sergei Prokofiev.
The first movement is one of the most impressive cases of Prokofiev’s way of seeming  effortlessly to bend the time-honored sonata framework into the perfect vehicle for his unique blend of harmonic astringency and piquant, unpredictable melody, though both here and in the succeeding Scherzo, despite the tempo being on the easy-going side for its Presto marking, I found the insistence of high-lying clarinet tone a little hard on the ear, and over the whole work less subtle and reflective than the flute original.

Ms. Wu had to leave early, so unusually there were a couple of encores in the middle. First up was Gershwin’s Prelude No. 1 from his set of three for piano, the clarinet transcription carrying a strong whiff of Rhapsody in Blue. Then, for the first but not the last time in the recital, Mr. Wright showed his versatility by joining Ms. Wu at the piano for an easefully unbuttoned account of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 7 in A major WoO 1/7, here in its original form for four hands.

Robert Muczynski.
A brief platform rearrangement ensued, after which Mr. Wright returned again to occupy the piano stool, now as a member of Trio Escalan together with Espen Nystog Aas (clarinet), and Allan Hon (cello). Out of this concert’s roster the composer least-known, at least to me, was the American Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), whose Fantasy Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op. 26 dates from 1969.

Paradoxically perhaps, this “Fantasy” adheres quite closely to the classic four-movement pattern, but with a total duration of under 15 minutes extremely concisely. Throughout, the work is dark-hued and intense. The Allegro energico first movement, driven by clarinet skirls and jazzy rhythms on the piano, is virtually monothematic apart from a brief, questing, excursion on the ‘cello. 

Espen Nystog Aas.

The second movement, Andante con espressione, maintains the brooding character, opening with a wide-spanning ‘cello theme around which both it and the clarinet continue to circle, and there’s no let-up in the third, a moto perpetuo driven by the piano, over which Mr. Aas’s clarinet leapt like a tethered bird (perhaps it was the nature of the writing, but his instrument seemed less piercingly assertive than Mr. Wright’s had been).

Surprisingly, the nominally fast finale began with a slow introduction so extensive that it’s more sensible to see the movement as being in two approximately equal halves. The latter Allegro section brought to mind Bernard Herrmann’s obsessive chase music from the titles of North by Northwest, bringing down the curtain on a work as impressive as it is economical. I would like to hear more Muczynski.

Allan Hon.
Last came one of the four late Brahms works inspired by the playing of the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. This was the Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano Op. 114, completing a program which, at virtually an hour-and-a-half, included as much music in its continuous, nominally shorter, afternoon form as many a whole evening concert. 

While it’s hard to keep the “autumnal” adjective at bay in writing about these works, in truth the Clarinet Trio is far less overtly reflective and sunset-hued than its companion work, the larger and more often-played Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op. 115.

Instead it maintains an uneasy balance between minor-key tension and lyricism, opting finally for a clouded urgency in the comparatively brief Allegro finale. Perhaps in this performance the Trio Escalan had just a touch of “getting through all the notes” at the end of a long afternoon, but by-and-large they did this enigmatic chamber masterpiece from Brahms’s final years proud. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, April 20, 2019. Photos: Micah Wright: D’Addarío Woodwinds; Prokofiev: Freedom from Religion Foundation; Muczynski: Arizona Daily Star; Espen Nystog Aas: Norwegian Academy of Music; Allan Hon: Vermont Mozart festival; Widor: International Historical Organ Recording Collection; Hui Wu: Yellow Barn.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Strauss and Daugherty: Space Odysseys with the PSO

The Return of Zarathustra (artist unknown).


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

The April concert in the PSO’s 2018-19 Classical Series was the sort of thing that it does so well: a substantial new commission (audience-friendly but not vapidly so); a well-chosen Classical concerto to contrast and to reassure fainter hearts of the eternal verities; and finally a late-Romantic blockbuster to show off fully the acoustic chops of the marvelous Segerstrom Hall (and, as it was Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, its organ).

Michael Daugherty.
Michael Daugherty is in the top small handful of most-performed living American composers, and the recipient of numerous commissions. He was Composer-in Residence for the 2010-11 PSO season, and the orchestra had already commissioned three works from him in 2010, 2011 and 2012; now his fourth and latest, To the New World, received its world première at this concert. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and, like many of his previous pieces, is in three movements though not, again as previously, to any kind of fast-slow-fast template.

Daugherty’s extensive work list shows that he thrives on extra-musical subjects—which he also loves to describe and analyze his responses to—though it’s unfair to characterize these subjects as predominantly “pop” in origin. They are indeed overwhelmingly American, but encompass not only comic-books, popular musics and movies, but also buildings, cities and monuments both man-made and natural, literature, visual art, Presidents and other individuals, mechanization and transport, science, space, and time—plus cross-links between many of these.

Apollo ll
official emblem.
True to form, To the New World was not lacking in copious explanation, with advance PSO blog-posts, detailed program notes, an onstage interview with Alan Chapman in the pre-concert talk and, via the screen above the orchestra, a short pre-recorded video conversation with the evening’s guest conductor, the Canadian Jean-Marie Zeitouni, immediately before he raised his baton.

To the New World's 26 minutes contained a lot to unpack. The first of numerous homages, quotes and references, both musical and non-musical, came at the start of the first movement, “Moonrise,” with the actual tape of President Kennedy’s 1962 “We go to the Moon…” speech. This didn’t quite work; a little too much of it was used, and the 57-year-old news recording wasn’t clear enough to distinguish all the words, despite the Hall’s state-of-the-art sound system. An option for future performances might be an actor speaking, though of course verisimilitude would be lost.

György Ligeti.
NASA’s original count-down with the sound of the mighty Saturn V lifting off followed, and then another homage, musical this time and to a movie—the only appropriate one, given that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had premièred just 15 months earlier and was still very much in the public’s eyes and ears. Thus almost the first music to be heard was the brass clusters from Ligeti’s Atmosphères, used over the film’s pre-credits introduction.

Neil Armstrong.
Daugherty’s extensive research found Neil Armstrong to have played euphonium at college, so that instrument had a conspicuous role, intoning a distinctive three-note motif many times, as did a wordless soprano (Elissa Johnston), standing in for the theremin the composer referenced as emblematic of “outer-space music.” And, as Armstrong took a cassette of Dvořák’s “New World” symphony with him, there were the opening brass chords of the Largo, portentous but enigmatically inconclusive away from their original context.

Armstrong steps onto the Moon’s surface, July 20, 1969.

Movement 2, “One Small Step,” began as by now was predictable, with the 11 famous words by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the lunar surface, Daugherty then imposing a rhythmic pattern onto them with percussion both tuned and untuned.

So far so fine, but he also added the soprano speaking the words to the rhythm; for me this was faintly risible, and though Ms. Johnston's contribution per se was excellent and should be acknowledged, the gimmicky effect was exacerbated by the live video’s relentless focus on her face. Less amplified, and emanating anonymously from within the orchestral texture, the effect might just work. Add to this lots of busyness that recalled energetic Bernstein more than anything, and the whole was, for me, a long way from evoking that singular moment in human history.

The finale, “Splashdown,” grew from glissandi on timpani and waterphone, then double-bass and 'cello rumbles, up through the orchestra to more sub-Bernstein rhythms and trombone fanfaring, to one of Daugherty’s signature Pelion-upon-Ossa climaxes. He is a master orchestrator who draws exciting sounds from all over the orchestra, which the PSO clearly enjoyed playing (all his works I’ve so far heard could reasonably be subtitled “concerto for orchestra” when they aren’t concertos for individual players), but as with others I listened to in preparation for this concert, To the New World has plenty to beguile the ear but little, for this listener, to stimulate the mind or engage the heart.

Juno Pohjonen.
Though my membership of the Mozart-can-do-no-wrong fan club lapses from time to time, it would be idle to deny that his mature piano concertos are an astonishing series of masterpieces, amongst which No. 23 in A major K. 488 is one of the smaller-scaled but also one of the most perfectly proportioned and indeed moving, with its progress from the blithest of openings through increasing shadows in the first movement to the melancholy of the Andante, and then the most airborne and concise of rondo finales. 

M. Zeitouni and a PSO drastically reduced to little more than half string strength plus two horns and handful of woodwind gave the opening Allegro a sort of general-purpose robustness, and when the young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen entered he continued with an account that could be deemed admirably straightforward, or less charitably as rather faceless, depending on your view of the concerto. Nonetheless, there was no denying the stillness he conjured in his solo statement of the second subject, nor the keening gravity that the winds brought to their counter-subject in the slow movement. The finale was despatched efficiently but without initially much sense of joy, thought spirits definitely lifted when the home straight was reached.

Bust of Rameau
by Caffieri, 1760.
Mr. Pohjonen unexpectedly returned for a solo encore just as the audience was beginning to shuffle up interval-bound, and this—which I couldn’t get further than identifying as Baroque-but-not-Bach and am grateful to Jean Oelrich of the PSO for subsequently telling me was the Sarabande from Rameau’s Suite in A minor RCT 5—was in some ways more impressive than anything in the Mozart. The trills with which the piece is laden were wonderfully discreet and even in his hands, and on the piano it had a musing delicacy quite absent from the harpsichord performances I found on YouTube.

Strauss in 1894, the year he began
sketching Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Despite the enduring glare of extra-terrestrial fame shone by Kubrick upon Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra through the use of its opening over 2001: A Space Odyssey’s credits, its subsequent 30 minutes remain far less well-known than the first minute-and-three-quarters, as M. Zeitouni pointed out in a brief spoken introduction before conducting the complete work.

He concisely sketched in the relationship between the tone-poem and Nietzsche’s strange philosophical/poetic/dramatic “book for everyone and nobody,” and homed in on how Strauss in his music expressed through the unrelated keys C major and B major the duality of nature and humanity, a duality that never quite comes together. All this augured well for his performance: not to put too fine a point on it, M. Zeitouni and the PSO at super-full strength hit it out of the park. 

The titles of the nine sections into which Strauss divides the score were duly projected on the screen above the orchestra, but paradoxically this underlined how integrated Also Sprach becomes in the hands of a conductor with both the mastery of long-range structural planning and the ability to draw moment-by-moment the utmost in expressive intensity from his players.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni.
After that famous “Sunrise” opening, the next six sections succeed each other rapidly and continuously. Faithful to Strauss’s Sehr langsam tempo, M. Zeitouni made the fugue on solo double-basses and ‘celli that begins the sixth section, Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)—which can sound merely gawky in lesser hands—into the deep, still heart of the piece, leading directly into Der Genesende (The Convalescent) and the mighty reiteration of the opening’s fff C major chord on full orchestra and organ which falls at its center, and indeed divides the whole work into two approximately equal halves.

Friedrich Nietzsche.
From here the music once more climbed, again appropriately slowly in M. Zeitouni’s hands, out of the deep pit into which that climax had plunged it, until it arrived at section 8, Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song), where PSO concertmaster Dennis Kim in beguiling form led his multi-subdivided string forces in Strauss (Richard)’s complex swirling homage to and apotheosis of Strauss (Johann)’s Viennese waltz.

This in turn built inexorably until the (really!) deep bell in E tolled the 12 strokes of midnight in the Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer). The enigmatic, indeterminate end, with high piccolos, flutes and violins repeating their B major while far beneath ‘cellos and basses pluck repeated C's, was as finely drawn and suspended in their eternal “n’er the twain shall meet” as could be imagined.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, April 11, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Zarathustra: Penguin Random House Publishing LLC; Apollo 11 emblem, Neil Armstrong, Armstrong steps onto the Moon: NASA; Michael Daugherty: Wikimedia Commons; Ligeti: Discogs; Juno Pohjonen: Opera Musica; Rameau: Wikimedia Commons; Strauss: Wikimedia Commons; Jean-Marie Zeitouni: Conductor website, Nietszche: SciHi Blog.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Love and Death in Venice, Via Long Beach

Piazzetta and Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice, by Canaletto.


Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Long Beach

Gabrieli's tomb, Santo Stefano, Venice.
Venice, La Serenissima, was an important center of arts and culture in the Baroque era. Four of the composers who lived and worked there in the 17th and 18th centuries inspired a concert titled, with a nod to Thomas Mann, "Love and Death in Venice," put on by Musica Angelica the other night at the Beverly O'Neill Theater, part of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.

Daniel Taylor.
They opened with a piece by one of the foremost of these composers, Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554/1557-1612). His Canzon in echo duodecimi toni à 10 accomodata per concertar con l'organo took advantage, as the title indicates, of the famous echo effects of St. Mark's Cathedral (here, since unlike San Marco the O'Neill unfortunately has no resonance, the echoes were all in the writing and not enhanced by the surroundings), and for this performance we got, instead of "l'organo," a continuo of harpsichord, cello, and violone. The other voci were supplied by six violins and two violas, all standing, and led by concertmaster Cynthia Roberts.

Portrait of Handel by Balthasar
Denner (c.1726-1728).
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), was of German birth, wrote operas for Venice, but those of his operatic works that were represented on this program were all premiered in London, where he settled permanently in 1712. Canadians Daniel Taylor and Ellen McAteer offered some glorious singing, and both are Baroque specialists, fully versed in the style.

Taylor's countertenor voice is as rich and well-rounded as I've ever heard, while McAteer's lyric soprano is simply gorgeous; Lascia, ch'io pianga, one of the great tunes of all time, from Rinaldo (1711 the first Italian opera to be written for the London stage) was ravishing, and for me the highlight of the program. Taylor's ferocious Domerò la tua fierezza, from Giulio Cesare (1724), with its dramatic shifts in vocal register, was virtuosic.

Ellen McAteer.
Elsewhere, the two combined for a couple of Handelian love duets (the "Love" part of the concert's title - I don't know what happened to "Death"), Scherzando sul tuo volto from the aforementioned Rinaldo and Se'il cor ti perde from Tolomeo (1728), and one by another of those Venetians, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): Pur ti miro, pur ti godo from L'Incoronazione di Poppea (1643). The two voices complemented each other nicely, and blended beautifully. At the end of the evening the appreciative audience demanded, and got, an encore, Io t'abbraccio from Handel's Rodelinda (1719).

But first, more Gabrieli. The Canzon Seconda a Quattro involved two violins and viola in addition to the continuo, and a Sonata No. 21 Con Tre featured three of Musica Angelica's terrific violins: Cynthia Roberts herself, plus Joel Pargman and Janet Worsley Strauss.

Jeremy Joseph.
That continuo, by the way, was an extraordinary presence throughout the evening. Harpsichordist Jeremy Joseph had flown in from Vienna for this concert, while cellist Alexa Haynes-Pilon and violone player Denise Briesé are regular members of the group. All are tops in their respective fields, and provided a solid foundation for the music-making. 

Joseph played two solos, on an instrument that possessed a fuller, prettier sound than is usually encountered. The Toccata Settima by one Michelangelo Rossi (c.1601/1602-1656), who spent most of his career in Rome, showed off some of Joseph's masterful technique, while a Toccata by Viennese court organist Alessandro Poglietti (early 17th©-1683), all flourishes and filigree, showed off even more. 

Caricature of Vivaldi by Ghezzi.
The Venetian composer best known to modern audiences is, of course, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). A concerto grosso, the Concerto for Strings in G, RV 151, known as the Concerto alla Rustica, which ended the first half, showed the composer in vigorous good humor, while the violin concerto that began the second half, "La Tempesta di Mare," Op. 8 No. 5, RV 253, bore a striking resemblance, structurally and thematically, to the more famous and equally programmatic The Four Seasons, also from Op. 8. (Maybe Igor Stravinsky's canard about Vivaldi, that instead of writing 400 concertos he wrote one concerto 400 times, isn't such a canard after all.) Cynthia Roberts was the soloist, playing with consummate musicality and technique to burn.

Cynthia Roberts.
So there were three major Venetian composers represented—Gabrieli, Monteverdi, and Vivaldi—and one minor one: Dario Castello (1602-1631). His freeform Sonata Seconda, for violin and harpsichord, gave both Roberts and Joseph yet another, and welcome, opportunity for virtuosic display.

This was a long program, made longer by the usual superfluous welcoming speech from management and lengthy, and not particularly pertinent, introductions to the vocal works by Taylor. But the playing, as is usual from Musica Angelica, was superb, and the music, by composers familiar and unfamiliar, sounded fresh and energetic, was well chosen, varied, and pleasing to aficionados of the early and late Baroque. 


"Love and Death in Venice," Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, Sunday, March 31, 7:30 p.m.
Images: Venice: Wikimedia Commons; Handel: Wikimedia Commons; Gabrieli: Wikimedia Commons; Vivaldi: Web Gallery of Art; Jeremy Joseph: ClassicSA; Cynthia Roberts: University of North Texas; Daniel Taylor, artist website; Ellen McAteer, artist website

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Friday Pianistic Adventures With Steven Vanhauwaert

Steven Vanhauwaert.


First Fridays at First!—fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The pair of Schumann Noveletten I heard in a previous South Bay recital for me seemed to rather outstay their welcome, but on rehearing the first of them—in fact the Novelette in F Major, Op. 21 No. 1—as the opening item in Steven Vanhauwaert’s fascinating program for the April First Fridays at First!—fff lunchtime concert, I was this time around more struck by the elegance of its structure, both economical and complex, than any sense of over-extendedness.

Schumann in 1839: Lithograph by Josef Kriehuber.
This might well have been due to the clarity Mr. Vanhauwaert brought to that symmetrical, seven-part shape. His playing was bold and clean-cut in the Markirt und kräftig (Emphatic and strong) opening, and then elastically rhapsodic in the “Trio” that follows after 20 measures. The opening returns in shortened form, giving way to a flowing central section that is succeeded once more by the opening, now reduced to a scant four measures. To complete the arch form, back comes the “Trio” (not now labeled as such) and lastly a full restatement of the opening. Not a measure too many.

Messiaen in 1962.
The sound-world of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is most often characterized as an expansive blend of birdsong and ecstatic religiosity, but among other musical preoccupations post-World War 2, he engaged deeply with post-Schoenbergian modernism, and serialism in particular. Mr. Vanhauwaert gave a brief and engaging outline of this “new way of organizing notes”, and proceeded to play Ile de Feu (Isle of Fire) 1, the first of the Quatre Études de rythme, composed in 1949–1950.

In the same introduction he also took in the American composer William Bolcom (b.1938), and explained how his Hymne à ‘l’amour (Hymn to Love), the last and much the longest of the Twelve New Etudes for Piano (1977–1986), (a first set of 12 Etudes had been written in 1959-1966) showed the influence of Messiaen, with whom he studied early at Paris in his career.

Playing the two pieces in close conjunction, as Mr. Vanhauwaert did, beautifully demonstrated both some common characteristics, such as the use of dissonant cluster chords, and also the great differences in mood and effect that can and do exist between such uncompromisingly modern works.

William Bolcom.
His fearless conquest of the Messiaen’s alternation between spasms of fury and islets of glacial calm, as well as the extremes of dynamic and timbre at opposite ends of the keyboard throughout its two excoriating minutes, was strikingly juxtaposed with the seemingly endless and hypnotic repetition in Bolcom's Etude of a soft and narrow-compassed eight-note walking theme (a bit like a slowed-down version of the intro to “The Twilight Zone), punctuated by little jabs and flurries of dissonance.

This was an object lesson in how doors can be opened into such apparently inaccessible music if the player has the technical skill and commitment needed, and here Steven Vanhauwaert's performances drew from the non-specialist and maybe conservative audience a warmer response than one might have dared to hope for.

Portrait photograph of Liszt, 1858,
by Franz Hanfstaengl.
Mr. Vanhauwaert’s final selections, back in familiar, central, 19th century pianistic territory, were both from the endlessly fertile pen of Franz Liszt.

The familiar Mephisto Waltz No. 1 S.515 (I wonder whether he ever plays the other three?) worked its usual seductive magic, while in the Transcendental Etude No.10 in F Minor S.139/10, "Appassionata," his combination of supernally even and clear passagework throughout, a very rhapsodic treatment of the central marcato section that almost came to a halt in places, and finally the pellucid clarity with which he untangled the thorny clusters of right-hand flourishes and left-hand chordal hammerings at the imperious conclusion,  was quite electrifying.

The audience was enraptured, and this listener for one left simply open-mouthed with admiration. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, April 5, 2019.
Images: Steven Vanhauwaert:Artist's website; Schumann: Wikimedia Commons; Messiaen: © T. Gaby, courtesy composer website; Bolcom: Courtesy Primephonic; Liszt: Wikimedia Commons.

Piano Trio Masterpieces at Temple Israel

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Steven Vanhauwaert, Cécilia Tsan.


“An Afternoon of Chamber Music”, Temple Israel, Long Beach

This concert was presented by Temple Israel, Long Beach’s oldest synagogue, as “a gift to our community”, and it proved to be a cherishable gift, due to the program-building skill of ‘cellist/organizer Cécilia Tsan, the committed performances by herself and colleagues Ambroise Aubrun (violin) and Steven Vanhauwaert (piano), and not least, the recently renovated venue itself, with the clean, dryish acoustic and welcoming, intimate, but nonetheless lofty and light-filled, space of the sanctuary that housed the performance.

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).
There were also some assumption-challenging aspects to all three works chosen. By the time Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) reached his mid-60s, he was at the height of his fame with a vast output already behind him—through much of which he had virtually single-handedly taken sonata form from its rudimentary origins to a sophisticated and highly flexible compositional paradigm. So you might expect his Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:25, composed in 1795 and published as Op. 71 No. 2 (also sometimes designated his Piano Trio No. 39), to reflect this in its structure.

But no. Haydn’s late piano trios, sometimes undervalued compared to his contemporary symphonies and string quartets, include some of his most freshly inventive works; in this example there’s barely a hint of sonata design across its three concise movements and certainly not in the first, an Andante set of seven variations on an amiable theme, which move between major and minor and vary in measure length to maintain variety and interest.

The scholar Charles Rosen regarded these trios as really being solo piano works that employ the violin to reinforce or assume the melodic line and the ‘cello to give additional bass support. It was one of the delights of this performance that the strengths of each player tended to mask this unequal division of responsibility, Mr. Vanhauwaert’s light, bright, and precise handling of the piano part on the Temple Israel’s less than full-size grand being complemented by M. Aubrun’s bold, assertive playing, with a quite small amount of vibrato, and Ms. Tsan’s sonorous underpinning.

Haydn maintains the overall serenity and even pacing of the variations into the warmly beautiful second movement Poco adagio, where some added hush in the first repeats gave what is already dolce cantabile an extra inwardness. All of this made the Rondo all’ Ongarese finale’s outburst of activity even more arresting and joyous. This trio is generally regarded as Haydn’s most popular, due to the Hungarian or, to give its usual nickname, the “Gypsy” element, and the players gave those minor-key episodes between the twinkling main rondo theme the full earthy, foot-stamping treatment, bringing the beaming audience to its feet for the first, and not the last, time. 

Ernest Chausson by P. Frois, c.1885,
Bibliothèque nationale de France.
This irrepressible Classical opener preceded a latish Romantic work that gave the lie to another wrong assumption—that the German/Austrian template for large-scale multi-movement instrumental music was somehow inimical to a truly French musical sensibility. This was anything but true for Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), whose Piano Trio in G minor Op. 3, though composed in 1881 and thus early in his tragically truncated career (he was the only composer of note to meet his end on an out-of-control bicycle), is as architecturally cogent across its half-hour, four-movement span as any comparable work by Schumann or Brahms.

All three players made the most of the long, brooding slow introduction to the expansive first movement, Mr. Vanhauwaert somberly delineating the quiet rising arpeggios that introduce the ‘cello’s début motif, here grindingly sinister in Ms. Tsan’s hands, followed by the strong clean descending line of M. Aubrin’s violin. Then they launched the Animé main part of the movement, alternating between tight urgency and soaring eloquence (the intervals and harmonies in the radiant second subject always bring to my mind Bernard Herrmann’s sumptuous love theme in "Vertigo") before arriving at a truly tempest-tossed sffz final climax.

Though not labeled as such, Chausson’s Vite second movement is the work’s scherzo, alternating and interleaving scampering triplets on the piano with an arching melody on the strings that does intermittent duty as a trio section. The Assez lent slow movement is the emotional heart of the work, and the Temple Israel setting felt very appropriate for Ms. Tsan’s first unfolding of the elegiac main melody, which expands and evolves into an even more passionate version of the first movement’s second theme. 

Here, and in the finale as well, Chausson thus tightens and heightens the work’s overall unity and dramatic intensity by adopting the cyclic form often used by his mentor, César Franck. Initially animated and optimistic, the finale becomes increasingly turbulent as melodic elements from the first movement thrust themselves back in, climbing to a pitch of intensity on both strings, underpinned by fistfuls of hammered piano chords, before collapsing into a short, bleak coda: astonishingly, this trio was Chausson’s first big instrumental work, and this performance wholly caught its power.

Watercolor of Franz Schubert by
Wilhelm August Rieder (1825). 
Only a few years older than Chausson would be in 1881, Franz Schubert reached the final and greatest flowering of his genius in 1827-1828. Some later criticism, however, painted him as being out of his depth when he attempted large-scale sonata structures to match those of Beethoven. There could be few better responses to this canard than the finely shaped account that these performers gave of his Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, Op. 99 D. 898, when they returned after an interval of generous refreshments laid on by Temple Israel. 

They took the initial Allegro moderato quite speedily, driving the whole first subject complex in a single burst of energy before a dramatic (unmarked) slowing heralded a contrastingly spacious account by the 'cello and then both strings of the second subject, over piano arpeggios as clean as ever in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s hands. Here, and indeed throughout the whole performance, the acoustic somehow emphasized how elaborate and demandingly soloistic Schubert’s writing often is for all three players. 

There was no first movement exposition repeat, and once again a quite fast tempo for the start of the second movement Andante un poco mosso, giving the movement a wistful, strolling ambience, though later with plenty of dynamic light and shade and subtle, easeful use of rubato. The propulsiveness continued in the remaining pair of movements, rounding the whole performance off at an exceptionally tight 36 minutes or so. 

As with all supremely great music, interpretative differences only bring into focus further facets of an inexhaustible whole. While Schubert’s First Piano Trio can easily take a more expansive, searching approach, this deliciously airborne performance, conceived and performed as by three pairs of hands coordinated through a single mind, was perfect in context. 

To conclude, the trio returned for an encore: welcome, though hardly required given the plethora of riches they had already delivered. This was the Andante con moto tranquillo second movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, and their affectionate account of its radiant song, in the Temple Israel’s analytical acoustic, showed how different Mendelssohn’s warm, homogeneous writing for this combination of players is from Schubert’s often challenging exploration of them as individuals.


An Afternoon of Chamber Music, Temple Israel, Long Beach, April 7, 2019.
Images: The performers: Linda Pelteson Wehrli; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Chausson: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Temple Israel: Courtesy Ceilings Plus.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The "London Brahms"


Long Beach Camerata Singers, Long Beach

The title of this column is a trifle misleading; Johannes Brahms never went to London, despite being invited numerous times (reportedly, among other reasons, he didn't want to have to put on a tie). But at the urging of his publisher he did arrange his Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 for piano four-hands, an arrangement which became known as the "London version," and it was that arrangement that the Long Beach Camerata Singers performed at the Beverly O'Neill Theater on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Brahms in 1866.
Well, not quite. Brahms arranged the entire work, including the vocal and choral parts, so that the piece could be enjoyed at home by two reasonably skilled pianists. Constructing such arrangements was a common practice back in the days before recordings, when making music in the home was a popular thing. What the Camerata and other choirs do when they want to perform this version in public is remove the choral lines from the accompaniment. Only a cynic would point out the economy resulting from not hiring an orchestra.

Brahms composed his Requiem in bits and pieces. At the premiere in Vienna, only three of what became ultimately seven movements were performed; at the subsequent Bremen and London performances this was expanded to six, Nos. I-IV and Nos. VI-VII. The last movement to be composed, with its soaring soprano solo and text extolling the virtues of motherhood—possibly inspired by the death of the composer's own mother—was placed fifth, and the complete seven-movement whole was performed for the first time in Leipzig in 1869.

That London performance, which took place in 1871, was in English and utilized 30 singers. The Camerata are 75 members strong, and they sang in the original German with English supertitles. Also, since that Vienna premiere only consisted of three movements, Artistic Director James K. Bass allowed an intermission after Movement III. I had never experienced a performance of the work with a break, but I, as well as the audience, found the respite welcome, and I'm sure the singers, who otherwise had to stand for the whole thing, did so too. 

With the substitution of piano accompaniment for the original orchestra, something is lost, but something else is gained. Brahms' orchestral writing is superb, and the orchestral colors add a dimension to the piece lacking in the monochromatic piano. The sixth movement, with its terrifying vision of the Last Judgement, requires the full orchestra to achieve the requisite fury, and the force of a crescendo in the piano doesn't compare. At the same time, with the piano there is an increase in intimacy and direct expression, and the work takes on an almost chamber music quality. This is especially true with a dry acoustic like that of the O'Neill, which totally lacks resonance.

Image result for james k bass
James K. Bass.
Conductor Bass, who heads the choral program at UCLA, showed an idiosyncratic approach. Tempos were on the whole extremely fast, and there were some tempo variations I had not encountered before. Crisp articulations (the repeated exclamations of "wird weg" at the end of the second movement were like pistol shots) and the clipped ends of phrases prevented the familiar work, which can be a bit of a slog, from becoming ponderous. 

His chorus responded magnificently. I've been writing about the Camerata for close to 20 years now, and they have never sounded better. Formerly a beloved community icon whose performances required a generous spirit to fully enjoy, they have been transformed, first under Jonathan Talberg, then with Robert Istad, and now with Bass in his second year, into a crack professional chorus that needs no such indulgence. Each section sounds rich, full, and beautiful, and they are blended and balanced into the very model of a choral ensemble. Their dynamic range is extraordinary, and in full cry they are absolutely thrilling.

Baritone John Buffett has an attractive, manly baritone and began well. He encountered some trouble with the high notes, where he had to engage a sort of overdrive, and also couldn't quite manage the lows, but in the middle, which is most of the part, he was fine. Oriana Falla is not the angelic type of soprano, a Mathis or Janowitz. Her voice is large, lovely, and vibrant, and she sang her solo with moving conviction.

The pianists did yeoman work in terms both of digital virtuosity and musicality. Na-Young Shin is the Camerata's regular accompanist, while Timothy Durkovic is a familiar figure on the Southern California concert scene.

Image result for george bernard shaw music criticism
Shaw in 1911.
George Bernard Shaw was, famously, not a fan of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem. A critic in his younger days, Shaw thought the work something to be "patiently borne only by a corpse." He also wrote, "There are some experiences in life that should not be demanded twice of any man, and one of them is listening to the Brahms Requiem."

Well, I heard the Long Beach Chorale's performance last year, and now the Camerata's, and seem to have escaped unscathed. Both performances were excellent, if very different—the Chorale's was with orchestra—and the work remains firmly in the standard repertoire, the second most performed choral work after Messiah.

However, I don't feel compelled to hear it again next year.


Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (London version)
Long Beach Camerata Singers, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, 4:30 p.m., March 31, 2019.
Photos: Brahms: Wikipedia; James K. Bass: University of Miami; George Bernard Shaw: Alvin Langdon Coburn.