Thursday, May 2, 2019

Mozart and Korngold: Mature Prodigies at Long Beach

Simone Porter (violin) and the LBSO under Eckart Preu play Korngold's Violin Concerto.


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

On paper the program for the LBSO’s April concert—Mozart’s final symphony and a Korngold concerto, each preceded by a short orchestral piece as different from each other as their (living) composers are—seemed a not particularly coherent set. This impression was however totally refuted by the performance, which for me turned out to be one of the best-planned and executed thus far in Eckart Preu’s tenure as Music Director.

Arvo Pärt in 1977.
It was clear from the outset that we were in for something special. Maestro Preu, arms raised to begin Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977), held off doing so until near-absolute audience silence was achieved. It was also clear that his musicians were 100% with him when that cue, at last made, triggered a truly ppp stroke on the A bell, followed by a second and then a third at the achingly protracted intervals specified in Pärt’s score, and finally the divided 1st violins’ initial chord, muted, high up, and as ear-ticklingly close to the brink of inaudibility as the bell.

In his pre-concert talk, Preu briefly discussed Pärt's "tintinnabuli" musical language and then analyzed in welcome detail what makes this brief masterpiece so compelling: simply a descending scale of A minor repeated again and again, overlapping and with longer and longer note-values as it is carried down through the strings from the first violins to the double-basses, all punctuated by the long-spaced bell-strokes increasing to a central fff and then diminishing again as the strings eventually ground themselves on low E and C.

All this is virtually impossible for the ear to follow note-by-note, but the effect is mesmerizing: a shimmering aural waterfall of lament, not only, one gathers, just for Britten’s death, but also for the hopes of Pärt, born in 1935 and still living in his native and then-Soviet Estonia, to meet the “only contemporary composer whose musical outlook, he believed, resembled his own,” as Wikipedia puts it. Either way, the LBSO strings covered themselves in glory: I don’t remember previously seeing audience members on their feet applauding the concert opener, just six minutes into the program…

Posthumous portrait of Mozart
by Barbara Kraft, 1819,
The full strings stayed on the platform for Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major K. 551 “Jupiter,” a clear indication that Maestro Preu’s view of it was going to be expansive and forward-looking, rather than emphasizing its Classical roots with period-manner exactitude.

His tempo for the opening Allegro vivace was appropriately spacious, given the size of forces and the Terrace Theatre’s not exactly analytical acoustic, with dynamic contrasts in the alternately gruff and tender opening emphasized for maximum drama. Any suspicion of broad-brush imprecision, though, was banished by, among other things, the massed violins’ meticulously delineated phrase-endings.

His pre-concert remarks concentrated on the finale, which introduces no less than five themes eventually to be woven together in a fugal coda that he likened to one of those wonderful M. C. Escher drawings of staircases with spatially impossible interconnections (right). Paradoxically though, this performance emphasized the counterbalancing weight of the first movement in its spaciousness and dynamism, as well as Maestro Preu’s inclusion of the long exposition repeat (he also observed that of the finale, though not the rarely-done second half repeat).

M. C. Escher: Relativity.
Between the broad architecture of the first movement and the intricate high-wire juggling act of the finale, the cool poise and eloquence of the Andante cantabile slow movement and the swirling Viennese-waltzy Menuetto (as it came across in the expansive big-orchestra guise of this performance) seemed suspended like two single-layer decks of a bridge between multi-leveled support towers.

Fairly inarguably, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) were, together with Felix Mendelssohn, the most astonishing child prodigies in music history. However, the “Jupiter” symphony of 1788 and Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35, completed in 1945, were high points toward the ends of their multi-faceted mature careers: the symphony along with Nos. 39 and 40 came after most of Mozart’s long series of piano concertos and amid the final flowering of his operatic genius, while Korngold’s concerto followed the majority of his Hollywood movie scores and heralded the few but important concert works still to come.

Simone Porter.
Time was when the knee-jerk critical reaction to this concerto was that it was “film music,” to which—given that some of its themes were indeed drawn from four of his movie scores—a Brahmsian “any fool can see that!” retort might be appropriate. But Korngold’s genius was that he could reshape and combine those ideas so that they seemed naturally to belong to each other, not a patchwork but integral constituents of a seamlessly conceived whole.

At the start of his talk Eckart Preu had interviewed Simone Porter, who would play the concerto in the second half, and she spoke as warmly about the intricacies and subtleties of the solo part as he did about the resourcefulness of Korngold’s orchestration. Their collaboration in the performance was a joy from beginning to end.

Anyone who knew the concerto just from Heifetz’s pioneering recording, with its urgent tempi for all three movements, would have had a shock here. Ms. Porter’s projection of her soaring opening theme was slower and more ruminative that any I’ve previously heard, and the many subsequent occasions when Korngold’s sheer chutzpah has the violin leap an octave or more became in her hands moments of far-seeking aspiration, perfectly clean in intonation and the antithesis of vulgar display.

Korngold in 1942.
As for orchestra and conductor, in the “virtually pulseless” (as he had described them) first two movements, they seemed to relish every gorgeous harmonic twist and turn, delineating clearly all the layered strands of Korngold’s iridescent orchestration and, in the central Romance, projecting a limpidly moonlit nocturne in which Ms. Porter’s weaving line glistened like gossamer spider-thread.

In total contrast the finale, somewhere between a sonata-rondo and an informal set of variations on the main theme, drawn from Korngold’s music for The Prince and the Pauper, bounced into ebullient life from the first bar of violin skittering and remained buoyantly airborne until the last roaring horn fanfare. The audience was still on its feet cheering when Ms. Porter on her third return to the platform gave as encore, not a piece of solo pyrotechnics, but a sweetly inward account of one of the double movements from Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat minor BWV 1002. It was perfect.

Osvaldo Golijov, 2010.
The Korngold had been preceded by the “Overture for small orchestra” Sidereus, composed in 2010 by the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) to a commission from more American orchestras than you can count on your fingers and toes. I’ve not been too enamored of other Golijov works I’ve heard, but this piece, inspired by observations of the cosmos from Galileo onward, generated real heft over its eight-minute span, with some of the inexorable unpeopled quality of Sibelius in tone-poems like The Oceanides

 Like Korngold in the Violin Concerto, Golijov in Sidereus proved himself adept at creating big sounds from his small forces, with some crunchingly seismic sonorities drawn from just a handful of bass woodwind and brass: “ominous, massive, suspended in time and space,” says the heading on the first page of the score—yes indeed. 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, April 27, 2019, 8 p.m.
Photos: Performers: Salvador Farfán, Caught in the Moment; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Escher: Artsy; Korngold: International Korngold Society; Golijov: Courtesy WBUR Boston.

No comments: