Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Exonerated Five in San Pedro


The Central Park Five at Long Beach Opera.

REVIEW

Long Beach Opera, The Central Park Five, Warner Grand Theater, San Pedro
JIM RUGGIRELLO

I was out of town and missed the opening weekend of Long Beach Opera's The Central Park Five, but caught the penultimate performance at the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro.

In many ways, this was a typical LBO production: thought-provoking and well sung, with innovative staging. But a couple of things set it apart from, and above, the rest of the company's efforts.

One was timeliness. Ava DuVernay's Netflix miniseries on the same subject, When They See Us, premiered just last month. And our president, asked to comment on the incident, made some unfortunate remarks just last week.

The story by now is a familiar one. Briefly, five teenagers were arrested for the brutal rape of a female jogger in Central Park, New York City, in 1989. Forced confessions were extracted, the boys were convicted and served sentences of between six and 13 years. In 2002, another individual confessed to the crime, his DNA matched the crime scene, and the boys were exonerated. They later sued the city and the state, and reached settlements with both.

Anthony Davis.
There's more to it, of course, than a simple recitation of events. A new word was added to the vocabulary: "wilding," which conjured up a vision of hordes of black and brown youth run amok. Inflammatory media headlines reflected, and added to, the volatile racial tensions of the times. Real estate developer Donald Trump appeared on the scene with full-page ads advocating for a return of the death penalty, and calling the teenagers "animals" and "monsters." The incident generated shock waves which resonate to this day. Composer Anthony Davis and librettist Richard Wesley were able to get a surprising number of the details of the incident, and their larger ramifications, into the opera.

Associate Professor Richard E. Wesley
Richard Wesley.
And it's not just the significance, but the quality of the work itself that also sets it apart. This was an impressive world premiere. Davis teaches at UC San Diego, and has devoted himself to creating works of social significance; Wesley teaches at NYU. Together, they have crafted a richly textured, compelling music drama that should be taken up by other companies.

Davis’ music is eclectic stylistically. He can write dissonant, dramatic passages that drive the action forward relentlessly; the end of the first act, leading up to the forced confessions, is a masterful dramatic, musical, and emotional crescendo. He can also alternate that with some really attractive straight-ahead jazz, here swingingly played by the small ensemble under Leslie Dunner. To highlight the aspects of the story that must have seemed surreal at the time, he writes spooky instrumental and electronic (a Kurzweil synthesizer is part of the ensemble) effects that chillingly capture the mood. All of the music serves the action and flows seamlessly.

Leslie Dunner.
Wesley's libretto puts words into the mouths of the boys, their parents, and the authorities that sound authentic, and capture the sense behind the words as well. In the face of relentless interrogation, the teenagers' final crumbling becomes not only understandable but inevitable, and it's difficult if not impossible to come away feeling anything but sympathy for the five, and rage at their situation.

LBO's cast was uniformly excellent. Zeffin Quinn Hollis, memorable from LBO's recent In the Penal Colony, dominated as a character called The Masque, who took on various roles, including police interrogator and a judge, and embodied white privilege and its inherent racism. He sang beautifully and acted with authority. Jessica Mamey's self-justifying D.A. was also powerfully sung, a heartless tool. Thomas Segen was a vocally strong member of the ensemble in Steve Reich’s Three Tales back in October, and here brilliantly personified Trump; he had the mannerisms down pat without descending too much into caricature.

l-r: Zeffin Quinn Hollis as The Masque, Thomas Segen as Trump, Jessica Mamey as the D. A.

The teenagers sang largely as a unit; the lively R&B-inflected number early on,"We Are the Freaks," was a highlight. Their occasional solo lines were well handled. Orson Van Gay (Raymond Santana) had many of them, and even if his vowels were oddly produced, his sound was vibrant. Nathan Granner sang movingly as Korey Wise, as did Cedric Berry (Yusef Salaam), Derrell Acon (Antron McCray) and Bernard Holcomb (Kevin Richardson). Standing out from the others were Lindsay Patterson and Joelle Lamarre as the mothers, each of whom had a brief heartfelt arietta, sung beautifully and with tremendous passion.

Andreas Mitisek.
Finally, this may be the best work LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek has done as producer and director. His set design is effective and versatile, with panels serving alternately as doors, walls, and screens for a variety of projections; the latter include contemporaneous headlines and video, and the opening one is of those recent Trump remarks.

The staging managed to capture both the Harlem milieu, with the use of projections and jazz music, and the claustrophobia of the holding cells where the boys were interrogated separately. And it also smoothly shifted locations, including to the courtroom and to Trump Tower, without any loss of momentum. Dan Weingarten’s dramatic lighting enhanced every scene.

The theme of this LBO season is Justice, and the Five, once exonerated, did eventually receive large settlements from the city and state—events that are not referenced in this work. At the end, upon receiving their release from prison, the boys and their parents sing a joyous anthem, "The World Is Ours," and we seemingly get a happy ending. 

But there is one final image; the group turns upstage as they, and we, read a headline announcing the acquittal of the officers involved in the police shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice. 

It's a shocking, and sobering, conclusion. The shock waves still resonate.

Long Beach Opera, The Central Park Five, Warner Grand Theater, June 22, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Images: LBO Production photos, Keith Ian Polakoff; Anthony Davis, Music Sales Classical; Richard Wesley, NYU; Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Mahler and Mozart(?) End the PSO’s 40th Season


The Pacific Symphony under Carl St. Clair in full cry in Mahler's First Symphony.

REVIEW

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN

The Pacific Symphony’s 40th season came to its conclusion not with, as originally announced, Mahler’s all-choral, packed-to-the-roof, evening-filling Eighth Symphony (that experience is now promised for the end of next season) but with the more modestly-scaled but still pretty spectacular Symphony No. 1 in D major

The shorter first half was filled by another piece with a complicated history… and one that remains shrouded in probably never-to-be-resolved uncertainty. It is known, from letters to his father, that Mozart wrote a work in Paris, in 1778, for flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and orchestra, intended for performance by a visiting quartet of players. But it was never given, due, Mozart said, to chicanery between another composer and the concert promoter, who did not return his manuscript—which indeed was never seen again. 

Some 90 years later Mozart’s biographer, Otto Jahn, acquired a manuscript, not in Mozart’s hand, which was identified as his “Concertante” for oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, with an orchestra of strings plus pairs of oboes and horns. Jahn had the score recopied by a professional copyist, and it was published in 1877 as the lost work.

Doubts about the Sinfonia Concertante's authenticity grew, however, and the majorly revised 1964 sixth edition of the Köchel catalog of Mozart’s works consigned it to its “doubtful and spurious” appendix. (To make a murky saga murkier yet, Jahn never revealed where he got that manuscript from, and after he died in 1869, it was nowhere to be found). 

On to the late 1980s, when the pianist and musicologist Robert Levin became so engaged with the mystery of the four-wind concertante that he devoted an entire book to it. He concluded that while the orchestra parts were probably spurious, the solo parts were basically genuine, with an unknown arranger recasting Mozart’s original flute and oboe parts for oboe and clarinet respectively. He then proceeded to a conjectural reconstruction of the original, with the solo parts re-reallocated back to the original quartet, and new orchestral parts based on his own deep knowledge of Mozart’s style in the late 1770s. 

The 1877-published Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, K.Anh C14.01, is still often played, but on this occasion Carl St. Clair chose to perform what was presumably (not clarified in the program booklet) the Levin reconstruction, with Mozart's original solo line-up of flute, oboe, bassoon and horn played by respective PSO section principals Benjamin Smolen, Jessica Pearlman Fields, Rose Corrigan, and Keith Popejoy.

l-r: Rose Corrigan (bassoon), Benjamin Smolen (flute), Keith Popejoy (horn),
and Jessica Pearlman Fields (oboe). 
Given this apparent commitment to musicology’s latest attempt to recreate Mozart’s original work, rather than a fallback to the familiar but spurious version, the actual performance was curiously lackluster. Though St. Clair reduced the PSO strings to around half their full complement, his treatment of the opening tutti was quite weighty and spacious; throughout there was a lack of dynamic nuance from the orchestra (perhaps Levin’s edition, if indeed that was used, is more sparing of dynamic markings than the old version). 

That said, the solo quartet were well matched (by and large the melodic materials are shared out pretty evenly, with all four getting solo moments in the sun and every combination of duet explored), and each player seized the opportunities for heartfelt eloquence in the Adagio’s melodic writing. The Andantino con Variazioni finale, though—again despite plenty of elegant work from the soloists—never really caught fire, with even the Allegro final section remaining at stubbornly low voltage. Perhaps the fact that all three movements are in E-flat major (in no other of his concertos does Mozart have all three movements in the same key) contributes to the work’s overall blandness? Perhaps (whisper it) it’s not really Mozart after all? 

Mahler in 1892, four years before the
Symphony No. 1 reached its final form.
After the interval, it was an entirely different story. I am old enough to remember when—at least in London in the ‘60s—Mahler symphonies in the concert hall were rare enough to be sought out and relished. Now, with Mahlerdolatory past the saturation point, one’s first reaction on seeing one programmed tends to be “again?... really?” And yet, a first-rate account of one of these behemoths still has the power to get under the skin and thrill and inspire an audience, and this was just what Maestro St. Clair and the PSO at beyond-full strength gave to theirs. 

Whether or not it’s the “greatest of all First Symphonies”, as St. Clair speculated in some opening remarks (after leading hearty congratulations to the orchestra at season’s end, in particular those who have been with it since its inception 40 years ago), the symphony's start—a sustained ppp A on all the strings over seven octaves—has a uniquely vernal and premonitory magic, and it was a tribute both to Maestro St. Clair’s balancing of forces and the Segerstrom Hall’s acoustic that the lowest of those seven octaves was just barely, but audibly, touched in, due to Mahler’s allotting it to only one-third of the double-basses. 

The opening’s sense of great things to come was intensified, after soft clarinet upward burblings, by ppp trumpet fanfares beautifully distanced and articulated by the PSO section offstage, after which the amiable main theme, borrowed from Mahler’s earlier Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, unfolded easefully and spaciously but with no lack of vigor when the exposition’s climax was reached (unsurprisingly, the repeat was not observed).

Carl St. Clair in action.
This pattern—of plenty of interpretative elbow-room combined with heft when needed, allied to playing as enthusiastically committed as it was sensitive—was maintained throughout the performance. There was much detail to be relished: a chunky, feet-stomping Scherzo; just the right degree of glissando from the violins at the start of the Trio; the ear-tickling clarity of section leader Steven Edelman’s muted piano solo double-bass at the beginning of the slow movement; a perfect sharp-intake-of-breath pause before Maestro St. Clair unleashed the storm at the beginning of the finale. 

One niggle: please can the epithet “Titan” for this symphony, used in the PSO’s pre-concert publicity, henceforth be put back to bed in the work’s early history where it belongs? The title was drawn from a romantic novel by one Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (“Jean Paul”), but Mahler dropped it after two performances of the symphony in its first, five-movement, symphonic-poem guise, and never used it again. 

In any case, the expectations “Titan” may arouse of something granitically Eroica-like sit ill—to this listener at least—with the symphony’s potent and highly original blend of nature painting, peasant dance, klezmer-inflected irony, and in the finale, extravagant rhetoric at each end of the emotional spectrum from despair at the start to bombastic triumph at the end, where it was to Maestro St. Clair’s credit that he made Mahler’s protracted roaring and trumpeting (almost) seem justified. On to the mighty Eighth this time next year! 

A standing ovation—of course...

---ooo--- 

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday June 6, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Orchestra and conductor: Doug Gifford; Wind soloists: Steve Dawson; Mozart: Esprit International; Mahler: Wikimedia Commons.

This review is posted later than usual, due to circumstances beyond the author's control; apologies to all concerned.

Monday, June 17, 2019

(Yet) Another Concert of Two Halves


Left: Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro; Right: Corey Cerovsek.

REVIEW

“Fratres” and “Russian Soul”: Pärt, Mozart, Korngold, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich from members of the DSCH-Shostakovich Ensemble
DAVID J BROWN

Every once in a while Classical Crossroads Inc, the South Bay’s local chamber music powerhouse which presents concerts at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, reaches across the aisle to the equally musically enterprising Rolling Hills United Methodist Church to co-present two-part recitals by the same performers, separated not only by distance but by time.

Two members of the Lisbon-based DSCH-Shostakovich Ensemble, the Portuguese founder and pianist Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro and Canadian violinist Corey Cerovsek, gave the latest of these tandem events. The first half was entitled “Fratres” (Brothers), filling the June slot in Classical Crossroads’ “First Fridays at First!” lunchtime series, and the duo duly led off with the eponymous piece, a relatively early work in the output of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935).

Arvo Pärt in 1977.
Originally conceived in 1977 without specific instrumentation, Fratres has been reworked both by the composer and others for many different combinations. It seems most often to be played by strings and percussion, with or without solo violin, but in 1980 Pärt himself recast it for violin and piano. Fratres opens with an archaic-sounding theme that is repeated in varied forms eight times, each separated by percussive interjections.

While the full-strings versions give the theme a New-Agey halo, the solo violin delineates its advent with rapid arpeggios progressing from ppp to fff. To begin a recital “cold” with this must be no mean challenge for a player, but Mr. Cerovsek met it admirably. Rather than maintain a steady dynamic increase from beginning to end, his more “stepwise” approach took the level down slightly at each chord change, and then crescendoed a little further each time. Though not quite to the letter of the score, this helped to shape the theme.

The violin/piano version of Fratres was, in this performance, a more hard-edged and satisfying musical experience than other versions I’ve heard, with Mr. Cerovsek’s wide range of violin tone-production in the variations—sometimes without vibrato—and Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s resourceful assumption of the percussion role, adding to its substance.

Next up was Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 21 in E minor, K. 304, composed in Paris in 1778. The first of its two movements is dominated by a main theme that folds in on itself, the overall power and hermetic dourness only growing with the welcome observation of the exposition repeat. The second movement is a minuet, but maintains the dark E minor mood of the first, its kinship emphasized by a similar contour to the main theme. A cool, grey half-light at last breaks through with the piano introduction to the sublime Trio section, but the movement—and the sonata—ends with no real lift in the pervading sense of oppression, all strongly characterized by the fine performance.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
as a young man.
So, it was a bit of a surprise to feel the need for a little light relief after Mozart of all composers! It arrived in the form of the miniature suite of four movements for violin and piano that Korngold drew from his incidental music to Much Ado About Nothing Op. 11, composed for a production in Vienna in 1920 (the complete incidental music has been recorded, for the first time ever, on Toccata Classics TOCC0160, by forces from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts under John Mauceri).

In the hands of Pinto-Ribeiro and Cerovsek, the first and third movements, “The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber” and “Scene in the Garden,” were contrasted visions of piquant, chromatic nostalgia and radiant eloquence, ranged on either side of the nicely strutting “Dogberry and Verges: March of the Watch.” The vigorous and genial “Masquerade: Hornpipe” rounded off the suite.

Tchaikovsky in 1874, four years before
he composed Souvenir d'un lieu cher.
There was a brief and charming encore, the third movement, Mélodie, from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d'un lieu cher (Memory of a dear place) Op. 42 of 1878, and this formed a link to the second part of the recital two days later in RHUMC's "Second Sundays at Two" series, where the first item in this “Russian Soul” half was the far longer Méditation, the first movement of that same Op. 42. The work is very much a violin showpiece, and Mr. Cerovsek vividly characterized the repeated alternations between its long and somber main theme and the contrasting, impassioned counter-subject, ably supported at every twist and turn by Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro.

In a brief spoken introduction Mr. Cerovsek wryly remarked that they were now going to proceed “from dark to darker”: after the richly shaded, humane melancholy of the Tchaikovsky, the world of the main work, Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 134, composed in 1968, presented by contrast a grey austerity, uninflected by hope.

Shostakovich in 1959, nine years before the
Violin Sonata: portrait by Ida Kar.
The angular, near-atonal piano opening of the Andante first movement has the metronome mark quarter note=100, and it must be a temptation to performers to take this slower, so as to intensify the mood of brooding inquietude. To do so, however, would be to diminish the enigmatic implacability that Shostakovich's chosen marking builds in, and it was to the performers’ credit that they took the score at face-value and, to my ears, got the pace and mood exactly right.

This was also true of the skeletal jog-trot into which the first movement eventually breaks, as well as the savage conflict between keyboard thunder and lightning slashes on the violin that kicks off and punctuates the second movement Allegretto, and most of all, the array of short variations that comprise the Largo finale. These require every kind of virtuosic resource from the performers to deliver what is both a masterly compositional arc and, as it would seem, the depiction of an increasingly desperate and, in the end, tragic inability to claw a way out of existential nightmare.

Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro and Corey Cerovsek were masters of every aspect of this forbidding late masterpiece, not surprisingly as it is one of the seven works that comprise the two-disc set of the “complete chamber music for piano and strings” which the DSCH-Shostakovich Ensemble have recorded in a major contribution to the Shostakovich discography: an essential purchase

Vanity Fair caricature of Sarasate
 from 1889.
Finally they did encore some light to follow that “dark and darker”: the Iberian glow and glitter of Pablo de Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella Op. 43, where a sentimental melody in the same salon ambience as the Tchaikovsky Mélodie suddenly scampers away into a whirlwind of bouncing piano rhythms and violin arpeggios—a joyful showpiece to round off a memorable (pair of) recital(s). 

---ooo---

“First Fridays at First!”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, June 7, 2019
“Second Sundays at Two”: Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2.00pm, Sunday, June 9, 2019.
Photos: The performers: Centro Cultural de Belém; Pärt: International Arvo Pärt Centre; Mozart: Esprit International Ltd; Tchaikovsky: Library of Congress; Shostakovich: National Portrait Gallery; Sarasate: Wikimedia Commons.

This review is posted later than usual, due to circumstances beyond the author's control; apologies to all concerned.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Handel and Beethoven Climax the LBSO Season




REVIEW

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

There are some large-scale repertoire works whose duration presents a programming conundrum: too long for an equal-length first half of one or more other pieces, but too short to fill the entire evening. Some Mahler and most Bruckner symphonies come to mind, as well as Brahms’ German Requiem and on a less exalted level, Orff’s Carmina Burana

Eckart Preu.
Perhaps the most celebrated and oft-encountered challenge is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (except for exceptionally protracted performances, à la late Bernstein or Böhm), where a conductor has to find something of 25-30 minutes’ duration that will not be rendered negligible by comparison—like a warm-up band filling in time while a restless audience anticipates the star act.

To fill that slot before the LBSO’s grand finale to its 2018-19 season, Music Director Eckart Preu’s solution was novel: eschewing the usual fallback of either one of the short Beethoven symphonies or a Haydn (or like some more “challenging” UK programmers, slipping in a shovelful of unpalatable/forgettable/commissioned contemporary grit), he went instead for one of the preceding era’s grandest celebratory works, Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks HWV 351, composed in 1749 for outdoor performance to commemorate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

Plan and elevation of the 410ft long, 114ft high, pavilion built for the fireworks display on
27 April 1749; the building on the right caught fire and burned down during the show.

All in all this work was a highly successful choice. The sequence of grand, non-developmental French Baroque forms was sufficiently remote in style to complement rather than be dwarfed or emasculated by the symphony’s giant drama. Though the Kalmus edition Maestro Preu used reduces Handel’s original cohorts of wind, brass and percussion to three each of oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, plus one timpanist, his use of the LBSO’s full strings designedly ensured a rich amplitude which, along with plenty of vigor, and accurate, committed playing, made for a grand and anticipatory festiveness in the extensive Overture—though with an appropriately graceful stepping back in the brief Lentement for oboes and strings before the repeat of the movement’s main body. 

George Frideric Handel in 1742, seven years before
the Fireworks Music, portrayed by Francis Kyte.
The short Bourrée that followed was notably brisk, and neither was there any languishing in the Largo alla Siciliana entitled “La Paix”. Then came a surprise (though Preu had hinted at it in his pre-concert talk). He switched the order of the last two movements, so that the Allegro “La Rejouissance” that normally comes next instead followed the usually final pair of Minuets. But this was not an occasion for purist fussing: given that the Fireworks Music is as devoid as any other Baroque score of detailed dynamic and expressive markings, “La Rejouissance” was just as amenable to climactic beefing-up as the second and grander of the two Minuets normally is. 

Before the main course, Maestro Preu paid due tribute to the many who contribute to the Long Beach Symphony season: the audiences and sponsors, the Performing Arts Centre’s and LBSO’s staff and Ovation! volunteers, and especially the players, amongst whom he singled out the principal percussionist Lynda Sue Marks, retiring from the Orchestra after 62(!) years’ in its ranks (and who made her final appearance wielding the triangle as one of the three percussion players Beethoven adds to his already large forces in the symphony’s coda).

Lynda Sue Marks.
And so to the Ninth. With the guaranteed “Wow!” factor of the last movement and that tune, it has become so much the pre-eminent "go-to" work to end concert seasons that inevitably suspicions of routine fallback creep in. Which of course can never be: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor Op. 125 remains as cruelly demanding for players, singers, and conductor alike as it is an inspiring listen—even in a less than stellar performance—and it was to the credit of everyone at Long Beach that there wasn’t the slightest whiff of routine.

This was apparent right from the outset, where Preu was meticulous over Beethoven’s carefully qualified Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso (a “little” majestically?!), if not quite at the metronome quarter-note=88. Rather than the usual distant fog of bare-5th, the pianissimo opening on divided violas and 'cellos against sustained horns probably got as close to being audibly 16th-note sextuplets, as written, as was possible in the Terrace Theater’s acoustic, and led to a first fortissimo tutti as clean as it was explosive, establishing the drama, scale, and dynamic range of what was to follow, and enabled by the LBSO’s utterly committed playing.

Beethoven in 1823, when he was composing
the Ninth Symphony, as portrayed by
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.
That said, this was not the performance for those who anticipate in the Ninth a granite mountain à la Klemperer, or Furtwänglerian visions of sublime eternity. If anything, it was closer to HIP (historically informed performance) style, though of course without the distinctive timbres of period instruments. As for tempi, Preu’s account came closest to this in the slow movement, where Beethoven’s marking of Adagio molto e cantabile is, to Romantically-conditioned ears, strikingly at odds with how the metronome quarter-note=60 must force the music to go. Maestro Preu went pretty much for the metronome, giving a duration of around 12 minutes, in line with such HIP adherents as Mackerras and Norrington, and startlingly less than the <20 minutes of, say, Solti.

This did clarify the movement’s structure as a complex set of variations (which tends to get lost when it’s taken veeery slowly), and turned it into an idyllic interlude between the Scherzo—to which Preu and his orchestra had given a positively cosmic dynamism—and the Finale to come, rather than being a self-contained epic of sublime beauty. But inevitably the speed did smudge some detail in a later variation where the undulating string sextuplets became hectic rather than flowing; a little easing here would have made a difference.

(Just to get one other niggle out of the way—why wait until the break between Scherzo and Adagio for the four vocal soloists to come on? Though they made their way unobtrusively enough to the platform, the inevitable swerve of audience attention and applause was an unnecessary interruption after the cumulative power of the first two movements.)

The Finale got off to a slightly rocky start with a conspicuous wrong entry, so that Beethoven’s revisiting of the first three movements’ main motifs seemed a bit rattled rather than reflective, but once the (appropriately urgent) first statement of the famous “Ode to Joy” theme was under way on piano ‘cellos, the movement was set fair. From the basses’ first declamatory “Freude!” and throughout thereafter, the Long Beach Camerata Singers, reinforced with the UCLA Chamber Singers, were outstanding, rising magnificently to the succession of Himalayan challenges that Beethoven throws at his chorus, not least the sopranos.

Soloists in action: l-r: I-Chin Feinblatt (alto), Kala Maxym (soprano), Jason Francisco (tenor),
Steve Pence (baritone).
After the choir’s great “vor Gott!” outburst, Preu’s nippy tempo for the bass drum-led Alla Marcia gave tenor Jason Francisco a lot of syllables to negotiate with very little breath space, but otherwise he and his colleagues, Kala Maxym (soprano), I-Chin Feinblatt (alto), and Steve Pence (baritone) were fine in their respective solos and formed a well-matched if inevitably (given Beethoven’s ungainly word-setting) somewhat strenuous-sounding quartet.

Driven by shrieks from what sounded like more than the single piccolo Beethoven specifies, the final Prestissimo, though not overly headlong like some performances, was so electric that to reprise it, as they did when the torrents of applause finally subsided, seemed not superfluous but a necessary further discharge of the cumulative energy.

Orchestra and chorus alike covered themselves in glory, led with missionary fervor by Maestro Preu and (to judge by his enthusiasm when interviewed by Preu in the pre-concert talk) the Camerata Singers’ Artistic Director Dr. James Bass. Though there's no one "right way" to perform such an endlessly many-sided masterpiece as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and indeed some may have felt short-changed in terms of spaciousness and reflectiveness, for me this was one of the most sensationally urgent, coherent, and undutiful performances of the work that I can recall in more than 50 years of concert-going.


---ooo---

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, June 8, 2018, 8 p.m. 
Photos: Performers: Caught in the Moment Photography; Lynda Sue Marks; courtesy LBSO; Royal Fireworks Pavilion: Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Handel: National Portrait Gallery.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Stellar Music-Making on Mount Wilson, Above the Mist



REVIEW

Mozart, Beethoven and Britten, Mount Wilson Observatory
DAVID J BROWN

Now that the Mount Wilson Observatory Sunday afternoon concerts are into their third season, you would think that familiarity might make the experience start to lose its sense of specialness, but not a bit of it. On this occasion, the second in the series, due warning had been given that cloud on the mountaintop could make it chilly enough inside the 100-inch telescope dome to warrant bringing extra layers, but in fact the mist simply gave extra visual magic to the long, twisting drive up, with snatched glances sideways at its great wispy poolings in the clefts between the mountains.

So on arrival the sun was out, and once inside the dome, after the three long flights of stairs to the observation floor, there again was the still-thrilling theater of the aperture rumbling open high overhead to let the daylight flood in, and then the whole structure rotating—so smoothly that it’s impossible not to succumb to the illusion that the telescope in the middle is moving and not yourself on the perimeter—to shift the direct sun out of the eyes of audience and performers.

l-r: Roger Wilkie, Leslie Reed, Alma Lisa Fernandez, Cécilia Tsan.


And then the sound. Could any instrument be ill-served in this wondrous resonance? Certainly not the oboe, at least in the hands of Leslie Reed, currently principal with the LA Master Chorale Sinfonia and LA Opera Orchestra, and former guest principal or soloist with just about any significant performing body in southern California that you’d care to name.

Taking its very soloistic role in Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370/368b of 1781, her instrument piped, sang, and soared its way around the great steel structure in this first item, together with the violin of Roger Wilkie, the Long Beach Symphony’s Concertmaster, the viola of chamber music specialist Alma Lisa Fernandez, and the ‘cello of Cécilia Tsan, Section Principal with the LBSO and Artistic Director of these concert seasons.

An unfinished portrait
of Mozart, from 1782.
The Oboe Quartet was a concise curtain-raiser, due mainly to the omission for timing reasons of the long exposition repeat in the first movement. Its notably brief development section also contributed to the compactness of the movement, which is followed by an Adagio as concise as it was eloquent in these players’ hands. Then the finale again left one wanting more, particularly with their gently affectionate pacing, perfectly Allegro (ma non troppo) as the score requests. The last reappearance of the indelibly memorable rondo theme on oboe and then violin almost teased “please not yet…” before the closing cadence.

The fast-approaching behemoth celebration in 2020 of Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary will doubtless bring even more saturation coverage than usual of the familiar great works of his maturity… and attendant challenges for planners and performers to give fresh insights rather than just program them gratefully, or even cynically, as a guarantee of full houses. How refreshing it was, then, that Ms. Tsan’s program focused on one of the still relatively underplayed masterpieces from Beethoven’s earlier career in the mid-1790s, when he was still making his way towards prominence as performer and composer.

Beethoven in 1801, a few
years after composing the
Serenade in D major.
His first String Trio, Op. 3 in E-flat major, seems too similar in its overall layout to Mozart’s final completed work in the medium, the Divertimento in E-flat major K. 563, for this to be a coincidence, but his next, the Serenade in D major, Op. 8, which formed the centerpiece of this concert, is a far more freshly original piece. It opens not with a large-scale sonata movement like its predecessor, but with a short, jaunty march, and this is reprised as the conclusion some 25 minutes later. Given what intervenes, the overall effect is of the young maestro drawing curtains back to unveil the most varied display of his compositional range that he could muster at that time, and then at the last, closing them again. 

Rhapsodic Adagio highlighting the violin? Check. Menuetto and Trio with some rather tricksy dotted rhythms and a cheeky pizzicato coda? Check. And to follow?—another Adagio, much graver this time but interspersed with brief staccato flurries of Scherzo, so that overall the movement forms an ABABA arch structure, itself the coping stone of the larger arch of the work’s seven-movement whole.

What does Beethoven present us with next?—again unexpectedly, a folk-dance, a Polacca that’s a rondo in all but name, which wittily seems to lose its way in a couple of whole-measure rests before a decisive conclusion. By now thoroughly unpredictable, Beethoven then treats his audience to a sedate Haydnesque andante, a theme on which he builds four expansive variations. The first, second, and last of these showcase respectively the violin, viola, and ‘cello, and were sumptuously realized and relished by Messrs. Wilkie, Fernandez and Tsan.

This movement is the expressive heart of the work, and after a final Allegro section that is really a fifth variation, Beethoven unerringly goes out on a high with the return of that march as a veritable “that’s all, folks!” conclusion. His titanic fulfillment, however familiar, of that crackling promise over the next three decades from 1796 to his death in 1827, fully justifies all the upcoming birth anniversary celebrations.

In 1905 the English industrialist, philanthropist and amateur musician Walter Willson Cobbett endowed a competition for the composition of “phantasies”, defined (by himself) as chamber works in a single large movement but comprising several contrasting sub-sections. The competition drew many entries, and was followed by a second competition and then numerous commissions that led to a distinctive corpus of works by many English composers in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Benjamin Britten in 1930, two years before
the composition of his Fantasy Quartet.
Benjamin Britten—arguably even more of a youthful prodigy than Beethoven—can be regarded as a “late legatee” of Cobbett’s initiative, composing his Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and String Trio, Op. 2, in 1932 at the age of only 18. It conforms, deliberately or not, to Cobbett’s dicta regarding length and structure, and begins and ends like the Beethoven Serenade with a march.

Britten’s halting trudge, however—opening with isolated ‘cello notes a minor 3rd apart, perfectly spaced and ppp in Cécilia Tsan’s hands—is a world away from Beethoven’s forthrightness. It recalls, if anything, the start of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and the young Britten’s genius here is to seamlessly ally this dogged, brittle mood with a startlingly contrasted English sensibility as unmistakable as those of his many “phantasy”-composing predecessors, amongst whom Vaughan Williams and John Ireland were only the most celebrated.

The key to this “Englishness” is the sound of the oboe, whether aspiringly ascendant (not unlike an earlier lark) or plaintively keening as if for Housman’s “Land of Lost Content.” For this English music-loving Brit expat, these performers’ account of Britten’s Phantasy Quartet was as delightfully idiomatic as could have been desired, leading the Mount Wilson audience unerringly through its numerous changes of pace, mood, and texture. It may have been unfamiliar to many present, but they responded with a fervent and justified standing ovation. 

Four concerts remain in the Mount Wilson series. First up is an enterprising program of world premieres by Danaë Vlasse, Todd Mason, Bruce Babcock, Mark McEncroe, and Anthony Constantino on 7 July, to be followed on August 4 by what many would regard as the greatest of all chamber works, Schubert’s sublime String Quintet in C major. September 1 sees a bill of original pieces and arrangements for two ‘cellos, and the season ends on October 6 with Mozart’s and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintets. More information and tickets can be found on the Mount Wilson website


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100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 2 June 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Photos: Mount Wilson and the performers: Todd Mason; Mozart: Smithsonian Magazine; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Britten: The National Portrait Gallery.