Saturday, August 24, 2019

La Jolla Summerfest Explores Love and Loss

Steve Uzell.

REVIEW: La Jolla Summerfest
Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, La Jolla, CA


On Tuesday, Aug. 20, the highly regarded La Jolla Music Society's Summerfest presented "Love Stories," the penultimate program of their first season at the brand-new Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, the Society’s new permanent home. Known to aficionados as “The Conrad,” the Epstein Joslin-designed Center includes a concert hall, named for founding sponsors Brenda Baker and Steve Baum, a 2000 square foot flexible performance space, a multipurpose meeting room, a spacious courtyard and offices for the Society. 

Tuesday’s concert took place in the concert hall and was dedicated to the memory of Kay Hesselink. The much-loved, devoted patron of Summerfest over the past many decades was a former chair and a member of the Board of Directors of the festival who, along with her husband John, has hosted numerous Fest artists. 

At 513 seats, the Baker-Baum Concert Hall is the perfect size for chamber music in an intimate setting, and the superb acoustics add to the effect. The venue is handsomely wrought, crafted of multiple types of wood, all burnished to a glow, and is sanctuary-like in its atmosphere, imparting an almost religious experience to the listener. The outstanding performers were without a doubt worthy of their new home. 

Also new this season is music director and Israeli pianist Inon Baratan, who chose an intriguing program to embody his theme, the power of love and its resultant suffering in music, from the perspective of four composers, two from the early to mid-romantic period and two from the late romantic. The middle two of the four pieces, which portrayed mostly idealized love, were bookended by two wrenchingly emotional works representing both fulfilled and unfulfilled love.

Inon Baratan (Marco Borggreve).
The opening work, considered the ultimate in high romanticism, was Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, in an arrangement for string sextet by violinist Sebastian Gurtler. The disarmingly ambiguous tonality begins with the famous “Tristan” chord and remains largely unresolved throughout Wagner’s opera, until the final chord of the Liebestod that ends the work. This sextet version is lavish in its writing for the strings but, as opposed to the composer’s own 16-minute condensation of his opera, Gurtler pares the piece down to a mere 11 minutes, most of which is focused on music from the prelude, with only a few moments of the climactic Liebestod included. This leaves the listener feeling somewhat incomplete. 

However, the lushness of the instrumentation and the extraordinary playing of the ensemble of hand-picked musicians who comprised the sextet more than made up for the compositional lack. Standing out among these was violinist James Ehnes, whose elegant, unforced sound and impressive virtuosity set the tone for the vibrant homogeneity put forth by the remaining players: violinist Liza Ferschtman, violists Cynthia Phelps and Richard O’Neill, and cellists Edward Arron and Clive Greensmith. If the Gurtler version felt less emotionally satisfying than the piece in its rendering with the full complement of winds and brass added to the mix, the intense beauty of the ensemble’s effulgent sounds, individually and together, was nonetheless powerful. 

Robert Schumann’s Op. 48 Dichterliebe epitomizes the very definition of romanticism in the vocal genre. Written to celebrate the joys of the intense love he had found with his beloved Clara, each of the songs set to Heinrich Heine’s poetry is a rare jewel to be enjoyed and savored, individually and together. 

Warm and attractive, with just a touch of that magical Wunderlich timbre and richness, tenor Robin Tritschler’s voice was ideally suited in timbre and range for the subtleties of Schumann’s poignant score. Pianist Jonathan Biss was much more than an able accompanist; he was a full partner in the interpretation, though sometimes to a fault when the ends of phrases were held overly long or delayed, leaving the listener hanging just a bit too long. 

A rare treat was a rendering of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22, played with tender expression by violin virtuoso Augustin Hadelich. Having Hadelich perform these pieces is a definite bit of luxury casting. Known for his interpretations of fiendishly difficult repertoire, from Brahms and Sibelius to Ligeti, Hadelich manages to make these gentle, very intimate Schumann pieces fit him like a glove. 

Watching and listening to this extraordinary artist is like going back in time. There is something about his interpretations that evokes the violinists and composers of the 19th century. His stance, mannerisms and lush sound make the listener feel as if he or she is watching and listening to a reincarnated Joachim.

Augustin Hadelich (Luca Valentina).
The Love Stories theme came full circle with a second sextet, Schoenberg’s Op. 4 Verklaerte Nacht, exquisitely performed by virtually the same Festival ensemble as the Wagner, with a slight change in personnel: Ehnes played second violin and Kertschman first; likewise Phelps and O’Neill switched places; and Carter Brey replaced cellist Arron. 

Schoenberg composed his tone poem at an important juncture in his musical life, when he was on a path that ultimately led him to the twelve-tone genre. Like Wagner’s Tristan, Verklaerte Nacht pushed the envelope of 19th century tonality; it was written in 1899, literally on the cusp of the 20th century, and premiered in 1903 in its original sextet version, which he later arranged for string orchestra. But unlike Wagner’s Celtic tale of tragic love, the Richard Dehmel verses on which Schoenberg’s tone poem is based portray forgiveness and hopefulness in love. 

The musicians were evenly matched, all of them strong and up to the task of executing the considerable technical demands of the piece. Their sound was homogeneous, beautifully blended and consistent; no player overwhelmed or overpowered any of the others. The two violinists’ octaves were perfectly in tune, a difficult feat to accomplish with passages that often were placed in the stratosphere. It was a performance that the composer would have been gratified to hear, and a fitting ending to an evening of sublime music making. 


Photo credits: Marco Borggreve, Luca Valentina, Steve Uzzell.
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Looking Ahead in the South Bay: Part One

Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes.

The 2019-2020 South Bay Season of Chamber Music: (1) September-December

For details of South Bay chamber concerts in the first half of 2020, click here.

Over the last few seasons LA Opus has included numerous reviews of chamber music concerts in the South Bay area—roughly encompassing the region along the Santa Monica Bay from El Segundo and Manhattan Beach in the north to Palos Verdes Peninsula and San Pedro to the south. It seemed like a good idea to, for once, not just report on what you may have heard or missed, but to take a brief survey of what, as with previous years, promises to be a richly rewarding aural smorgåsbord for the next 10 months or so.

Robert Thies.
There are no less than four of these concert series. The most senior is the South Bay Chamber Music Society, founded in 1963 by the violinist Ruth Breytspraak (1893-1986) and pianist Sidney Stafford (1918-2010), and currently under the Artistic Directorship of Robert Thies, who has performed many times in the South Bay both as soloist and leader of his Thies Consort. The SBCMS mounts seven full-length programs over the season in two venues: Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington (Friday evenings), and the Pacific Unitarian Church, Montemalaga Drive, Rancho Palos Verdes (the following Sunday afternoons).

Joint next in longevity are “First Fridays at First~fff” and “The Interludes”, both under the auspices of Classical Crossroads Inc., founded in the early 1990s by the organist Karla Devine who continues as Artistic Director. The original series in Manhattan Beach comprised short Friday recitals at noon and longer Sunday afternoon concerts. After a few name, time, and location changes, these concerts settled in at First Lutheran Church and School, Torrance, in 2013: hence “First Fridays at First~fff”. Each 35-45 minute recital, with complementary refreshments to follow, takes place there on the first Friday of each month from September to June.

First Lutheran Church, Torrance.

Karla Devine.
The longer ones, formerly “The Previews” at Manhattan Beach, became “The Interludes” with that 2013 move to Torrance. These 60-80 minute concerts, whose performers are selected annually at the Beverly Hills National Auditions, are also given as “Music by the Sea” at Encinitas Public Library on Friday evenings preceding the Saturday afternoons at First Lutheran; additionally the programs will be presented on the following Sunday afternoons in Beverly Hills' historic Greystone Mansion (“Music In The Mansion”) from January through June 2020.

Steven Vanhauwaert.
“The Interludes” typically happen on each month’s third Saturday afternoon, and the fact that the fourth series—the (relative) newcomer amongst them, having begun in 2009—slots neatly in as “Second Sundays at Two” is no lucky happenstance, due to co-ordination across these series. With another fine pianist, Steven Vanhauwaert, as Artistic Director, each “Second Sundays at Two” recital takes around an hour, and can be heard in arguably the finest acoustic of any of them—Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

With this brief historical background out of the way, the really important thing is that, despite all four series being free of entry charge (donate what you can!), the huge pool of LA-area performing talent together with many distinguished visiting musicians ensures that the standard of performance has been and will continue to be remarkably high, as may be inferred from the following month-by-month listing. With the exception of the SBCMS concerts and a few others, the actual repertoire to be performed is announced shortly before the event. Jim Eninger’s weekly, and invaluable, Clickable Chamber Music Newsletter for Southern California will include these details as well as for many other events beyond the South Bay area.

Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

September 2019

First Fridays at First~fff, 12:15 p.m., September 6
La Bella Vita Trio from Europe on a California tour—Italian pianist Jacopo Giacopuzzi, Danish violinist Aleksander Koelbel, and Finnish cellist Lauri Rantamoijanen—play Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. This concert was reviewed here.

• Second Sundays at Two, 2.30 p.m., September 8 (note later start time for this recital only): 
Robert Thies, Gold Medal winner at the Second International Prokofiev Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia, plays Mozart's Fantasia in D minor, K. 397, and Schubert's final Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat major, D. 960. This concert was reviewed here.

• South Bay Chamber Music Society, 3 p.m., September 20/22: 
The Fiato String Quartet (Carrie Kennedy and Joel Pargman, violins; Aaron Oltman, viola; Ryan Sweeney, cello) play Beethoven: String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18 No. 6; Ives: String Quartet No. 1 “From the Salvation Army”; and Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73. This concert was reviewed here.

• The Interludes, 3 p.m., September 21:
A shared recital by Beverly Hills National Auditions winners: Pianist Nadia Azzi from the Colburn Conservatory will play Haydn's Sonata in B-flat major, Hob. XVI:41, Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60, Chopin's Waltz in F major, Op. 34 No. 3, Chopin's Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1; and Tom and Jerry Show by Hiromi Uehara (b. 1979). Virtuoso saxophonist Andrew Harrison and pianist Jason Lo will perform Pequena Czardas by Pedro Iturralde (b. 1929), Piazzolla's Café 1930, and the Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010). This concert was reviewed here.

October 2019 

• First Fridays at First~fff, 12:15 p.m., October 4: 
Violinist Joanna Lee with fellow Los Angeles Ensemble members, cellist Bingxia Lu and pianist Feng Bian, play Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor Op. 66. This concert was reviewed here.

Second Sundays at Two, 2 p.m., October 13: 
Violinist Ken Aiso and his Ukraine-born pianist partner Valeria Morgovskaya play Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, Op. 30 No. 3, Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (transcribed by the composer and Paul Kochanski) and Ravel’s Tzigane. This concert was reviewed here.

• The Interludes, 3 p.m., October 19: 
Lukasz Yoder, piano, and Roksana Zeinapur, soprano, will present a program of solo piano and vocal works "from Bach to Weill." Mr. Yoder will play Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, Book 1, No. 8, BWV 853, Chopin's Étude in B minor, Op. 25 No. 10, and Nocturne in F-sharp major Op. 15 No. 2, and the first movement, Maestoso-Agitato, from Grażyna Bacewicz's Piano Sonata No 2. Ms. Zeinapur, accompanied by Mr. Yoder, will then sing Je te Veux, by Eric Satie, Violon, by Poulenc, Je ne t'aime pas, Youkali, and Speak Low by Kurt Weill, These Foolish Things by Jack Strachey, La Foule by Angel Cabral, and La Vie En Rose by Louiguy. This concert was reviewed here.

• South Bay Chamber Music Society, 3 p.m., October 25/27: 
The Hollywood Piano Trio (Inna Faliks, piano; Roberto Cani, violin; Robert deMaine, cello) play Beethoven: Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97 “Archduke”; Arensky: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32; and Haydn: Piano Trio No. 39 in G major, Hob. XV/25 “Gypsy.” This concert was reviewed here.

November 2019 

• First Fridays at First~fff, 12:15 p.m., November 1: 
The cellist Eric Byers, founding member of the famed Calder Quartet, joins fellow USC Thornton alum, pianist Robert Thies, to perform Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 2, Op. 5 No. 2, and the third movement, Andante, from Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 19. This concert was reviewed here.

• Second Sundays at Two, 2 p.m., November 10: 
Belgian-born pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, Grand-Prize winner of the Los Angeles International Liszt Competition, two-time winner of the Beverly Hills National Auditions, and Artistic Director of the "Second Sundays at Two" series, will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37, accompanied by the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA) under conductor Charles Dickerson. Mr. Vanhauwaert will open the program with movements 1 Moderato and 3 Allegro assai of C. P. E. Bach's Harpsichord Sonata in A minor, Wq.49/1, H.30 ("Württemberg Sonata No. 1"). This concert was reviewed here.

• The Interludes, 3 p.m., November 16: 
Members of the period band Los Angeles Camerata and the five-person ensemble Oakwood Brass share the platform for a mixed recital of “Baroque and Brass.” LA Camerata will play Cancionero de Palacio, by Juan del Encina, the anonymous 16th-century Fantasia para vihuela LXIII (1557), Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde’s Fantasia No. 5 para Basso solo, and Madre la de los primores by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Oakwood Brass then take over with Michael Kamen’s Quintet, The Sun Will Rise, by Bob Clendenen, Paul A. Nagle’s Jive for Five, Victor Ewald’s Brass Quintet No.3, and That's a Plenty by Lew Pollack.

December 2019

• First Fridays at First~fff, 12:15 p.m., December 6:
A favorite of this series, the organist of Westwood Presbyterian Church, Namhee Han, returns for her 10th appearance. Her program will comprise Sigfrid Karg‑Elert's "Valse mignonne" from Drei stücke für Orgel, Op. 142; Pieces for Musical Clocks by Joseph Haydn; Guy Bovet's "El Tango de Los Tangos" (pedal solo) from 12 Tangos Ecclesiasticos; Graceful Ghost Rag by William Bolcom (performed on piano); and finally Dudley Buck's Concert Variations on "The Star Spangled Banner." This concert was reviewed here.

• South Bay Chamber Music Society, 8 p.m., December 6 & 3 p.m. December 8: 
In Celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the New Hollywood String Quartet (Tereza Stanislav and Rafael Rishik violins; Robert Brophy viola; Andrew Shulman cello) play the String Quartets No. 1 in F major, Op. 18 No. 1; No. 16 in F major, Op. 135; and “Grosse Fugue” in B-flat major, Op. 133. This concert was reviewed here.

If you found this round-up useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee

The second part, covering January-June 2020, will be published in December.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

“The Most Sublime Chamber Music Work Ever Written”

l-r: Timothy Loo, Alyssa Park, Cécilia Tsan, Shalini Vijayan, Luke Maurer. Photo: Todd Mason.


Schubert’s String Quintet, Mount Wilson Observatory

Franz Schubert, supreme master of the lied, was also one of the world’s greatest composers of piano and chamber music, and in the last few months before his death on November 19, 1828, he focused on those three genres. It will probably never be possible to establish a definitive chronology for these works (Schubert also began to sketch a final symphony during this time), but on October 2 he wrote to a publisher: “Among other things, I have composed three sonatas for piano solo […] I have also set several poems by Heine […] and finally have completed a quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola and 2 violoncellos. […] Should any of these compositions by any chance commend themselves to you, please let me know.” 

Portrait of Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827).
Though the songs were indeed published (as Schwanengesang ("Swan song"), D 957) within a few months of his death, the sonatas (in C minor, D.958, A major D.959, and B-flat major D.960) did not see print for 10 years, while the quintet remained unperformed and unpublished until the 1850s. But now…? Well, if you google the phrase at the head of this review, or variants of it, odds are that you will come up with more references to Schubert’s String Quintet in C major D.956 than any other single work… by any composer. 

This view was triumphantly reaffirmed at last Sunday’s performance in the great dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson by the Los Angeles-based Lyris Quartet (Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan, violins; Luke Maurer, viola; Timothy Loo, 'cello), together with Cécilia Tsan, Artistic Director of the Mount Wilson concert series and Principal Cellist in the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. And it was given a further emotional charge by being dedicated, as announced at the outset by Ms. Tsan, to the victims of that weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

While Schubert’s signature gift for memorable, bitter-sweet lyricism reaches an apogee in the Quintet, the work is also one of his greatest feats of long-range planning and formal coherence, laid out in the four-movement design that by then had become a staple of the Classical style: opening sonata structure/slow movement/scherzo-and-trio/fast(ish) finale. The work, however, is on a scale unapproached at the time by all but a few of his own and a handful of Beethoven’s, with the first movement the most spacious of all, taking around 20 minutes to play if the 154-measure exposition repeat is included (as it was here, praise be!). 

But Schubert’s genius for architecture ensures the coherence of the structure through a single tempo mark at the outset, so that dislocating speed changes are avoided and other compositional resources—elasticity of note values, phrase-shaping, harmonic restlessness, and carefully detailed dynamics—suffice to drive the movement’s hugely varied progress.

Photo: Tommy Johnson.
That single marking is Allegro ma non troppo, but the way Schubert initially stretches it over a two-measure C major chord that modulates onto a diminished seventh for two further measures, on all except the second ‘cello, makes the pace feel slower than it actually is. Ms. Park, Ms. Vijayan, Mr. Maurer and Ms. Tsan (who took the first ‘cello part) got this exactly right, in their unanimity and beautifully graded crescendo from piano to forte, and in finely calculated pacing that laid out the 30 measures or so of “slow introduction” and then proceeded into the downward-plunging staccato first theme with an oceanic inevitability that still avoided any hint of rigidity.

And then the extraordinarily spacious second subject emerges, first on the two ‘cellos against pizzicati on the other three instruments. The close accord between Ms. Tsan and Mr. Loo made this as liltingly eloquent as you could wish, but without any milking of pathos due to careful observance of that pervasive Allegro ma non troppo. In the repeat the opening crescendo chord was taken just a fraction tighter and this continued throughout, so that Schubert’s launch of the development had just the right propulsiveness.

The remainder of the movement is packed with dramatic incident: slicing, dicing, and recombining of themes, restless key changes and major/minor modulations, and often with the second ‘cello (Mr. Loo here following in the steps of some of the greatest exponents of the instrument, from Casals to Rostropovich to Yo Yo Ma) acting as a kind of commentator/ringmaster through its obsessive dotted rhythms that underscore and drive the music forward. The energy of this performance was such that it underlined the fact that this was still the music of a young man, albeit a preternaturally gifted one.

That headline descriptor “sublime” is most often applied to the Adagio slow movement, whose outer sections are of a rapt beauty that seems to halt time. Some recordings take this veeery slowly but, as with the first movement, Schubert provides just that single tempo marking which also has to accommodate, without any slamming gear change, the movement’s tumultuously disturbed central section. Here again the Lyris and Ms. Tsan, to my ears, got it just right, with an easeful flowing beauty for the opening section and then a perfectly judged plunge for the torrent into which the music abruptly rushes.

Schubert's death mask.
Perhaps even greater depths of pain could have been revealed, but there was just the right degree of implacability, driven again by the second ‘cello, Mr. Loo biting out the obsessive rising staccato triplets. Eventually the thrashing subsides and Schubert slowly and hesitantly regains the beatific mood of the opening, over a number of measures that contain far more rests than notes, all of them spaciously and scrupulously observed in this performance.

The third movement, a kind of “negative image” of its predecessor, comprises an obsessively exuberant Scherzo, marked Presto, enclosing and in extreme contrast with the most tragically introspective Trio section in the repertoire. Here perhaps more than anywhere the work earns its sometime nickname of “cello quintet” (many string quintets, such as those of Mozart and Brahms, employ pairs of violas with a single ‘cello, rather than vice versa as here). The Trio is dominated by a mournful descending line on the second ‘cello, against which its companion pulls fruitlessly, and the noticeably contrasting timbres of Ms. Tsan’s and Mr. Loo’s instruments ground out the slowly shifting harmonies and dissonances like two great millwheels turning against each other.

A review I once read of a recording of this work described the Finale as for once living up to its predecessors.” No “for once” about it here! Its ambiguous Allegretto marking notwithstanding, the Finale was fully in sync expressively with the other movements: hectic and restless, with its constant sideslips into and out of dissonance given full expression, and no let-up in the teeming moto perpetuo quality that threatens continually to become a dance of death. Schubert ends this movement, and the whole astonishing work, with a last frenzied climb to its sole triple forte, grounded in a gut-wrenching trill on the two ‘cellos, and then on the very last note a semitone appoggiatura from D-flat to C on all five instruments that in these performers’ hands stung like a dying scorpion.

In his introductory remarks at the start of the concert, Mount Wilson Trustee Dan Kohne had made the welcome request for no applause between the movements. Not only was this observed (apart from a few who prematurely thought the conclusion of the Scherzo was the end of the whole work), but after the actual end, there was an audible intake of breath and an appreciable gap of silence before applause erupted together with the, for once in southern CA wholly appropriate, standing ovation.

Bill Reichenbach.
After this magnificent account of such a masterwork, I may not have been the only listener who would happily have slipped away then and there to contemplate eternity through the filter of Schubert’s genius, amidst the mountains with a glass of cold Chardonnay to hand (yes, to make these concerts even more attractive there’s a reception with refreshments included in the ticket price between the 3 p.m. performance, which I heard, and the second one at 5 p.m.). There was, however, a short encore: an arrangement for string quintet, made specially for this concert by the trombonist Bill Reichenbach, of Scarborough Fair, which for me repeatedly recalled Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus… and none the worse for that! 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 4 August 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Photos: The performers: Todd Mason and Tommy Johnson; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert's death mask: Medium Music; Bill Reichenbach: artist website. Mount Wilson: Todd Mason.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!