Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Grand Tchaikovsky Opening for “FF@F!–fff” 2019-2020

Portrait of Tchaikovsky in 1893, by Nikolai Kuznetsov.


La Bella Vita Trio, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Nadezhada von Meck.
The origins and progress of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor Op. 50 are well documented in his correspondence with his patroness Nadezhda von Meck—from his initial rejection in November 1880 of her suggestion of a work in that genre on grounds of acoustic incompatibility between the instruments; through growing interest and start of composition despite that antipathy; then increasing engagement with the challenges; and finally his more-or-less satisfied completion of the piece, some time in January 1882, and its dedication to the memory of his friend Nikolai Rubinstein who had died during its composition.

Though nominally in only two movements, Tchaikovsky’s Trio grew into the longest of all his chamber works, with that second movement—a theme with 12 large variations, the last of which mainly functions as a big-boned and vigorous finale to the whole work—at around a half-hour the most extensive in his entire output regardless of genre. Thus to make it the first program in the South Bay’s new season(s) of chamber music series, particularly within the slenderish confines of "First Fridays at First!–fff"’s normal timeslot, was a bold venture indeed.

La Bella Vita Trio: l-r Jacopo Giacopuzzi, Aleksander Koelbel, Lauri Rantamoijanen.

La Bella Vita Trio (pianist Jacopo Giacopuzzi from Italy, violinist Aleksander Koelbel from Denmark, and cellist Lauri Rantamoijanen from Finland) delivered a gripping and committed performance, in which perhaps the most remarkable feature was their constant attention to instrumental balance so that the quite colossal piano part, with its many pages of close-packed chordal writing—overall adding up to more notes than most piano concertos— did not simply overmatch and squash the others.

The two strings arrested attention from the outset as, over the piano’s teeming arpeggiated accompaniment, they handed back and forth to each other the eloquent twists and turns of Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable principal theme. The first movement’s title, Pezzo elegiaco, might lead one to expect something rhapsodic, informal, and perhaps small-scale, but in fact it’s an expansive 17-minute sonata design, with the sheer beauty and eloquence of the themes masking any formal stiffness. The Trio’s close attention to tempo relationships indeed clarified its structure, with the need not to let it sprawl led by the piano’s cracking pace that challenged the violin and cello to really fly.

On to the second movement. The lengthy, multi-sectional theme, delivered by the piano alone, is wonderfully crafted to enable rich variety in the variations that follow, which were thoughtfully listed in the program leaflet. However, I had been wondering ahead of time how this behemoth of a piece could be accommodated in the timeframe—and the answer was to not play quite all of it. Thus any attendees carefully following the list through the manifold beauties of the first seven variations would have been wrong-footed when expectations of the vigorous fugue of Variation XIII were met instead by the reflective and rapturous strains of the Andante flebile, ma non tanto Variation IX. 

Nikolai Rubinstein
Omitting the eighth variation is sanctioned in the score, as is a huge cut near the start of the Variazioni finale. This also the Trio observed, admittedly tightening the structure but undeniably affecting the overall balance of the work. This drastic shortening of the main Allegro risoluto e con fuoco body of the finale had the effect of throwing more weight onto the Andante con moto—Lugubre coda, which after the first performance (on the first anniversary of Rubinstein’s death) was separated off and had its piano part entirely rewritten. La Bella Vita Trio gave this—where the great main theme from the first movement cyclically returns in what was surely a conscious memorialization of Rubinstein—a long-drawn and passionate reading that brought their interpretation to a memorable conclusion.

With these two cuts enabling the whole work to be brought in within 40 minutes, they proceeded to an encore, which was nothing less than the entire first movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat major D. 898. This I thought was a mistake: for one thing, it’s simply too long for an encore, and for this listener at least, it just felt wrong not to be proceeding to the remainder of this glorious masterpiece. Sticking with Schubert, a better choice might have been the relatively little-played and stand-alone Notturno in E-flat major D. 897, but… why not simply have played all of the Tchaikovsky?


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, May 3, 2019. Images: Tchaikovsky: Wikimedia Commons; Nadezhda von Meck: Tchaikovsky Research; the performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc; Rubinstein: Wikimedia Commons.

Schubert’s Last Piano Sonata Played by Robert Thies

The first manuscript page of Schubert's sketches for the Piano Sonata No.21 in B-flat major D. 960. 


Robert Thies, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Many of Schubert’s large-scale late works—indeed, some individual movements within them—open with the sense of an epic journey being embarked upon, and of none is this more true than the Piano Sonata No.21 in B-flat major D. 960, with right at the outset the marking Molto moderato to dictate a very steady pace for the five quarter-note chords that begin the spacious main theme. Robert Thies’ spoken introduction to his performance of the Sonata, which formed the bulk of the inaugural recital in RHUMC’s 2019-2020 season, was eloquent about his own long journey with it, and more broadly with Schubert as a treasured central feature of his pianistic career.

Robert Thies playing the Piano Sonata No.21
at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.
He thus played the Sonata from memory—a prodigious feat in itself—and of which it's no criticism to say that it led me to speculate (and it can be nothing more, from a non-performer) whether for a player this may involve a trade-off, with gains in fluency and cogency resulting from no interruption from pages of dots between mind and hands, but perhaps offset by a tendency for that memory to by-pass some finer nuances of dynamic and expression which eyes on the score could pick up?

In the event Mr. Thies began his journey through the lengthy first movement with a minimum of agogic accentuation and the dynamic a notch or two above the marked pianissimo, bespeaking a fine balance between expressiveness and onward progress. Even without the long exposition repeat the first movement occupies well over one-third of the sonata’s total duration—none of the remaining three movements being particularly extended— and he followed such illustrious interpreters of the work as Schnabel, Curzon and Brendel in omitting the repeat.

I guess I’ll forever be in two minds about this. Recalling some performances where inclusion of the repeat together with too slow a basic tempo made the first movement seem to last forever and unbalance the whole, there was certainly a gain here in overall cohesion. But on the other hand Schubert wrote nine measures of seemingly tortuously calculated first-time lead-back music, whereas in the two other sonatas he composed concurrently with No.21 in autumn 1828 (No.19 in C minor D. 958 and No.20 in A major D. 959) and which, together with the String Quintet in C major D. 956, form his final testament as a composer of instrumental music, No.20 has just four relatively straightforward measures of first-time lead-back and No.19 no marked repeat at all. So surely Schubert meant those nine measures in No.21 to be heard..?

Sketch by Friedrich Lieder of Schubert in 1827.
With the other three movements there are no such structural conundrums. For me, perhaps the highlight was the ensuing Andante sostenuto, whose similarity of pace to that of the first movement can add in an insensitive performance to the feeling that much of this sonata comprises a vast tract of undifferentiated slowish music. No danger of that here. Mr. Thies, without taking it unduly slowly, brought out fully the sense of frozen tragedy, with the staccato eighth notes and octave leaps that permeate the opening and closing sections of the movement's ABA structure feeling like the repeated stab of a tormented nerve.

After an account of the concise and brilliant Scherzo that fully met the Allegro vivace con delicatezza marking which so decisively breaks with the haunted mood of its predecessor, Mr. Thies added to the Allegro ma non troppo finale's basic ebullience just the right sense of odds overcome, his careful observation of that modifying ma non troppo enabling a really electrifying surge into the Presto coda that brought the house down.

He preceded the Schubert Sonata with Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K. 397/385g, which seems to be a real favorite amongst pianists here—this was the third performance of it I had encountered in a South Bay recital in as many years. As ever, its sideslip two-thirds of the way through from haunted D-minor introspection to “no problem after all” amiability failed to convince, but Mr. Thies, through careful spacing of the transitional chords and pauses and a caressing, feather light opening to the Allegretto when it finally arrived, made as good a case for it as one could imagine. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, September 8 2019, 2.30 p.m.
Images: Manuscript: Schubert online; Robert Thies: Elaine Lim; Schubert: Figures of Speech.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Two Cellists Create Heavenly Music At Mount Wilson

Cellists Cécilia Tsan and Eric Byers.


"Travels With 2 Cellos": Mount Wilson Observatory

The cello is probably the closest to the human voice of all the instruments in the orchestra. In this program, with cellists Cécilia Tsan and Eric Byers, those voices lifted us closer to the stars, in the shadow of the great telescope at Mount Wilson, where the universe was discovered.

This series at the Mount Wilson Observatory, called Concerts in the Dome (curated by Cécilia Tsan), is in its third season and has quickly become one of the more coveted venues for the classical music world in Los Angeles. There were two performances—at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.—and both were sold out.

The great 100-inch telescope Dome at Mount Wilson.
Perched at 5,800 feet, and overlooking LA, the famed observatory has probably the most impressive approach to any concert venue in Southern California. One winds up into the San Gabriel Mountains and is greeted by beautiful views, the smell of pine trees, fresh air, an occasional deer, and a sudden quiet that envelops the senses. Simply arriving and walking around the Observatory is transforming. Then the magic begins.

Stunning views from Mount Wilson.

Jean-Baptiste Barriére.
The September 1 Labor Day Weekend concert opened with the stately Sonate No. 4 (Duett) in G major from Livre IV de sonates pour violoncelle et la bass continue (1740) by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Barriére (1707-1747). In this piece Barriére—an accomplished cellist himself—elicits the charm of 18th century royal Paris but also delivers many little surprises, with skillful double stops (playing two strings at once), creating a sound that in the Dome was almost like a small string orchestra with a velvety polish. Not a bad start to show off what this venue is capable of.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).
The 5 p.m. audience of over 100—the seating is limited due to the curvature of the balcony around the great 100-inch telescope—was now calmed and entranced on a warm late summer afternoon with the sunlight illuminating the interior of the Dome. Next was the more well-known Sonata for Two Cellos in C major G.74 by the Italian Luigi Boccherini, which showcased these players’ ability to sing on the instrument and fly through technically challenging material. Boccherini feels underrated by today’s standards; his music is lively, engaging and well- crafted, and he served as an important bridge between the Rococo and Classical periods.

Sold-out crowd for both performances.
Cécilia Tsan’s day jobs are that of Principal Cellist with the Long Beach Symphony and LA Master Chorale. Eric Byers is the cellist with the noted Calder Quartet. These superb players, at the top of their game, had been rehearsing all week leading up to the concert and it showed. Tsan and Byers engaged in spirited musical conversations, echoing each other’s phrases and nuances to create a fascinating stereo effect in the Dome. What also quickly became apparent was that both cellists were as comfortable in the rich lower registers of the instrument as in its lofty ranges, high on the A string, where the cello begins to sound even more like a singing human voice.

Offenbach as a young
cello virtuoso.
Also featured was a cello duo by the very prolific German, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). Composer of over 100 operettas and now probably best known for his opéra-comique, The Tales of Hoffman, Offenbach began his career as a cellist, and his Opp. 49-54 comprise a cours méthodique of duos for two cellos, ranging from très facile (Op. 49) to très difficile (Op. 54). No. 3 in C major from Op. 52 (brillants) proved to be far more than a piece of pedagogy—an expertly-crafted gem with a lively salon atmosphere. Offenbach wrote so much music that it will take some time more to appreciate his legacy.

A nice contrast in the program was provided by the film composer, Bear McCreary, who transcribed his moving main title music, from the film “The Professor and the Madman,” for two cellos. This piece offered an elegant exchange of moods layered on an emotional tapestry.

Enthusiastic applause for Tsan and Byers.
Eric Byers then surprised the audience with a composition he’d written especially for the occasion. “Observatory” was a sonic tour of the cellos' harmonic possibilities, a dialogue using harmonic arpeggios with sustained, single, natural, artificial, and double-stopped harmonics to create an other-worldly feeling, to which the audience responded very favorably. Any harmonics on a string instrument are tricky to execute: one has to apply the exact touch at precisely the right spot to elicit the overtones, which are different for each string. Too little pressure and nothing happens; too much and the effect is lost. Tsan and Byers made it all look easy.

The highlight of this concert was a transcription of the famous Chaconne from Bach's Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004. So familiar is the Chaconne on the violin that it took a moment to understand that this masterpiece works equally well in this arrangement by Claudio Jaffe and Johanne Perron, for two cellos.

Bach at age 61 in 1746, painted by
Elias Gottlob Haussmann.
For many, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), remains at the pinnacle of Western classical music. For the performers, playing Bach requires extreme concentration. In the right hands, the mastery and mystery of his music creates an almost religious experience in its listeners—and this is not accidental. Bach dedicated most of his music to the glorification of God.

When the Chaconne began, everyone knew that a special journey was under way and, filling the famous telescope Dome—a cathedral of science—the music echoed our spiritual quest to grasp the heavens. Formally a theme and variations, the Chaconne unfolds... and then keeps on unfolding. As Chopin said, “Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars.” Just when you think he has finished a particularly intriguing exploration, he takes you into yet another realm and then another, each time returning us safely to the grand opening theme. Tsan and Byers delivered the best of what Bach can be and transported us that much closer to the most wonderful stars.


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 1 September 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Images: Photos: Todd Mason; Barriére:; Boccherini: Wikimedia Commons; Offenbach: Wikimedia Commons; Bach: Wikimedia Commons.

Next up at Mount Wilson is the last concert of this year’s series featuring an accomplished roster of French musicians:

Sunday, October 6: Clarinet Quintets by Mozart and Brahms, played by Pierre Génisson (clarinet), Ambroise Aubrun and Henry Gronnier (violins), Virginie d’Avezac (viola), and Cécilia Tsan (cello). Tickets for the 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. performances for each are available here. Don’t miss out!