Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ligeti, Dvořák, and Tchaikovsky open LBSO's 85th Season

Paul Huang (violin) and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra under Eckart Preu perform
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto.

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

LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu’s acknowledged approach to program-building is three-fold: to include lesser-known works by well-known composers; to introduce music which, though highly listenable, will be unfamiliar to almost everyone; and, just as important, to acknowledge audiences’ devotion to the central repertoire by also playing things they know and love.

Eckart Preu.
This last, however, is predicated on not being handled as a chore, and it’s one of Maestro Preu’s signal gifts that he communicates equal enthusiasm for the unknown and ultra-familiar alike, and can make the latter seem new-minted. This was certainly the case with the two big Beethoven symphonies last season, and was also true of the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64, with which the first concert of the LBSO’s 85th season ended last Saturday.

This blended unexaggerated fidelity to the score with an embrace of the work’s volatile, even neurotic, emotional content. Thus the slow, quiet introduction of the motto theme at the very start was Andante as marked, rather than the drawn-out dirge that some performances deliver, while at the other end of the work, the Finale’s often raucous triumphalism had just the right over-bright edge to make hysteria and despair seem an ever-present possibility.

Cabinet card portrait of Tchaikovsky
in 1888, the year he composed the
Fifth Symphony.
There was relishable instrumental detail throughout. Back at the start, after the first dotted phrase on low unison clarinets, their repeated quarter-note descending scales decrescendoed to just the right extent, against immaculately balanced chords in the lower strings. Again, the latter’s opening to the slow movement was perfectly balanced and paced, and succeeded by an account of the famous horn solo that lived and breathed the surges, pullings-back, and implicit anxieties in the plethora of expression marks with which Tchaikovsky loads its line, all far from the smooth anonymity it sometimes gets.

The LBSO were down a few string desks for this concert, due to impending auditions, but to my ears the resulting smaller, but still tight, sound was as much gain as loss in this movement, where the absence of a deep, plush string carpet enabled much felicitous woodwind detail to come through, with colors distinct rather then blurred and buried. This, though, didn’t mean there was any loss of passion when the strings’ turn to carry the big tune came around.

As for the “unknown unknown” that began the program… maybe it’s a bit perverse to say it, but anyone familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s use in 2001: A Space Odyssey of Gyögy Ligeti’s blurred, shifting vocal clusters in Lux Aeterna and Requiem and the convulsive atonal “sound masses” of his orchestral Atmosphères, might have been a bit disappointed by the relative conventionality of Concert Românesc, composed in 1951 at the age of 28.

However, as Maestro Preu’s characteristically detailed introductory talk made clear, the composer—famously avant-garde in his later years—introduced plenty of novel and imaginative effects within the overall tonal framework of this early four-movement (slow-fast-slow-fast), 12-minute work, whose melodies, rhythms and timbres reflect Ligeti’s Romanian folk-music heritage.

György Ligeti.
In the brief Andantino first movement, constant changes in meter kept players and listeners alike alert, while its frenetic successor found the LBSO winds pungently forceful both collectively and individually, with a positively manic piccolo as first among equals. One specific influence from Ligeti’s early childhood was hearing Romanian alphorns in the mountains, and this is reflected in the call-and-response between onstage and offstage horns in the third movement—suitably atmospheric in the Terrace Theater’s wide open spaces.

In the finale (a bit too long for its content) another infant experience, of being frightened by reveling folk-musicians bursting into his house, was reflected in percussion-driven snapping and whirling, which climaxed in muted trills and other violin pyrotechnics by concertmaster Roger Wilkie at the upper limits of his fingerboard and of audibility, while the on-and-offstage horns returned amidst ffff slaps from the rest of the orchestra.

Overall, I’m glad I heard Concert Românesc—without particularly wanting to again—and though a bit more rehearsal time might have enabled the gallant LBSO, none of whom surely had ever played it before, to sound even more rawly spontaneous, the performance had real bite and freshness, and went down well with the audience.

Paul Huang.
So to the “little-known known.” If Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 53 B. 108, isn't quite the equal of the celebrated Cello Concerto in sheer heartfelt intensity, it more than earns a repertoire place alongside, say, the far more frequently performed First Violin Concerto of Max Bruch. And so far as sheer ear-catching memorability is concerned, for my money its rondo Finale equals that of the Brahms Violin Concerto—or at least so it seemed in the gloriously spontaneous account by the Taiwan-born violinist Paul Huang, the latest in an apparently inexhaustible series of gifted young guest soloists to have enhanced LBSO concerts in recent years.

His account of the Dvořák concerto, devotedly accompanied by Maestro Preu and the LBSO, formed the centerpiece of this concert. The opening orchestral tutti definitely veered to the ma non troppo side of the first movement’s Allegro ma non troppo marking, coming over as exceedingly weighty and portentous, and it was a mark of how well-prepared the performance was that Mr. Huang’s solo entry, only five measures in, sounded vigorously authoritative without any audible gear-change from the slow opening.

Thereafter the movement gathered pace and coherence until it arrived at a beautifully spacious account of Dvořák’s subtle elision into the slow movement. This—whether by design or not as subtly thwarting of inter-movement applause as the equivalent linking passage in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto—was one feature of his concerto’s construction that Dvořák stubbornly hung onto amid the wholesale rewrites demanded by the dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, and publisher Simrock—and how right he was. (I wonder whether his 1879 original survives? A quick Google search of English-language sources didn’t reveal.)

Dvořák in 1879, the year he first
drafted the Violin Concerto.
So finely calculated are the 13 Quasi moderato measures in this passage that without the score to hand it’s difficult to hear exactly where it passes into the slow movement, but once under way, the principal theme poured forth in long-breathed paragraphs from Mr. Huang’s 1742 Guarneri (with again a ma non troppo qualifier, this time of the basic Adagio marking, scrupulously observed).

Fine though this was, the Allegro giocoso (but, yet again, ma non troppo) Finale was even more memorable, dancingly airborne from start to finish, but with Mr. Huang’s perfectly focused intonation never compromised despite the speeds. The movement unfolded so seemingly without effort that Dvořák’s endlessly resourceful skill in casting ever-new instrumental light and shade on his rondo theme, without ever masking its returns, simply flashed by.

The audience cheered this magnificent performance to the Terrace Theater’s rafters, and after being called back several times Mr. Huang obliged with a richly elaborated encore that had me unsuccessfully scratching my memory, but which my knowledgeable spouse Jill informed me was The Red Violin Caprices. Time to check whether the movie, so memorably scored by John Corigliano, is available anywhere for a rewatch… 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, September 28, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: Performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Tchaikovsky: Wikimedia Commons; Ligeti: Talk Classical; Paul Huang: Marco BorggreveDvořák: Official composer website.

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