Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"Episode de la Vie d’un Artiste"—In a Tuned Concert Hall

Interior of the Segerstrom Concert Hall, showing the doors into the reverberation chambers
at the side partly open.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The unexpected invitation from Alexey Bonca, PR and Social Media Manager at Pacific Symphony (thank you, Alexey!) to join a short behind-the-scenes tour of the Segerstrom Concert Hall prior to the start of last Thursday evening’s concert, made me not only notice more than usual the quality of sound in this marvelous space, but also newly aware of how it’s achieved, due to the tour highlighting the formidable array of adjustable acoustic devices designed into the structure.

Unavoidable to the eye from wherever you are in the hall are the giant curved silver canopies that can be raised and lowered over the performance area to modify the sound, but the tour also took in the pairs of tall, deep, blue-painted reverberation chambers on each side of the auditorium itself, hidden behind doors on every level, that are openable to full 90˚.

Carl St. Clair in action.
The result was that—particularly during Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in the second half—my attention kept being drawn to those part-opened doors, pondering how instrumental tones and timbres could be subtly clarified and enhanced by the extent to which they were allowed to penetrate the chambers.

In truth, the PSO’s long-tenured Music Director Carl St. Clair has not only honed a fine instrument over his years with the orchestra itself, but for the past decade or so has also been able to work with them in this “machine for performing in” to develop interpretations that are triply symbiotic, serving the specific needs of works and their composers through the skills of the players enhanced in turn by an aural environment enabled through technology.

Title-page of Berlioz's manuscript of the Symphonie Fantastique.

But what about the evening's music itself? The great English advocate for and biographer of Berlioz, David Cairns, in a recently republished essay (“Munch or Davis?”, in Discovering Berlioz, Toccata Press, London, 2019, pp. 359-361) posits two differing approaches to Berlioz interpretation, exemplified by those two conductors: the one (Charles Munch) brilliant, highlighting contrast, improvisatory, rhythmically free, and responsive to programmatic content; the other (Sir Colin Davis) taking a long and “purer” view, allowing Berlioz’s structural coherence to manifest itself through subtle molding of his extended melodic lines, though without neglecting instrumental color.

Harriet Smithson, painted by
Claude-Marie-Paul Dubufe in 1828.
On the evidence of this performance, Maestro St. Clair tends to the Davis camp. His performance of the Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un artiste Op. 14 H. 48 was shaped and controlled with deliberate but delicate precision—enhanced by the spacious, airy acoustic environment chosen—and nowhere more so than at the very start of the opening Rêveries-Passions movement, which he took at Berlioz’s precisely metronomed Largo (quarter-note = 56), with lovingly detailed shaping of the passages for muted strings before the idée fixe—the musical representation of Berlioz's unknowing muse, Harriet Smithson—made her first appearance some six minutes in.

Overall his performance was exceptionally expansive, clocking in at some 56 minutes, and that without observing repeats either of the first movement exposition or the opening 77 measures of the Marche au supplice fourth movement—not to mention being drawn together somewhat by an unmarked but absolutely appropriate attacca between the march and the final Songe d’une nuit due sabbat.

In remarks to the audience before raising his baton, he concentrated first on the Fantastique’s program (indeed, how could anyone not, given that “Episode de la vie d’un artiste” has titular pride of place on the manuscript score?). But he went on to emphasize equally the symphony’s many musical innovations, in structure, in harmony, in instrumental resources (much the largest orchestra that any composer had assembled for a symphony when it was written, astonishingly as early as 1830), and even spatially.

The second movement, Un Bal, is the only one that requires harps, but Berlioz requests at least two for each part. Here, there was only one per part, but that was understandable as the instruments known to the composer are likely to have been smaller and less powerful in tone than modern ones. Otherwise this movement was deliciously airborne in its waltz fantasy.

Complying with Berlioz’s spatial innovation right at the start of the next movement, the Scène aux champs, the PSO oboist went discreetly derrière la scène for his duet with the on-stage English horn. Thanks to the Segerstrom’s state-of-the-art video system, we duly saw him on the big screen playing in the side-stage semi-darkness, but personally I’d have preferred to have been left with the mental picture of distant shepherd piping in the countryside.

Berlioz in 1832, by Emile Signol.
Otherwise, this movement benefited signally from Maestro St. Clair’s patient long view, progressing seamlessly from that rapt, pastoral opening through increasingly disturbed and brooding territory to the timpani thunderstorm with which it climaxes, here as cleanly tuned and impactful as one could reasonably expect.

So to the Marche au supplice. The scaffold was approached deliberately but trenchantly, but I thought the climax could have done with more sheer savagery to make its full effect—here as much as anywhere a slightly risk-averse aspect to the performance had its downside. But on the other hand the final movement nightmare worked magnificently.

The strings’ immaculate tuning made Berlioz’s multi-divided and at one point virtually atonal writing at the opening come off with exquisite precision, the E-flat clarinet danced evilly, the pair of tubas honked rather than boomed out the Dies Irae in as good a mimic of the composer’s specified ophicleides as one could wish, two bass drums thundered (i.e. not merely the two players that Berlioz requests), and the offstage deep bells had appropriately sepulchral sonority—and here being able to see them in action via the video link was a plus. Above all, the constant twists and turns, stops and starts in the music’s progress were negotiated so sure-footedly by Maestro St. Clair and the orchestra that all seemed inevitable… and they really did let rip in the climactic measures.

Alain Lefèvre.
Before the concert, the French Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre, guest soloist for the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major M. 83, deftly turned his conversation with host Alan Chapman into an impassioned critique of the “pop-ification” of classical music performance and promotion, and its consequent cheapening effect. Equally welcome to hear was his encomium for the amazingly precocious “Canadian Mozart”, André Mathieu, who completed his first piano concerto at the age of 6, but died in 1968 at only 38 after a long and tragically losing battle with alcoholism.

Perhaps on another occasion M. Lefèvre might bring one of Mathieu’s concertos with him, but this time around, after fractionally imprecise ensemble between piano and orchestra in the Ravel’s fearsomely abrupt opening, he and the appropriately reduced PSO (string strength down to 8-8-6-6-4, to match the slender wind and brass sections of eight and four players respectively) turned in a performance as deft and secure as one would expect from a pianist with this music in his blood and an orchestra as familiar as any with the style of the composer who so influenced Ravel in this concerto, George Gershwin.

Maurice Ravel in 1916.
The concert had begun also with a similarly reduced orchestra for another Ravel work, the four movements that he orchestrated in 1919 from the six-movement wartime piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed between 1914 and 1917. Here immediately were the immaculately blended string playing and eloquent “speaking” woodwinds that so distinguished the whole evening, as well as astutely judged tempi that, particularly in the third movement Menuet, avoided the risk of getting becalmed in Ravel’s exquisite harmonies and thus becoming monotonous.

Lastly before the interval, M. Lefèvre stilled the ovation that greeted his performance of the Ravel concerto by sitting back at the piano to deliver his own Grand Carnaval, a jauntily torrential solo composed a couple of years ago that seemed to channel the spirits of both Offenbach and Poulenc. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday February 6, 2020, 8 p.m.
Images: Segerstrom Concert Hall: SCFTA website; Carl St. Clair: courtesy PSO; Symphonie Fantastique manuscript: IMSLP; Harriet Smithson: Wikipedia; Berlioz: Wikipedia; Alain Lefèvre: artist website; Ravel: Reddit.

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