Saturday, February 12, 2022

Meditations and Journeys at Long Beach

Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, painted respectively in 1842 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim,
and in 1846 by Eduard Magnus.


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

Following their splendid season-opener last November (reviewed here), and the much-delayed but reportedly highly successful Violins of Hope concerts in January—which sadly we were forced to miss—the LBSO’s journey back from Covid oblivion continued with their February concert, which proved that there’s plenty of mileage left in the time-honored overture/concerto/symphony formulation, if the program is as meaningfully designed as it was here.

Anna Clyne.
That said, I do wonder whether to call their February concert’s centerpiece, DANCE, by the English composer Anna Clyne (b.1980), a “cello concerto” (as the pre-concert publicity, program note, and other external references do) is a bit of a misnomer; notably Clyne herself does not so designate it, either in the downloadable list of works from her website or on the published score.

I’ve always been drawn to the view that what drives a true symphony (and by extension, concerto) is “the interpenetrative activity of all its constituent elements” (to quote the late Robert Simpson)—tonality, rhythm, and melody working as equals to navigate a definite progression and growth through the work's course; a journey, if you will, that arrives at a different place whence it started. 

By this measure, the five movements of DANCE for me did not quite add up, which isn’t to say that there is not much of beauty and immediate appeal, as was evinced by the enthusiastic audience reaction to this performance, given by the Israeli-born cellist, Inbal Segev, who commissioned the work. The LBSO were skillful partners under Music Director Eckart Preu, who included Clyne’s earlier Within Her Arms for 14 strings in the 2017 Veterans Day concert and clearly has great admiration for her music.

DANCE, composed in 2019, takes its inspiration from a five-line poem by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, each line heading in turn each of the five movements (slow-fast-slow-slow-fast). The music becomes a kind of meditation on the implications of these words, with Clyne’s expressive intentions made explicit in plain English. Thus the “Tender” first movement responds to “[dance] when you’re broken open” with a gentle, Coplandesque, string oscillation over which the cello intones the first of the work’s several, much-repeated and insidiously memorable melodies.

Inbal Segev.
Movement II is marked “Earthy and Fiery,” and launched by rapid, jagged cello ostinati (more savage here than on Ms. Segev’s recording): appropriate to “[dance] if you’ve torn the bandage off.” The “Reflective” third movement is “[dance] in the middle of the fighting,” with its successor “[dance] in your blood” marked “Regal and Expansive.” However, by the time the “Fierce” movement V “[dance] when you’re perfectly free” arrived, the structural modus operandi—a main melody repeated in increasingly ornamented form as a kind of ritornello between more dissonant episodes—was for me getting a bit samey.

The soloist is hardly ever silent throughout the work's 25-minute span, and the greatest rewards to be had, aside from those ear-worming melodies, were textural, in Clyne’s resourceful writing for the cello against the wide variety of timbres she draws from quite modest forces. Amongst the most striking were the teeth-edging whine of bowstring against crotales (small suspended brass discs) blending with the cello’s topmost register; haunting counterpoints from deep marimba and vibraphone in movement II, and a particularly fearsome cadential descent by unison bassoon, contrabassoon and tuba shortly before the end of the finale.

Eckart Preu’s pre-concert talk placed the current prominence of Clyne and her work firmly as a positive end-point in the journey of women composers from their plight during earlier decades and centuries of musical history—that of being variously downgraded, sidelined, patronized, or ignored. One of the most notable victims was Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister Fanny (1805-1847) who, despite showing as much musical promise from an early age as her brother, was conditioned by the mores of the time to accept that her “real calling, the only calling for a young woman—[was] the state of a housewife,” in the words of her father Abraham.

Fanny's music room at the Hensels' house in Berlin.
Given that she proceeded faithfully to fulfill this “calling” after her marriage to the painter Wilhelm Hensel in 1829 until her untimely death from a stroke at the age of only 41, it is remarkable that she wrote as much as she did (no fewer than 466 works in the catalogue completed in 2000 by the musicologist Renate Hellwig-Unruh).

Though dominated by individual songs and short instrumental and piano pieces (some of positively Lisztian drama and fervor), her output does include some larger-scale chamber works as well as several cantatas for voices and orchestra, and one work for orchestra alone. This is her Overture in C major H-U 265, dated to 1832 by Hellwig-Unruh, which formed the opening item in the concert.

Like nine-tenths of Fanny’s output, it remained in manuscript for many decades after her death, and only came to any kind of prominence in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the LBSO played the overture like a familiar repertoire piece, from their affectionate phrasing of the call-and-response between woodwind and strings that imbues the Andante introduction, to the lithe and nimble articulation of the main Allegro di molto body of the work.

Felix Mendelssohn's music room at
his last home in Leipzig.
Finally, a symphonic masterpiece that fulfills Simpson’s dictum as well as any. Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major Op. 90 “Italian” was the result of another journey, in this case the purely temporal one that took the composer to Italy in 1830-31. While in Rome he began to sketch the work, but it was only in response to a commission for a symphony from the Philharmonic Society in London that he took it up again and completed it in 1833.

This performance seemed to me a model of balance, insight, and commitment, with the string strength, reduced to something like 10-8-8-6-4, enabling much inner detail to come through clearly despite the foggy Terrace Theater acoustic. The opening Allegro vivace had plenty of momentum without being unwontedly hectic, and the seal was set on the movement's success by Preu's inclusion of the exposition repeat, here even more necessary than usual due to Mendelssohn's delectable 23-measure lead-back that otherwise goes unheard if the repeat is omitted.

The inner movements seemed even more like two sides of the same coin than usual—the Andante con moto Neapolitan religious procession rather more of a sunlit, picturesque amble, little different in motion and mood from the succeeding Con moto moderato minuet, where Preu's relatively relaxed tempo enabled him to move seamlessly and without any gear-change into the horns-led trio—as indeed Mendelssohn marks no alteration of speed here. 

Finally, the Saltarello had all the point and energy required without its Presto marking leading to the sort of hysterical dash that some conductors indulge in, so that many intricacies were delineated rather than smudged past. The famously self-critical Mendelssohn revised the "Italian" after its first performance in 1833, but remained unhappy enough with the finale to never publish the work. Posterity, however, has judged it the perfect conclusion to his symphonic chef d'oeuvre.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 5, 2022, 
8 p.m. 
Images: Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn: The Mendelssohns website; Anna Clyne and Inbal Segev: artists' websites; Music rooms: Wikimedia Commons.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.