Thursday, March 31, 2022

Lee and Fitz-Gerald play Beethoven and Fauré

Yura Lee and Kevin Fitz-Gerald at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

Yura Lee and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

April’s recital in Classical Crossroads’ “Second Sundays at Two” 2021-22 season in the South Bay was, like the previous concert, recorded—as had been intended for the whole season before the Omicron Covid variant emerged—before a small invited audience, duly Covid-vetted and masked, for future YouTube posting: on the due date of Sunday, April 10 in the case of this recital of violin sonatas by Beethoven and Fauré.

The views of Beethoven as a fist-shaking titan while of Fauré as a kind of musical epitome of Proustian introspection are both gross over-simplifications, and indeed it would be difficult to find in the output of each composer two works that more thoroughly refute these images than Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 10 in G major Op. 96 and Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major Op. 13 (interestingly, the title on Fauré's manuscript still gives primacy to the piano over the violin, as was Beethoven's custom).

Beethoven’s final violin sonata was composed in 1812 on the cusp of what are generally regarded as his “middle” and “late” periods of composition, and a full nine years after its immediate predecessor, the enormous “Kreutzer” sonata. The Op. 96 sonata has little of the “Kreutzer”'s spacious grandeur, instead predicating its (mostly) amiable character, at least in the outer movements, on the imitative birdsong-like trills, first on solo violin, then on piano, with which the first movement opens.

Which is not to say that the work does not have its own considerable strengths, all of which were fully brought to the fore in the performance by the Korean-American violinist Yura Lee and Canadian pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald that formed the first half of this recital. Their account of the expansive and lyrically pastoral Allegro moderato first movement was made more so by their inclusion of the relatively long exposition repeat.

Beethoven in 1812: digital sculpture by Hadi Karimi. 
To my ears this sonata, though in four distinctly labeled movements, seemed more than usual to fall into three roughly equal and highly contrasted parts. This was due not only to the built-in factor that its relatively brief slow movement is linked by an attacca to the (even for Beethoven) exceptionally concise scherzo and trio, but also to the players’ trenchant and serious, though not particularly slow, treatment of the Adagio espressivo and their immediate and gritty attack on the scherzo, so that this movement seemed more like a frowning coda to its predecessor than an independent entity.

All this was in marked contrast to the genial and mostly relaxed first movement, so that when the Poco allegretto finale began— with Ms. Lee and Mr. Fitz-Gerald giving the opening tune of its (unmarked) theme-and-variations structure all the dancing insouciance it needs—the mood seemed very much an all-is-really-right-with-the-world callback after the seriousness of the linked middle two movements. These two marvelous players did not, however, fail to give full measure to the gruff brilliance and quicksilver expressive changes with which Beethoven swings from variation to variation in the finale.

Their performance of Gabriel Fauré’s first violin sonata was, if anything, even finer. Though it’s worth remembering that Beethoven was still only 42 when he reached the relatively late stage in his career marked by his last work in this form, and that Fauré was already 30 when he came to his first, his sonata nonetheless marks the opening and decisive stage in his long and auspicious career as a composer of chamber music.

Fauré in 1875, the year he began
his Violin Sonata No. 1.
Where Beethoven begins with a trill on the violin, Fauré gives his opening theme, all 22 measures of it, to the piano alone, and there was no mistaking the seriousness of Mr. Fitz-Gerald’s approach, nor that of Ms. Lee when she joined him in restating the theme. Fauré masterfully extends the music through overlapping counterpoint between the violin and upper piano part over roiling left-hand figuration, leading to rising scales that do duty as a “second subject” before leading into the repeat, duly observed here.

Their performance of the movement, and indeed of its three successors (the young(ish) Fauré adheres the eternal verities of slow movement/scherzo & trio/ fast finale), was full of light and shade and nuance, rising to passionate intensity and an unerring sense of where to place climactic moments with the utmost effect.

This was nowhere more the case than at the passage towards the end of the first-movement development when Fauré’s unrelentingly high-lying violin line (which, however, nowhere seemed to faze Ms. Lee), crescendos over three measures from a thread of ppp tone above long-held widespread chords on the piano to a sforzando peak—wonderful stuff, as you will be able to hear for yourself when this recital goes live on Sunday, April 10. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Rolling Hills Estates, Sunday, April 10, 2022, 2.00 p.m. (recorded Sunday, March 27).
Images: The performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads; Beethoven: Hadi Karimi; Fauré: Wikimedia Commons.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2022

POP’s Charming, Touching Tchaikovsky “Iolanta”

The opening scene of Iolanta in Pacific Opera Project's production.


Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta,” Pacific Opera Project, Aratani Theatre, Los Angeles

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky around the
time of Iolanta's composition.
The first thing to be said about Pacific Opera Project’s current production of Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta is that it is a delight from start to finish, and that if you’re in the Greater LA area and have the remotest interest in opera, in this composer, in his curiously under-the-radar status in the genre, or indeed unjustly neglected operas or classical music in general, then you should run to the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo—but first book here for one of the two remaining performances.

So whence Iolanta? The success of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, following its premiere there in January 1890, prompted Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatres (which included the Mariinsky) to suggest another collaboration with the composer. This time it was to be a double-bill of a ballet and an opera, and after casting around for subjects, plans settled on an adaptation in one act of the drama Kong Renés Datter, by the Danish poet Henrik Herz, and a two-act ballet drawn from E. T. A. Hoffman’s story Nussknacker und Mausekönig.

The rest is, of course, history. Although the original production was not a success, The Nutcracker went on to become a global smash-hit and to this day the go-to Christmas outing treat for innumerable families worldwide, but conversely Iolanta has shared the relative neglect of all of Tchaikovsky’s operas apart from Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. For example, it did not reach the New York Met until 2015, and the current POP production is its first-ever staging in Los Angeles.

Ben Werley, tenor (Vaudémont), and
Cristina Jones, soprano (Iolanta).
The story is simple but effective. The “King René’s Daughter” of the original is the Princess Iolanta, blind from birth and cared for in a paradisiacal garden by devoted attendants who are under a strict edict from the King not to say or do anything that references light or sight, so that Iolanta remains unaware of her difference (“eyes are for crying”).

King René seeks out and brings a healer to the garden, but the latter avers that his skills may only work if Iolanta realizes that she is blind, and desires strongly see. Meanwhile two knights find their way into the garden by accident; one of them, Count Vaudémont, falls for Iolanta, comes to understand that she doesn’t know that she is blind, through his love becomes the catalyst for the recovery of her sight—and they live happily, etc., etc.

POP’s opera ventures are maybe best known for imaginative and sometimes hilarious updatings (the ostrich farm mise-en-scène for the open-air Bizet Don Procopio at Heritage Square Museum lingers in the mind), but any concerns that the heroine might be seen to wield a braille cellphone or her beloved-to-be arrive, say, on an urban scooter were quickly allayed.

Josh Shaw,
Artistic Director Josh Shaw’s production takes the subject absolutely seriously and plays it straight, with the enclosed garden naturalistically hedged, bowered, and liberally flowered, and in terms of the stage action only able to be entered through a huge eye-shaped opening cut in the greenery which also acted as the focal point for the vivid lighting effects that reflect the narrative’s progress. 

The cast were dressed as handsomely as was the stage, with costumes by designer Maggie Green inspired by The Lord of the Rings movies, so that the Martha of Megan Potter (contralto), nursemaid to Iolanta, and King René, sung by Andrew Potter (bass), carried more than a passing hint respectively of Cate Blanchette’s Galadriel and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, while Andrew Allan Hiers (bass-baritone) as the healer seemed to be positively channeling Gandalf, clad in grey robes and brandishing a staff as weighty as Ian McKellen’s—the only thing missing was the pointy hat.

Andrew Allan Hiers (Healer) and
Megan Potter (Martha).
More to the point musically, all these and indeed the whole cast inhabited their roles with dignity, conviction and vocal security, led by The Blind Soprano, Cristina Jones, whose radiant singing and projection of Iolanta’s guileless unawareness of her condition touched the heart more than once, not least when she returns to the stage at the end, “cured,” and sings ecstatically of what for the first time she can see.

Recent POP productions like Don Procopio and Hansel and Gretel at Forest Lawn have economized heavily on instrumental resources, but here those mere handfuls of players were replaced by a band, ably conducted by Isaac Selya, that went a considerable way towards meeting Tchaikovsky’s full (but medium-sized) orchestral requirements.

Isaac Selya, Conductor.
True, a few more desks of string players would have added weight to their lines, but almost all the composer’s brass and wind complement were present, the latter making themselves heard very effectively right at the outset, where Tchaikovsky’s doleful Andante, quasi adagio line on English horn against sustained chords on bassoons and low clarinets—vividly plangent in the dry but close Aratani Theatre acoustic—had more than a hint of the opening of the Pathètique symphony.

Andrew Potter (King René), center, with
other cast members including Brooke Iva
Lohman and Danielle Marcelle Bond, below.

I suppose it must be acknowledged that Iolanta has neither a great deal of rhythmic variety in its music nor of dynamic action or plot machinations on the stage, but what it does have, which more than tips the balance, is Tchaikovsky’s apparently inexhaustible fund of melodic appeal. When this is relished and projected to the full by all concerned, as it was by the POP forces, any such potential weakness fades to nothing and the opera becomes a radiant 100-minute span that enchants throughout and nowhere threatens to sag.

Finally, it should be noted that POP has partnered with low-sight organizations for this production to encourage awareness and to amplify their efforts. Special arrangements are made for low-sighted audience members, including braille programs. Go and see it while you still can! 


Pacific Opera Project, Aratani Theatre, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Los Angeles, 3 p.m., Sunday, March 20, 2022.
Images: Production photos: Martha Benedict; Tchaikovsky: Wikimedia Commons.

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Friday, March 18, 2022

Grieg, Strauss and a Fiery Firebird at Long Beach

Costume designs and original illustration for Ballets Russes productions of Stravinsky's The Firebird.


Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Long Beach

Mykhailo Verbytsky.
The March Long Beach Symphony Orchestra concert had two significant things in common with the most recent at Pacific Symphony (reviewed here). The first was to include a noble and moving tribute in music to the war in Ukraine. Where the PSO had opted for an arrangement of Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine, in the Terrace Theater the Long Beach audience stood for the Ukrainian National Anthem, written by Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870), also composer of at least 10 single-movement symphonies.

The other thing the LBSO shared with their colleagues to the south was to maintain in their playing the sense of specialness, of renewed vitality and commitment; in short, that of being grateful to be back after the long drought of live performance in front of audiences due to Covid restrictions—and long may all this continue!

Richard Strauss in 1945,
the year he completed
the Oboe Concerto.
Works for solo instrument and orchestra tend to be concentrated towards the beginning and the end of Richard Strauss’s long compositional career, and indeed the only ones explicitly designated as “concertos” form just two pairs: his Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 8 TrV 110 and Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major Op 11 TrV 117 composed in the early 1880s when he was still in his teens, and more than 60 years later his Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major TrV 283 and Oboe Concerto in D major TrV 292. 

It was the last of these that formed the centerpiece of the concert, played by the LBSO’s principal oboist Rong-Huey Liu, and in an informative and amusing conversation beforehand (below) with Music Director Eckart Preu, they sketched in the background to the work as well as discussing its challenges. In addition, Ms. Liu gave an impressive demonstration of circular breathing, the technique woodwind players use to negotiate long continuous phrases with no place to stop and draw breath, and averred that the Strauss was one of the most difficult in the oboe concerto repertoire, the soloist playing almost continuously through its 25-minute length.

Strauss said of his late works that they were modeled on "the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of thankfulness," and the Oboe Concerto certainly has a Mozartean mellifluousness and seeming effortlessness. Nonetheless this account—though impeccably played by Ms. Liu and devotedly accompanied by Maestro Preu and the LBSO, reduced to the handful of winds and strings that Strauss asks for—for me did not reduce the concerto’s elusiveness. 

While there was much to enjoy in its fluent beauty and to admire in the total craftsmanship of a master apparently secure within his late revisiting of the eternal verities, once again it somehow left little behind that stuck in the mind.

From the 1876 premiere of Peer Gynt.
The rest of the program comprised two suites, inspiring a little reflection on differences in the relationships between them and their source works. Edvard Grieg’s initial reluctance to accede to Henrik Ibsen’s request for incidental music to his epic five-act anti-hero drama Peer Gynt was well-founded. The composer found it “a terribly unmanageable subject” but nonetheless completed nearly two hours of music, and the premiere in February 1876 was a great success (though the mind boggles at the thought of a complete staging of the play that also included all of Grieg’s contribution!).

Grieg in 1888, the year the first
Peer Gynt Suite was published.
The whole score has been recorded several times, and I remember greatly enjoying a London Promenade concert many years ago which combined the full incidental music with costumed extracts from the play that made great use of the Royal Albert Hall’s vast performing area. Nonetheless Grieg knew what he was doing when, over a decade later, he cherry-picked from various points in his score just eight of the juiciest numbers to form his two Peer Gynt Suites, No. 1 Op. 46 and No. 2, Op. 55.

The concert opened with Suite No. 1, and it was an object lesson in the dividends to be gained from treating what might be regarded as a slight pot-boiler with just as much care and attention to detail as a great symphony. The opening Morning Mood flowed with just the right degree of evanescent freshness, while the muted strings’ Death of Åse was a model of withdrawn tenderness. Unmuted, the strings were joined by just a triangle for the winsomely exotic Anitra’s Dance, and then the Hall of the Mountain King resounded to a precisely calculated stringendo al fine from Preu and the full forces to its crashing fff end.

As for Stravinsky’s Firebird, which formed the second half of the program, the suite drawn from his ballet written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909-1910 comprises around half the original score. The composer made his first attempt at assembling a suite in the year following The Firebird’s sensationally successful production, but without much change to the instrumentation.

Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso, 
 31 December, 1920.
The ballet is scored for orchestral forces beyond the scope of all but the most well-endowed performing bodies (including quadruple woodwind, 18 brass, and three harps!), so in 1919 Stravinsky reorchestrated the suite for the normal symphony orchestra, and it was in this form that these highlights from his marvelously inventive score have become a concert-hall favorite (in 1945 he returned to The Firebird for the third time to add five more brief movements to his 1919 suite.)

Here again the performance excelled, with Maestro Preu’s reading of the score as fluid and elastic in its treatment of dynamics and tempi (even in its truncated suite form The Firebird remains ballet music above all) as it was observant of textual detail—and all faithfully followed by the LBSO players.

Thus, for example, at the very start of the Introduction, played not too slowly, the muted celli and double basses, pianissimo and arco (Stravinsky asks for just two of the latter to play without mutes and pizzicato!) were quiet enough for the accompanying bass drum roll, also pp, to come through clearly even in the Terrace Theater acoustic—a detail that often gets lost. 

High woodwinds pranced brilliantly in The Firebird’s Dance and Variation, then drooped languidly as required for The Princesses’ Khorovod; brass crunched and blazed fearsomely in the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei; low strings, harp and bassoon dreamed their haunted dream in the Berceuse, and then the crowning moment came as principal horn Melia Badalian flawlessly executed her challenging high solo entry, Lento maestoso, piano, dolce, cantabile, intoning as from a mountaintop to usher in the Finale. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The penultimate concert in the LBSO's 2021-22 Classical Series at the Terrace Theater will take place on April 30, when Maestro Preu and the orchestra are joined by the guitarist Pepe Romero: more information and ticket availability can be found here.  


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, Saturday, March 12, 2022, 8 p.m.
Images: Firebird designs: courtesy Houston Symphony Orchestra; Verbytsky, Strauss, Grieg, Peer Gynt,  Stravinsky: Wikimedia Commons; Pre-concert talk: Long Beach Symphony.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Maestro Edo de Waart Conducts the Pacific Symphony

The Segerstrom Hall organ lit with the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

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

Edo de Waart.
The latest concert in the resurgent 2021-22 PSO series at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall—still my benchmark venue for acoustic excellence—was an irresistible attraction for two reasons, both of them “firsts”: I’d never previously attended a concert directed by Dutch maestro Edo de Waart, nor had I heard live the hall’s four-manual William J. Gillespie organ in a work that really shows it off. Maestro de Waart conducting Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony,” with the titular instrument played by Christoph Bull, was the answer to both, and I was not disappointed.

Before the interval, however, came a first half that evinced complex interconnections between art and tyranny, in both the specific context of the Ukraine war and more broadly. To introduce it, PSO Board Chairman John Evans commented on the current situation, followed by a heartfelt account on the orchestra strings of an arrangement of Молитва за Україну (Prayer for Ukraine), composed—originally as a choral hymn—in 1885 by Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912), who is commonly regarded as the founder of Ukrainian national music.

Michael Ippolito.
In an exceptionally informative pre-concert interview by PSO Assistant Conductor Jacob Sustaita, the composer Michael Ippolito (b.1985) talked about his 10-minute Nocturne for Orchestra, the first piece on the evening’s scheduled program. Originally composed in 2010 for chamber forces and orchestrated the following year, its specific inspiration came from a painting entitled "Nocturne" by the Catalan artist Joan Miró, and Ippolito sought to express not only the idea of “night music”—darkness, mystery, the ill-defined bleeding of sonorities and textures into each other—but also the energy within the surreal figures in the painting.

This resulted in a clear ABA form: bell sounds, overlapping semi-tonal oscillations on horns, and sweeping woodwind scales herald a crepuscular, haunted soundscape appropriately headed Misterioso, down through which a strong, angular cello theme repeatedly strides. This section fades away but then a sudden, jagged scherzando erupts, in the latter stages of which the cello theme reappears, much faster, as if underlining the work’s unity. The music sweeps towards a series of sffz climaxes, the last of which dwindles down to a brief recapitulation of the opening “night music” before fading to silence.

Joan Miró's "Nocturne."
This vividly scored, highly approachable piece (in places a little reminiscent, to my ears, of passages in Holst’s The Planets) would make an estimable start to any concert, and it was brilliantly played by the PSO under de Waart, who clearly values Ippolito’s work and conveyed his conviction to the orchestra.

It’s perhaps worth noting a further significance of the painting, though Ippolito did not reference this either in the pre-concert talk or in his preface to the score. As a Catalan artist in the mid-1930s, Miró was only too aware of the tensions shortly to explode into the Spanish Civil War, and his "Nocturne"’s panicked leaping figure in the foreground of an ambiguously threatening landscape—both so vividly embodied in sound by Ippolito’s music—has been widely understood as an artistic foreshadowing of the cataclysm about to engulf the country.

The main work in the first half was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 63, composed in 1935 and thus, as the soloist James Ehnes noted in his pre-concert conversation with Jacob Sustaita, more or less contemporary with Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet and sharing much of the latter’s straightforward melodic appeal.

Prokofiev in the late 1930s.
Nonetheless, and despite Ehnes and de Waart being clearly and unanimous masters of the score, I found the Allegro moderato first movement as unsettled a kaleidoscope as ever, with an expressive gulf for me unbridged between its sensuously melodic and gruffly disjunct aspects. Perhaps the circumstances of the concerto’s creation had something to do with this, given that it was written amidst “the kind of nomadic concert-tour life I led then,” as he noted.

Also, under the present circumstances one cannot help remarking that Prokofiev was born and brought up under humble circumstances in a village in what is now the disputed Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, then part of a governorate of the Russian Empire; received his musical education in Moscow; lived through the Russian Revolution; emigrated to the US in 1918; lived abroad for many years, but returned permanently to the Soviet Union at the height of the Stalinist oppression, finally to die on the same day as the dictator in 1953.

James Ehnes.
In the face of that extraordinary life one can only be grateful for the musical legacy that Prokofiev left: in this Violin Concerto No. 2 one of the most exquisite slow movements of any concerto, by anyone—performed with heart-stopping beauty by Mr. Ehnes, Maestro de Waart, and the PSO—followed by a dancing rondo finale that in this account had a more heftily pesante flavor than usual.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 R. 176, was actually the fifth that he wrote, but it was by no mean the culmination of a steady approach to symphonic mastery. All four predecessors were completed at roughly three-year intervals before reached his mid-20s: the official No. 1 in E-flat major Op. 2 (1853) preceded by the unnumbered Symphony in A major R. 159, written when he was only 15, and divided from No. 2 in A minor Op. 55 (1859) by the Symphony in F major “Urbs Roma” R. 163, completed in 1856 and in fact the longest of the five.

Saint-Saëns in Algerian clothes.
The “Organ Symphony” by contrast did not appear until 1886, fulfilling a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society of London. Of the work Saint-Saëns said "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." He was indeed at the height of his powers, and certainly in the field of orchestral music at least it is the pinnacle of his achievement.

Melodically memorable, concise, structurally original in its four-in-two movement layout, innovatory in the incorporation of piano four-hands and organ into the orchestra, it has a positively Beethovenian sureness of aim, and this performance from the PSO, magisterially directed by Edo de Waart, was simply one of the finest I have ever heard.

From the Adagio introduction on strings and woodwind, not dragging but weighty and purposeful with the pp<mf>pp hairpin marks perfectly observed and achieved, through the Allegro moderato’s main theme with its pairs of dotted 16th notes precisely unsmudged, the “first movement” (or first half of the first movement if you follow the score’s nomenclature) had the kind of architectural long view and sureness of aim that one recalled from such great figures of the past as Jascha Horenstein and Otto Klemperer.

The opening of the Poco adagio, with Christoph Bull’s organ registration of just flute stops over an ocean-deep 16ft pedal, followed by the strings’ creamily generous articulation of the great hymn-like main theme, was as spacious, but purposeful and unsentimental, as one could ever desire, while the following Allegro moderato that does duty as a scherzo (first half of the second movement in the score), where the piano four-hands appear for the first time, was comparably unhurried but pointful.

And then the great C major organ chord that announces the “finale” was the single forte that Saint-Saëns marks and not the all-stops-out blast that some indulge in (Christoph Bull helpfully demonstrates how he built up the chord’s registration on YouTube here and left).

Maestro de Waart’s control paid special dividends in clearly delineating the fugal section, and did not waver for a second through to the (really all-stops-out!) end. Please invite him back soon, PSO! 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday March 10, 2022, 8 p.m. 
Images: Organ photograph: the author; Edo de Waart and James Ehnes: courtesy Pacific Symphony; Michael Ippolito: composer website; Miró Nocturne: Cleveland Museum of Art; Prokofiev: fineartamerica; Saint-Saëns: courtesy Bard College; Christoph Bull: YouTube.

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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Bach, Father and Son, plus late Brahms, at RHUMC

Einav Yarden recording at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church on March 11, 2022.


Einav Yarden, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Einav Yarden.
For the March recital in Classical Crossroads’ "Second Sundays at Two" 2021-22 season, the ever-vigilant and health-aware team deemed it safe enough to resume what had begun as customary before Covid's Omicron variant emerged to wield its scythe: to record in the presence of a small invited audience, duly vaccination-vetted and masked, for YouTube posting on the due date.

Thus it was an especial pleasure to be back in the spacious but analytical acoustic of Rolling Hills United Methodist Church for a recital by the Israel-born, Berlin-based pianist Einav Yarden that very much embraced the eternal verities. The centerpiece was the English Suite No. 2 in A minor BWV807 by J. S. Bach, one of the six in this set, which is generally, though not universally, thought to be the earliest of Bach’s groupings of keyboard suites, dating from his time in Weimar (1708-1717).

One of only three authentic portraits of 
J. S. Bach known to have survived,
painted by Johann Jakob Ihle in 1720,
a few years after the English Suites 
are thought to have been written.
Though one might wonder how the suite would sound on the lautenwerck(!), Ms. Yarden’s performance of it on the church’s Steinway was an optimum blend of clarity and commitment. The opening Prelude, while not particularly fast, had plenty of momentum and, as throughout the work, a meticulous articulation of the bass line. In the following succession of dance movements she subtly modified dynamic levels in the many repeats to mitigate any feeling of repetitive déjà vu: as welcome in the cool, flowing Allemande as in the dancing Courante.

To the fourth movement Sarabande, which like all but the Prelude is in two halves both marked to be repeated, Bach adds a kind of supplement headed “Les agréments de la même Sarabande” (literally “the amenities of the same Sarabande”), and like many performers Ms. Yarden opted to play the respective agréments after each half of the movement in place of the literal repeats.

A finely calculated increase in emphatic joyousness infused in turn the two Bourrées I and II and the final Gigue, so that the entire performance had a cumulative wholeness that made the work emphatically more than the sum of its parts—not to mention a definitive answer to any lips-pursing or head-shaking about the need to play Bach only on instruments of his time.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
As an aperitif to Johann Sebastian’s English Suite, Ms. Yarden had begun with a single movement by his second son. From his vast output of keyboard music, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Rondo in C minor H. 283 is the fourth item in the set of Keyboard Sonatas, Free Fantasies, and Rondos Wq. 59, published in 1785. Ms. Yarden fully projected the arresting and almost gnomic unpredictability of the piece, alerting the invited audience to the fine demonstration of pianism that was to follow.

After the Bach English Suite, she ended with five of Brahms’ seven Fantasien Op. 116, itself the first of four collections of piano pieces with consecutive opus numbers dating from 1892-93 that form an important element in the final phase of Brahms’ composing career. To quote the late Brahms authority Malcolm MacDonald: “Unlike these following groups, op. 116 seems less a compilation than a self-consistent entity,” and I regretted that time constraints (presumably) required the omission of the fourth and fifth pieces.

Brahms at a picnic.
Nonetheless, the five that Ms. Yarden selected— Nos. 1 Capriccio in D minor, 2 Intermezzo in A minor, 3 Capriccio in G minor, 6 Intermezzo in E major, 7 Capriccio in D minor—did form a sequence with no sense of disjunction and a satisfactory fast-slow-fast-slow-fast overall layout. To my ears the two Intermezzi lacked a little of the rapt, almost hermetic introspection which some pianists achieve in them, but her rather more outgoing approach, intensified by her clarity of articulation in RHUMC’s vibrant acoustic, was certainly consistent with the sequence felt as a whole, rather than a collection of five distinct entities.

Having previously managed to attend only one of Ms. Yarden’s several previous appearances in Classical Crossroads’ series—a Beethoven/ Schumann recital almost six years ago—it was a great pleasure at last to hear this remarkable pianist perform live again on this side of the great Covid divide—and permanently thus enabled, we must fervently hope! This recital can be enjoyed on YouTube here.


"Second Sundays at Two," Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Rolling Hills Estates, Sunday, March 13, 2022, 2.00 p.m. (recorded Friday, March 11).
Images: The recital: the author; Einav Yarden: artist website; J. S. Bach:; C. P. E. Bach: Wikimedia Commons; Brahms: CMUSE.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Raising the Winds at the Mason House

l-r: Susan Greenberg, Todd Mason, Jennifer Johnson Cullinan, Judith Farmer, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Sara Bach, Sergio Coehlo.


Los Angeles Wind Sextet, Mason House Concert, Mar Vista

Taken overall, the programs of the six-concert series that LA composer Todd Mason mounts each year in his own home concert room judiciously mix new music and acknowledged masterworks from the past, but with the balance shifting greatly from concert to concert. In the current season, resurgent after the Covid-stricken silence of 2020-21, the February concert (reviewed here by John Stodder) presented only recent works by living LA-based composers, whilst the upcoming April recital is entirely devoted to three “greats,” Mozart, Brahms, and Mahler.

But this month’s program, by the Los Angeles Wind Sextet (Susan Greenberg, flute; Jennifer Johnson Cullinan, oboe; Sergio Coehlo, clarinet; Sarah Bach, horn; Judith Farmer, bassoon; Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano) was more of a hybrid, including as it did not only one new piece and a gem by a master (more recent than the three noted above), but also two works by other composers from the past who have more or less fallen into obscurity: the resplendently mustached and monikered Ludwig Wilhelm Andreas Maria Thuille (1861-1907) and Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925).

Ludwig Thuille.
To these ears, Thuille’s Sextet in B-flat major for piano and woodwind quintet Op. 6 (1886-88), which opened the program, sounds thoroughly Brahmsian, despite its Austrian-born composer not being associated with any Brahms coterie but rather a member of what came to be called the “Munich school,” together with, most famously, Thuille’s lifelong friend Richard Strauss.

When still a teenager Thuille was hailed in a letter from the even younger Strauss as “you blinded Schumannian!” but, a decade on in Thuille’s composing career, the Sextet evinces a spaciousness, structural resourcefulness, harmonic richness and melodic memorability that instead recall Brahms, right from the opening Allegro moderato’s noble main theme, given out by the horn over pianissimo ostinati on the keyboard.

This perilously exposed launch was flawlessly navigated by Ms. Bach, and as the theme was handed on successively to the clarinet, the flute, and then the full complement of winds, it was clear that this performance was going to have all the commitment and security missing from the tepid account of the Sextet that I had previously come across on YouTube.

After the extensive first movement—a full 12 minutes without any exposition repeat to be observed or omitted—the ensuing and much briefer Larghetto inevitably lost some of the romantic magic that a more distant acoustic would have imparted, but against that all was gain in the emphasized contrast between plangent sonorities from the woodwind and the ardent pianism of Mr. Fitz-Gerald, as they passed back and forth between them Thuille’s eloquent melodies—the principal theme again allotted first to the horn.

Next, instead of a fast scherzo, Thuille surprises with an impish, toe-tapping, head-nodding gavotte, led this time by the clarinet and enclosing an elfin Doppio movimento trio section, to be followed by an ebullient and nimbly varied Vivace finale, which in not outstaying its welcome set the seal on a performance that could not have been a better advocate for this composer—let’s have some more Thuille!

Mark Rothko's "Untitled (Yellow and Blue)," shown
by Todd Mason as he dedicated the performance
of his Wind Quintet to the people of Ukraine.
After this major rediscovery came the evening’s new work, with the LA Wind Quintet (i.e. without Mr. Fitz-Gerald’s presence) giving one-third of a world premiere to Todd Mason’s own Wind Quintet. As he explained (inter alia dedicating this performance to the people of Ukraine), its second and third movements had been performed a couple of years ago in another concert series, but when he added what became the Quintet’s first movement, the intended debut of the complete work was delayed by Covid until now.

In marked contrast to what I recall from concerts years ago of British orchestral reactions to some new avant-garde works, players here clearly enjoy performing Mason’s music, relishing his manifest understanding of what best suits their instruments’ capabilities. The Quintet has plenty of moments that highlight the individual sonorities of the five winds, but within an economical overall design that also draws on the various tonal pairings available, as well as pungent tuttis at climactic moments.

The gawky, downward-hopping staccato initial theme on flute acts as a kind of anchor for listeners as the Allegro assai first movement progresses, recurring like a ritornello, either entire or broken up. As with the Allegro Vivo finale, this movement encloses a brief slower central section—a zephyr wafting in, perhaps, from a Coplandesque prairie—and this more reflective mood gains full expression in the middle Andante con moto movement, whose unhurried and eloquent unfolding belies its comparative brevity.

After enthusiastic applause and then a convivial interval centered around a mighty stockpot of beef barley soup prepared by chef extraordinaire Ethel Phipps, plus some wondrous home-made bread baked by hornist Sarah Bach, we returned for the second half.

Moritz Moszkowski.
Ludwig Thuille’s “day job” was academic, as a professor in the Royal Munich School of Music, and his concise compositional output mostly comprises several large-scale chamber works, a piano concerto and a symphony, all quite early, and three later operas. Never as entirely forgotten a composer as Thuille, Moritz Moszkowski by contrast, achieved his principal fame as a virtuoso pianist, so that his large works-list is unsurprisingly dominated by solo piano music. Giving the wind players a breather, Kevin Fitz-Gerald returned alone for a virtuoso rendering from memory of Moszkowski’s five-minute fire-cracker Caprice Espagnol in A minor Op. 37 (1885).

Finally, to book-end the whole recital in counterbalance with the Thuille, came another sextet for the same forces, this time that composed by Francis Poulenc in 1931-33. As with his younger English contemporary Malcolm Arnold, a reputation as a musical lightweight and joker has stuck to Poulenc, even though—again as with Arnold—there is much in his work of great depth, seriousness, and even pain.

Francis Poulenc.
His Sextuor pour piano, flûte, hautbois, clarinette, basson et cor FP100, perfectly encapsulates this dichotomy. The Allegro vivace first movement launches with a hectic, over-bright insouciance that abruptly breaks off into a lonely, cadenza-like bassoon solo which in turn leads to an achingly nostalgic melody Subitement, presque le double plus lent sans trainer (Suddenly, almost twice as slow without dragging). So extensive, impassioned, and masterfully achieved is this that when the hectic music does finally return it feels fractured and now vulnerable.

The central Divertissement reverses this basic ABA structure with wistfully melancholic outer sections enclosing a manically energetic core. The Prestissimo finale tries hard to effect some sort of reconciliation between the extremes of mood, but its seeming efforts to achieve a synthesis collapse at their height into a long-drawn coda, poised between desolation and resignation, that must have frozen the smiles on the faces of the work’s first hearers.

Poulenc’s Sextuor is a disturbing masterwork by one who was indeed the master of a very wide expressive range—one perceptive audience member afterwards noted a distinct commonality with the music of Kurt Weill, his almost exact contemporary. With their vividly committed performance of the work, the LA Wind Sextet crowned another memorable concert at the Mason House of music. 


Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 7 p.m., Saturday, March 5, 2022.
Images: The concert: Todd Mason; Thuille, Moszkowski, Poulenc: Wikimedia Commons; Rothko painting: Rothko website.

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