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 ├ůse 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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