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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