Tuesday, June 7, 2022

A Thrilling Finale to the Long Beach Symphony Season

The Silver-Garburg Piano Duo and strings of the LBSO under Eckart Preu play J. S. Bach's
Concerto in C minor BWV 1062.


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

This collaboration had been a long time coming, noted LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu in his pre-concert chat with Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg, real-life partners who perform as the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo. First planned pre-pandemic, their eventual appearance in February this year had to be postponed again, due to another “Covid intervention,” until this final concert of the orchestra’s 2021-22 season, on the first Saturday in June.

Back in February their planned program—a pair of two-piano concertos by Bach and Poulenc—had to be swapped at short notice with Anna Clyne’s DANCE for cello and orchestra, originally slated for the present occasion. This resulted then in a concert that was a little short on playing-time, though not on quality (reviewed here), but to compensate, the inclusion now of both concertos made for an exceptionally full season finale.

Johann Sebastian Bach.
The first of the two was J. S. Bach’s Concerto in C minor BWV 1062. The LBSO’s April concert had included, as something of an experiment, a symphony by his son Carl Philip Emanuel, and to my ears the latter’s early Classical style, based on sharp contrasts of texture and dynamic, was somewhat more successful as an aural experience in the huge space of the Terrace Theater than his father’s close-packed contrapuntal intricacy.

J. S. Bach wrote over a dozen concertos for keyboard instruments (in his day harpsichord or clavichord), most of them transcriptions of earlier works. This is certainly true of BWV 1062, the third and last of his concertos for two keyboards, and any unsuspecting listener getting a “… this sounds familiar..?” vibe during the performance will probably soon have realized that the more well-known guise of the music is as the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, composed around 1730. The two-keyboard transcription dates from later in the 1730s.

The Silver-Garburg Piano Duo.
Like its original form and its companion keyboard concertos, BWV 1062 is scored for just a string group of 1st and 2nd violins, viola(s), and continuo—essentially chamber music. As legions of performers and listeners know, Bach’s keyboard music can be just as effective on modern pianos as on harpsichord or clavichord, and the Silver-Garburg Duo, facing each other across the acreage of their two concert grands with curves nesting together, wanted nothing of expressive sensitivity, clarity, and cohesion.

But the physical breadth of the conjoined pianos formed something of a barrier—at least from our position towards the front of the orchestra seating—to hearing clearly what Maestro Preu and his string forces (6-6-4-4-2) were doing, so that much detail in the thematic interplay between them and the pianos was lost or obscured. However, the propulsive vitality of the outer movements, and the exquisite melody of the central Andante, still communicated effectively and were warmly applauded.

Click the image above for a 1960 performance of Poulenc’s
Concerto for Two Pianos played by the composer himself,
with Jacques Février (second piano), and the Orchestre
National de France (ORTF) conducted by Georges Prêtre.
More entirely successful was Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra FP 61, which followed straight on—a conjunction that some might have found a little indigestible, but I thought exhilarating in its demonstration of the variety that can exist within such a narrowly defined genre.

Some of the success was due to Maestro Preu’s careful adherence to Poulenc’s instrumentation—quite modest and with, unusually, the string numbers specified (8-8-4-4-4)—so here needing a desk added to each of the 1st and 2nd violins and basses as used in the Bach. Otherwise woodwind (with doublings) and brass in pairs plus tuba suffice, together with a small battery of untuned percussion for a single nimble player, though no timpani.

To this careful balancing of forces was added an unfailing responsiveness between orchestra, conductor and soloists, so that Poulenc’s characteristic turn-on-a-dime switches between boisterous buffoonery and withdrawn sensitivity were handled with pin-sharp precision. In the outer movements his zany, freewheeling inspiration soared and swerved, tinkled and clattered, while the Larghetto unfolded with sweet-toned inevitability from its wry, faux-Mozartean opening. No aural muffling or indigestion here, nor indeed in the four-hand version of Malagueňa by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1896-1963)—the sixth movement of his 1933 Suite Andalucia—with which as an encore the Duo made an already full program even more richly packed.

Michael Abels.
The LBSO mustered its full strength for the opening work, Michael Abels’ (b.1962) Global Warming, composed in 1990 with the expressed aim to encapsulate both the implications within its title: not only climate concern but also the then widespread optimism for improved international relations following the proclaimed end of the Cold War and dismantling of the Berlin Wall (nowadays Abels’ might well consider writing a darker sequel, Climate Change!)

Global Warming thus proceeds from drily scraping percussion, against which solo violin and solo cello (concertmaster Roger Wilkie and principal Cécilia Tsan making the first of many notable contributions to the evening) skirl up and down like ghosts of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, before segueing into an Irish jig on flutes, the first of several folk musics that interpenetrate to represent a growing global cultural cohesion. Finally, though, the arid desert-like opening returns as a renewed warming about the title’s other, and culture-transcending, issue.

All this was depicted with skill, point, and rhythmic verve by Maestro Preu and the orchestra—the largest, he noted, that the LBSO had fielded all season—but for me Global Warming fails somewhat to rise to the implications of its title, in either respect. The jaunty main body of the piece doesn’t get much beyond the Irish jig, despite its melodies and rhythms being liberally distributed throughout the orchestra, while the return to the opening desert music—effective enough at its first appearance—somehow seemed tacked-on and unmotivated.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, painted by Ilya
Repin in 1893, five years after he
completed Scheherazade. 
With its instrumental resourcefulness, Global Warming might be considered a sort of mini-concerto for orchestra. The big work that filled the second half of this concert is equally a virtuoso showcase for every department and many individual players, but there is nothing mini about Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade Op. 44

In recent decades its appearances on concert programs have so diminished in number that Scheherazade has almost passed from the category of "overplayed warhorse" to that of "under-appreciated rediscovery" when it does resurface. Certainly in a performance such as the LBSO, again at full strength, under Eckart Preu delivered, there was not a note or phrase that felt tired or shopworn.

Preu really does excel in Late-Romantic repertoire of this kind, with a just about ideal combination of clarity of beat and crispness of attack when needed—but without metronomic rigidity—and elasticity in molding and phrasing of the music's more sumptuous aspects without lapsing into any tendency to wallow. At the very opening of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” the Sultan’s theme was as firmly authoritative as Scheherazade’s reply, in the person of Mr. Wilkie’s violin, was beguilingly onward-leading, and when Sinbad’s ship hove into view it was clearly bound somewhere with purpose, often with Ms. Tsan’s cello at the helm.

Preu’s skillful terracing of dynamics and pace mitigated any tendency for the somewhat repetitive nature of the first movement to become tedious, and the Tranquillo woodwind interludes that Rimsky-Korsakov builds in between increasingly stentorian statements of the Sinbad theme were the first examples of many in which the LBSO’s woodwinds would cover themselves in glory.

The bassoon solo that introduces the main body of the second movement, “The Tale of Prince Kalendar,” was similarly characterful, and so many were the subsequent instances of memorably eloquent playing that to enumerate them all would double the length of this review. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” sang their timeless romance as ardently as any I can recall, and the final “Festival in Baghdad” and wreck of Sinbad's ship crowned the whole performance with edge-of-seat excitement.

Scheherazade’s envoi, with Mr. Wilkie’s playing as sweet-toned as ever but not lingering as the princess finally headed for her first good night’s rest in 1001 nights, rounded off a performance that came in at a trim 44 minutes, including a decent-length break between the second and third movements. In this thrilling climax to their season, the LBSO could not have gone out on better form.

Eckart Preu and the LBSO receive a deserved standing ovation for their performance of
Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, June 4, 2022, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Bach and Rimsky-Korsakov: Wikimedia Commons; Silver-Garburg Piano Duo: Regina Recht; Poulenc performance: YouTube; Michael Abels: Kraft Engel Management.

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