Saturday, October 15, 2022

The PSOC Brings Britain’s Birmingham to the Segerstrom

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the
Segerstrom Concert Hall on October 11, 2022.

City of Birmingham Symphony at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

It can be salutary to hear live for the first time in a long while a work that one thought one knew well from recordings. For me, this was certainly the case with the first item in the artfully conceived and brilliantly executed program, introduced by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County's President and Artistic Director, Tommy Phillips, that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its former Music Director and current Principal Guest Conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, brought to the Segerstrom Concert Hall under the auspices of the PSOC, in the first concert of the Society’s 2022-2023 season.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, c.1910.
My mental touchstones for Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (heard here just one day before the composer’s 150th birth anniversary on October 12) lay with recordings by two knighted British conductors: the one, Sir John Barbirolli, passionately intense and immediate, the other, Sir Adrian Boult, spacious and nobly objective. These examples nudged a slight initial twinge of disappointment at Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla’s relatively flowing opening tempo, and her seemingly rather dispassionate view of the music—an impression enhanced by the clarity of the Segerstrom Concert Hall’s acoustic.

But this view vanished rapidly as the sheer beauty of the CBSO strings and their responsiveness to her animated direction took hold. RVW scored the work for solo string quartet and double string orchestra (the second comprising pairs each of first and second violins, violas, cellos, and a single double-bass), but with no particular stipulation in the score about spatial separation of the three bodies. In this instance the main group of players was spread across almost the entire width of the performing area, with the quartet in their normal section-principal seats at the front.

Gloucester Cathedral, location
of the first performance of the
Tallis Fantasia in 1910.
In a cathedral acoustic, locating the small second string band remotely can generate an effect of almost spiritual other-worldliness when the main body’s music withdraws, leaving just the second group’s distant sounds. Here, they were placed off-stage to the audience’s left, giving an effect to these ears of some uncanny echo from the Tudor original, the nine strings playing with total unanimity and virtually without vibrato, as if they were ghostly viols listening in and quietly commenting on their successors of three-and-a-half centuries later.

It could easily be argued that the well-known Tallis Fantasia was an “easy” way to honor its great composer on his anniversary, and that something rarer from his voluminous output would have been welcome. This performance, however—lithe, sensitive and with the subtlest gradations of timbre and dynamic (and, I suspect, following RVW’s metronome markings closely to come in at just on 15 minutes, and thus notably swifter than many modern accounts)—was an impressive augury of what was to follow.

Masterpiece though it is, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, composed in 1919, can also be charged with over-familiarity in the face of the neglect, at least here in the US, of most of his major works, but as with the Vaughan Williams, the performance that followed by the young British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason stilled any such reaction. This gifted player is one of no less than seven siblings who have become something of a musical sensation in the UK, with many live performances together and separately, and in particular, domestic YouTube recordings made during the Covid lockdown.

Mr. Kanneh-Mason’s recent commercial recording of the Elgar concerto has received a bit of a sniffy backlash from domestic UK critics, but there was nothing to take issue with at the Segerstrom, where his partnership with the CBSO and Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla, following an acclaimed performance at the 2019 London Proms, had a sensitivity and homogeneity that bespoke deep mutual regard and esteem for the work.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason with the CBSO under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla plays Elgar's Cello Concerto
in the Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Given its generally spare orchestral writing and deep intimacy of expression, it’s not inappropriate to bracket the Cello Concerto in Elgar’s output more with the three great chamber works that immediately preceded it—the Violin Sonata Op. 82, String Quartet Op. 83, and Piano Quintet Op. 84—than with the series of major orchestral statements that began in 1899 with the Enigma Variations Op. 36 and ended some 14 years later with the “symphonic study” Falstaff Op. 68.

Edward Elgar in 1917, shortly before he
began work on his three chamber music
masterpieces and the Cello Concerto.
However, even given that this performance frequently had a chamber music-like precision and focus—Mr. Kanneh-Mason “first amongst equals” with his orchestral compatriots—its few but telling orchestral outbursts thrilled with their impact. This was most notable in the first tutti statement of the opening movement’s main theme, which was clean, bold and challenging rather than heavy with regret and grief as some performances make it, as if the aging composer with glinting eye and raised fist were saying “I’m not done yet!"

Mr. Kanneh-Mason returned for an encore, and fittingly it was not some gasp-inducing piece of technical wizardry but his own arrangement, delivered with rapt focus, of J. S. Bach’s song Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh (Come, sweet death, come, blessed rest) BWV 478, the solo line joined in its later stages first by one and then a second pair of his colleagues from the CBSO cello section. This, Bach’s contribution to a 1736 collection published by one Georg Schemelli, might have been taken as a call-back to the first item, given that the Tallis original from which RVW took his theme was a tune comparably included in a Psalter, some 169 years earlier.

After the interval, in the words of Monty Python, “something completely different.” Amongst the legion of gifted composers who, for all sorts of reasons, have not made it into the mainstream of classical music awareness and concert repertoire, the Polish/Russian/Jewish Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996)—close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich and almost the fatal victim of a late Stalinist purge for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism”—is surely one of the most significant and deserving of a permanent place in that repertoire.

Mieczysław Weinberg.
Much of his immense output (which includes seven operas, 26 symphonies amongst many other orchestral works, 17 string quartets, and dozens more chamber, instrumental and vocal pieces) is however now available in commercial recordings, and he has similarly been making headway in concert halls. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has been prominent in this renaissance of attention to Weinberg, but that there is still a long way to go is evinced by the fact that the first public performance of his Jewish Rhapsody, Op. 36 No. 2, written as long ago as 1946-47, had only happened a couple of weeks previously, given by these same forces in their home territory of Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Now here it was again, as a staple item in the orchestra’s current US tour, and what a discovery! Sharing the unsettling “anything could happen” quality of some Shostakovich, this wild 11-minute ride swerves between solos from woodwind and percussion, sometimes impassioned, sometimes mournful, and sudden eruptions first from the strings and later the full orchestra. Variously motoric, rhapsodic, exultant, and exhausted, it compelled the ear and made one wish there was more. (The depth of Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla’s commitment to Weinberg, and the scale of his achievement, can perhaps best be demonstrated by her recording of his magisterial Symphony No. 21 Op. 152 "Kaddish" available to be heard here on YouTube, in which she not only conducts the CBSO but also sings the wordless soprano solo in the sixth and final section.)

Debussy on the beach at Eastbourne, Sussex,
England, where he corrected the proofs for
La Mer's publication in 1905.
Finally—at least on the scheduled program—a seminal 20th century orchestral masterpiece. Debussy warily and carefully defined his La Mer L. 111 as “three symphonic sketches”, and this performance, skillfully shaped by Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla and immaculately played by the now very full forces of the CBSO, while neglecting little in projecting atmosphere drew together its intricate thematic and textural cross-referencing into an exceptionally integrated whole that made the “symphonic” epithet seem more than usually appropriate.

The clarity of the Segerstrom acoustic, of course, aided and abetted the performance’s laying bare so much of the intricacies of Debussy’s marvelous score, and if this account tended to emphasize La Mer’s status as one of the orchestral showpieces of the early 20th century (a “rite of spring-tide” perhaps) rather than its “impressionistic” qualities—a term which in any case Debussy himself despised—it was none the worse for that, and was justifiably cheered to the Segerstrom’s glowing, curved rafters.

Thomas Adès.
The error of early departers from the Hall, assuming that nothing could follow the fff cymbal-and-tam-tam-wreathed climax of La Mer, was demonstrated when they saw on the video monitors thoughtfully built into the walls of the foyer Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla returning to the podium for an encore. As with the soloist before the interval, this was the opposite of musical pyrotechnics, being a tender account of the sixth movement “O Albion” from Thomas Adès’ 1998 string quartet Arcadiana, in an arrangement for the full orchestral strings.

As well as being beautiful in itself, the inclusion of O Albion was the perfect link back to the concert’s opening, Adès’ nostalgic, sighing textures joining hands not only with those of Vaughan Williams writing his Fantasia in 1910 and Master Tallis penning the original hymn-tune in 1567, but opening out into a wider, indefinable, almost mystical “Englishness” that embraced them all. A memorable concert indeed.


City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Drew A. Kelley; Vaughan Williams, Gloucester Cathedral, Elgar, Weinberg, Debussy: Wikimedia Commons; Adés: Prospect Magazine.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Darkness to Light: Long Beach Symphony Season Opens

The Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Eckart Preu in the opening concert of
the orchestra's 2022-2023 season.


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

With searchlights sweeping the sky overhead and cheerfully blazing firepits on the forecourt to warm those patrons sampling the wares of the food trucks parked at its rear, audience members arriving for the first concert in the LBSO’s 2022-2023 Classical season must have felt a strong sense of “welcome back to normality"—to be enhanced by the removal of last season’s mask-wearing mandate and compulsory checking of vaccine records, a welcome return to printed program booklets, and a new permission to take purchased beverages into the auditorium.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953),
around the time he wrote
his Classical Symphony.
The music for this season-opener stayed firmly within the standard repertoire. If not quite the archetypal overture/concerto/symphony line-up, it came close, with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 “Classical” (1916-17)—in toto usually not much longer in playing-time than some of the heftier concert overtures—filling the opening slot. On this occasion however, more expansive tempi than normal (plus longer inter-movement gaps due to audience applause) brought the overall timing close to 20 minutes, replacing the symphony’s accustomed sense of brilliant brevity with an effect more genially loose-limbed and lyrical.

In addition the use of the LBSO’s full string forces, rather than them being reduced in number to reflect the "Classical" epithet, contributed to a more "Romantic" weight and breadth. And, as Music Director Eckart Preu noted in his introductory talk, although Prokofiev absorbed a whole-hearted appreciation of the Classical masters and their compositional procedures from his tutor Nikolai Tcherepnin at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, no-one would ever think that Haydn, for instance, could have written this particular Classical Symphony

As for the present performance, though in places the orchestra’s ensemble lacked some of the precision it has achieved at its best in the past, there were passages to cherish, not least the bassoon’s deliciously pointed accompaniment to the first movement’s second subject, and the first violins’ seraphic floating of the second movement Larghetto’s main theme, truly pianissimo, molto dolce

Ferdinand David, Concert-
master of the Leipzig
Gewandhaus Orchestra,
with whom Mendelssohn
collaborated extensively over
 the six-year composition of
his Violin Concerto.
Mendelssohn in 1846,
the year he completed
his Violin Concerto.
It was ironic that after a performance punctuated by unwonted applause, the evening’s concerto was one in which its composer linked the movements to avoid just that. However, the held bassoon note with which Felix Mendelssohn binds together the Allegro molto appassionato and Andante of his Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 was far from the only innovation that the composer introduced in this work. The first comes at the very start, when the soloist, rather than the orchestra as was customary in the Classical concerto, presents the entire opening theme, supported by soft timpani beats, string pizzicati and arpeggios, and a long-held woodwind chord.
Roger Wilkie, long-time LBSO Concertmaster, was the soloist, and if his tone initially seemed a little small for the Terrace Theater’s cavernous spaces, by the time Mendelssohn’s next notable innovation arrived—his placing of a fully written-out cadenza as a pivot between the movement’s development and recapitulation sections rather than located in a pause at the end for the soloist to improvise—Wilkie’s undemonstrative but meticulously accurate playing, with spot-on intonation, together with his immense skill as a chamber music player and the clearly great esteem in which he is held by his orchestral colleagues and conductor alike, all combined in music-making of rare unanimity.

And if a “chamber music” reference is taken to imply anything reticent or small-scale about the performance, Preu and the full LBSO forces did not hold back in delivering Mendelssohn’s powerful and sometimes tellingly dissonant orchestral writing with all the power that it can take.

Roger Wilkie receives warm acclaim from audience and orchestra after his performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.

After the interval came what is still, arguably, the world’s most popular and celebrated symphony, and certainly the one with the most immediately recognizable opening. One of YouTube’s more engagingly eccentric items presents the first 21 measures only of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 from no fewer than 42 conductors, in interpretations that range from the machine-gun attack of those emulating the composer’s extremely fast metronome marking of half note = 108 to Leonard Bernstein’s surprisingly dogged start and an even heavier plod from Pierre Boulez.

As somewhat of a HIP (historically informed performance) enthusiast, I confess to a little disappointment that Maestro Preu’s opening was at the slower end of this range, but his keeping the fermata (unspecified pause) on the fourth note of the famous “pa-pa-pa-paaaa” relatively short, and then carefully adding no more than Beethoven’s single marked additional measure before the second fermata on the phrase’s restatement, ensured the dramatic coherence of the whole opening paragraph—unlike some conductors who exaggerate that second pause to contrive a “wait for it…!” effect.

Beethoven's manuscript score of the opening of the Fifth Symphony.
This sense of inexorable, but not hurried, onward progress was given further substance by the observation of the exposition repeat. With committed playing (though again some less than immaculate ensemble) plus keen observation of dynamic contrasts throughout—Beethoven’s stark juxtapositions of piano and pianissimo with sudden fortissimo outbursts given maximum impact by the full forces of the LBSO—the movement had a powerful ochre-toned preludial quality that fitted well with Preu’s “dark-to-light” characterization of the symphony as a whole in his pre-concert talk.

1845 statue of Beethoven being returned
in July 2022 to its location in Bonn
 after six months' restoration work.
Unlike, say, the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony or the Adagio of the Ninth, the Fifth’s second movement is not, to my ears, amenable to any very wide range of speed choice, and Maestro Preu’s pressing forward in response to its Andante con moto marking was all gain. Doing so not only clarified its form as a marvelously inventive set of variations, but also its profound emotional ambivalence, with its outbursts of almost parade-ground swagger repeatedly undermined by wandering, questioning responses.

That the symphony’s “dark-to-light” progress follows anything but a straight path is further emphasized by the ensuing Allegro (its scherzo in all but name), which similarly alternates sharply in texture and mood, here between haunted scurrying and more brazen bluster, but eventually emerges as from a long tunnel into the enduring blaze of the Allegro finale. This really caught fire, just as it should, with an unstoppable forward impulse that made Preu’s observance (still not all that common) of the exposition repeat seem inevitable and welcome, rather than giving the “why has it gone back to the beginning?” effect that can sometimes happen in less skilled hands.

All in all, the audience’s ovation was deserved, though intermittently during the concert there were enough imprecisions to make me wonder whether the orchestra has been subject to some pinching of rehearsal time. I hope not—the LBSO can ill afford to drop below the highest standards it has achieved during Maestro Preu’s tenure as Music Director. Details of the remaining concerts in this season can be found here.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, October 1, 2022,
8 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, David: Wikimedia Commons; Fifth Symphony holograph: IMSLP; Beethoven statue: Meike Böschemeyer, courtesy General-Anzeiger.

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