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.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

No comments: