Sunday, January 29, 2023

Muti and the CSO play Beethoven, Lyadov, and "Pictures"

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall,
Costa Mesa

Riccardo Muti.
“Generosity” was the word that came to mind during the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s January orchestral concert at the Segerstrom Concert Hall where, before a capacity audience, Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the second concert of its current North American tour, itself part of the CSO’s 2022-23 season that also sees the conclusion of Muti’s tenure as its Music Director.

Indeed, that generosity was manifest before the concert itself when, in an interview with Classical KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen, the orchestra’s Principal tuba player Gene Pokorny and piccolo/flutist Jennifer Gunn gave patently sincere and heartfelt tributes both to their colleagues as individuals and to the CSO’s collective identity and commitment. And the generosity extended to Maestro Muti himself, who before raising his baton to launch Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, requested the audience to stand for a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of California’s two recent mass shootings at Monterey Park and Oakland.

As for the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, “generous” was an appropriate epithet as well. Lasting a solid 42 minutes, due to a (yes, generous) clutch of repeats which included the expositions of both the first movement and finale and omitted only the scherzo second half in the labyrinth that is the symphony’s Presto third movement, it had a warmth, amplitude and freshness that belied the fact that these players must have performed the symphony countless times.

Maestro Muti’s tempo for the first movement’s long Poco sostenuto introduction couldn’t have been far off Beethoven’s requested metronome of quarter note=69, resulting not so much in a sense of wide-ranging preparation for what is to come, but rather of the main drama of the movement already being under way but just beneath the surface, with the uprushing dotted scalic figures that pervade the introduction having a feeling of positive eagerness to “get going.”

Beethoven in 1814, two years after
completing the Seventh Symphony.
At the same time the woodwind chording in their long unisons spanning above those scales had a relishable precision of balance that clarified the many modulations with which Beethoven controls the levels of tension that ebb and flow in the introduction, so that the main Vivace exposition, when it finally arrived after the faux-hesitations that precede it, surged forward with naturalness and inevitability rather than any sudden jolt.

The second movement Allegretto maintained a steady, implacable tread, balancing breadth and forward motion, with in its opening measures the lower strings carefully distinguishing between piano and pianissimo statements of the main theme. Both the Presto and the Allegro con brio finale had all the requisite energy and precision without any speed records being attempted. Beethoven marks no speeding-up for the finale's tumultuous coda, and this performance had no gratuitous hastening, simply a master conductor and his great orchestra enabling Beethoven's cumulation of harmonic tension and dynamic pressure (the only place where his climaxes escalate from fortissimo to fff) to do all the heavy lifting necessary.

Mussorgsky in 1874, the year that he
composed Pictures at an Exhibition.
While this performance of Beethoven’s Seventh demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to balance full-sized string sections with his Classical woodwind and brass pairs undoubled (as far as could be seen) it took the full panoply that Ravel employs in his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to really show off what the Chicago Symphony can produce at full cry.

Along with all else that it is, the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures is also a real “concerto for orchestra,” and its opening Promenade immediately demonstrated how justified was tubaist Gene Pokorny’s admiration for his fellow CSO brass players, who richly clothed Mussorgsky’s musical self-portrait, arriving as spectator and admirer of his late friend Viktor Hartmann’s drawings and paintings.

Comparably showcased were the orchestra’s lower woodwind in I Gnomus and II The Old Castle, separated by the Promenade this time truncated, and as thoughtful in its cool low horn and high woodwind alternations as the opening had been brazenly confident. After the spectator shakes himself back to deliberate attention in a second intercalated Promenade, his attention is drawn to III Tuileries, but here the children’s play, delicately delineated in upper woodwind and strings, was somewhat more sedate than is usually the case. Then Mr. Pokorny's fellow low brass player Michael Mulcahy came to the fore on tenor tuba with as songfully eloquent a solo to open IV Bydlo as I have ever heard.

Maurice Ravel in 1925, three
years after Koussevitzky's
commission to orchestrate
Pictures at an Exhibition.
After the ox wagon’s crushingly heavy roll to the foreground and then slow recession out of ear-shot, the last of the Promenades (Ravel omitted to orchestrate the fifth and final one in Mussorgsky's original between Pictures VI and VII) was even more reflective, and that mood seemed to carry over into V Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells, where, though immaculately crisp, the flutes’ dance was again a little more measured than usual.

In VI Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the latter’s stuttering muted trumpet was less wheedling and more assertive than we normally hear, suggesting that for once he was giving his overbearing countryman as good as he got. As with the previous fast movements, VII The Market Place at Limoges scurried a little less, but the plunge into VIII Catacombs was as awe-inspiring as ever, as was the precipitation from the peak of IX The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yaga)’s flight to the splendor of X The Great Gate of Kiev.

Viktor Hartmann's unbuilt design for
the Bogatyr Gates at Kiev (Kyiv).
So granitically implacable was the incarnation by the CSO’s full forces of this final movement that it felt not so much a celebration of as a full-frontal assault upon a structure (which in fact remained unbuilt) at what we now properly spell as Kyiv. Indeed, the two quiet woodwind sections that relieve this movement’s overwhelming force were long-drawn and lamenting enough in effect (definitely not senza espressione, as marked) as to make one wonder whether there wasn’t an interpretative subtext here, in view of current events.

But the second half of this memorable concert was far from entirely concerned with spectacular orchestral effects. Before the Mussorgsky/Ravel blockbuster there had been a rare chance to enjoy live one of the exquisite miniature tone-poems of the famously self-critical and indolent Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914).

Anatoly Lyadov.
This was his The Enchanted Lake Op. 62, composed in 1919, eight minutes of delicate woodwind, celesta, and harp figuration nestling within a soft, intricate texture of divided, mostly muted strings, richly nuanced by the CSO players, and described by the French musicologist André Lischke as "the quivering of the water (divided strings) and the sparkling of the stars which are reflected there (flute, celesta), harp)."

Giacomo Puccini.
And when the cheers for The Great Gate of Kiev's roof-rattling final climax had finally died down after the capacity audience repeatedly called Riccardo Muti back to the platform, there was yet another treat in store, and one that was not listed in the printed program. 

Returning to his Italian roots, the conductor led an encore that again he dedicated to the mass shooting victims. This was a devastatingly heartfelt account of the Intermezzo that divides the middle two Acts of Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, written between 1889 and 1892. Generous indeed. 


Chicago Symphony Orchestra, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, Tuesday, January 24, 2023, 8 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Todd Rosenberg; Riccardo Muti: Conductor website; Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Hartmann illustration, Lyadov: Wikimedia Commons; Puccini: BBC. 

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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Todd Mason’s Gripping New Violin Concerto

Tosca Opdam recording Todd Mason's Violin Concerto in Budapest.


Having been able previously to at least grasp the outline of Todd Mason’s Violin Concerto via a MIDI recording generated from the computerized score, it was fascinating and revealing to really get to grips with the work through the fine studio recording that the concerto has now received, from which excerpts can be enjoyed here.

Todd Mason.
This was made in Budapest, Hungary, during Europe's summer 2022 heatwave by the young Dutch violinist Tosca Opdam and the Budapest Scoring Orchestra under the baton of the Hungarian conductor, Peter Illényi—the recording sessions and the long build-up to them were previously documented by the composer on LA Opus here.

My initial impression, confirmed by the live performance, was how unified a work this concerto is, feeling from the start as if it knows where it’s going and where it intends to end up. Several factors combine to create this sense of direction and purpose, not least being the fact that the initial tempo mark of Allegro (quarter note=ca.128) is nowhere amended through the entire 24-minute duration.

The second unifying factor is the repeated upward-rushing 16th-note figuration on muted strings which, after a soft gong-stroke, drives the music right from the first bar. Never far from the action in its original guise, this also appears in many mutated forms—inverted, with intervals expanded, stretched to 8th notes and quarter-notes, etc. Combined with the near-ubiquitous 4/4 time signature, this figuration infuses the whole piece so that even when absent its sense of purposeful motion feels ever ready to reappear.

Driven by the scurrying strings, the substantial 47-measure orchestral introduction proceeds via quiet solo wind and brass incursions through two wave-like climaxes before the soloist enters—and it’s worth noting here that despite being economically scored for just eight winds, six brass, timpani, two percussion, harp, and strings, Mason’s Violin Concerto is far from being a “chamber concerto.” Its single movement embraces enough variety and drama to fill any auditorium.

Conductor Peter Illényi and Tosca Opdam at a break in the recording.

The greatest advantage of hearing a live performance compared to a MIDI recreation lies in the solo part (in any case a single violin is the least successful of electronic impersonations). Ms. Opdam’s assumption of this virtuoso role—which covers the gamut from high-speed articulation through wide-leaping double-stopping to rich legato, as well as the most stratospheric of harmonics— is wholly committed and as expressively varied as it is technically secure. And any lingering hint of metronomic rigidity from the MIDI version is banished for good.

Formally, after the soloist joins the orchestra, the concerto continues its busy progress until the violin gradually imposes a calmer mood, with some expressive woodwind and horn solos. This first “slow” section (though, as noted, with no modification to the Allegro marking) comes to a full close, after which two brief solo cadenzas book-end a sharply contrasted orchestral passage in which peremptory staccato chords are flipped back and forth between winds and brass.

More lyrical music now ensues, with some rather Coplandesque “wide open spaces” writing for the strings, but it’s characteristic of this concerto that no single mood persists for long. Some spiccato writing for the soloist that briefly recalls Barber’s Violin Concerto leads to a purposeful orchestral surge, but then the mood relaxes into the most overtly romantic and nostalgic-seeming music yet, which rarifies further into dreamy violin harmonics.

Eventually the violin recovers, as it were, its sense of purpose, the staccato orchestral passage recurs, and then while this is still happening the gong quietly leads off what proves to be a near-literal recapitulation of the concerto’s opening. Continuing the recapping, the violin spiccato also comes back, but this time leads to the last, longest and most varied of the concerto’s three marked cadenzas, after which the work climbs to a wholly positive and emphatic fortissimo conclusion.

In terms of 20th century antecedents, the piece is clearly in a line from the concertos of Alban Berg and Béla Bartók, but so far as American compatriots of preceding generations are concerned—aside from the hints of Copland and Barber already noted—Mason’s Violin Concerto seems to me to share much, in its mix of tough-minded near-atonality and unsentimental lyricism, with the great Violin Concerto of George Rochberg. It’s good to know that there currently seems some likelihood of its future presentation where it belongs, in a concert hall in front of an audience and in the hands of Tosca Opdam.


Violin Concerto by Todd Mason, recorded at Budapest Scoring Studio, Budapest, Hungary, by Tosca Opdam (violin) and the Budapest Scoring Orchestra conducted by Peter Illényi, July 2022.
Photos: Todd Mason.

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Saturday, January 21, 2023

String Quartets from Three Centuries at Mason House

The Zelter String Quartet, l-r: Gallia Kastner, Kyle Gilner, Carson Rick, Allan Hon.


Zelter String Quartet Plays Haydn, Puccini, Mason and Montgomery at Mason House

It was a dark and stormy night… on the quiet street outside Mason House, the homey West LA venue for chamber music. But inside, Mason Concerts was kicking off its 2023 series with a compelling program. On its second visit, the Zelter String Quartet featured works by Haydn, Puccini (yes, that Puccini) and two living composers, Jessie Montgomery and Todd Mason, Mason Concerts’ impresario.

Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano.
Perhaps because of the wild, atmospheric river-fueled weather, the evening had an even more intimate feeling than usual. Dr. Kristi Brown-Montasano’s enriching presentations on Haydn and Puccini, and how the evening’s selections fitted into their oeuvres, evolved into conversations with Mason and eventually the musicians, who were asked to play brief passages to illuminate particular elements of each piece.

Having attended classical concerts most of my life, during which interactions with the audience (beyond admonitions to be silent) were rare, I am pleased when musicians and professional educators like Dr. Brown-Montasano are included to help audiences understand and interpret what they are about to hear. In other genres it isn’t unusual for musicians to introduce their music with “This song is about...,” but often, classical music audiences only know the composer’s name and titles that only a file clerk could love, such as Haydn’s String Quartet No. 66 in G major, Op. 77 No. 1, Hob. III:81, which was the first piece performed.

Joseph Haydn in 1791, eight years before the
composition of his String Quartet No. 66.
Dr. Brown-Montasano helped the audience understand where this quartet from 1799 fitted into Haydn’s long career, including poignant details about his faltering health and some conjecture about his priorities as he saw the end of his career approaching. She also illuminated the brief Puccini piece, Crisantemi (1890), by sharing a recorded excerpt from the opera Manon Lescaut, written around the same time, comparing the music from a tragic moment therein with an identical theme Puccini embedded in the quartet.

What she brought to the second half of the show—with the help of Mason and the cheerfully cooperative quartet members—gave the 21st century works personal relevance, focusing both on the composers’ intentions in creating their music, and on details of each composition that gave listeners something to listen for—a “hook” in the jargon of pop music. Violinist Gallia Kastner and Dr. Brown-Montasano had a moving exchange on how Kastner brought Montgomery’s Strum to her attention years ago, and Mason and the quartet talked about different bowing techniques and plucking to produce distinct moods and feelings from stringed instruments, and their prominent use in both pieces.

Giacomo Puccini, c. 1890.
Thus prepared, the audience sat back and was enthralled by the Zelter's beautiful, versatile and soulful playing. These musicians—Kastner, violinist Kyle Gilner, violist Carson Rick and cellist Allan Hon—play like they share a psychic connection: performers who listen with intention. The Haydn had energy, drive and exquisite attention to detail, while the Puccini displayed the quartet's lyrical side with the sweetness and emotion of their playing—most strikingly in unison passages but octaves apart—to electrifying effect.

Todd Mason’s String Quartet No. 1 (2018, rev. 2022) is a major work, building on the tradition of two of his compositional inspirations, Beethoven and Bartók. The first movement played like a tone poem about order and meaning emerging from chaos—like dreams at the moment of birth. At its outset, the second movement was active, curious, questioning, with constantly evolving and shifting tempi, until it metamorphosed into something more grave and serious, slowing to a crawl as if the narrator was stunned by something. But the tempo abruptly picked up again at the end with a sense of purpose, fighting through a storm.

The third movement returned to the pace and solemnity of the previous movement’s awestruck passage, and at times felt like a dialogue, with voices intertwining as in a romance, suggesting the diversion was for the sake of love. At its outset the movement had a feeling of emotional immediacy, raw, fragile, and expressed in a kind of private language, but then there was a barely perceptible transition from naked emotion into memory of tender emotions recalled. The intimacy of that third movement was overpowering. 

But the reverie was broken when the fourth movement began, as if the musicians were being roughly awakened to an urgent call: time is rushing by and one must hurry to catch up. As this final movement approached its conclusion, the dreamy themes from the first movement were reintroduced, before the piece resolved in what sounded like a series of hard-won, almost breathless affirmations. As with the Puccini, the Zelter Quartet was given opportunities in Mason’s fourth movement to seize our attention, again and again, with evocative unison passages, played in a singing tone to ecstatic effect.

Jessie Montgomery.
The Zelters' quartet arrangement of Jessie Montgomery’s orchestral Strum (2006, rev. 2012)—the final listed work—was a tonal contrast to all that had come before. As the title hints, this piece employs the players’ ability to beat out rhythms, their instruments at times sounding almost like banjos, mandolins, guitars, or drums. For most of this piece, strumming, pizzicato, and bow work kept a dance beat going, giving way to contrasting legato passages. Strum was simultaneously fast and slow—a series of jigs accompanying lyric arias, leading to a furious finish—and easy to love.

That was a thrilling enough conclusion to the program, but the Zelter Quartet had an encore ready for the happy audience, an arrangement of a Danish folk song, Æ Rømesor, arranged by the Danish String Quartet. It had a childlike quality: a refreshingly uncomplicated dessert after a full, rich course of meaningful music sensitively played.

A break in the rain coincided with the end of the concert, so most of the audience took advantage of it. But those who stayed were buzzing, quaffing Ethel Phipps’ hearty beef barley soup, worshipping the quartet members like Beyoncé, and commenting how remarkable it was that Zelter could maintain such a consistently matched voice. A memorable night at Mason House, and there is so much more to come in the 2023 season.

The Zelter Quartet with Todd Mason.

Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, January 14, 2023. 
Images: The concert: Todd Mason; Haydn, Puccini: Wikimedia Commons; Dr. Brown-Montesano: website; Jessie Montgomery: Jiyang Chen Photography, artist website.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Carl St. Clair Conducts Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler''s Ninth Symphony.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 
Costa Mesa

Gustav Mahler.
After the final long-drawn notes of his epic 90-minute traversal of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony faded at last into silence, Pacific Symphony Orchestra Music Director Carl St. Clair kept his hands raised for longer than any other instance I can recall when a conductor thereby suspends applause at the end of a major work that ends with a descent into silence. Indeed, such was the effect of the wondrous Adagio which concludes this symphony that one felt the really appropriate response would be simply to depart in silence, as sometimes happens after performances of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.

When the applause finally came, it was long, heartfelt, and wholly earned both by the conductor for his meticulous and comprehensive response to Mahler’s masterpiece and by the orchestra for its skill and commitment, collectively and individually, in bodying forth one of the longest and most momentous journeys in all music. Had it been practicable, Maestro St. Clair’s spotlighting of individual players could with justice have extended to just about every one of the near 100 musicians on the platform, with all that collective and individual excellence enhanced for the fortunate audience by the Segerstrom Concert Hall's state-of-the-art acoustics.

Mahler with his daughter Maria.
The Pacific Symphony’s pre-concert publicity about Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D/D-flat major, as well as the (excellent) program note, understandably emphasized the three blows of fate which fell on Mahler during 1907—his departure from the Vienna Court Opera, the death of his four-year-old daughter Maria, and the diagnosis of his fatal heart condition—and how these influenced the Ninth, which he began the following year.

In an exceptionally informative pre-concert talk, Dr. Alan Chapman drew attention to one Mahler biographer’s view that his major works could notionally be grouped into trilogies, in the last of which the Ninth is the central member of the group that also includes Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth Symphony—and thus may not be heard as a final death-greeting utterance. And alongside these views, the conductor’s own brief but heartfelt introductory remarks characterized the arc of the work as passing from “realization” in the first movement, through “reflecting” and “rejoicing” (movements 2 and 3) to “resignation” in the finale.

The Ninth begins like no other Mahler symphony, with a hesitant, irregular rhythm, pianissimo, on the cellos, immediately mirrored by the fourth horn, which St. Clair’s mentor Leonard Bernstein, for one, believed to represent the composer’s own faulty heartbeat. But there is an answer—an arching, four-note phrase on the harp, forte and marked Resonanztisch, that will have immense importance as the first movement progresses.

Carl St. Clair.
That this harp entry was perfectly weighted, just loud enough and resonant indeed, was the first indication of how thoughtfully detailed the interpretation was going to be, an impression rapidly confirmed by the easeful unhurriedness with which, after a little imprecision of ensemble near the beginning, St. Clair and his orchestra laid out the movement’s elaborate thematic exposition. The initial marking is Andante comodo, and for once that “comfortable” (but not complacent!) indication seemed exactly fulfilled.

In broad outline the first movement comprises successive waves of music that progress from stasis, through increasing tension and elaboration, to climaxes that collapse—with the harp motif now hammered out on timpani—but then slowly begin to engender the next wave. Each wave draws together and develops differently the many thematic and harmonic elements until the final and most brutal climax-plus-collapse leads to a long-drawn coda.

This most elaborate of the Ninth Symphony’s four movements, if taken too slowly, can not only feel somewhat interminable but also give the impression of a completed whole after which the remainder of the work may seem redundant. To my ears St. Clair, with a duration of a little over 28 minutes, got the balance just right between giving the movement its appropriate epic breadth but without any premature sense of finality—in his terms, “realization” but not yet “resignation.”

Mahler's composing hut near Tobiach, Italy, where much
of the Ninth Symphony was written in summer 1909.
The second movement is initially “at the pace of a leisurely Ländler,” heralded by bucolic upward runs on the bassoons immediately answered by crisp clarinet flourishes—a perfect sense of “new beginning” after the long rigors and exhausted conclusion of the first movement—if not quite, in this performance, as Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (somewhat clumsy and very coarse) as Mahler also marks the opening.

What critically influences the unfolding of this movement, however, is that Mahler also labels the opening as “Tempo I” and then, some 90 measures on, a somewhat faster “Tempo II.” Finally, heralding what is to some extent the “trio” section of a very elaborate scherzo movement, we come to “Tempo III”, Ländler, ganz langsam (very slow). All three Tempi have several marked recurrences, and St. Clair’s scrupulous observation of each, and navigation thereto, together with ever more devoted and skillful playing from the Pacific Symphony, entirely avoided any “enough already” reaction to a movement that is pretty long for its content (17 minutes in this performance) and in less skilled hands can seem unwontedly garrulous.

With the third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, the work moves from “reflection” to “rejoicing” in St. Clair’s characterization. To me, this really doesn’t begin to cover it, as from the very start Mahler’s scoring gives an acid edge to the controlled tumult (those four flutter-tonguing flutes!). Eventually, after a long and seraphic interlude heralded by a solo trumpet, the tumult returns, lashed ever more violently to a Presto coda delivered here with life-and-death ferocity and precision by the Pacific Symphony.

Probably the last photograph of Mahler,
taken on his voyage in 1911 back from
New York to Vienna.
Though that coda is perhaps the stand-out virtuoso passage in this symphony, Maestro St. Clair’s handling of the preceding interlude was another signal instance of his masterful view of the whole work, its beauty—though fully expressed in exquisite playing—never indulged for its own sake but interpreted in the context of the symphony’s true homecoming to follow in the Adagio finale.

For this, St. Clair set a very slow opening tempo. This was one of those very rare instances in performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony where the finale, at around 30 minutes, was actually longer in duration than the first movement, but the overall vision, the majesty and intensity of the Pacific Symphony’s playing in its great central melodic unfolding, and finally the marvelously long-breathed control of the final page’s visionary Adagissimo kept any sense of over-extension firmly at bay.

Perhaps the strings even managed in the last few bars to achieve distinction between Mahler’s virtually impossible requests for pppp on the first violins, ppp in the seconds, pp for the violas, and ppp cellos, the whole body of strings marked ersterbend (dying) on their final, long-held chord. So death? Or “resignation”? Or acceptance?

The Tenth Symphony was still to come, fully conceived though with only two of its five movements orchestrated. But a truly great performance of the Ninth enables any and all of these conclusions to be valid, and underlines that a masterwork of this many-sided complexity always contains more than any words can express. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Thursday January 12, 2003, 8 p.m.

Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; Other photos: Wikimedia Commons.

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Monday, January 16, 2023

Franck, Bach, and Kreisler in a Concert of Two Halves

Corey Cerovsek and Steven Vanhauwaert at First Lutheran Church, Torrance.


Corey Cerovsek and Steven Vanhauwaert play César Franck, J. S. Bach, and Fritz Kreisler

One feature of pre-Covid South Bay chamber recital programming was the inclusion, usually once in a season, of two-part concerts by the same performers, but with the halves separated by two days: the first in Classical Crossroads Inc.’s lunchtime “First Fridays at First!~fff” at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, with the second following at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church in its ”Second Sundays at Two” series. 

When Covid shut down live-audience concerts in March 2020, the latter series moved under Classical Crossroads’ nonprofit umbrella. Classical Crossroads has cautiously transitioned from pre-recorded streaming to live-audience concerts with simultaneous livestreaming, and these pairings remain an enhanced feature of its programming  LA Opus missed the first such of the 2022-23 season, by violinist Kerenza Peacock and pianist Robert Thies on October 7 and 9, but managed to catch this second of them, fortuitously threaded between rainstorms.

César Franck.
The January “First Friday” had only one work on the program, but what a work! César Franck produced only three chamber compositions in his maturity, the middle one of these, his single Violin Sonata in A major, FWV 8, written in 1886, being rather more concise than the expansive Piano Quintet in F minor that preceded it, and a great deal more so than the gargantuan String Quartet in D that followed in 1889.

The Violin Sonata’s concision was, if anything, emphasized by the flowing, tightly controlled and pointful account given by the duo of the day: Canadian violinist Corey Cerovsek on a rare but welcome visit, and the familiar figure of Belgian-born, locally-resident pianist Steven Vanhauwaert.

The four movements broadly follow a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, but the players took careful note of the first movement’s somewhat ambiguous Allegretto ben moderato marking so that its undulating and memorable main theme always seemed purposeful and anticipatory, and not the epitome of swooning languor that it can easily become.

In all three of the succeeding movements, despite their dissimilarity in initial tempo and mood, thematic elements recur and recombine and, in the Allegretto poco mosso finale, undergo both recapitulations and metamorphoses that are at once brilliantly inventive, moving, and satisfyingly conclusive. Cerovsek’s and Vanhauwaert’s performance drew all the threads together to crown a performance of Franck’s Violin Sonata as comprehensively integrated as any that I have heard.

Fine though this was, arguably the “Second Sunday” second half was even more memorable. J. S. Bach’s Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato (Six solos for violin without bass accompaniment)—as the three Sonatas and three Partitas BWV 1001-1005 are headed on the manuscript title page (right)—seem more often than not in modern recitals to be a quarry from which single-movement extracts are dug for encore purposes.

Even when complete works from the set are given, the Partitas, with their greater number of movements, and in dance forms, tend in my experience to be favored over the four-movement Sonatas, all of which share a similar slow-fast-slow-fast structure, the “sonata da chiesa” layout often used in instrumental works of the preceding century (Bach’s manuscript of the set is dated 1720).

J. S. Bach, c. 1720.
It was a rare treat, therefore, to welcome back Corey Cerovsek, tout seul this time, for not one but two of the solo Sonatas, No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001, and No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005. Throughout, he seemingly made light of the formidable technical difficulties, including ubiquitous double- and triple-stopping, giving accounts of the opening Adagios of each Sonata, and of the Siciliana of Sonata No. 1 and the Largo of Sonata No. 3, that were full of subtle shadings of tone and tempo, making each of these slow movements a distinct expressive whole.

Their Presto (Sonata No. 1) and Allegro assai (Sonata No. 3) finales were dispatched with fervent brilliance, Cerovsek’s omission of both repeats in each movement giving the effect of rockets shooting upwards in a single arc to rapid oblivion, each done and dusted in not much more than one-and-a-half minutes and two-and-a-half minutes respectively.

Corey Cerovsek at RHUMC.
By contrast, he took the two second-movement fugues at relatively steady opening speeds, giving himself room to articulate clearly their increasing elaboration as they progressed.

The standout was the immense Fuga of Sonata No. 3, one of those Bach movements where he seems deliberately to push himself into areas of expression and elaboration beyond anything that might be anticipated, as in, say, the Ciaconna that ends the second solo Partita or the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

Cerovsek’s handling of this movement was simply masterly, giving shape, coherence, and a feeling of inevitability to what in lesser hands might have just devolved into a 12-minute endurance test for player and audience alike.

Fritz Kreisler.
Both halves of the recital ended with encores by Fritz Kreisler. On Friday, the duo chose to follow the Franck Violin Sonata with the gypsy inflections of Kreisler's La Gitana (1917), while as (light!?) relief after the J. S. Bach Sonatas, Corey Cerovsek finished with the more showily virtuosic Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice, Op. 6. published in 1911. Let’s hope he makes another visit soon.

Both parts of this fine concert were livestreamed, and with the permission of the players can be enjoyed on Classical Crossroads Vimeo page for a month here, ably captured in sound and vision by Jim Eninger.


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, January 6, 2023. ”Second Sundays at Two,” Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Rolling Hills Estates, 2:00pm, Sunday, January 8, 2023.
Images: The performers: Classical Crossroads; Franck and Bach: Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

POP’s Labors for Vivaldi’s Hercules Pay Off

The Amazon princess Ippolita (Janet Todd) sings of her new beloved, the Greek hero Teseo,
in Pacific Opera Project's US premiere of Vivaldi's opera Ercole su’l Termodonte (1723).


Vivaldi’s “Ercole su’l Termodonte,” Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club, Los Angeles

Caricature of Vivaldi
(1678-1741) from 1723.
Considering the jaw-dropping list of exploits and adventures listed on the Wikipedia page devoted to Heracles, operas involving this greatest of ancient Greek heroes are remarkably few in number, the major exception in the Baroque era being Handel’s Hercules, composed in 1744.

This has a quite different plot from Antonio Vivaldi's somewhat earlier Ercole su'l Termodonte RV 710 (Hercules on the Thermodon, or more loosely but relevantly, Hercules and the Amazons), of which the ever-enterprising Pacific Opera Project gave the US premiere exactly 300 years to the month after Vivaldi first presented his 16th opera (or his 21st, or 8th—your pick, depending on source) in Rome’s Teatro Capranica.

Title-page of the
published libretto.
As with many others of his operas (Vivaldi claimed to have written 94 but around 50 have been identified by title), the original score of Ercole was lost, but 30 of its arias survived in copies at various European archives. In the 2000s the musicologist and conductor Fabio Biondi assembled, with guidance from the original published libretto by Antonio Salvi, a performable score from the surviving material plus newly-composed recitatives, none of Vivaldi’s own having survived (Biondi’s quest is entertainingly described in Opera Today). His reconstruction was then staged and commercially recorded.

Enter POP’s enterprising Artistic Director Josh Shaw, who learned about Ercole before the pandemic and originally intended to mount a production of it in the company’s 2020 season. This was to be POP’s first venture into historically-informed Baroque opera performance, with staging, orchestral playing, and costuming as “authentic” as possible, but the ambition was only to be finally achieved three years later than planned.

The Greek heroes: l-r, Teseo (Kyle Tingzon), Alceste (Michael Skarke), Hercules
(Logan Webber), Telemone (Manfred Ayana).

Shaw’s practical approach (outlined in published and online interviews) was to pare down the work to around two hours’ running time, tailoring it to fit the Highland Park Ebell Club’s intimate space, made yet more so by its transformation into a 188-seat replica (left) of a typically horseshoe-shaped Baroque theater, with temporary scaffolding supporting three tiers of box seating on three sides, plus a line of balcony seats at the rear and four rows of stalls facing the small orchestra pit.

All-in-all, the arrangement achieved the desired immediacy, though patrons clambering and peering to find their designated seating pushed Saturday night's start time back by a quarter-hour or so and, seating once located, the temporary structure amplified chair-clomping as audience members shunted back and forth to get better sightlines for the action.

The only known portrait of
Vivaldi, also dating from 1723.
The three-part introductory sinfonia, self-borrowed by Vivaldi from his earlier opera Armida, at once showed the skill of POP’s small band of 18th century-clad and bewigged players, with clean, virtually vibrato-free articulation from the string quintet (two cellos), led by concertmistress Boryana Popova and underpinned by Jason Yoshida on the long-necked theorbo, and all propulsively directed by Kyle Naig at the keyboard. The numerous brief instrumental coverings of scene changes, presumably added by Biondi, featured some exquisite oboe and flute solos, with a stentorian trumpet occasionally added to the mix.

Ercole takes its plot from the Labors of Hercules, imposed as a penance on the hero for having killed his own family in a fit of madness. The ninth Labor was to acquire the queen of the Amazons’ girdle (which in Vivaldi’s and Salvi’s scenario becomes her sword) and in true Amazonian fashion the opening scene finds Queen Antiope, sonorously and indeed ferociously portrayed by mezzo-soprano and POP regular Meagan Martin, railing against the iniquities of men and vowing to protect her daughter Martesia (Véronique Filloux, soprano) from them.

l-r: Ippolita (Janet Todd), Antiope (Meagan Martin), Martesia (Véronique Filloux).

Scene change to the heroes—Hercules (Logan Webber, tenor), Teseo (Kyle Tingzon, countertenor), Alceste (Michael Skarke, countertenor), and Telemone (Manfred Anaya, tenor)—vowing to achieve the quest, but martial valore rapidly succumbs to l’amore when Teseo rescues Antiope’s sister Ippolita (soprano Janet Todd, another POP stalwart) from a bear and the couple immediately fall in love.

Alceste (Michael Skarke) and
Martesia (Véronique Filloux).
In short order Alceste and Telemone capture Martesia and immediately start facing off and chest-bumping for her favors. A brief but effective slo-mo battle scene takes place under blood-red lighting, but the worst that happens is some prisoner-taking by both sides. This sets up the opera’s second half, in which prisoner-exchange negotiations and one just-in-time rescue from execution lead to a final scene of reconciliation. Peace is declared between the two sides, Antiope acknowledges her sister’s and daughter’s marriages with Teseo and Alceste, and relinquishes her sword to Hercules.

Not for a moment is any of this meant to be taken seriously, at least in this production. The focus is firmly, and effectively, on the vocal prowess of the cast, who without exception navigated skillfully Vivaldi’s melismatic assault-course of a score, the many ABA-form arias being brief, tuneful, and varied enough to avoid any longueurs. If you like Vivaldi, you will love Ercole su'l Termodonte. If you find his chugging rhythms get a little relentless after a while, well...

The part of Hercules himself, despite being the titular hero of heroes, is not particularly large and mostly consists of him acting as enabler to the amorous entanglements, though he does rise to the role of reconciler-in-chief at the conclusion. On this night at least Mr. Webber’s singing, while agile, seemed somewhat tonally unfocused, as if the part lay a little beyond his natural range.

Teseo (Kyle Tingzon) and Ippolita (Janet Todd).
The smaller roles of Telemone and Antiope’s other sister, Orizia, were effectively taken by Mr. Anaya and the soprano Audrey Yoder (another POP alum), but the evening’s limelight mostly shone on the two romantically intertwined Greek / Amazonian couples. All four singers—Mr. Tingzon, Mr. Skarke, Ms. Filloux, and Ms. Todd—were highly effective in their roles, the standout arguably being Kyle Tingzon, whose big aria after he has been rescued by Ippolita from execution had real dramatic heft, the abraded silver timbre of his voice projected with laser-focused intensity that brought the biggest cheers of the evening.

Ercole su'l Termodonte is worth seeing for his contribution alone, but there was so much else to enjoy in this first thoroughgoing Baroque opera production by Pacific Opera Project. Let’s hope there are many more to come. Further performances take place on Thursday, January 12 (8:00 p.m.), Saturday January 14 (2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.), Friday January 20 (8:00 p.m.), and Saturday January 21 (2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.). Booking information is available here. Be there—but if you can't make it to the Ebell, the matinee on Saturday January 21 will be livestreamed on YouTube.  


Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S, Ave. 57, Los Angeles 90042, 7 p.m., Saturday, January 7, 2023.
Images: Production photos: Martha Benedict; Vivaldi: Wikimedia Commons.

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