Friday, March 31, 2023

"English and Armenian Masterworks" at Mason House


Cécilia Tsan and friends play Bridge, Dale, Vaughan Williams, Ireland and Babajanian at Mason House

I’ve been going to chamber music concerts at Mason House in West Los Angeles since the series began in the mid-2010s, so the musicians who regularly perform there have become familiar. Two of my favorites, cellist Cécilia Tsan and violinist Ambroise Aubrun, joined a newcomer, pianist Zachary Deak, for a trio concert on March 18 with the improbable, yet dead-on accurate, title of "English and Armenian Masterworks."

Arno Babajanian (1921-1983).
For this review, I will start at the middle and work back to the beginning, because the concert was really two distinct experiences—two very different journeys. The works presented in the English half of the program sounded very "English”, in that each of the four featured composers created musical statements that, at least implicitly, reflected their culture. However, the single work in the Armenian half, Arno Babajanian’s Piano Trio in F-sharp minor (1952), was immersed in the tragic spirit of that nation and its embattled history.

One might say that compared to most nationalities, the English wear their collective identity lightly, having been secure, wealthy and powerful for so much of their mystique-clouded history. The English works presented at Mason House were, as one might expect, succinct and delectable, lyrical yet restrained, crafted to delight the ear and evoke nature and magic, but with hints of sadness here and yearning there, disturbance heard from a distance, or behind a veil.

Location of Armenia (left, red) within the Soviet Union.
By contrast, Armenian history is characterized by struggles, disasters and defeats, and it is a poor country today as a result of the historical flow of events it has had to bear. The weight of history, loss and hard-earned pessimism was fully expressed by Babajanian’s work, which the trio played with brilliance and enthusiasm, mastering its fierceness as well as its tenderness. Their joy in being able to present our audience with a piece of music they each clearly loved was palpable. On at least two occasions Aubrun shot looks at Tsan, and then to the audience, that seemed meant to convey, “Buckle your seatbelts...” ahead of passages that just floored me with their stark beauty and candor.

Those who knew and had come to cherish this relatively obscure piece, including host Todd Mason, had let us know before the performance began that it was special to them; that we were in for something exceptional. Indeed, this Piano Trio seems to have made Babajanian’s reputation in Armenia, which during his lifetime was part of the Soviet Union, which named him a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1971.

After hearing the fan worship, it was initially surprising that the first movement presented such a bleak picture: dolorous tunes constantly interrupting themselves, the strings duetting on a melancholy theme that abruptly crashed and burned, the players’ bows metamorphosing into weapons against the strings, and then a brief intrusion of silence. The sad melodies returned via a gorgeous, stately piano solo passage that steered into more intense emoting from the strings.

At around this time, I found myself scribbling in a notebook, “A burdened soul’s brave struggle to speak its heart and tell its broken history.” At the impressive climax of the first movement, it seemed like this burdened soul was about to uncover the truth—and then with a single pizzicato strum, the movement abruptly terminated. The second movement was even better. 

We had to wait an agonizing extra moment for it. It unfolded slowly, first with a solo violin, then a pulsing, ominous piano section, then joined by the cello, fading in like an apparition. More powerfully emotional playing flowed from Aubrun and Tsan; they whipped up waves of feeling, bolstered by Deak’s stately, continuous piano, escorting the crying and whispering string voices down a steep hill, through a fierce, ever-changing storm. This sublime movement was the highlight of the night’s concert; you could feel how the Mason House audience’s collective breath was taken away by it.

Ambroise Aubrun, Zachary Deak, and Cécilia Tsan.
The Allegro vivace finale, almost light-hearted, was a jolting contrast. At times, it put me in mind of a Saturday night barn dance deep in the woods, a night of relief and community fellowship for the “burdened souls” we met in the first two movements. The voices of the three instruments melded into an ensemble, creating an orchestral feel. The sense of fate pressing down was lifted; the music occupied a larger space. But as the movement’s end approached, you could feel another change was coming, whether a darker night or a new storm, or just the gravitational pull of fate. The final moments were completely satisfying; “A socko ending” I wrote in my notebook.

Walter W. Cobbett (1847-1937).
The English first half of the program was fascinating, especially after David Brown’s pre-concert remarks explaining the origin of the Elizabethan “fantasia,” described by the English composer Thomas Morley in 1597 as “when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according to as shall seeme best in his own conceit.

Brown explained that, much later, around the turn of the last century, a wealthy amateur violinist and music patron named Walter Willson Cobbett, having heard lectures and performances of 16th and 17th century fantasias at Gresham College in London, decided the form needed to be revived. Cobbett’s inspiration came at a time when British concert works had become overly influenced by the great continental composers—Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, etc.—and their favored forms, such as sonatas and symphonies.

Cobbett decided that the fantasia, which he preferred to spell as “phantasy” or “phantasie,” could be a uniquely English form—a trend he could enforce by an act of will through establishing an annual Phantasy Competition for composers, and funding the prizes. The contest, which was first held in 1905, was only open to British subjects. Two of the pieces we heard on March 18 at Mason House were entrants in the second contest held two years later: Frank Bridges’ Phantasie in C minor H. 71 (1907) and John Ireland’s Phantasie in A Minor (1906).

Vaughan Williams, c.1921.
The other two featured British composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Dale, both received later “phantasie” commissions from Cobbett, but not for the works we heard at Mason House. Dale's brief, wistful "Prunella" (1917), for violin and piano, was written while the composer was incarcerated—along with thousands of civilian compatriots caught in Germany at the outbreak of World War 1—at the Ruhleben internment camp near Berlin.

Benjamin Dale.
To most classical audiences in the U.S., Vaughan Williams is the most familiar of the four. Like many of his works, Six Studies in English Folk Song, for cello and piano (1926) was inspired by his years collecting English folk songs and dances. Vaughan Williams’ explorations with the folk traditions of his nation were paralleled by other great composers of the early 20th century, like Bartók, Ravel, Gershwin and Stravinsky, who searched for inspiration and authenticity in the music of the villages and streets.

Frank Bridge.
Each of the work's six brief movements had song titles that suggested narratives, such as “She Borrowed Some of Her Mother’s Gold” or “The Lady and the Dragoon.” With the exception of the final piece, all of the songs had a melancholic and nostalgic feeling, as if they were stories of broken hearts and bad luck. But the Allegro vivace that concluded this suite was busy and clever, an anecdote set to music.

John Ireland.
The two Phantasies also delivered many highlights. Deak discovered a beautiful tone in a piano solo in the first section of Ireland’s brooding work. Bridge’s piece, which opened the concert, could have been illustrated by stills from the movie Mrs. Miniver. The music was bucolic and romantic, its lyricism bordering on melancholy—but keeping a stiff upper lip. It was playful, but yearning to be free. Tsan’s cello and Aubrun’s violin conveyed both the power and excitement of shifting moods in changing weather.

Throughout the evening the three players couldn’t have worked harder. The music in both halves of the show called upon them at various points to dig in and play loudly and forcefully, and then to dial it back. Their generosity and energy were awe-inspiring, and I will be forever grateful to Ambroise Aubrun, Cécilia Tsan, and Zachary Deak for introducing me to all these unfamiliar and compelling compositions.

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Todd Mason, Zachary Deak, Cécilia Tsan, David Brown.


Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, March 18, 2023. 
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Babajanian: Find a Grave; Soviet Union map: Wikipedia; Babajanian score: Stretta Music; Cobbett: Google Arts & Culture; Vaughan Williams, Ireland: Wikimedia Commons; Dale, Bridge: Lewis Foreman Collection.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

An All-Stops-Out Night at Long Beach…

The Long Beach Symphony and Camerata Singers under the baton of Eckart Preu at a dramatic
moment from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, with soloists Anna Schubert, Ashley Faatoalia, and
James Martin Schaefer, and the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach

The "Wheel of Fortune" image from
the original Codex Buranus collection of
poems and dramatic texts discovered
 in a Bavarian monastery in 1803,
 from which Carl Orff selected 24 for
 musical setting as Carmina Burana.
… though no stops in the literal sense, as the organ is one instrument not included in the otherwise copious line-up that Carl Orff (1895-1982) deploys in his 1935-36 “scenic cantata” Carmina Burana, given on the second Saturday of March by a notably expanded Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, vocal soloists Anna Schubert (soprano), Ashley Faatoalia (tenor) and James Martin Schaefer (baritone), the Long Beach Camerata Singers and South Bay Children’s Choir, and the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo, all under the baton of the LBSO's Music Director, Eckart Preu.

Given that Carmina Burana's length of just on an hour is slightly awkward for concert programming—like Beethoven’s Ninth and some Bruckner and Mahler symphonies, it’s too short to stand by itself but too long for any other extended work to be included—Maestro Preu’s selection for the first half was Ángeles de Llama y Hielo (Angels of Fire and Ice), written in 1993-94 by the Mexican composer Ana Lara (b. 1959).

Ana Lara.
In some ways it was a shrewd choice: at 20 minutes just the right length and certainly unhackneyed, needing virtually the same large orchestra as Carmina Burana and, with its essentially static, contemplative nature in appropriate contrast to the latter’s propulsiveness. Compositora Lara is adept at conjuring orchestral sonorities, and the textures that characterize the four movements—Ángel de Tinieblas (Darkness), Ángel del Alba (Dawn), Ángel de Luz (Light), and Ángel del Ocaso (Sunset)—are certainly atmospheric.

Preu’s handling of the score had as much focus and sense of direction as the piece allows, and the LBSO responded with its customary skill, care and commitment—the antiphonal placing of two percussion groups, and the harps far left and far right at the front of the platform, were particularly pleasing effects. But to my ears, each movement had a too-similar effect and with diminishing returns: impressively portentous scene-settings but which led nowhere, and with insufficient differentiation to match the given subjects. 

Orchestral layout for Ana Lara's Ángeles de Llama y Hielo.

After the interval, the ultra-familiar galvanic roar of O Fortuna was welcome. However, there are some thickets to be navigated before one can get to grips with Carmina Burana as a piece of music per se. First there’s the ubiquity of O Fortuna itself and the near-impossibility of dissociating it from the innumerable ad and movie sound-tracks that it’s adorned, as well as its begetting of endless near-clones whenever a film composer, hard-up for originality, wants to underscore scenes of epic barbarism on the screen.

Orff at around the time he composed Carmina Burana.
Then there’s the knee-jerk reaction of critics for whom Carmina Burana's sheer popularity renders it unworthy of serious discussion, swiping at its perceived banality rather than engaging with what it does do—and very well. Finally there’s the elephant in the room to be tiptoed around or confronted directly as you choose: Orff’s accommodation with Nazism that, it seems, he used to further his career and which, for some, renders him beyond the pale as an artistic figure and this particular piece unlistenable.

What Orff does supremely well—while sidestepping historically informed “authenticity”—is to clothe the 13th century poems that are his subject in exactly appropriate music: as vivid, direct, and down-to-earth as the verses themselves, pungently scored for forces in which multiple percussion and the two pianos (the Silver-Garburg Duo bitingly prominent when required) often take the rhythmic lead. This fitness for purpose of the music was admirably clarified by the texts being projected as supertitles, a far more satisfactory solution than extensive printing in the program book would have been.

Dr. James Bass.
Carmina Burana
is subtitled Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magical images), but shorn as it almost always is of those images and any dramatic staging, in practical terms it is supremely a choral work. The Camerata Singers’ Artistic Director, James Bass, emphasized this in an illuminating pre-concert conversation with Maestro Preu.

The choir appears in all but five of the 25 numbers that are spread across the work’s three large sections, singing in a wide and demanding variety of styles: rapid and strongly accented polysyllabic chanting, recitatives that turn on a dime between pp and ff, unaccompanied unison quasi-plainchant, as well as many full-throated outbursts. Throughout, the Long Beach Camerata Singers covered themselves with glory, as did the South Bay Children’s Choir when their big solo moment arrived at the start of Part III, Cour d’amours (Court of love).

James Martin Schaefer.
Pre-eminent though the chorus may be, it is also crucial that the three soloists embrace fully the exceptional expressive demands that Orff makes of them. The baritone has the largest role—the only soloist to appear in all three parts—and James Martin Schaefer immediately impressed from his first appearance in No.4 Omnia Sol temperat: as the work progressed he was variously tremulous, fervent, and reflective as his words required, but always richly toned and sensitive in expression.

Part I, Primo vere (In spring), is the longest of the three, and as always, I felt some longueurs: surely there are a couple too many alternations between cheery German choruses and chunky orchestral dances, for all the energy and rhythmic élan that the Camerata Singers and LBSO brought to them? For me, the advent of the brief Part II, In Taberna (In the tavern), brings the work onto much more satisfying expressive ground, where it remains until the end.

Ashley Faatoalia.
After Mr. Schaefer delivered Part II’s opening No.11 Estuans interius with clear rapid-fire intonation, Ashley Faatoalia gave just the right blend of intensity and exaggerated pathos to his single aria, No.12 Olim lacus colueram: you could almost hear the roasted swan’s flesh crisp and sizzle, accompanied by mock laments from Orff’s acutely scored instrumental solos, and its three verses punctuated by fast, bitten-out chants from the men of the chorus.

Anna Schubert.
Part III introduces the soprano solo, whose role, first in alternation with the baritone and then alone, enshrines the sexual directness and fervor that still might cause a bit of blinking in more prudish quarters. Anna Schubert’s long-delayed contribution was thrilling, culminating at No.23 Dulcissime in an absolutely secure leap of a 9th to the moment when Orff’s evocation of ecstasy, con abandono, leaves words entirely behind in a long melismatic “Ah….” that progressively slows as it rises to “totam tibi subdo me!” (no translation necessary here).

Eckart Preu.
Anna Schubert absolutely nailed this solo, as did the full orchestral and choral forces, estatico as the score directs, in the scalp-tingling culminatory “Blanziflor et Helena” chorus, securely held together as everywhere by Maestro Preu, despite having to deal with uncomfortably long sight-lines to the back of the Terrace Theater’s very deep stage (could not high demountable risers have been provided for the chorus?). His task in this work reminded me of the quip made by some regarding the even larger forces needed for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, that it requires not so much a conductor as a traffic cop!

Heretically, I’ve always wished that Carmina Burana ended at this chorus, with of course a suitable harmonic resolution added, rather than leading directly as it does into the reprise of O Fortuna—but which of course makes appropriate dramatic sense, closing the circle of the inexorable wheel of fate, and on this occasion bringing the near-capacity audience in the Terrace Theater instantly to its feet, cheering. Truly this evening was a memorable success for the LBSO.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, March 11, 2023, 8 p.m.
Images: The performers, Eckart Preu: Caught in the Moment Photography; Final applause: Todd Mason; "Wheel of Fortune" and Ana Lara: Wikimedia Commons; Orff: Carl Orff Foundation website; James Bass: Long Beach Camerata Singers website; Anna Schubert: J.D. Renes/artist website; James Martin Schaefer: artist website; Ashley Faatoaila: artist website.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Cello/Piano Masterworks by Schumann and Grieg

Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, Southern California.


Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha, First Fridays at First!~fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

In relation to his celebrated outputs for orchestra and for solo piano, chamber music is not a genre within Edward Grieg’s oeuvre that initially comes to mind as comparable to them, but—as is also the case with Rachmaninoff—amongst that relatively small corpus of chamber works there is a single cello sonata that stands as one of his most imposing and deeply-felt utterances.

Grieg in 1888.
There are (at least) two surviving autograph manuscripts of Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 36, one dated 1882 and the other 1883—a period of both professional frustration and domestic discord for the composer. Both manuscripts clearly head the sonata as “for piano and cello”—an indication that Grieg considered the piano as at least the cello’s equal in conveying the work’s expressive content, and firmly banishing any notion of a mere “accompaniment.”

This was certainly clear right from the start of the performance that formed the main item in Classical Crossroads' March “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, when pianist Svetlana Smolina’s urgent articulation of the opening ostinato figure hit the ground running at a true Allegro agitato, close to Grieg’s metronome of half note=100, and thereby launched cellist Evgeny Tonkha’s comparably tensile statement of the movement’s main theme.

Title-page of the 1883 score, with
dedication at the top to John Grieg,
the composer's amateur cellist brother.
Some commentators on this sonata have dwelt on its melodiousness and charm, but anyone anticipating a soothing evocation of Norwegian landscape would have had expectations rudely shattered by this performance, particularly the first movement, whose elaborately tempestuous piano part notably recalls that of the Piano Concerto in the same key (but here suggesting that the sonata might be reworked successfully as a cello concerto, which in fact has happened—some of it can be heard on YouTube).

The duo encompassed fully the extremes of expressive scope that Grieg builds into his score, ranging from the molto più tranquillo of the second subject to the con fuoco and strepitoso-driven development, with its almost hysterical stretto climax that spills over via a short cello cadenza into the recapitulation. And Ms. Smolina and Mr. Tonkha still had enough left in the tank to follow Grieg’s demands to accelerate on into the coda at his marked presto, and then prestissimo.

The relatively brief central slow movement begins in deceptive quietude, Ms. Smolina here following in her statement of the main theme the spirit of Grieg’s Andante molto tranquillo heading rather than his very slow metronome mark. But the skies soon darken, and the players as before gave full expression to the tense storm at the movement’s core before its return to tranquillity.

Even more successful, perhaps, was the finale, which in lesser hands can sometimes seem (all 828 measures of it!) tediously discursive and over-elaborate, as if Grieg were trying too hard to prove that he was a master of form as well as of melody and mood. In this performance, however, their infectiously skipping treatment of the opening was never far from the movement’s many twists and turns, capping a volatile and vivid performance of the whole sonata.

1847 lithograph of Robert and Clara Schumann.
The heart-on-sleeve passion and turmoil of the Grieg was preceded by music of a very different sensibility and emotional tenor. In the first of Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Op. 73 (the whole work reputedly written in just two days in February 1849), Mr. Tonkha and Ms. Smolina hit what seemed exactly the right note of intimate confiding to match its Zart und mit Ausdruck (Tender and with expression) marking, the mood of which is sustained into the Lebhaft, leicht (Lively, light) second movement despite its faster pace.

Only in the third piece, Rasch und mit Feuer (Quick and with fire), did I feel, as in other performances, that the original designation of the work for clarinet rather than cello works better in certain passages, where fluid upward runs in the former instrument become seemingly a little effortful on the latter.

This, however, did not detract from the duo's idiomatic and penetrating account of the whole work, a miniature masterpiece whose indivisibility—despite its somewhat offhand designation as merely "pieces"—was emphasized by the performers' careful observation of the attacca markings that link them. The entire splendid recital can now be enjoyed online at this Vimeo link.

It was good to be able, after the recital, to introduce Ms. Smolina and Mr. Tonkha to Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Clara and Robert Schumann. Resident for many years in Orange County, she is keen to become more familiar with the music of her illustrious forebears through local performances such as this, as well as talking with musicians about how their interest in the Schumanns developed and what they see as their legacy. 

Svetlana Smolina and Evgeny Tonkha with Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield.

“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, March 3, 2023.
Images: Grieg and the Schumanns: Wikimedia Commons; Grieg score: IMSLP; the performers: author.

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