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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