Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Pacific SO Premieres MacMillan’s “Fiat Lux”—At Last

The Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Pacific Chorale under Carl St. Clair perform the world premiere of Sir James MacMillan's Fiat Lux.


“Cathedrals of Sound,” Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

One long-term artistic casualty of the Covid pandemic has been the long-delayed unveiling of Fiat Lux, the latest in a substantial sequence of religious-themed choral/orchestral works by the Scottish composer, Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959). Originally commissioned some five years ago by the Pacific Symphony through a generous grant from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson (right) and rapidly completed in 2020, the piece finally reached the platform of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Thursday, June 15, two years later than originally planned.

The concert for which Fiat Lux was the raison d’être and to which it formed the climax was dubbed “Cathedrals of Sound” and, to commence, Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St. Clair came on to talk briefly about it. For him, the program content clearly represented a deeply personal and meaningful enterprise, and after delineating the themes of spirituality, timelessness, and transcendence, Maestro St. Clair ceded the rostrum to the Pacific Chorale’s artistic director Robert Istad (left) for Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus (1638).

Though for this the Chorale’s full strength of over 100 singers was reduced to just 28—the brilliantly lit group centered within the expanse of the Segerstrom’s performing area, surrounded by tints and shadows in various dark reds (below)—the expressive power of this setting of Psalm 51 was immediate and penetrating, with the alternation between verses sung by the main chorus and then by the small, distant second group of just four voices, invisible beyond stage left, adding a haunting and widely-spaced lateral dimension.

Gregorio Allegri.
Particularly impressive was the way in which these masterly performers managed to add elements of variety and fervor to their delivery of the words without ever compromising the music’s essential timelessness, so that the performance maintained a perfect balance between human supplication and incantatory meditation. When the final chorus—the only place where the two groups sing together—at last receded into silence, the effect was like the lifting of a trance, a memorable concert opening indeed.

With the lighting effects returned to bright normality, the full forces of the Pacific Symphony entered for the first time, to play Richard Strauss’s early tone-poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) Op. 24, TrV158 (1888-89). Again introduced by Carl St. Clair, emphasizing the work’s appropriateness within the context of the evening, his interpretation was trenchant but broad, clocking in at some 25 minutes when most performances seem to time out at around the 22-23 minute mark.

Richard Strauss in 1888.
Not for the first time I felt that, for all the 25-year-old composer’s ambition in tackling the great absolutes of life, death, and what may lie beyond, and his sheer technical genius in bodying forth his vision in such an impactful way, in terms both of melodic memorability and orchestral color, he does miscalculate a little in the way he foreshadows his soaring six-note “transfiguration theme” a little too early and a little too often.

But what watching and hearing this great orchestra did demonstrate was how restrained Strauss’s timbral palate is in this of all his tone-poems: a rolling surge of blended orchestral richness but with no pealing bells, organ underpinning or clashing cymbals to crown the final climax, nor indeed the use of percussion, apart from timpani, anywhere in the piece except for the tam-tam strokes that mark the anonymous protagonist’s moment of death—the Pacific Symphony’s magnificent instrument positively bowel-shaking in this performance.

As the Strauss scholar Charles Youmans notes, “Strauss settled into a comfortable atheism while still in his teens,” and it thus seems permissible to acknowledge and welcome the way in which the inclusion of Tod und Verklärung between the specifically Christian responses by Allegri and MacMillan to those themes of spirituality and transcendence showed them to be just as viable and meaningful in a secular as in a religious context.

Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra at the climax of Richard Strauss's
Tod und Verklärung.

And so, after the interval, to Sir James MacMillan’s Fiat Lux. In a brief conversation with the composer at the reception after its triumphant premiere (no hyperbole there), he agreed that his conceptual response to the challenge of setting the words of the Californian poet Dana Gioia had been influenced both by the acoustic quality of this hall, with its magnificent four-manual William Gillespie Concert Organ, and by the participation of these particular performers.

In sheer aural splendor and teeming variety of pace, texture, and sonority, the result certainly vindicated the concept and commitment of all concerned. Fiat Lux is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, mixed chorus, large orchestra including much percussion, and organ. Playing for little over half an hour, its single span is divided into five linked sections, the first setting the opening lines of Genesis and the other four sections the verses by Mr. Gioia.

l-r: Dana Gioia, Sir James MacMillan, and Carl St. Clair at
the reception after the performance.
After a preludial bass drum roll and deep string sonorities out of which somewhat Rheingold-ish horns emerged, soloists Elissa Johnston and Christopher Maltman gave vibrant life to their “Double chant: call and response,” alternating the familiar “In the Beginning” lines in Latin and English before joining in a protracted and premonitory “And God said…”

Elissa Johnston.
Anyone familiar with the choral/orchestral repertoire will be more than aware of the triumphant fortissimoLicht!” with which Haydn celebrates that key moment in The Creation, and it bore witness to the independence and strength of MacMillan’s vision that his treatment of it in the work’s second section—complex and melismatic choral textures against visceral percussion, organ and string writing—stood on its own terms with nothing to fear by comparison.

Indeed here, and elsewhere in the work, the juxtaposition of sharply different musics in terms variously of meter, pace, harmony and texture—sequential, overlapping, or simultaneous, as if to see what emanates or explodes out of the clash—was a prominent feature, and which seems, on my admittedly limited knowledge of his other works, to be a notable characteristic of his soundworld.

Christopher Maltman.
The central section, “Litany of Light,” is by some margin the longest. In the greatest contrast to the previous choral/orchestral tumult, it opens with the soprano, unaccompanied, singing four lines that begin “Praise be to the light,” to which the chorus and orchestra respond through a wide-ranging treatment of five succeeding stanzas. This is succeeded by exuberant orchestral music, with an impressive set of tuned gongs extensively deployed amongst the percussion.

Section IV “Closing Verses,” sung by the two soloists to delicate, flickering orchestral accompaniment, is effectively preludial to the final “Hymn: Cathedral of Light,” the six stanzas of which are sung alternately by choir and soloists. The chorale setting for the former felt somewhat effortful and combative—appropriate perhaps when you are singing of “Our cross and spire built in a land of quake and fire”—contrasting with the soloists’ airborne and, indeed, light-filled music. The full forces came together in a final Amen which however, far from settling on any resolution either prayerful or joyous, instead swelled in a massively defiant and dissonant crescendo that reminded me, if anything, of the pulverizing final pages of Havergal Brian’s Fourth Symphony, “Das Siegeslied.”

Overall though, a more apt comparison amongst British choral works in terms of duration, forces involved, and expressive tenor would be with Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem (memorably performed here last year by the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony) and perhaps even more so VW’s short oratorio Sancta Civitas. With the latter’s text drawn from the Book of Revelation, and the two works thus dealing respectively with Biblical first and last things, Fiat Lux and Sancta Civitas would seem a most appropriate concert pairing.

l-r: Sir James MacMillan, Dana Gioia, Elissa Johnston, Carl St. Clair, Robert Istad, and
Christopher Maltman welcome the Segerstrom ovation.

Meanwhile, clearly unfazed by MacMillan’s uncompromisingly modern idiom and the absence of accessible melodic “hooks,” the Segerstrom Concert Hall audience greeted the performance with vociferous enthusiasm, cheering the conductor, choral director, soloists, poet, and in particular the composer back to the platform again and again. Fiat Lux was heard twice more on succeeding nights, followed by a special encore performance on June 20 at Christ Cathedral, Garden Grove, the 2019 consecration of which was another inspiration behind the work. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday June 15, 2003, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance and reception: Doug Gifford; Allegri, Richard Strauss: Wikimedia Commons;  Christopher Maltman: Chris Singer, courtesy artist website; Elissa Johnston: Los Angeles Master Chorale.

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Friday, June 9, 2023

An Explosion of Americana at Long Beach's Season Finale


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

The final concert of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s 2022-2023 season was billed as a “cornucopia of distinctly American 20th and 21st century music,” and it certainly fulfilled that promise, often with implicit or explicit links to the world of movie music. This ebullient, exhilarating program from five composers, three of them African-American, had been cleverly compiled by Music Director Eckart Preu and was played by a considerably expanded orchestra with spectacular verve, accuracy, and commitment.

Brian Nabors.
First up was the newest work—and by the youngest composer on the roster—the Birmingham, AL, native Brian Raphael Nabors (b.1991). His Pulse (2019) “began as a long contemplation of daily life as we know it, combined with thoughts of life in nature[...] Pulse is an episodic rhapsody that explores several phases and colorful variants of rhythm all held together by an unwavering pulse.

Expressions of nature and humanity’s place within it aren’t exactly thin on the ground amongst composers influenced by non-musical stimuli, from Beethoven to Paul McCartney, but Nabors successfully cuts his own path through this well-worn territory. The title “pulse” is a 4/4 rhythm, constant through the first two-thirds of the piece but saved from monotony both by skillful metrical subdivisions, and through being allotted to and decorated by every component of the large orchestra, from skirling high woodwind, through full brass and strings, to multiple tuned and untuned percussion.

At around the mid-point the pervasive sense of marching determination devolves to a kind of solo “percussion cadenza” on bass drum, tom-toms, bongos and timpani, latterly joined by other instrumental effects including piano strings sounded in various non-conventional ways; this in turn leads via a series of violent climaxes to a final section marked Contemplative, signaled also by a decisive rhythmic change to 3/4.

Central to this is a slow upward-stepping progression in the lower strings that shares something of the sense of awe and impending revelation of John Williams’ “Approaching Devil’s Tower” cue from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of several passing movie theme hints in Pulse; others were noted by Maestro Preu in his customarily illuminating preliminary remarks. All-in-all, Nabors’ piece was an impressive opener to the concert, and left one keen to hear more of his music.

Duke Ellington in 1954.
That said, the major revelation of the evening, for this listener at least, was Duke Ellington’s Harlem (1951), though it should immediately be averred that much of the work’s impact must stem from the wildly inventive orchestration—for forces even larger than those Nabors was to deploy two generations later in Pulse—originally by Ellington’s long-term friend and collaborator, Luther Henderson (1919-2003) and later revised by the conductor Maurice Peress (1930-2017).

With its opening siren-like trumpet wails locating it firmly, to these ears, within the wild urban cityscape first realized in music (after seeing the New York skyline) by Edgard Varèse a generation earlier in his Amériques, Ellington's Harlem lopes, lingers, and bounds through its event-packed quarter-hour, with swing and rhumba rhythms propelling it into giant tutti pile-ups slightly reminiscent of Honegger’s locomotive tour-de-force Pacific 231 and even Ives’ clashing marching bands, and in its latter stages taking sudden expressive swerves into nocturnal by-ways, at once lurid and brooding.

Maurice Peress.
Luther Henderson.
The work’s sense of barely reined-in force and even danger was perfectly projected in the LBSO’s smashing performance, highlights of which included some eloquent clarinet solos tracing those nocturnal by-ways, ear-piercing riffs from the quartet of trumpets and no fewer than five saxophones, and an ad-libbed battle between the cohort of “conventional’ percussion on the left, timpani rear center, and jazz drum kit to the right, immediately before Harlem's thunderous final climax.

Nan Schwartz.
After this onslaught, to immediately precede the interval, came five minutes of lyrical balm in the form of Romanza by the Hollywood composer and arranger, Grammy-winner and Emmy-nominee Nan Schwartz (b.1959), who was interviewed on stage by Maestro Preu before the concert.

Composed in 2016 specifically to complete the first recording of her original orchestral works, Romanza is written for small forces and opens with drifting muted strings and a nostalgic horn solo, its motif soon to be taken over, inverted, and elaborated by a solo violin, sensitively played here by the familiar figure of LBSO Concertmaster Roger Wilkie.

The sudden prominence and even ubiquity of Florence Price (1887-1953) in current concert programming is one of its most striking phenomena—apparently a movement of musical reparation for one who seems to be universally regarded as the first important Black American woman composer. The original full score manuscript of her Piano Concerto in D minor (1934) was only rediscovered some five years ago and yet it has already had over 40 performances worldwide, with more scheduled; the latest was here, with Michelle Cann as soloist.

Florence Price.
Price’s concerto is titled as “in One Movement” but in fact divides clearly into the standard three. The opening Andantino—based around a heroic and somewhat Dvořákian opening motif and a later, more lyrical melody that sounds like it has strayed in from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade—comes to a full close emphatic enough to betray the near-capacity Terrace Theater audience into thinking the whole thing was over.

When their applause died away the brief central Adagio cantabile, its opening span mostly comprising a duet between piano and oboe, made a tender effect, while the honky-tonk rhythms and percussion-topped climax of the even shorter African-American “juba” dance finale— irresistibly infectious in the hands of Ms. Cann, Maestro Preu and the LBSO at quite slender, Classical strength (apart from that percussion)—brought the audience to its feet. 
Michelle Cann.

Whether Florence Price’s music overall really has the intrinsic quality and staying-power to give it a long-term concert-hall future remains to be seen, but in the meantime this concerto is clearly a crowd-pleaser.

George Gershwin’s An American in Paris made a fascinating compare-and-contrast with Duke Ellington’s Harlem. The Washington, D.C-born jazz master's mid-century vision of the NYC district where he had made his home and musical fons et origo from the 1920s onwards was, in this performance at least, turbulent, overwhelming, and even disturbing, its dark and almost clotted richness a continent away from the blithe, light-filled, and sometimes sentimental visitor’s impression of the French capital composed a quarter-century earlier by the young, equally gifted Brooklynite, second-generation son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants.

George Gershwin.
Almost needless to say by now, the LBSO’s performance of Gershwin’s orchestral masterpiece that concluded this many-sided American celebration was as brilliant and committed, under the probing and cajoling baton of the ever-energetic Preu, as the remainder of the very demanding program had been. 

Theatrical poster for the movie inspired
by Gershwin's work, released 23 years
later in 1951, the same year that
Duke Ellington wrote Harlem.
An American in Paris might equally be dubbed a “concerto for orchestra” as symphonic poem, so skillfully do the still-fledgling orchestral skills of Gershwin conjure a multitude of colors and sonorities from his (again) very large forces—and the Long Beach Symphony individually and collectively brought them all vividly to life.

An American in Paris has had a somewhat complex compositional history and afterlife. Walter Damrosch, conductor of the first performance, cut 120 measures before the 1928 premiere, and this somewhat truncated version of Gershwin’s score was itself subject to a major simplifying revision after the composer’s death that became the standard version played. In 2000 the first attempt at a restoration from the original manuscript was undertaken, and then as recently as 2015 an urtext edition was published.

What made the present performance particularly interesting was that Preu used this new edition, which restores Gershwin’s original saxophone parts and pays careful attention to his stipulations as to the exact pitches of the Parisian taxi-horns that he wanted to color the sonorities of his Paris. Even more intriguingly, a second urtext edition was issued alongside the first, this time restoring also the cut 120 measures. In his pre-performance chat, Preu mooted that this version with all of Gershwin’s score might be included in a future concert—fingers crossed!


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, June 3, 2023, 8 p.m. 
Images: Brian Nabors: Composer website; Duke Ellington, Luther Henderson, An American in Paris poster: Wikimedia Commons; Maurice Peress: New Music USA; Florence Price: Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Michelle Cann: Artist website; George Gershwin: Variety.

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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

A Summer Serenade to End Mason House's 2023 Season

The final Mason House concert of 2023 in full swing.


Martin Chalifour and Friends play Beethoven, Mason, and Mozart at Mason House

This was a straightforward embrace of what is best about music—the way it can ornament your life with ineffable beauty; relax, comfort, guide, and amuse you; arouse empathy, tension and resolution. Music can also challenge or dare you, but this was less in evidence on Saturday, May 20. The sounds were comforting, welcoming and a little nostalgic, making regular attendees already feel like six months is too long to wait for these enchanting chamber concerts to return.

Some of us depend on the Mason House concert series to hear chamber music in an ideal setting—a 21st century version of the kinds of spaces for which it was designed and named—rooms, not concert halls. 

Whereas attending a great concert in a spacious, resonant concert hall is somewhat like a cathedral service—the audience, mostly of strangers, for a promised transformational experience, and the performers and their music at the center of your consciousness—to get to this concert I parked my car two doors down, walked past a buffet table with Caesar salad, chili and Fritos, waved at some friends and hugged others, then found a chair to hear music for flute, violin, viola and cello played about 15 feet away from me by musicians at least two of whom I had met and chatted with at prior concerts.

Though Mason House does share a few features with a concert hall—its high ceiling and its having been remodeled to optimize acoustical performance—mostly it feels like what it is, a comfortable house in an old West LA neighborhood. The music that fits such a place has a different relationship to our lives: less mystique than that concert hall, but more personal connection: moments in this room are to be savored.

Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano expounding the evening's program.

Pre-concert speaker, Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano, set the mood through her clever, nuanced framing of the two 18th century pieces we were to hear, Beethoven's String Trio No. 2 in D major, Op. 8, (1797), and the Flute Quartet No.1 in D Major, K. 285 (1777) of Mozart. She brought them to life in an unexpected way: each the result of a transaction in which considerations were exchanged for the privilege of possessing—to the extent that anyone can—beautiful works of musical art by geniuses. Art and commerce: a perfect subliminal theme for a concert in the heart of movieland.

Notably, Beethoven called his trio a "serenade," bringing to mind, as Dr. Brown-Montesano pointed out, a young man singing outside the window of his love. But more broadly, a serenade gives honor or tribute, such as to welcome a VIP to your prestigious estate, and she helped those of us with vivid imaginations conjure a vision of people arrayed in frilly shirts, breeches and wigs; thus contextualizing the music as created to suit swanky occasions. It wasn’t too far from what we at Mason House were experiencing, albeit more casually attired. Here, the honorees were our musicians: violinist (and LA Philharmonic Concertmaster) Martin Chalifour, flutist Rachel Mellis, violist Victor de Almeida, and cellist Cécilia Tsan.

For the Mozart Flute Quartet, Dr. Brown-Montesano revealed the bargaining involved. The 21-year-old composer, frustrated at having to live with his mother and wanting more freedom, was looking for increased paying work. A wealthy surgeon employed by the colossal (but dying) Dutch East India Company commissioned the quartet we heard, and several others. He loved and played the flute, but his zeal was not infectious—it is an instrument, Mozart wrote, that he “cannot bear.” Perhaps for that reason, he didn’t finish the commission, but this quartet betrays no disdain for the instrument. Considered one of Mozart’s early masterpieces, it demonstrated Mellis’ extraordinary facility with the flute, and her beautiful tone.

Dr. Brown-Montesano also referenced Beethoven’s favoring of passion over precision, improvisation over strict adherence to a score, and willingness to risk chaos to capture genuine inspiration. She showed how his piece, like many of the Classical era, featured doorways into improvisation, such as the theme-and-variation form, as opportunities for the musician to play from the heart, show off technique, and create a personal bond with the audience. Nowadays works like these are played as the score indicates, with little room for improvisation like jazz or bluegrass—but it adds to the experience of this music to know that improvisation was part of its DNA. Both pieces evoke the feeling of musicians making discoveries, trying things out, expressing musical ideas as they unfold beneath their fingers.

l-r: Martin Chalifour, Victor de Almeida, Cécilia Tsan, Rachel Mellis.

In the Beethoven, Martin Chalifour led the way from the first movement's start, a brief "hello" from the trio that invoked the arrival of pure music, with no ideas to convey except one: to leave the world behind for a few moments of sheer beauty. Once we’d passed into that zone, each of the succession of movements evoked a different mood; regret and isolation in Chalifour’s violin solos of the Adagio; energetic dancing in the Menuetto; tears and laments in the fourth movement, broken up by brief jolts of energy, as if shaking the music out of its sadness. Through most of this piece, Chalifour’s violin drew the attention, but with intuitive, rock-solid support from de Almeida and Tsan throughout. In that shifty fourth movement, for example, they had to toggle between two tempi and two modes of accompaniment, and did so faultlessly.

The Beethoven was followed by host Todd Mason’s own Trio for Flute, Violin and Cello—quite a contrast, not just to the sounds of Beethoven, but also to the context in which it and the Mozart were written. For the first two movements, this was not a piece with a lead instrument calling the tune for the ensemble, but rather a "meeting at the crossroads" for three players contributing equally, as in the first movement's constantly unfolding, seemingly ever-rising melody. Tsan breezed through several fast and challenging octatonic scales, reminiscent of Bartók.

The first movement was also about contrasting textures, with the string players sometimes scratching out their notes ferociously, leaving just enough sonic space for Mellis’ flute to play in unison with them, but with an incongruously angelic tone, like cool clean water flowing over burning sand. 

Mason’s second movement took a step back, slowed down, and kept the players’ raw power in check as it explored what seemed to be dark, sacred spaces. Tsan’s cello opened this movement, establishing an eerie, Arctic mood for what felt like the emotional heart of the piece. Once again, the writing was for a balanced ensemble, no leaders or followers, as if the composer was trying to say as much as he could with the fewest instruments. 

The players with Todd Mason and Dr. Brown-Montesano.
Perfectly propelled by Tsan's cello, the Presto finale took a different direction, calling back to the Classical style, or perhaps more a nod to Stravinsky's neo-classicism. Rachel Mellis played the lead role in this brief but thrilling movement, showing amazing control in delivering and phrasing Mason’s successive long melodic lines.

For a composer averse to the flute, Mozart has given generations of flutists some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful sounds to play, notably in this Flute Quartet No.1. Chalifour and Tsan knew just how to frame the space Mellis needed to display her cheerful virtuosity. She continued to hold our attention in the somber, gorgeous Adagio, against a hushed pizzicato accompaniment. In the third movement, the spotlight was shared more with her companions in a racing Rondeau that seemed devised to make everyone discard their shoes to run on the lawn in celebration of summer’s arrival.

Here in LA, our stormy winter has been followed by a chilly, cloud-laden spring, but Mozart charmed away the gloom, inviting one and all to a perfect summer weekend. The arrival of summer means that Mason House goes dark as a chamber music venue until 2024. I’ve been lucky enough to attend all concerts this season, each with a different character and takeaway. Given the fair amount of gravitas running through most of the previous ones, this felt like the refreshing chaser.

However... please note that there is an EXTRA EVENT upcoming at Mason House: a deep-dive illustrated talk by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano on arguably the world's most famous symphony, Beethoven's Fifth—full details here.


Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, May 20, 2023.
Images: Performance photos: Todd Mason.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Morlot, Seattle Symphony Captivate in All-French Program

Ludovic Morlot

REVIEW: Seattle Symphony

Benaroya Hall, Seattle


On May 19, 1886, Camille Saint-Saëns conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 3, Op. 78, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in England, nicknamed the “Organ Symphony” for the instrument’s prominent role. Saint-Saëns was one of many composers, Berlioz and Wagner among them, who were in thrall of Franz Liszt, to whom the Organ Symphony was dedicated.

Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot continued his tradition of innovative programming with works both enchanting and inventive. Included with the Organ Symphony were Claude Debussy’s early cantata, La Damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel); Correspondances for Soprano & Orchestra by Henri Dutilleux; and La Barque solaire performed by its composer, French organist Thierry Escaich. 

La Damoiselle élue, for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, 2-part female chorus, and orchestra, dedicated to Paul Dukas, premiered in Paris in 1893. Based on a lyric poem after Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Damoiselle was Debussy’s entry in the Prix de Rome and his first orchestral work to be performed, which he described as “a little oratorio in a little pagan mystical note.” Morlot’s interpretation was true to both characteristics which, along with the sensuality and ethereal atmosphere that he elicited from the orchestra, embodied the delicacy, grace and audacity that some critics had welcomed from the composer. 

The voices of soprano Jane Archibald (the Damoiselle) and Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen (the Récitante) worked beautifully with the transcendence of Debussy’s lush score. Morlot created a shimmering, heavenly sound, especially from the strings.

While music director of this orchestra, Morlot championed Dutilleux’s music and recorded numerous of the composer’s works on the Grammy-winning, in-house record label Seattle Symphony Media. The combined effort resulted in several recordings released between 2014 and 2016.

Correspondances (2003), a 6-part song cycle for soprano and orchestra with texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, Prithwindra Mukherjee, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent van Gogh, stands out for its Debussy-like sensuousness: more dissonant, highly challenging technically for the orchestra, but as Impressionistically atmospheric as La Damoiselle élue, with elements of Berg and Schoenberg. It is one of Dutilleux’s most thought-provoking works, and a star vehicle for the soprano.

Jane Archibald
Gong I, the brief 1st movement (Rilke), establishes an atmosphere of mystery and introspection, allowing expressiveness for the soprano and rich timbres for the orchestra. Movement 2, the highly rhythmic Hindu-inspired Danse cosmique, begins stealthily and further along evokes some of the declamatory solos from serialist works such as Berg’s Lulu, with subtle references to Messiaen. Archibald negotiated the leaps and flourishes adeptly, her top notes sparkling against the large orchestration.

After an enigmatic Interlude featuring an intriguing solo accordion juxtaposed with a virtuoso tuba solo, the next movement, À Slava et Galina, follows with Solzhenitsyn’s touching letter of gratitude to Rostropovich and his wife and muse, Galina Vishnevskaya. A Bergian narrative, beautifully rendered by Archibald, unspools against a mysterious Scriabin-like violin solo and virtuoso passages for the winds, ending with Archibald’s beautifully hushed tones. A piccolo solo introduces movement 4, Gong II, in which the soprano weaves a sinewy melody against a ghostly orchestral background.

The fifth movement, de Vincent à Théo, provided a golden opportunity for Archibald to show her star power. She outdid herself, building upon increasingly difficult passages to interpret the lively, rhythmic energy of this movement, until the final, spectacular high note.

Despite the work’s elusiveness, mystery and profound sadness, Dutilleux himself expressed joy at having the work premiered at a late juncture in his life, age 88. With his deep connection to the composer, Morlot was in his element conducting this highly complex score, bringing out the orchestral voices prominently, yet supporting the soprano’s most demanding moments.

Benaroya Hall’s 4,489-pipe Watjen Concert Organ is considered one of the finest in America. Escaich, recognized as one of the most important French composers of his generation and a uniquely talented organist, was the perfect artist to bring out the magnificence of this superb instrument.

Thierry Escaich
Escaich’s works are characterized by their rich harmonies and driving rhythmic energy. The symphonic poem La Barque solaire shows the influence of Ravel, Messiaen, and, appropriately for the program, Dutilleux. The work is a wild ride, a virtuoso tour-de-force for the organist, with its hugely dissonant, rapid-fire passagework and ever-accelerating velocity, as if on its way to a far-off galaxy. Escaich showed himself master of what he has written, with forceful, impressive technical command. Morlot ably kept up with the pace, controlling the challenging technical demands of the score with impressive skill.

Saint-Saëns guaranteed his immortality by writing his unique Organ Symphony, which Morlot recorded with the orchestra in 2014 during a live performance along with three works of Maurice Ravel. Morlot’s captivating live rendering of the work guaranteed a dazzling cap to this all-French evening.

Morlot started the 1st movement Adagio with gentle introspection, combining an atmosphere of mystery with expansiveness. The tempo of the Allegro moderato was quick and urgent, with Morlot demanding ever increasing passion from the players.

The Poco adagio 2nd movement was exquisitely delicate, the strings and winds perfectly balanced. The transparency Morlot evoked from the strings created a magical atmosphere. The following Presto was spirited, aggressive yet subtle, always moving forward, paving the way for the Maestoso 4th movement. 

Escaich, who has performed the Organ Symphony internationally, showed he could adeptly transition from the extreme modernity of his own work to the high romanticism of Saint-Saëns: deeply reflective in the somber Poco adagio 2nd movement and truly majestic in his final, last movement hurrah. Morlot carried out the tradition with a majestic final finish that pleased the audience—and not unlikely, the composer himself.

This was a hugely demanding program, and Morlot and his musicians together produced an awe-inspiring accomplishment. Kudos to the maestro for familiarizing the audience with some unique, rarely heard works juxtaposed with a time-proven favorite. 

Photo credit: Nick Klein


 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Lawrence Brownlee “Rises” to the Occasion


CD REVIEW: "Rising" -- Lawrence Brownlee

Warner Classics/Erato Label

Mention the name of tenor Lawrence Brownlee and auditory pleasures of the highest order begin to percolate in one’s musical mind. Known for both his gravity-defying vocal pyrotechnics and sheer melodic beauty, Brownlee evokes images of an operatic trapeze artist, performing without a net because he simply doesn’t need one. In a bit of dream casting, of late Brownlee also has appeared on the Met Opera stage as Tamino in a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute

In an interview in April 2022, Brownlee enticed us with plans for a project in connection with a tour and coordinating album in the spring of 2023 focusing on several gifted young African-American composers and the Harlem Renaissance. The venture now has come to fruition, following a 9-city tour with pianist and collaborator Kevin J. Miller, in Brownlee’s new album, Rising, releases June 2, 2023, on Warner Classics and all major streaming platforms, in celebration of Black Music Month. 

Rising is a segue to Brownlee’s last acclaimed album on Warner Classics/Erato, Amici e Rivali, consisting of Rossini duets and trios performed with longtime colleague Michael Spyres. For his current CD, the singer commissioned leading African-American composers to set poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to song—among them Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer, Jasmine Barnes, Joel Thompson, and Shawn E. Okpebholo—with poems by Alice Dunbar Nelson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, among others. To this Brownlee adds works from Margaret Bonds, Robert Owen, and Jeremiah Evans. All in all, a veritable cornucopia of African American talent from multiple generations. One could hardly imagine a more comprehensive collection.

The songs, beautifully melodic, inspiring, are poetry in vocal motion, so exquisitely sung that one just luxuriates in the beauty of the sound that Brownlee seems to produce so effortlessly. Brownlee and Miller are perfectly matched and superbly in sync with each other throughout the multifaceted repertoire in this impressive compilation. Miller seems to intuit Brownlee’s every subtle movement of phrase, resulting in a transcendent rendering of each song.

“Beauty That is Never Old,” the first of three Damien Sneed numbers, highlights the gorgeousness of Brownlee’s instrument, with a simple rising and falling of melody that leads to the rhythmically lively and upbeat “The Gift to Sing,” praising the ability of song to make any dark sky bright, and the lyrical “Rising or falling” of “To America.”

Miller and Brownlee make the most of the Brahmsian elements in Jeremiah Evans’s “April Song,” which evokes the Romantic composer’s “Rain” art songs and violin sonata. They capture as well the Rachmaninov-like atmosphere of “Lost Illusions” and shades of Gershwin in “Southern Mansion.” 

Brownlee brings deep introspection to the rhythmic diversity that characterizes Brandon Spencer’s alluring “Dance of Love” and the evocative “Songs of the Seasons” Cycle—Poème d’ Automne and “Winter Moon” (“How thin and sharp and ghostly white Is the slim curved crook of the moon tonight!”) of Margaret Bonds. Spirited femininity and contemplation are appealingly represented in “Peace and Invocation” by Jasmine Barnes.

The tenor ends on a glorious, delicate and flawless high note in Joel Thompson’s “Supplication.” His “God in His great compassion Gave me the gift of song” along with the jazzy, skillfully rendered coloratura stratospheric notes of “Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—My People,” express one of the key themes at the core of this album: the songs of Brownlee’s heritage.

Love is another important leitmotif embodied in the album, and the “Desire Song Cycle” by Robert Owens captures its many facets. The series of songs also displays Brownlee’s uncanny ability to float high notes one after another without strain.

Robert Owens also creates a magical, French Impressionist atmosphere with his “Silver Rain Cycle,” invoking images of hope, new life and new beginnings: “youth and life and and laughter that is good.” A fittingly optimistic ending to a gorgeously wrought endeavor by two dazzling artists at the forefront of their musical world.

Through the many challenges in recent years, both for African-Americans and for the broad spectrum of humanity, Brownlee says, he has seen “moments of strength, inspiration, hope, and great beauty. It is those themes of uplift, elevation, and rebirth that we have tried to focus on with this new project,” with a goal of creating “something that speaks not just to our struggles, but to our triumphs.”

With this new album, Brownlee makes a bold statement with important themes, highlighting Black voices that need to be heard. It is not to be missed.


Photo credit: Zakiyah Caldwell Burroughs 
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]