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.

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

No comments: