Thursday, October 26, 2023

Bohemian Dances and Drama Open Long Beach Season

Soloist Andreas Boyde performing Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor with Eckart Preu and the
Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.


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

A couple of short orchestral dances, followed by a big and unfamiliar concerto, and then three symphonic poems one after the other to wrap up the evening? Such a program might at first glance seem heterogeneous, even a bit incoherent, but as assembled by Long Beach Symphony Music Director Eckart Preu, the roster for the opening concert in the orchestra’s 2023-2024 Classical Season proved to be as engaging, insightfully constructed, and thrilling in execution as any patron could wish for.

The evening’s central European folk/ethnic credentials were established right from the start with two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. His fascination with Magyar gypsy-style music stemmed from being recital accompanist to the itinerant Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi (1828-1898) when Brahms was still in his teens (an artistic partnership—otherwise harmonious until they parted ways in 1853—marred by a vehement falling-out over interpretative details of that “gypsy music,” as Maestro Preu noted in his introductory remarks).

Brahms and Reményi (left).
In the years that followed, Brahms’ continuing interest in the idiom led him to variously collect/rework/ compose many “Hungarian” melodies, until in 1869 the first set of Ungarische Tänze, WoO1 appeared in print, in two “books” of five dances each.

Originally published as piano duets, the Hungarian Dances reappeared over the years in many arrangements from solo piano to full orchestra. Brahms himself orchestrated the first, third, and 10th of them, and it was with No. 1 in G minor that the concert began.

Preu and the orchestra immediately demonstrated complete rapport with the idiom, their no-holds-barred Allegro molto urgently driving the smoothly urbane contours of the opening melody, and then generous ritardandi in the central section giving the LBSO flutes plenty of space for their trilling bird-calls.

This was followed, not by either of the others Brahms orchestrated himself, but by No. 4 in F minor, in the 1933 orchestration by Paul Juon (himself a composer worth bending an ear to). This choice was clearly for maximum contrast, with its Poco sostenuto opening hugely soulful and expansive, and then a whirlwind swirl for the central Vivace.

Bedřich Smetana, c.1878.
In Bedřich Smetana’s Czech homeland, complete stand-alone concerts of his symphonic cycle Má vlast, JB. 1/112 (My Fatherland) continue to be relatively frequent. Elsewhere such performances are quite rare, and in my admittedly limited experience, hearing all six symphonic poems consecutively live has not added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts—though the reiteration of the four-note motif representing the castle in the first of them (Vyšehrad) and then in the second (Vltava) and sixth (Blaník) adds a certain unifying factor.

To fill the second half of the concert, Maestro Preu made his own selection of three of the Má vlast symphonic poems. Though in some doubt initially as to the order in which to play them, his final chosen sequence of No. 2, Vltava (The Moldau) written in 1874, No. 3, Šárka, and No. 4, Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields)—both completed in 1875—could not have been improved upon.

“The Moldau” is by far the most familiar, due to the memorable and heart-lifting tune with which Smetana characterizes the river of the title. The LBSO players caught perfectly this vivid aural picture, from the 16th-note sextuplets on a single flute over violin and harp pizzicati that mark its source, through some 40 measures of those undulations gradually spreading through the orchestra, until the 1st violins sang out the melody.

Smetana himself described the Vltava’s course “through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. [It] swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Elbe”—and all were vividly characterized by the LBSO under Maestro Preu.

The Moldau flowing through Prague.
As succinct as Vltava is discursive, Šárka tells how the female warrior of the title springs a deadly trap on some male counterparts. The performance gave this all the stormy eloquence required, with a particularly baleful bassoon solo triggering the final slaughter. Only (for me) did a sense of diminishing returns begin to set in at From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, with its many pages of celebratory fanfaring and cymbal-crashing—though here executed with such panache and enthusiasm that the final climax elicited a comparably loud outburst of cheers and applause from the LBSO patrons.

Antonin Dvořák.
But the jewel at the heart of this immensely enjoyable and exuberant concert was the concerto. If ever there were a Society for the Restitution of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto, then undoubtedly its President and CEO would be Eckart Preu and the German pianist Andreas Boyde, whose pre-concert conversation about the work was particularly illuminating.

Look anywhere in commentaries about the Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33, B. 63 and the best you’ll likely find is damning with faint praise for this Cinderella work in Dvořák’s ouput, with particular obloquy for the piano writing. While Boyde acknowledged that the concerto is extremely difficult to play, his growing enthusiasm for its unique value and qualities that he had come to feel through performing it a number of times over the years was manifest in every moment of this account.

That he had worthy collaborators in Preu and the orchestra was demonstrated from the outset. The first statement of the main theme is confined to winds and lower strings, mezzo piano, but it is still marked Allegro agitato, and keen observation of passing accents ensured that all the drama inherent in the music was expressed to the full.

Andreas Boyde.
After 65 measures the piano’s initial entry is unobtrusive, and as the long first movement progressed the much-criticized character of the piece—as a concerto in which the piano part is essentially a hugely elaborate contributor to the overall orchestral texture rather than a virtuosic contrast with it—rapidly became apparent.

But in the face of this performance any such observation became an “any fool can see that” irrelevancy. Nowhere throughout the 20+ minutes of the first movement was the attention tempted to wonder, so integrated and eloquent was its unfolding, with orchestral writing revealed as expressive and characterful as anything in the five symphonies Dvořák had written up to that point in his career (but using forces smaller than any of them), and constantly elaborated, illuminated, and underpinned by the work of Boyde’s ultra-busy fingers.

Eckart Preu.
The Andante sostenuto opens with a horn solo that sounds as if it’s going to turn into the “Going Home” theme from the “New World” Symphony—but it doesn't, and played here with great sensitivity and attention to nuance above fabulously soft strings, the effect was balm-like after the lengthy and strenuous elaborations of the first movement.

The Allegro con fuoco finale is almost as long and elaborate, with pitiless demands on the soloist, but more than ever Boyde seemed to relish and revel in every challenge, maintaining momentum and crispness of attack, with the skipping main theme given an impish insouciance every time it came around.

If ever a neglected work deserved, and received, the best possible advocacy, this was it. Never boring for a moment throughout the 44 minutes of this performance, Dvořák’s Piano Concerto got as big an ovation as if it had been Tchaikovsky's First (see the final concert in this series next June...)


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, October 21, 2023, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Brahms and Rémenyi: Brahms-Institut an der Musikhochschule Lübeck; Smetana, The Moldau, Dvořák: Wikimedia Commons.

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Monday, October 23, 2023

Boulanger, Sibelius, Prokofiev at Segerstrom Concert Hall

Violinist Esther Yoo, visiting guest conductor Christian Kluxen, and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra performing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The October concert in the Pacific Symphony’s 2023-2024 season at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall presented what was by any reckoning a deeply serious and often thrilling program, hewing closely to the time-honored overture/concerto/symphony model but departing from it decisively in its opening item. Indeed Lili Boulanger’s tone-poem D’un soir triste (literally “of a sad evening”) was the very opposite of anything preludial in her output, being her final completed work before her tragically early death aged only 24, in March 1918 from Crohn’s Disease or intestinal tuberculosis (there seems to be no consensus which).

Christian Kluxen.
In an informal and engagingly discursive chat to the audience following an account of the work that gave full measure to its implacable darkness and drama, the Danish visiting guest conductor Christian Kluxen opined that D’un soir triste enshrined Boulanger’s response to World War I, much of whose cumulative horror had been ground out in the mud-churned land of her native France.

This may well have been true, given that from 1915 she had been devoted to wartime charity work as fully as her fragile health allowed, but for this listener at least the piece—her largest purely orchestral composition even at just 12 minutes’ duration—carries an additional charge of personal anguish and defiance. While the inexorable cortège-like onward movement she establishes from the outset with the marking Lent (♩ = 58) could well embody public mourning, the ensuing long viola solo, seized upon here with devoted commitment by section Principal Meredith Crawford, introduces a telling personal element.

The last extant photograph of Lili Boulanger, 1917.
Throughout the first half of the work, the way in which Boulanger sets slowly climbing melodic lines against close-packed dissonant harmonies that persistently pull down into the orchestra’s lower depths felt, in this masterfully paced and skillfully controlled performance, like a depth-charge of suppressed anger. 

This eventually exploded with audience-galvanizing force in a mighty tam-tam smash (the instrument placed exact center at the back of the platform) that sliced off the orchestra’s progress to that point, followed by measured fortissimo bass drum and timpani beats as portentous as those that open the finale of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

From this central catastrophe D’un soir triste slowly rebuilds itself, at first with seeming calm, colored by long and eloquent violin and cello solos played with equal fervor respectively by Concertmaster Dennis Kim and section Principal Warren Hagerty. But the grinding weight and anger reassert themselves: after a wave of pulverizing fff climaxes, the final masterpiece of this, surely, great composer fades to its conclusion, expressif resigné, with a final ppp tam-tam stroke dissolving into silence.

Prokofiev at his dacha in 1944.
As well as the comments already noted above, Christian Kluxen also linked the theme of reaction to wartime with the one work in the program’s second half, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100. This was written, so the composer averred in interviews, in just one month in summer 1944, followed by a further month taken up by its orchestration.

As with Dmitri Shostakovich, it is impossible now to definitively disentangle Prokofiev’s actual views about his work from what he felt he was expected by Soviet bureaucracy to say. But, given that his country was grappling with a life-or-death struggle just as engulfing as that during which Lili Boulanger spent her last years, there’s no real reason to suspect any ironic subtext to his statement that “in the Fifth Symphony I wanted to praise the free and happy man, his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul. I cannot say I chose this theme; it was born in me and had to express itself. It is a symphony about the human spirit.

Apart from the perennially popular “Classical” Symphony No. 1, the Fifth has certainly been Prokofiev’s most frequently performed symphony, though its presence in concert halls seems to have diminished a little in recent years. It is also the most outward-facing and audience-friendly of his large-scale orchestral works, leading off with an indelibly memorable and aspiring theme on the potent duo of flute and bassoon. This passes rapidly from one instrumental grouping to another, with restless modulations adding to the sense of mounting excitement. As with the Boulanger, Kluxen’s ability to establish just the right initial motion immediately paid off, the almost casual start here letting the music flow forward with just the right sense of inevitability, aided by eloquently phrased playing.

Perhaps having a seat a good deal closer than usual in the Segerstrom Concert Hall aided comprehension, but Kluxen's and the Pacific Symphony’s performance imparted, as well as great impact, also clarity, not only to Prokofiev’s teeming orchestral textures but also to the formal layout of the first movement, enhancing one’s appreciation of the originality and skill with which he here used the conventions of sonata design.

Kluxen took the Allegro marcato second movement—effectively the symphony’s scherzo—very fast, thus avoiding any sense of a sinister subtext to its exuberant strut, while in the ensuing Adagio the Pacific Symphony players caught to perfection the movement’s unlikely but effective blend of plodding, ominous processional, tremulous high woodwind keening, and swooning romanticism in the upper strings.

Finally, how refreshing it was to hear the concluding Allegro giocoso taken at its face value, with all the balls kept spinning by Kluxen’s podium energy and the orchestra’s whiplash response, and no attempt to disinter any of the “…but is it really a celebration..?” aspect that some interpreters find in the comparably triumphant finale of Shostakovich’s own Fifth Symphony.

Caricature of Jean Sibelius in 1904.
The centerpiece in this marvelously rewarding concert was a performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47, completed in 1904 but extensively revised the following year. No wartime or explicit nationalistic associations here, except insofar as Sibelius’s entire career came to enshrine Finnish identity. Rather, the concerto was a painstaking and hard-won attempt to create a work worthy of the instrument with which the composer identified more than any other.

After the mortal storm of Lili Boulanger’s tone-poem, the concerto’s serene opening—solo violin line dolce ed espressivo above muted pianissimo oscillations in the 1st and 2nd violins—seemed even more balm-like than usual, but the Korean/American violinist Esther Yoo immediately showed her attentiveness to the score’s detail, beginning mezzoforte as marked rather than the whisper of tone some soloists affect, and with meticulously observed phrasing and seeming effortless command of the part’s complexities and challenges thereafter in the long first movement.

The slow movement and finale were equally keenly characterized: as before, it was perhaps sitting closer to the platform than usual which gave the impression that, firstly, the Adagio di molto moved ahead rather more purposefully than that marking would seem to indicate, and secondly, that the concluding Allegro, ma non tanto had much more energico than non tanto about it, a thrillingly relentless reading that made the musicologist Sir Donald Tovey’s dubbing of this movement as “a polonaise for polar bears” even less appropriate than usual.

All told, the performance was a triumph of cohesion, clarity and vigor for Esther Yoo and the devoted support from Christian Kluxen and the Pacific Symphony at the top of their stellar form. Her mastery in the finale of the solo part’s daunting complexities had a swift, airborne grace that was simply exhilarating, and made one wonder whether she had ever contemplated, or tackled, the even more daunting challenges of the concerto’s original version.

Ms. Yoo rewarded the ovation—which included notably whole-hearted approbation from the orchestra—not with any violinistic pyrotechnics but instead a touchingly simple arrangement of a Korean folksong entitled Milyang Arirang. But perhaps the most abiding impression from the whole concert was how, in contrast to Boulanger’s and Prokofiev’s virtuoso handling of very large orchestral forces, Sibelius had an almost uncanny ability to draw startlingly fresh and original colors and timbres from the most modest and standard line-up: a true, and cherishable, original.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday October 19, 2003, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; Lili Boulanger: Musée de la Musique, Philharmonie de Paris; Prokofiev: Colorisation by Andrew Newman; Sibelius: Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, October 15, 2023

Alcina: Six Characters in Search of Gender Identity


Vanessa  Goikoetxea
Sunny Martini 

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


The Baroque operas of Georg Frideric Handel number in the dozens, but they are rarely performed in a major opera house relative to the so-called “meat” of the repertoire. This does not detract from the fact that the Baroque master could write tunes with the best of them. He did not hold back on gorgeous arias and ensembles in his 1735 work Alcina, a veritable feast of continuous melody, each more beautiful than the last.

Seattle Opera made a bold choice in programming Alcina for the first time, as part of their main stage season. With only six characters and no chorus, full attention ultimately is focused on these solo performers in this complicated story based on the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. A parallel can be found in the six characters of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (which can be performed in a chamber-like version without chorus), but with a twist: in Alcina, the singers all sing above the staff, without an underlying bass voice to anchor the harmonies.

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Randall Scotting
Sunny Martini

This can be a bit challenging for the listener who is accustomed to hearing that lower voice. Fortunately, the exceptional Seattle cast, all of them returning artists, were up to the huge vocal challenges required of them, including impressive ornamentation in the Da Capo arias. The orchestra consisting of Seattle Symphony musicians accompanied them splendidly.

Heading the cast in the title role as the sorceress one loves to hate but ultimately sympathizes with was Spanish soprano Vanessa Goikoetxea, who reminded the audience that she can be at home, not only in Handel but in everything from Mozart to Bizet. The role of Alcina was made famous by iconic coloratura Joan Sutherland, but Goikoetxea created her own unique version. Her versatile voice soared, making the most of the long phrases while milking the exploitative drama of the role, and her bearing was appropriately queenly as the sorceress who wields and then loses her powers, turning people into wild beasts and more. Her vocal artistry was put to the full test in Act Two, where, required to sing almost continually, she demonstrated her ability to spin a phrase and project a crystal-clear, powerful high “C” with a beefy, full tone that filled the entire house, seemingly without any strain whatsoever.

The countertenor voice can take a bit of getting used to, but as Alcina’s paramour Ruggiero, Randall Scotting made an excellent impression. He negotiated the difficult fioratura in Act One with assurance and remained consistent throughout the evening. His dramatic conflicts were relatable and convincing.

Randall Scotting
Philip Newton
Known for performing everything from bel canto (Rossini’s Cinderella) to high Romantic drama (Carmen) with aplomb, mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson maintained her usual high quality performance standards in the gender-switching role of Bradamante. Aside from the fiendish vocal pyrotechnics, which she brought off effortlessly, Jackson managed to be riveting dramatically, playing both ends against the middle when he/she was thrust into an impossible situation: first hiding her gender, then placating other key characters and convincing them of her true identity. As always, she was enthralling to watch.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Sunny Martini

As Alcina’s sister Morgana, Sharleen Joynt, who was memorable in SO’s Orpheus and Euridice, played the ingenue to the hilt. But it was her dazzling vocal performance that most captivated the audience. Her fresh voice came across beautifully overall, but her fearless leaps into the stratosphere of high “D’s” and “E-flats” brought down the house. Never wavering, she tackled her showpieces with utmost confidence. She is a young singer to watch.

Charleen Joynt,
Philip Newton

Tenor John Marzano had the difficult task of holding his own among his formidable colleagues in a role that was dramatically challenging to play, saving up his forza for the fiendish second act aria, which was a nonstop fireworks display. He handled the rapid fioratura adeptly and showed great potential for more extensive roles.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, in the relatively small role of Bradamante’s protector Melissa, carried herself with calm nobility and anchored the drama with her presence. Unlike the others, she had only one aria, but she made the most of it, performing with ease and poise.

John Marzano
Sunny Martini

Nina Yoshida Nelsen
Sunny Martini

Making her SO conducting debut, Christine Brandes (who formerly has sung the role of Morgana) performed a major miracle in achieving the sound of so-called “authentic” performance practice from modern instruments. She maintained perfect balance in the small but well-chosen ensemble, always attuned to the vocal needs of the singers, never covering them, and allowing them to navigate their multifaceted challenges successfully. The violin and cello solos merit special mention for fine, sensitive playing.

Christine Brandes
Sunny Martini

The rest of the creative team all made their SO debuts, and the production had its hitches. While Ian William Galloway’s video designs were pleasingly evocative of the forests and palm trees of a paradise island, the constant presence of Matthew Richardson’s stage lights was overwhelming and distracting, especially when the lights were raised and lowered during the action, interfering with the sight lines onstage. Hannah Clark’s shifting chair sets were minimal but seemed to represent the fluctuating relationships between the characters.

The production overall also was problematic in that director Tim Albery had several singers disrobing, at times during some hugely difficult passagework. While this is understandable in the case of Bradamante revealing his/her true gender, it generally was disruptive, and also produced a comical reaction from the audience when it was not necessarily called for. To their credit, the singers handled what was required of them with impressive equanimity. However, Albery did excel when it came to action, moving the characters about the stage with both dramatic energy and deep emotional gestures.

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Randall Scotting
Philip Newton

Some very unique and key props included a gleaming, beautifully detailed sword, Alcina’s intricately carved snake cane/staff and matching gold snake-carved compact and lipstick, which added to her powerful sorceress effects, and an enchanted ring. 

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, John Marzano
Philip Newton

It was unclear whether an imposing, multipurpose bear rug was one of Alcina’s unfortunate beings turned into a wild beast or symbolic of her more animalistic instincts. In either case, it grabbed the attention.

Vanessa Goikoetxea
Sunny Martini

On the whole, Alcina made a positive impression. It’s worth going to see for the glorious music and courageous, proficient singing. Handel lives. 

Photo credits: Sunny Martini, Philip Newton


 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]