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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