|Members of Long Beach Ballet dance Leonard Bernstein's Fancy Free with the Long Beach Symphony under Music Director Eckart Preu.
Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach
DAVID J BROWN
|Igor Stravinsky around 1920.
I suspect that limited rehearsal time had rather short-changed Pulcinella compared to subsequent items, but after a rather generalized (at least by Preu/LBSO’s exalted standards) account of the Overture, the performance steadily gained in clarity and character as it proceeded. Unlike some, their account of the Serenata (mvt II, Larghetto) did not milk its C minor pathos-potential, but kept it moving so that Principal oboe Rong-Huey Liu’s solo had just the right degree of featherlight wistfulness.
The shifts and turns of the tripartite Scherzino (III) were nicely nuanced, though here as elsewhere the important parts for the string soloists (section Associate Principal Samuel Miller (bass), Principals Cécilia Tsan (cello), Andrew Duckles (viola), and Chloé Tardif (violin II), led by Roger Wilkie, Concertmaster) tended to be obscured in the Terrace Theater’s not ideal acoustic: it was good that they received generous call-outs from Maestro Preu at the end of the work.
|Design by Picasso for
Pulcinella's costume in the
original 1920 production.
As with the Serenata, Maestro Preu purposefully avoided the lachrymose trudge some impart to the Menuetto first half (a) of movement VIII, so that it filled its proper role as a medium-paced introduction to the movement’s second half, (b) Finale, which in just two minutes manages to be both an affectionate call-back to reflective moments earlier in the work and a sprightly dash to the finish. Though the performance might have gained in clarity with a desk or two fewer strings to match Stravinsky’s small contingent of winds and brass, the LBSO was by now thoroughly warmed up—as was the audience to judge by its enthusiastic response.
Among other things, this concert enshrined the LBSO’s contribution to the statewide “California Festival: A Celebration of New Music” which ran from November 3-19 and showcased some 150 performances of works written in the past five years. Maestro Preu acknowledged that to make a choice from the plethora available had been extremely challenging, but few surely would argue that his eventual selection was not inspired.
|Wildfire smog engulfing San Francisco, 9 September, 2020.
To try to express the climate disaster that this ominous pollution signaled, she selected from her wide knowledge of native Indian music rāgas to represent the five elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth—which she then provided to Ms. Esmail. Through Covid-necessitated long-range collaboration, the work evolved into a concerto whose five movements represent those elements in that logical sequence, with the Indian themes incorporated within Western harmonies and orchestration, and a coda where the soloist sings an ancient Indian text as a plea for the elemental disharmony of climate change to be corrected and healed.
So, what of the work itself, and the performance? It’s perilous to make any kind of assessment of a new piece on the strength of one hearing, but as the Hindustani Violin Concerto progressed its virtues of concision and clarity of form, timbral inventiveness, and melodic immediacy became increasingly apparent through what seemed a confident and committed account by the LBSO—here, one guessed, was where a lot of the rehearsal time had gone.
With Ms. Ramnath seated, as is the custom for Indian violinists due to the different playing requirements of their native music, her violin maintained an almost continual sliding microtonal “commentary” (usually in the instrument’s lower register) on the orchestra’s progress through the varied landscapes of the five movements, none of them longer than five minutes.
Bold brass chords heralded the brief Earth (V), which had a block-like, monumental quality more reminiscent of Alan Hovhaness. After a big orchestral climax, the movement devolved onto a deep chord in basses and bells, which led into the valedictory coda where Ms. Ramnath’s vocalizing left no doubt as to its haunting, lamenting message.
Judging by the audience response, the Hindustani Violin Concerto clearly connects, but this listener was left wondering whether it carries the sheer heft or sense of disjunction—in the way it melds (or doesn't) two diametrically different musical traditions—to match its apocalyptic subject-matter. That the Terrace Theater acoustic succeeded in intermittently burying the solo line may have had something to do with it: let’s hope that the work's true measure emerges through many more performances and commercial recording.
To follow Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece and Esmail and Ramnath’s interweaving of Eastern and Western musical traditions, the second half opened with another conjunction of two more, and very different, idioms. It’s fair to say that the opera Treemonisha was the rock upon which the always precarious career of the Black composer and pianist Scott Joplin (1868-1917) foundered and sank.
|Cover of the 1911 vocal score.
Within a few measures of the opening, its startling juxtaposition of cheery honky-tonk tunes and chromatic progressions worthy of Wagner was immediately apparent. The LBSO played it confidently but a little carefully—perhaps again the result of limited rehearsal time. Greater familiarity might have enabled more elasticity and swing, but even after later listening to several YouTube performances a sense of an awkward clash between rather than a fruitful juxtaposition of the idioms remains. Maybe you have to experience the whole opera live to really “get” it.
|Leonard Bernstein in 1943.
|Long Beach Ballet Artistic Director David Wilcox joins the stage in the (literal) walk-on part
of the bartender.
One’s only regret at the end of this concert, so packed with interest and far-flung musical value, was that the sensationally fine performance of Fancy Free didn’t get quite the audience response that the orchestra and conductor deserved, due to the understandable focus of the applause on the six members of Long Beach Ballet. The orchestra pianist Alan Steinberger was just one among many who deserved a solo call-out, given how well his delivery of that manically energetic part drove the music onwards.
Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, November 18, 2023, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Stravinsky / San Francisco red fog / Jerome Robbins: Wikimedia Commons; Reena Esmail: composer website; Scott Joplin: Michael Ochs Archive; Treemonisha cover: Library of Congress; Leonard Bernstein: Carnegie Hall; Fancy Free original production: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
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