Saturday, November 25, 2023

The LBSO Celebrates Innovation, Dance, and Diversity

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

Igor Stravinsky around 1920.
The program devised by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Eckart Preu for the second concert in its 2023-24 Classical Season provided just about as rich and complex a web of musical and extra-musical cross-correspondences and references as could be imagined for a single evening. First was Stravinsky, with the Russian émigré's reach back to the late Italian Baroque for source material by Pergolesi to fuel his commedia dell'arte ballet Pulcinella K. 034—not the complete stage work but the eight-movement suite Stravinsky extracted from it two years after its 1920 Paris premiere.

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.
After a fleetly scurrying Tarantella (IV), the Toccata (V) was distinguished by a particularly virile contribution from Principal trumpet Miles McAllister, while all of the small wind body—pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, and horns—relished their collective and individual prominence in the Gavotta con due variazioni (VI). Principal trombone Alexander Isles’ glissando "raspberries" were notably fruity at the start of the Vivo (VII), with a vividly characterized bass solo later on from Mr. Miller.

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.
This was the Hindustani Violin Concerto, the fruit of a collaboration between the American/Indian composer Reena Esmail (b. 1983) and the violinist Kala Ramnath. Indeed, though the former is the work’s nominal author, it was Ms. Ramnath's shocked reaction to the red fog which blanketed San Francisco in September 2020—caused by catastrophic wildfires—that triggered the work.

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.

Reena Esmail.
(I) felt premonitory, largely static, its sound-world lit by flickering, oscillating percussion. Air (II) was brighter in texture and more melodically plainspoken, while Fire (III) flickered appropriately in a kind of moto perpetuo. Water (IV) struck a more somber tone and in places grew vividly pictorial, with bold wide-open-spaces horn writing reminiscent of such works as Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic.”

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.

Scott Joplin.
Celebrated as the “King of Ragtime” he, however, aspired to master the larger forms of Western music, and among other works wrote a symphony, a piano concerto, a ballet, and two operas. The second of these was Treemonisha, completed by 1911. Joplin sank his money into publishing its vocal score, but was unable to mount a performance other than a single run-through with himself accompanying on the piano. After he died he was virtually forgotten, and in the 1960s all his extant manuscripts, including the full score of Treemonisha, were tragically destroyed—"collateral damage” arising from legal disputations over his estate.

Cover of the 1911 vocal score.
However, the inclusion of some of his published piano rags in the 1973 hit movie The Sting renewed interest in Scott Joplin’s music, and since then new orchestral scores of Treemonisha have been prepared and the opera staged and recorded. Adding to the exceptionally rich mixture of this concert, Eckart Preu programmed its overture to begin the second half.

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.

Jerome Robbins.
Leonard Bernstein in 1943.
There was no difficulty in “getting” the final item. A full generation on from Stravinsky's neoclassicism firmly turning its back on the still recent horrors of World War 1, the ballet Fancy Free planted itself squarely within the USA’s involvement in World War 2. Fancy Free was the first of several collaborations between Leonard Bernstein as composer and the choreographer Jerome Robbins—both born in 1918 and thus only 24 when they got together—and following its hit premiere in 1944 at New York’s American Ballet Theatre, the careers of both were launched.

The special appeal of Long Beach's performance of Fancy Free was the recreation of Robbins’ original choreography (right) by Long Beach Ballet, but though this was danced with consummate grace and litheness, for me the real interest lay in what was happening behind the action. Fancy Free tends to be regarded as a stepping-stone to later, greater things from the Bernstein/Robbins collaboration, but the LBSO and Preu’s smokingly impactful performance simply hit the ball out of the park and into the forefront of one’s awareness of Leonard Bernstein’s achievement.

Long Beach Ballet Artistic Director David Wilcox joins the stage in the (literal) walk-on part
of the bartender.
For me no previous account has so well revealed, alongside all the score’s whiplash energy, driving rhythms, and earworm melodies, how much sheer melancholy it contains, and how vividly this adumbrates the scenario’s implicit pivot between transience and threat—three US sailors on 24-hour leave in wartime, defiantly alive and pleasure-seeking today, but tomorrow..?

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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