Saturday, January 27, 2024

Seattle Symphony Celebrates Asia with Quynh Nguyen


INTERVIEW: Quỳnh Nguyễn

Benaroya Hall, Seattle


Sunday, Jan. 28 marks the return of Seattle Symphony’s “Celebrate Asia” concert for its 16th season. The event highlights the city’s all-important dynamic Asian community and features the American premiere of veteran composer Paul Chihara’s Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra “Concerto Fantasy,” performed by award-winning Vietnamese-American pianist Quynh Nguyen. Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Sunny Xia will helm the performance. 

In the midst of a busy rehearsal schedule, Nguyen took time off to answer some questions about her life, work, and passions.

ERICA MINER: Welcome to Seattle, Quynh! 

QUYNH NGUYEN: Thank you, Erica, thank you for having me.

EM: I've been reading about you and am so impressed at what I've been seeing and listening to. I'm really excited to come to the hall and hear you perform. How's it going so far?

QN: I arrived last night and had a chance to practice on the piano. It is beautiful and I'm really looking forward to coming into the hall tomorrow and rehearsing with the orchestra. This is my first time with the Seattle Symphony, so I'm incredibly honored and humbled to have this opportunity, and really excited as well.

EM: I'm sure the orchestra is excited to have you there. I've known Paul since we were students at Tanglewood, a very long time ago.

QN: Wow, he told me about his time in Tanglewood. That's incredible.

EM: Having listened to your entire recording of Paul’s piano works on Naxos, I’m curious how that association between the two of you first started.

QN: The first piece I heard of Paul's was actually Ami, the piano duet that he wrote for his friend Pascal Rogé and his wife, Ami. I found the music amazing. Beautiful, sparkling and bright and gorgeous melodies and French influence. I’ve always loved French music. Ravel, Debussy. I also studied with Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. I found Paul's music so fresh and original and gorgeous. So Paul and I met because I fell in love with his piano music and was interested in recording his complete piano works. When we met, he showed me this melody that he had held onto for years, composed for a television series about the Vietnam War for which he was writing music. I was astonished at how gorgeous it was and how it reminded me of the countryside of Vietnam. It was full of nostalgia and beauty, with this soaring violin solo, a gorgeous melody. Paul asked me, “What do you think of it? This is what I wrote for my series about the Vietnam war.” I said, “Paul, I absolutely love this melody.” So we started the collaboration. I worked with him for three years. Not only was he collaborating with me on this concerto, but I also was learning his piano works to record for the Naxos CD featuring Paul’s complete works. I was very lucky to get his advice and interpretation and ideas and all the feedback on how to play his music. He had so much to say about his inspirations and what he was thinking and tempi. It was such a rich collaboration.

EM: He's very fortunate to be able to work with you as well. There's nothing better than being able to work with a composer on their own works

QN: I felt transformed by the experience. The closest I had been able to get to that was when I was on a Fulbright studying with Yvonne Loriod Messiaen. She showed me manuscripts and explained to me, my husband did this and he wrote this and he told me to play like this and here's the pedal, and so I was able to get pretty close to it.

EM: I can only imagine how amazing it was working with her.

QN: Yes. So when Paul and I met and I had this opportunity to work with him, I understood what a treasurable experience it was. We really deepened to the collaboration and I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity.

EM: Paul wrote the Concerto Fantasy especially for you. What inspired him, and how would you describe the piece in your own words?

QN: The concerto starts out with that gorgeous melody I described earlier. Then Paul gave me a theme that he said portrayed me as a young girl growing up in Vietnam and studying music. Then there was a passage, very virtuosic, dark and threatening, like a foreboding of something difficult that's going to come. In the second movement there's a jazzy part that's supposed to portray the entry of some American into Vietnam. It was easygoing and very, very fun. Then the love theme came, which Paul said he had written and used many times throughout his life. He first wrote it when he and his wife met, over 40 years ago. That theme was in the second movement after the jazzy part. The third movement is where the war was portrayed. It had bullets flying, fragments back and forth between the orchestra and the piano, virtuosic and very percussive parts in the piano. Also a chordal passage that is reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and the gates of Kiev. Then the love theme came back, together with the orchestra, forte, then more fighting and darkness and more of that frightening portrayal of war. In the last movement there were joyous moments and a fun passage that Paul called the Hanoi Rag. The very first theme, the Vietnam theme that was featured from the very beginning, also came back. The piece ends very quietly, but with a sense of hope and reconciliation. So it's a very personal concerto for me, obviously. I was born after the war, but my family and everyone surrounding me had been impacted by the war.

EM: I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for all of you.

QN: Yes, a very difficult time leaving the country and also coming to the United States. I was incredibly relieved and happy that Vietnam and US established diplomatic relations after a while. And extremely humbled and grateful that I was able to perform this work with the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra in commemoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam after 25 years. The commemoration was supposed to take place in 2020, but when Covid happened it was postponed until 2022. It was such an honor, a wonderful feeling after the U .S. and Vietnam had been at war for so long, such an incredibly long and costly war that cost lives from both countries and impacted so many, and now our countries are friends and have good diplomatic relations with each other. That's incredibly important and meaningful to me as a Vietnamese-American. I came from Hanoi but I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities and the life I was able to build here in the United States.

EM: I can totally relate to what you're saying. We watched the war on TV night after night. I participated in demonstrations protesting it. It was such an emotional thing for all of us. I'm delighted to know you feel good about the relationship finally being close between our two countries.

QN: It's incredible how much it impacted everyone. Paul also shared with me how during the war he was really working for peace. That's ultimately what this concerto is about. After all that, there's a sense of hope and reconciliation and peace. It's incredibly meaningful to have music bringing together different cultures and bringing a message of peace in such a time as ours, where there's still so much fighting many parts of the world. It's so painful to watch and hear and see it in the news. Every time that happens, it's just heartbreaking. That makes this particular performance that much more important because it's not only about what it was originally about, but also about everything that's going on in the world right now.

EM: I'm sure the audience is going to be very emotionally drawn in. Could you talk about some of the other pieces on your world premiere recording of Paul’s works?

QN: Well, the Ami duet, which I loved, is so fun and French influenced. I also recorded his Four Reveries after Beethoven, a world premiere. He made many edits to it while working with me. They were influenced and inspired by four of his most favorite Beethoven sonatas. I also recorded the Bagatelles, which he wrote for Jerome Lowenthal. I was fortunate to work with Paul on every single one of those pieces. Paul told me they were a collection of some of his most favorite melodies of his entire career. He grouped them together and made them 14 haikus, the short Japanese poem, in music. Some of them are absolutely beautiful. There was one dedicated to his wife, one dedicated to William Bolcolm, one of his best friends. Some were influenced by Japanese music and others influenced by American popular music. One influenced by Shostakovich, the Toccata. They were a lot of fun to play, gorgeous melodies.

EM: I know about his great love for Beethoven. It's wonderful that he can take that inspiration and create something so magnificent. Aside from Paul's complete piano works, you've performed and recorded works of many other composers: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Tailleferre, and more. Do any composer’s works particularly resonate with you? Clearly have a very close relationship with Tailleferre’s music. You've recorded a vast amount of it. Are there other composers that you especially favor?

QN: I adore French music, but I also really love the music of Bach and especially the music of Chopin. Those are some of my favorite composers. Also Beethoven, of course, and Schubert. I'm drawn to different composers at different moments and times. But those are some of my favorites.

EM: Are there any pieces you have not yet recorded that you would very much like to record?

QN: That's a great question. I would love to record the Tailleferre Concerti. That's one of my dreams. I'm working on the Bach Goldberg Variations, something I love playing. And Chopin Concerti, I have to confess…(Laughs)

EM: What pianist wouldn't kill to record those? 

QN: Yes, yes, (Laughs) you're absolutely right.

EM: I watched your video of the first concerto and absolutely loved it. So that's something that definitely could be in the cards. What do you most look forward to in this weekend's performance?

QN: Being able to touch the audience with the music, to communicate the emotions and the meaning of the music. I hope to be able to bring out that message and the beauty of the piece, and the story of, first war, but then peace and being together and a sense of resolution. I hope to be able to unite people with music and bring together different cultures and to enjoy the beauty of the piece, this beautiful concerto with the orchestra.

EM: It sounds like a wonderful mission. I'm sure everybody will be looking forward to seeing you and hearing you, and enjoy what you have to communicate to us. It's going to be an absolutely wonderful experience.

QN: Thank you for asking so in depth about the concerto. I just wanted to say again, I'm incredibly honored and excited to be performing with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It's my first time in Seattle and my first time with this symphony and I'm a bit overwhelmed at the moment, but I hope to do a good job on Sunday.

EM: I have no doubt you’re going to do a fantastic job with the orchestra. They have a wonderful camaraderie and will welcome you with open arms. You’ll feel that the moment you get onstage. And it's a wonderful hall. You're going to enjoy the whole experience.

QN: Thank you so much for your encouragement as well. It really means a lot.

EM: I'm delighted to hear it. I look forward to your performance and wish you the best success, which I know it will be. It will be very emotional and inspiring for you as well. Thank you for spending this time with me.

QN: Thank you, Erica. 
Details about Celebrate Asia can be found at: 


Photo credits: Lisa Mazzucco
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, January 26, 2024

PSOC Hosts London's RPO with Early and Late Romantics

Isata Kanneh-Mason plays Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko.


Philharmonic Society of Orange County hosts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

In the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s week-long residency in Orange County under the auspices of OC’s Philharmonic Society, the standout concert (for this listener at least) adhered firmly to the time-honored overture/concerto/symphony model. However, with a program as cunningly conceived as that which the RPO’s Music Director, Vasily Petrenko (left) presented in the second of the orchestra’s three evening concerts at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, few, surely, would grumble.

With emphasis very much on the “moderato” in its Allegro moderato initial marking, the RPO’s violas and cellos in rich and immaculate unison gave the somber B minor opening of Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26, a formidable oceanic swell, enhanced by Maestro Petrenko’s decision to use the orchestra’s full string strength in a work of early Romanticism (composed 1829-1830 and revised in 1832), that in HIP (historically informed) accounts by smaller forces can take on a “lean and hungry” aspect wholly absent here.

The inspiration for Mendelssohn’s overture—Fingal’s Cave, Isle of Staffa, c.1847
(watercolor by William Leighton Leitch).
Instead, the sense of latent power opened out into a gloriously expansive, though never inert, flowering of the D major second theme, and then focused onto the vivid storm at the end of the exposition, with crisp and bold contributions from the winds and brass (the score deploys just the Classical pairs, including horns and trumpets—none of which were doubled in this performance so far as I could see, despite the weighty complement of strings).

Mendelssohn in 1829.
This allayed initial slight misgivings about the sheer breadth of the opening, and both Petrenko’s control of pace and the RPO’s fervent response in the remainder of Fingal’s Cave made the whole performance a richly satisfying reminder of what a splendid concert opener this overture is, and a promising portent of what was to come.

Petrenko’s choice of Rachmaninoff’s huge Second Symphony to fill the second half put a squeeze on the time available for the concerto in the remainder of the first half, and the selection of the concise Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7 by Clara Schumann (1819-1996) was at once appropriate, still relatively unhackneyed, and intriguing.

Her remarkable life and career have been much tilled over and analyzed, from child pianistic prodigy managed by her father Friedrich Wieck, through the often-romanticized relationship with and then marriage to Robert Schumann, to her career as a much-traveled piano virtuoso. During his lifetime, and while maintaining that career, she also ran a household for an increasingly difficult and ailing genius of a husband and a family of, eventually, eight children. Finally, acknowledged as one of if not the greatest pianist of the age, she continued to tour and perform through most of a 40-year widowhood in which she ceaselessly promoted Robert’s compositional legacy.

Clara Schumann in 1835, aged 16.
Inevitably Clara’s own composing was much curtailed by her long performing career. The key work of her early years was this concerto, which began life in 1833 as a single movement essentially orchestrated by Schumann, at the time a pupil of Wieck and already a close friend to Clara and admirer of her musicality.

She played this Konzertstück several times in public before adding two more movements in 1834 and 1835. Accounts differ as to how far she revised, or even replaced, Schumann’s orchestration of what was now the finale, but whatever its detailed chronology, she premiered the whole concerto in November 1835, having turned 16 only a few weeks before.

After an 1837 performance Schumann wrote (making clear his critical disinterest): “There are stars of thought in the first movement—yet it did not make an impression of completeness. When you are seated at the piano, I do not know you—my judgment is a thing apart.” Shortly afterwards Clara replied: “Of the many items in the program my concerto had the best reception […] Whether or no it satisfies me is another question. Do you think that I am so weak as not to know well enough what are the faults of the concerto?” She never played it in public again after their marriage in 1840.

For the RPO’s performance Petrenko reduced the string strength by a couple of desks in each section—a slightly odd decision given that it begins with a bold orchestral Allegro maestoso and that the score actually calls for one more instrument, a trombone, than Mendelssohn’s overture. Nonetheless, the opening tutti was as bold and purposeful as one could desire, as indeed was the solo fortissimo entry, just 17 measures later, by pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, the oldest of no fewer than seven musical siblings who have become something of a sensation in the UK.

Ms. Kanneh-Mason has clearly made this concerto her own and, after the unbroken link to the central Romanze, showed herself as responsive to its exquisite intimacy—in its later stages in communion with RPO Principal cellist Richard Harwood—as she was to the first movement’s rhetoric and the long finale’s momentum and virtuosity, notwithstanding a couple of spots of slightly shaky ensemble with the orchestra. The audience loved the work, and her, and Ms. Kanneh-Mason responded with a torrential account of Chopin’s Prelude in D minor, Op. 28, No. 24 as encore.

The RPO was very much back to full strength for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, begin in October 1906 and completed in April 1907. Not only is it by far his longest orchestral work overall, but more than one-third of its one-hour+ length is taken up by the first movement, a very extended sonata structure that is yet further enlarged by a repeat of the exposition. This follows a long introduction, marked Largo, and here Petrenko nailed his interpretative colors to the mast in no uncertain fashion.

Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1906.
In his hands this introduction was extremely slow, I think well under the metronome mark of quarter-note=48, and carried so much gravitas and portent that when the Allegro moderato exposition’s first subject arrived—a lengthy and effortlessly flowing dolce melody that, for Rachmaninoff, is relatively emotionally neutral—for this listener at least there was a distinct sense of anti-climax and unfulfilled expectation that a less extravagantly ominous way with the Largo would have avoided.

After a relatively fleet account of the exposition’s opening and an electrifying treatment of the accelerating climax of the first subject group, the Moderato second subject emerged with great breadth and passionate intensity. Unlike Petrenko’s commercial recording, here he did not observe the exposition repeat, which would have pulled the movement out to around 25 minutes, but a pattern was set that would recur throughout the performance: fast music swept along for maximum excitement, while the many “big tune” passages were stretched and soared and wrung tight for every drop of expressive intensity.

Rachmaninoff working at his Ivanovka
estate, near St. Petersburg, c.1910.
Thus the galloping opening of the second movement scherzo was thrillingly athletic, with the glockenspiel speckling the texture like brushed icicles in the Segerstrom’s wonderful acoustic, but was brought virtually to a halt when the nominally Moderato second subject arrived, a to-die-for melody that any other less lyrically gifted composer would have saved for their best-ever slow movement.

The Adagio, arguably the quintessential expression of Rachmaninoff’s particular brand of high Romanticism, was overwhelmingly sumptuous, with the RPO amply fulfilling every demand made by Petrenko’s expansive gestures and pacing, while the finale—for me always the most satisfying movement of this symphony, with its combination of exultant momentum and relishable call-backs to themes from earlier in the work—built to a final climax that was certainly cathartic but was rhetorically drawn out almost to breaking point.

The whole performance was, in its way, a remarkable tour-de-force both for this wonderful British orchestra and its charismatic Music Director Vasily Petrenko, and was rewarded by an ovation that threatened never to end (it would have been even better if the audience had avoided applauding between the movements). If ultimately it left me feeling slightly as if I’d unwisely taken too large a portion of a too-rich dessert, getting to that point had certainly been memorably flavorful… 


Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, Friday, January 19, 2024, 8 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Drew A. Kelley/Philharmonic Society of Orange County; Fingal’s Cave: Royal Collection Trust; Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff portrait: Wikimedia Commons; Clara Wieck: Larousse; Rachmaninoff working: World History Encyclopaedia.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Gallic Magic at January’s “Second Sunday” Recital

Robert Thies and Kerenza Peacock at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.

Robert Thies and Kerenza Peacock, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Debussy, c.1880.
This first Classical Crossroads “Second Sunday” recital of 2024 presented an all-French violin/piano program performed by one very well-known figure at these concerts, the pianist Robert Thies, and joined by an entirely new one, the violinist Kerenza Peacock, British-born but now resident in LA. First up were three arrangements of miniatures by Claude Debussy. Introducing them, Mr. Thies averred that generally he was something of a music purist, preferring original versions, but in the present case all three were so perfectly achieved that they felt like originals.

Debussy’s Beau Soir (Beautiful evening) L. 84 is a song possibly written as early as 1878 when he was aged 16, but revised and published in 1891. In this famous transcription by Jascha Heifetz, the subtle undulations of the fairly low-lying vocal line transferred effortlessly to the violin, played by Ms. Peacock with a veiled, husky, confiding tone that immediately compelled the ear. With the young Debussy’s haunting strains still in our ears, Mr. Thies read, in translation, the song’s lyric by the poet and novelist Paul Bourget (1852-1935): 
Paul Bourget.

When in the setting sun the streams are rosy
And when a warm breeze floats over the fields of grain, 
A counsel to be happy seems to emanate from all things
And rise towards the troubled heart;

In advice to enjoy the pleasure of being alive,
While one is young and the evening is beautiful,
For we shall go as this wave goes
It to the sea—we to the grave.

Debussy, c.1908.
The other two arrangements were just as felicitous as Mr. Thies promised. In his transcription of La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair), the eighth of Debussy’s Préludes, Book I, L. 125 (1910), the American violinist Arthur Hartmann’s transference of the opening melodic line directly to the violin was magically effective, while the waltz La plus que lente (More than slow), L. 128 (1910) acquired a smoky, café intimacy and emotional resonance as played by Ms. Peacock and Mr. Thies in the arrangement by Léon Roques (1839-1923).

Arthur Hartmann.
(Both Léon Roques and Arthur Hartmann (1881-1956) were composers in their own right, the latter being the author of many beguiling violin/piano miniatures, as well as an arrangement of La fille aux cheveux de lin that is arguably as effective as Heifetz’s, if a little more texturally elaborate).

These three pieces could be regarded as a delectable trio of bonnes bouches to prepare the aural palate for the recital’s main course, which was the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13 (1875-76) by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Despite his long creative span of around six decades, Fauré’s output in most musical genres was relatively small in number, and of his only 10 large-scale multi-movement chamber works, this was the first to be written, when he was still relatively unknown as a composer.

However, its 1877 premiere was a great success, earning high praise from the influential Saint-Saëns, Fauré’s teacher and lifelong friend, for its “novel forms, exquisite modulations, uncommon tone colors, [and] use of the most unexpected rhythms,” and it was soon taken into the repertoire of leading violinists of the day. It’s still probably Fauré’s most popular chamber work.

Portrait of Gabriel Fauré as
a young man, by Paul Mathey.
As with his teacher, Fauré here and in his other major chamber works gives the lie to the sometimes-repeated canard that French composers were not comfortable with sonata form, and in her engagingly informal introduction Ms. Peacock also noted some influence of Wagner, as well as Saint-Saëns’ comment that the whole sonata was covered in a “sheen of magic.

There was plenty of magic in hers and Mr. Thies’ performance, with the majestic amplitude of the Allegro molto first movement enhanced by the welcome observation of its exposition repeat, and a somber weight and then growing passion of utterance given to the barcarolle rhythm and sighing melody that imbue the second movement Andante.

The scurrying chase of the Allegro vivo Scherzo was perfectly embodied in Mr. Thies’ nimble finger work and Ms. Peacock’s deliciously exact differentiation between the arco and pizzicato elements of Fauré’s violin writing, while they switched tracks to, and then back from, the dolce expressiveness of the (unmarked) trio section with seeming effortlessness. Fauré's Allegro quasi presto instruction for the finale is one of those markings where the music as heard seems to belie its implications. No driven urgency here, but rather a serene but purposeful forward motion.

After this splendid account of Fauré’s first chamber masterpiece, the RHUMC audience was treated to a not-entirely-unexpected dessert, a robustly affectionate account of the Berceuse (1864, rev. 1893) from his Dolly Suite, with Ms. Peacock revealing hitherto unsuspected keyboard chops by joining Mr. Thies on a second piano stool in the piece’s original piano four-hands guise. You can enjoy a reprise of the livestream video of the whole recital here


 Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, January 14, 2024, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Young Debussy: Bridgman Images; Hartmann: Prone to Violins blogspot; Mature Debussy, Bourget: Wikimedia Commons; Fauré: Art Renewal Center.

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Sunday, January 14, 2024

Dreamquests and Nightmares with the Pacific Symphony

Soloist Paul Huang and conductor Matthew Halls share a moment in their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

In some exceptionally pointful and cogent comments before his performance with the Pacific Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944-1947), the young British guest conductor Matthew Halls (right) noted the impact that the work had initially made following its London premiere in 1948: around 100 performances within a year, including US debuts under Koussevitzky in Boston and New York conducted by Stokowski.

So—it’s legitimate to ask—what happened? Why is it not now a staple of the orchestral repertoire? One answer, of course, is the way Modernism’s hegemony over much of the musical world in the post-war decades deemed tonal composers like RVW backward-looking and irrelevant, as well as the reputational slough and neglect into which his work fell after his death, as seems inevitable for most composers. And perhaps particularly in the US, given the enduring popularity here of works like The Lark Ascending, he seems to have become pigeon-holed as a minor composer of comfort: nostalgic, lyrical, and “safe.”

This performance, therefore—the Pacific Symphony’s first in its 46-year history—could not have been more welcome. Of few symphonies could it be more truthfully said that it begins with a climax and works upwards from there, and Mr. Halls and the orchestra absolutely nailed the vertiginously powerful opening with a crackling unanimity and intensity that bespoke hours of rehearsal very well spent.

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1949.
Not having listened to the symphony closely for quite a few years, and thus coming relatively fresh to it, what struck me anew was the way in which Vaughan Williams took the time-honored four-movement symphonic layout and made something entirely original and unexpected out of it, with not a wasted note or redundant gesture, fitting his expressive purpose like the proverbial glove.

Of course, Mr. Halls’ mastery of its processes and the Pacific Symphony’s fervent response had much to do with the impact. Within the first movement, both the “jazzy” Poco animato interlude and then the aspiring cantabile “second subject” melody first heard on upper strings were paced so that their emergence felt entirely organic. And later, despite the movement’s many fortissimo eruptions, conductor and orchestra kept enough in the tank for the final precipice-toppling E major onslaught (the PacSO’s bass drum player giving it his considerable all here!) to truly climax the movement, and make its collapse onto the alien B-flat minor terrain of the second movement seem as inevitable as it was sinister.

Initially I felt the tempo for this a shade fast but rapidly recanted. The movement is, after all, marked Moderato rather than anything slower, and Mr. Halls’ control of pace gave the three-note “rat-tat-tat” rhythm initially heard quietly on strings and woodwind—and soon to migrate to brass and percussion—the appropriate sense of urgency as well as foreboding, and with the added benefit of avoiding any feeling of monotony in the lengthy ebb and flow of multi-divided strings that intercede before that rhythm starts to return.

And now it emerges with a blunt intensity matching anything comparable by Shostakovich, eventually to build in three great waves to the only fff climax in the whole symphony, as if some nightmare evil is perceived clearly for the first time. Again, Mr. Halls and the orchestra held back enough to give this the culminating ferocity it demands, after which the poignant English horn solo with which the movement ends had exactly the right feel of haunted shock.

The Café de Paris before (top) and
after (below) the 1941 bombing
(the Café de Paris re-opened
in 1948, but finally closed for
good in 2020, due to Covid).
All four movements are linked, and here the Scherzo roared and chattered straight out of the starting-gate as Allegro vivace as anyone could wish. Though not so marked, it has a clear “trio” section, in which a saxophone solo riffs in tribute to the band musicians killed when London’s Café de Paris night club was bombed in the Blitz (the player here stood to make the most of his solo). The Scherzo returns, yet more raucous, but blows itself out and then winds down to the start of the fourth movement Epilogue.

The meaning of this finale, marked pianissimo throughout with the barest hints of dynamic change, was the subject of intense speculation from the day it was first heard. In his introductory remarks Mr. Halls had characterized it, and indeed the whole symphony, as an “invitation into a dreamworld,” noting also Vaughan Williams’ later and perhaps reluctant invocation of Shakespeare’s Prospero: “I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement in ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by [sic] a sleep.

Whatever extra-musical meaning the Epilogue may or may not have, Mr. Halls and the PacSO crowned the symphony with an ideally-paced account of it (Moderato, so not really slow). Despite the all-pervading hush, almost all of Vaughan Williams’ large forces contribute in turn to the shifting, glacial texture: paradoxically perhaps, only total concentration can realise fully this finale’s paralyzed stasis, and the orchestra did their conductor proud. Only with a measurable interval after the final niente fade did the audience, admirably silent throughout, break into hesitant applause, and that was just as it shoud be.

The program’s first item had been Sibelius’s first tone-poem, En Saga, Op. 9, completed in 1892. Just as RVW a few years after his Sixth Symphony’s premiere had extensively revised its Scherzo, so a half-century earlier had his admired Finnish contemporary withdrawn and recast En Saga for an upcoming Berlin performance. But even in its final, much tightened-up version (both versions can be heard on YouTube) En Saga is very repetitive, and to avoid any hint of monotony needed the sure guiding hand that Mr. Halls straight away showed.

Jean Sibelius in 1891.
The Pacific Symphony launched the work with a bright purposefulness far removed from the gravity of some performances. En Saga has no specific narrative, but Sibelius noted that it embodied “painful experiences […] in no other work have I revealed myself so completely.” The tale it tells is thus interior rather than exterior, reflecting who-knows-what personal dramas, and for whatever reason its energy evaporates mid-way. This central Lento assai section needs particularly astute handling if it is not to sound as if the composer has simply run out of ideas, but this was what it received, so that the eventual reinvigoration had a real sense of repurposing.

Surprisingly, as with the Sixth Symphony, this was also the first time the Pacific Symphony had programmed En Saga, but under Mr. Halls they played it not only with commitment but a noticeable sense of ease and familiarity. Altogether it was an auspicious start to the concert.

The program’s titular draw was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35 (1878), in which the soloist was definitely not a newcomer. The first and last thing to be said about the account by the Taiwan-born Paul Huang, in what was clearly the warmest of partnerships with Mr. Halls and the Pacific Symphony, was that it sounded fresh-minted from beginning to end, as if all concerned had just discovered the work and were delighted with it.

Having unearthed a pocket score, and with the Segerstrom blessedly one of the few venues that doesn’t turn the lights down so far that you can’t follow along, I found that early on in the first movement I'd at some time penciled "limp orchestra," presumably at a now-forgotten earlier performance. Not here! Indeed, Mr. Halls later called the Pacific Symphony (here with each section of the strings reduced by a desk from the full complement deployed in En Saga—an interesting textural decision) the best accompanying orchestra he had ever worked with, and who would deny him?

The 19-minute length of the first movement seemed to soar past in half the time, ending in such a blaze of energy that some the audience, either driven by excess enthusiasm or in the mistaken belief that it was the end of the concerto, started a standing ovation that brought many more to the vertical before realizing the error.

Tchaikovsky in San
Remo, Italy, in 1878.
Maybe this fazed the players, as Tchaikovsky’s exquisite 12-measure woodwind introduction to the Cantilena, full of delicate shadings between pianissimo and pìu forte, emerged as a slightly perfunctory continuous mezzo-forte. But Mr. Huang’s muted solo entrance, piano and molto espressivo, seemed to right the ship, and the movement continued with all the sensitivity and nuance it needs as an oasis of calm reflection between the rhetorical majesty of the first movement and the headlong finale.

Never one to understate his requirements, Tchaikovsky marks the latter Allegro vivacissimo—and it was, though never with the sense that anyone involved was hanging on for dear life. It was supremely exhilarating throughout, and without the cuts that have sometimes disfigured performances in the past: soloist, conductor, and orchestra finally got their deserved standing ovation, in the right place!

This was a most welcome return for Paul Huang, and a formidable SoCal debut by Matthew Halls. Let’s hope he is invited back soon, and brings with him another great British symphony: any of Vaughan Williams’ other eight, say, or Elgar’s two—or, to get a little more esoteric, E. J. Moeran, Arnold Bax, or Havergal Brian. Conversely, there are some great British violin concertos…


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday January 11, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performers: Doug Gifford; Vaughan Williams: Douglas Glass, courtesy National Portrait Gallery; Café de Paris: Daily Mail; Sibelius: Wikimedia Commons; Tchaikovsky:

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Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Duo Syncopa Shine at Classical Crossroads’ "First Friday"

Duo Syncopa: Yue Qian (violin) and Tomomi Sato (piano).


Duo Syncopa, First Fridays at First!~fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Back in May 2023 the first in a proposed series of classical chamber music recitals at the San Pedro venue Collage showcased the talents of Duo Syncopa (violinist Yue Qian and pianist Tomomi Sato) and was reviewed here. Thus far that’s been Collage’s one-and-only venture into the field, but these fine musicians springboarded to the more established territory of Classical Crossroads, Inc., and at the first “First Friday” recital of 2024 presented two relatively unfamiliar classics sandwiching a 21st century novelty.

Clara and Robert Schumann.
In April 1849, when Robert Schumann played for his wife Clara some “new pieces for piano and violoncello,” she remarked that they “…are of the nature of folk-tunes, and have a freshness and originality which delighted me." Their publication two years later was indeed as Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102, but as Duo Syncopa’s insightful performance (in Schumann’s alternative version for violin and piano) showed, they overall describe an expressive arc that’s distinctly more than the sum of their parts.

The first, marked Mit Humor, certainly had all the expected foot-stamping jollity, with Schumann’s heavy accent on the tune’s three-note downward stomp duly relished and a ringing bell-like quality in the movement’s central section, but #II, Langsam, immediately extended the emotional territory with its serene lilt, where Ms. Qian carefully distinguished the piano and pianissimo elements of Schumann’s long-breathed melody.

With #III, Nicht schnell, mit viel Ton zu spielen, the introspective mood deepens, but in #IV, Nicht zu rasch, Schumann brusquely shakes himself free. And then the last movement, strongly projected by Duo Syncopa as per its Stark und markiert instruction, though just as energetic further introduces a defiant element whose abruptly dismissive final cadence ends the work in markedly different expressive territory from its cheerful peasant-dance start.

Jonathan Mitchell.
The young Chicago-based composer Jonathan Mitchell is a Fellow of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music’s Bahlest Eeble Readings program. As Ms. Qian explained, his Lighten Up! is a cycle of 12 pieces, subtitled “Twelve Notes to Self,” that chronicles his own creativity and is divided into four “chapters” of which the first two are headed “Dissatisfaction” and “Fixation.” Duo Syncopa played the first of the latter, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

In this context, the “fixation” is on the music that already exists—Mitchell’s “baggage,” or in his own question “How do I manage the tension between the old and the new?” The result proved to be an amiable five-minute tour through some celebrated “old,” beginning with the Aria from J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and climaxing in an effective and affectionately played meditation on Elgar’s “Enigma” theme, before neatly eliding back to the Bach. Perhaps the remainder of Lighten Up! reveals Mitchell’s own expressive voice.

Ms. Sato then introduced the final, and major item in the program, Schubert’s Fantasie in C Major for Piano and Violin, Op. posth. 159, D.934. This, she said, is one of her favorite works, and arguably even more difficult (for a violinist) than contemporary pieces by Paganini. What she didn’t say was that the piano part is also hugely elaborate and demanding—to the extent that no-one, surely, would dream of tackling it unless they not only had the technical skills but also were convinced of its worth.

Josef Slavík.
After all, following the Fantasie’s premiere by the young Bohemian violin virtuoso Josef Slavík (1806-1833) in January 1828, only a month after its completion, a contemporary critic wrote that it “occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of the piece.”

Had he stayed, he might just have got it. The Fantasie is not only the last and longest of Schubert’s works for violin and piano, but through its seven linked sections describes an asymmetrical structural arc of great originality. The first section, Andante molto, introduces a long-breathed violin melody over piano ostinati, both parts marked pianissimo. Duo Syncopa’s account was ideally poised between the other-worldly serenity so often met with in late Schubert and a sense of onward progress and implicit discovery.

Franz Schubert, c.1827.
Only 36 measures long, this arrives at a long-held fermata over a chord of E major, before precipitating into a vigorous Allegretto. With some hints of a sonata design, its six sub-sections dance through a wealth of intricate interplay between violin and piano, faultlessly executed by Duo Syncopa, before arriving at another fermata, leading to the Fantasie’s third section.

This is the heart of the work, and comprises a long theme—drawn from Schubert’s own lied, Sei mir gegrüßt (Greetings), D. 741, of some six years earlier—and three variations of increasing textural elaboration. Schubert marks both halves of each variation to be repeated, and Duo Syncopa’s decision to observe every one of the repeats was triumphantly vindicated, with subtle adjustments to pace, dynamic, and balance keeping any chance of monotony firmly at bay.

At this point, I suppose one might feel some slight sympathy with that first-time Viennese audience, by now almost 20 minutes into a work with no obvious overall shape yet discernible and no clue where it might yet go. What in fact happens is a coda to the third variation that ends with a long drawn cadence into a definite “ah-ha!” moment—a reprise of the opening melody.

Now Schubert’s masterplan emerges. This fourth section is much shorter than that opening, as is the next, a recapitulation of the Allegretto, now up-tempo-ed to Allegro vivace. Then Schubert draw the strings tighter yet on his grand design with a revisit of the variation theme: surely it’s not all beginning again? No, this last appearance is a brief 26 measures only, after which a whirlwind Presto brings what is surely one of the less-lauded treasures of Schubert’s miraculous final year of creativity to its conclusion.

Both in their measure-by-measure mastery of its intricacies and in their overall pacing and shaping of the grand design, Ms. Qian and Ms. Sato thoroughly had the Fantasie under their fingers and in their heads and hearts, as you can hear for yourselves in the recording on Vimeo thoughtfully provided by Classical Crossroads. Let’s hope they return soon. 


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, January 5, 2024.
Images: The performers: Classical Crossroads, Inc.; The Schumanns: Getty images; Jonathan Mitchell: Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music; Josef Slavík: Encyklopedie Praha 2; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons.

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