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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