Friday, February 23, 2024

Dvořák, Mussorgsky/Ravel, Price, and Preu at Long Beach

Cécilia Tsan and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra under Eckart Preu perform Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto.


Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach

Dvořák in 1893.
Snatching a few days’ respite between the Southern Californian rainstorms, the largest Long Beach Symphony audience in a long while filled the Terrace Theater on the third Saturday of February for a concert in which the centerpiece account of Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191 by the LBSO's Principal Cellist Cécilia Tsan and the orchestra under its Music Director Eckart Preu fully realized and projected those qualities that make it arguably the greatest of all works in its particular genre.

Commemorative plaque on the
site of Dvořák’s NYC residence.
Although the Cello Concerto was not Dvořák’s last major composition—five symphonic poems and four operas were to follow in the nine years left to him after its completion at New York in 1895—its magisterial symphonic scale and structural mastery, together with a memorably haunting beauty and unprecedented exploration of the cello’s expressive potential as a concerto solo instrument, certainly would have made it a triumphant conclusion to his career had that actually been the case.

Maestro Preu launched the extensive orchestral exposition of the Allegro first movement with uncompromising boldness, the pervasive principal motif of a rising and then falling 3rd ringing out like a minatory warning and then, in its full fortissimo flowering, wholly living up to Dvořák’s Grandioso marking, where the tuba (a very rare instrumental presence in a 19th century concerto) added its singular tombstone heft to the massive chord’s foundations.

More than usual did this opening recall not so much the “New World” Symphony, written only a couple of years previously, but rather the soundworld of Dvořák’s earlier and more dramatically concentrated Symphony No. 7, though when the second subject melody finally arrived—immaculately intoned here by principal horn Melia Badalian—its molto espressivo added the element of heartfelt reverie that belongs to this Concerto alone.

Another grandiose tutti ensues and then winds down gradually to clear the way for the cello’s entry. Given as always the proviso that the Terrace Theater’s acoustic tends to drain some of the impact of any string soloist, Ms. Tsan demonstrated from her first statement of the principal motif that she “owns” this Concerto: carefully observant of all the instructions with which Dvořák surrounds the solo entry—forte, risoluto, and Quasi improvisando—she launched her long journey with fervent and infectious spontaneity.

Antonín Dvořák (right) with family
and friends in New York, 1893.
Indeed, this account of the Cello Concerto made the best imaginable case for the view that a performance by a gifted orchestra principal in complete accord with their respected and loved colleagues can be at least as satisfying as that of any visiting soloist, however starry, and in this particular instance Ms. Tsan has openly averred that this particular work more than any other originally inspired her to pursue her career as a cellist.

After the wide-ranging drama of the first movement, the Adagio ma non troppo was as warmly expressive as anyone could wish, without any of the tendency to wallow in sentiment that can afflict some performances (the whole work came in at a trim 40 minutes). Most impressive of all was the Finale, which Maestro Preu skilfully navigated from bold re-awakening after the slow movement’s long dying fall to a perfectly integrated handling of the remarkable coda.

Though Dvořák completed the Cello Concerto's initial version in New York over winter 1894-95—with news of the serious illness of his much-loved sister-in-law Josefina Kounicová already coloring its content and sensibility—after his return home in April 1895 and then Josefina’s death in the following month he inserted into the coda some 60 new measures of quietly autumnal music, as if surveying and bidding farewell to the Concerto's long journey from its trenchant opening, before rousing itself to the ff conclusion. The remarkable unanimity between Ms. Tsan and the LBSO under Preu’s baton gave this extended leave-taking a time-stopping raptness, underlining with what sureness Dvořák in his final revision had further refined and deepened what was already a masterpiece.

Florence Price.
The concert had begun with Florence Price’s Concert Overture No. 2, written in 1943, but only rediscovered in 2009 amongst the trove of many of her once-lost works unearthed in St. Anne, Illinois at her former summer home, by then derelict.

The Concert Overture No. 2's B minor tonality and overall mood of nostalgic longing made it an appropriate opener to precede the Cello Concerto, but as a not notably inventive meditation on the spirituals “Go Down Moses,” “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the Overture seemed over-extended at nearly a quarter-hour.

Eckart Preu and
Hans Peter Preu.
The sole work programmed for the second half was Maurice Ravel’s celebrated orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, enhanced on this occasion by the projection of Viktor Hartmann’s pictures on a screen above the orchestra. Before this, however, from the podium Maestro Preu announced that there would be an extra surprise item.

His elder brother, the composer and arranger Hans Peter Preu, was visiting from Germany, and Eckart had invited him to write a piece for this concert, given the availability of the large forces required for Mussorgsky's Pictures and suggesting that a comparable treatment of a visual subject would be appropriate.

The result was The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, inspired by William Blake’s watercolor illustration (left) for the Book of Revelation.

Hans Peter Preu’s musical depiction really did justice to the weirdness of Blake's vision, and the LBSO responded whole-heartedly to his five minutes of apocalyptic orchestral mayhem—full of almost Messiaenic gong-and-gamelan sonorities—under the direction of the composer and with the Lovecraftian figure of the Dragon looming over them from the screen above. The audience, too, enthusiastically applauded what for many must have been an unexpectedly Modernist score.

Pictures at an Exhibition has been orchestrated by so many other people besides Ravel that, given how often the latter's arrangement appears on concert programs, it would be good once in a while to hear one of those different alternatives—my money would be on Sir Henry Wood’s even more opulent take on the piece, while any planner looking for a slightly shorter item could well think about Stokowski’s version, which omits two of the Pictures

Modest Mussorgsky (left); Maurice Ravel (right).
Nevertheless, Mussorgsky/ Ravel it was and of course the combination of the former’s vividly original responses to his friend Hartmann’s drawings and watercolors and Ravel’s boundless resource of orchestral color once again beguiled and thrilled, from the latter’s subtly differing treatments of the opening Promenade as it recurs between the first few images to the signal grandeur of X The Great Gate of Kiev. 

Viktor Hartmann's design for the
Bogatyr Gates at Kiev (Kyiv).
And as we listened from I Gnomus and II The Old Castle through to that conclusion so we were also able to see projected, in some cases, the definitively identified original images that inspired the music (e.g. The Great Gate of Kiev (left) and V The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (below)), and in others an imaginative selection from Hartmann’s surviving output of artworks that made a plausible accompaniment to the music.

The last time I heard the Mussorgsky/ Ravel Pictures live was by no lesser forces than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti (reviewed here), but by comparison the Long Beach Symphony and Maestro Preu were by no means outshone. The near-capacity audience responded appropriately on its feet, and overall this quite splendid concert made one look forward even more to the two remaining blockbuster programs in the LBSO’s 2023-24 season: The Brahms German Requiem preceded by an orchestral piece from the contemporary Frenchman Guillaume Connesson and Vaughan Williams’ delectable Serenade to Music on March 9; and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on June 1: will it really work with those two pieces in that order? We’ll see!


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, February 17, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Dvořák portrait, Florence Price, Blake’s Great Red Dragon, Hartmann’s Plan for a City Gate: Wikimedia Commons; Dvořák plaque: Yelp; Dvořák family: Czech National Museum; Mussorgsky & Ravel: Courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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