Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Griffes at Pacific Symphony

The Italian virtuoso Alessio Bax performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 with the Pacific
Symphony under guest conductor Andrew Litton.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

I did not consciously realize until after the event how young and indeed how remarkably close in age were all three composers—one 20th century American, now little remembered, and two familiar masters from the 19th and 20th centuries—when they wrote the works that were included by visiting guest conductor Andrew Litton in the Pacific Symphony’s most recent concert at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Charles Tomlinson Grifffes.
As program opener, Maestro Litton chose neither a familiar repertoire overture nor one of the brief, celebratory explosions of orchestral fireworks that seem to appear with ever greater frequency from young and not-so-young contemporary composers on both sides of the border, but instead reached back just over a century to the work of Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)—and for this listener at least, his selection couldn’t have been more welcome.

Griffes is one of the fascinating might-have-beens of American music. By the time he fell victim at only 35 to the “Spanish flu” pandemic, his compositional output already reflected a wide and fertile range of influences—German Romanticism from his early studies in Berlin, contemporary French music (his fascination with which had him dubbed the “American impressionist”), Japanese art, drama and music, and an array of literary influences from Goethe and Blake to John Masefield and Oscar Wilde in his choice of song texts.

Literature also imbued many of Griffes’ piano works including his Roman Sketches, Op. 7, all four of which drew their inspiration from the 1891 verse collection Sospiri di Roma by the Scot William Sharp, writing as “Fiona Macleod.” Griffes wrote Roman Sketches in 1915, and four years later orchestrated the first and last of the piano pieces, The White Peacock and Clouds. It was with the former that the concert began.

The soft rising and falling phrases on solo oboe and flute that begin the piece certainly earn the “impressionist” epithet, but interestingly, Griffes changed the initial marking from Languidamente in the piano version to Largamente in his orchestral score (with e molto rubato qualifying both). Maybe this implied a greater degree of purposefulness: if so, it was certainly borne out in Litton’s handling of the work, which proceeded with impressively controlled inevitability to the single powerful climax, sometimes taken to represent the full glorious opening out of the titular peacock’s tail.

Though quite economical in woodwind and brass scoring, Griffes lavishly enriched The White Peacock’s textures with two harps and celesta, and their almost constant presence in the aural picture glittered ravishingly in the Segerstrom’s marvelous acoustic. At just five minutes, the piece as ever left one wishing that there was more of it, but it was an effective and refreshing concert-opener.

Ludwig van Beethoven, c.1801.
The sense of controlled purpose in Litton’s interpretative style was certainly maintained in the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 of Beethoven. With each string section reduced by a couple of desks, the orchestral exposition was light on its feet but vigorous and lithe, and full of arrowed focus. It’s not hard to sense in this Concerto—which was probably completed some time in 1800—that Beethoven, still not quite 30, was filled with an awareness of boundless possibilities at the onset of the new century.

The pianist announces his presence with upward sweeping scales and emphatic restatement of the principal subject, already given plenty of attention in the orchestral exposition. This entry could hardly be more assertive of confidence and purpose, but there was no sense of rhetorical display for its own sake here or anywhere else in the Italian virtuoso Alessio Bax’s account of the first movement, where the feeling of through-composed unity extended even to the cadenza, which by some alchemy felt wholly integral to the argument rather than an occasion for everyone else to sit on their hands and wait.

Alessio Bax.
In the slow movement, Bax effortlessly unfurled the thickets of 64th-notes that Beethoven’s odd conjunction of a 3/8 time signature and Largo tempo marking necessitated, while the irresistible Rondo finale, with conductor, soloist, and orchestra all figuratively and very much literally on the same page, cemented the impression of a masterpiece that manages to combine both youthfulness and maturity.

The standing ovation brought an encore, but not as we usually know it, Jim. Bax shifted over on the piano stool to make room for Maestro Litton, and together they launched into a hilariously helter-skelter account of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F-sharp minor in its original piano four-hands form that elicited as much laughter as applause.

Alessio Bax and Andrew Litton share a moment in their encore performance of
Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5.
During a pre-concert chat with host Alan Chapman and also in remarks from the podium immediately before the performance, Maestro Litton reminisced about having, at the age of 13, met Dmitri Shostakovich briefly in New York in 1973 (right), and then went on to outline the sociopolitical circumstances behind the composition of his Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, which filled the second half of the concert.

With Pravda’s withering denunciation of his recently staged 1936 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District representing a literal threat to Shostakovich's life, and his radically original Fourth Symphony unperformed and indefinitely shelved, it’s remarkable that when he came to pen his “Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” as he dubbed the Fifth Symphony, the result was no feeble clone of some supposed Classical model but a powerful, personal, and in places deeply moving work that has become a repertoire staple worldwide ever since its rapturously received Leningrad premiere in November 1937, only two months after the composer turned 31 years of age.

Dmitri Shostakovich.
That it also clearly holds a special place for Maestro Litton was evident throughout the performance, masterly paced alike in the far-reaching dramatic arc of the first movement, the piquant, texturally inventive Allegretto (essentially a scherzo-and-trio), and the long-drawn, tragic intensity of the Largo—all delivered with individual and collective finesse, eloquence, and power by the Pacific Symphony at the very top of its considerable game.

Finest of all was the finale. In his remarks Litton had also recalled hearing—at the beginning of his appointment as Assistant Conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.—its then music director Mstislav Rostropovich, who had been a close friend of the composer, rehearse this symphony. Knowing the finale in what were then typically fast and jubilantly triumphant performances, Litton had queried Rostropovich’s slow tempi and got the unequivocal response that this was how the music was meant to go.

His own performance left no doubt that this was a lesson well learned. The Allegro non troppo opening, taken at the marked quarter-note=88, became heavily menacing, and thereafter felt like an unseen but ever-present background threat to the more tranquil, even aspiring, expressive uplands of the movement’s central section. 

But when the oppressive slow motion bombast returned, it swept all before it until reaching colossal fff unisons on the timpani and bass drum—as apt an aural metaphor as you could imagine for Orwell’s chilling vision from 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

This marvelous performance—inspiring and disturbing in equal measure—came just as the Pacific Symphony was announcing its upcoming 2024-2025 season—its 46th since its founding in 1979 and a particularly special one in that it marks the 35th year of Carl St. Clair’s tenure as Music Director.

There are far too many intriguing items across the 12 concerts to list here, but for this listener the standouts include Samuel Barber’s marvelous Symphony No. 1 on November 14-16 in an exceptionally rich program that also includes Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Brahms’ Violin Concerto; the startling juxtaposition on January 9-11, 2025 of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (with “jaw-dropping visuals,” we are promised); and most enticing of all, a semi-staging of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on April 10-15, 2025.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday February 22, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performers: Doug Gifford; Griffes: New York Public Library; White peacock: Galleria Home Store; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Shostakovich and Litton: Andrew Litton; Shostakovich: State Central M. Glinka Museum of Music, Moscow.

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