Friday, March 29, 2024

“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” at Santa Clarita

Bruckner in 1889: portrait in oils by Ferry Bératon.


Bruckner, celebrating 200 years: Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center

This year marks the bicentenary (on September 4, to be exact) of the birth of the great Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner, and so in southern California we keenly look forward to a plethora of performances of his works. Sorry… just kidding. There seems to be not a note of Bruckner, for example, in the LA Philharmonic’s 2024-2025 season (though that still finds space for yet another *yawn* "Mahler Grooves Festival"). All of which leaves just the Long Beach Symphony to fly Bruckner's symphonic flag in this part of the world, with its keenly awaited perfomance of Symphony No. 4 on June 1.

Given this, one might expect even less attention to Bruckner's choral works, were it not that Artistic Director Allan Robert Petker (left) and his hugely enterprising Santa Clarita Master Chorale have already—on Saturday, March 16, in the snug main auditorium of Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center—done the master of Linz and St. Florian proud, and not just with a token inclusion of one piece in an otherwise mixed program, but an entire evening devoted to him—“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” indeed.

This was an object-lesson in making the most of limited resources. Petker met head on the challenge of presenting Bruckner’s choral output at its most attention-grabbing by opening with his Te Deum in C major WAB 45, drafted while finalizing his Sixth Symphony (1879-1881) but only completed in 1884 after the Seventh Symphony (1881-1883) was finished, making it the sole large-scale choral/orchestral work from Bruckner’s symphonic maturity.

The Te Deum is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, chorus, a normally-constituted but still large symphony orchestra, and organ (ad lib). Constrained by financial, logistical, and voice/instrument balance concerns, Mr. Petker presented the work with a very small band of just 10 string players, the full specified wind section of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, a single pair of horns and no other brass, and timpani.

But even with such reduced forces, the elemental power of Bruckner’s fortissimo opening—a falling ostinato on strings against a sustained chord in all the winds—still had remarkable impact in the relatively small hall. Similarly, when in the second measure the 60-strong chorus fervently seized their opening on one of the few straightforwardly simple unisons in the whole work, one barely registered the absence of trumpets, trombones and tuba. Already it was clear that this approach was viable.

The first page of Bruckner's manuscript of his Te Deum.
If I had any quibble about the performance of the Te Deum, it concerned the solo parts. The work is divided into five sections wherein the soprano, alto and tenor sing briefly as a trio in I; in II and IV the tenor takes the lead before the other three join in; III is for chorus only; and in V all four again contribute. Despite each section being headed with the first few words of its text, and having concluding double bar lines, the way each ends shows clearly that Bruckner intended the work to be essentially continuous.

In this performance, instead of the same four soloists throughout, the joy was spread by changing the team for each section, so that overall three sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses were featured. Though the changeovers—with each team retreating back to the choir ranks and the next coming forward—were carried out quickly and efficiently, there were inevitable breaks in that continuity, with the shortest sections, II and III, in particular seeming over almost as soon as they had begun, with their conclusions left hanging.

Apart from this one cavil, the performance of the Te Deum was confident and cogent, with the choir equally projecting Bruckner’s great climaxes forcefully and getting to grips with his often complex counterpoint and unpredictable harmonic shifts; as ever, the quotations from the Seventh Symphony’s Adagio in the final In te, Domine, speravi section were strikingly eloquent.

Bruckner in 1854.
The remainder of the first half comprised three of Bruckner’s unaccompanied motets, but in addition took on something of the character of a genial lecture-recital. Before each motet, choir soprano and program annotator Brenda Hunten came forward to deliver brief accounts of milestones and domestic episodes in his (sometimes quirky) personal life, and then Maestro Petker talked about the composer's artistic development and specifically the piece to follow. First of the three motets to be sung was the brief but rapturously beautiful Locus iste, WAB 23 (1869) with its echoes of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus.

Next was Ave Maria, of which Bruckner composed three settings, all in the key of F major. The first (WAB 5), dating from 1856 and scored for two soloists, chorus, cello, and organ, shows him not yet arrived at his full individuality, while the last of the three (WAB 7), though written in 1882 and full of harmonies and progressions that characterize Bruckner’s mature style, is for a single alto voice with organ. Thus for this concert the second setting, WAB 6, written in 1861 for seven-part choir, selected itself, and in its limpid serenity maintained the mood established by the Locus iste. Last, but far from least, came the somewhat longer and more grandly contemplative Os justi, WAB 30 (1879).

Bruckner in 1868.
In the second half Maestro Petker and the Santa Clarita Master Chorale presented a single work, Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor, WAB 27 (1866). He actually wrote four full Mass settings, but each of the other three—the Missa Solemnis in B-flat minor, WAB 29 (1854), the Mass No. 1 in D minor, WAB 26 (1864), and Mass No. 3 in F minor, WAB 28 (1868)—is scored for four soloists, chorus, orchestra, and organ.

Mass No. 2, however, utilizes eight-part mixed choir with no soloists, plus winds and brass only (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets and 3 trombones). Bruckner composed it at the request of the Bishop of Linz for the dedication of a chapel in the city’s new cathedral, but revised it in 1869, 1876, and 1882: this final version is the one normally performed, as was the case here.

Bruckner's manuscript dedication of the Mass in E minor.
In the context of this program, the work's austere and timeless spirituality provided a far stronger expressive contrast to the jubilant Te Deum than any of the other Mass settings would have done, though similar logistical and audible balance factors also applied here. In the absence of brass instruments apart from the pair of horns, Petker’s solution was to rework the accompaniment for the strings and winds used in his account of the Te Deum.

While hard-line Bruckner purists would doubtless disapprove, in the fairly small Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center auditorium the performance had considerable conviction, aided by virtually vibrato-free playing from the strings. It would be idle to deny, though, that—particularly at the fastish speeds which the hall's quite dry acoustic prompted—some of the Mass in E minor’s intrinsic quasi-archaic grandeur was diminished.

All in all, this was a splendid showcase both for a skilled and committed choir and its imaginative Artistic Director, and an implicit finger-wag to other southern Californian performing bodies who, so far, seem to have shown no interest in celebrating the 200th anniversary of one who was not only one of the greatest 19th century symphonists but also a master composer for choral forces. 

The Santa Clarita Master Chorale at a previous concert in the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center.

Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center, Saturday March 16 2024, 7 p.m.
Images: The performers: Kimberly Ayers; Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons (1889), London Symphony Orchestra (1854), StadtMuseum, Linz (1868); Te Deum manuscript: IMSLP; Mass in E minor dedication: Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, March 24, 2024

Mahler 5, Haydn, and Gabriela Ortiz at Pacific Symphony

The Pacific Symphony Orchestra, at very full strength, playing Mahler's Fifth Symphony under
guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto.


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

For the second time in under a week, we had a SoCal concert featuring an unusually long main work—but not quite long enough to fill the entire evening, and so bringing the challenge of how to populate a 25-30 minute first half. On Saturday, March 9, in Long Beach it was Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem with two well-chosen companion pieces (reviewed here); the following Thursday in Costa Mesa the Pacific Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto (left) gave us Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, plus…?

The mighty Hoboken catalog of all the works by or attributed to Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) lists no fewer than six cello concertos but of these, two are deemed lost and two more labeled “spurious,” leaving just two actually surviving and performable—and even they had to wait until mid-20th century to be authenticated through the discovery of original manuscripts.

Joseph Haydn, c. 1770.
Haydn’s Cello Concerto 1 in C major, Hob. VIIb/1, composed between 1761 and 1765 for a star cellist in the court orchestra of his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, only resurfaced in 1961, but since then has become well established in the repertoire. Here it filled most of the available time in the first half, played by the young American cellist Sterling Elliott.

Given that the concerto is only scored for pairs of oboes and horns, the Pacific Symphony’s string strength was pared right down to 6-6-4-3-2, but with a spacious though strongly propulsive forward response to the initial Moderato marking, it felt like a “big” performance from the outset, within which Mr. Elliott’s playing was full of nuance, with singing tone, plenty of dynamic shading, and fleet as a gull riding thermals when needed.

Sterling Elliott.
The Adagio, notably slow even for that marking, was hushed and intimate, with the soloist’s tone reduced to the slenderest of threads at times, while the Allegro molto finale scurried deliciously, with dynamic contrasts sharply observed, and Mr. Elliott’s response as fabulously crisp as his playing in the slow movement had been tender. After a standing ovation, he came back for an encore, Julie-O, by Mark Summer (b.1958).

This concerto by itself would have been a perfectly decent first-half filler for a work as massive as Mahler 5, but Señor Prieta added a five-minute opener, Kauyumari by Gabriela Ortiz (b. 1964), which had been commissioned in 2021 by the LA Philharmonic for its reopening after Covid.

Gabriela Ortiz.
Freighted with native Mexican symbolism and connotations (Kauyumari means “blue deer,” a kind of spiritual guide), it opens atmospherically with distant trumpets against tam-tam strokes, but then devolves into constant repetition of a fast, syncopated Huichol melody, which with much textural elaboration builds to a frenetic climax.

In his opening remarks, Señor Prieta likened it to Ravel’s Boléro, but to my ears, it had more in common with Chávez’s Sinfonía India. Ultimately, however, it had neither the time-obliterating hypnotic quality of the former nor the hieratic grandeur and melodic memorability of the latter: a short, sharp, skillfully wrought occasional piece, delivered with whiplash response by the Pacific Symphony but as forgettable as it was easy on the ear.

The appearance of any symphony by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in a present-day concert program always takes me back to post-war Britain when, for a nascent music-lover with a taste for exotic and ambitious rarities, getting to hear any one of them, live or on the radio, was a treasurable once-in-a-blue-moon event. How times have changed! Now Mahler is so ubiquitous that the challenge for any performers is to somehow get beyond over-familiarity and re-ignite some of that sense of specialness.

Portrait of Mahler in 1902, by Emil Orlik.
However, the music itself is on their side. For those not allergic to works so overtly emotional and dramatic, each Mahler symphony charts its own specific and compelling journey, and the Fifth (1901-1902), the first of them to have no connection to the explicitly picturesque Wunderhorn world that permeates the earlier ones, is no exception. Across its unique three-part, five-movement structure it travels as far as any, from the peremptory trumpet-calls that open the first movement Trauermarsch (here delivered with snap-to-attention urgency by Tony Ellis) to the cloudless jubilation that ends the Rondo-Finale.

Though it’s neither scored for quite such huge forces nor is as long in duration as some of its fellows, the Fifth Symphony is, apart from the idyllic oasis of its fourth movement Adagietto, unremittingly turbulent and complex (indeed it is the longest of all of them in terms of measure count, a formidable 2704 bars) and remains a demanding, even exhausting, challenge to any orchestra, however skilled.

After that opening trumpet solo, the impact of the first fortissimo tutti before the funeral march gets properly under way, played by this great orchestra in the gorgeous Segerstrom Concert Hall acoustic, threatened to blow the fuse on any critical response to the performance as such, leaving one just reveling, ears agape, in the sheer beauty of the sound. And indeed, in terms of pacing, ensemble, dynamics, and grasp of structure, Señor Prieta and the Pacific Symphony seemed to me to nail the first movement.

Excellent too was the way they moved with only the briefest of pauses onto the second movement, or other half of Part 1 of the symphony, fully responding to its Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) marking. Later, Prieta’s way with the ländler second theme was richly expressive but never exaggerated.

However, when the great chorale erupted towards the end of the movement (marked by Mahler Höhepunkt (Climax) just so you don’t miss it!) it was, arguably, just a little too long-drawn and epically magnificent. After all, the movement does then collapse to a stuttering, exhausted end, and the greatest performances here do hold something back and convey by some alchemy that however triumphant the moment seems, it’s essentially precarious.

The centerpiece of Mahler 5, and comprising the whole of its Part 2, is the third movement Scherzo. It’s marked Kraftig nicht zu schnell (Strong, not too fast), and again Maestro Prieta got the speed, and the emphasis, just right. After an opening up-and-down fanfare by four horns, a fifth horn (labeled by Mahler Corno obligato) leads off the weighty dance revels; this Principal Keith Popejoy (left) delivered with robust fruitiness, standing up for extra prominence.

One past commentator labeled this movement a “symphonic ‘parody-Ländler’,” and for most of its length it is indeed a swirling, sonata-form dance hybrid rivaling Ravel’s La valse in its off-kilter savagery, scale, and textural complexity—and in this performance it was played with panache and relish to the hilt by the Pacific Symphony. But in the heart of the development the tumult draws aside for an extended solo by the Corno obligato; this was given a golden sunset aura by Mr. Popejoy (who oddly remained standing for the whole of the movement, even though there are considerable stretches where the Corno obligato does not play).

Mahler's composing hut at Maiernigg,
where he wrote the Fifth Symphony.
However… normally, this mighty scherzo lasts 17-18 minutes, but in Señor Prieta’s interpretation it stretched to around 20, due to what felt like an overly studied and drawn-out account of some of the slower passages, including the long, pizzicato-inflected lead back to the main action after the horn solo. This pulled the thread of continuity dangerously close to breaking-point, but was saved by the pinpoint precision of the Pacific Symphony strings and the eloquence of the woodwind and horn lines above.

This seeming self-indulgence led to concern that the famous Adagietto—the first of the two movements that with the Rondo-Finale comprise the symphony’s Part 3—would be an over-extended snooze-fest, but in the event Prieta’s tempo was once more ideal, bringing the movement in at around the nine-minute mark and keeping the music moving while the Pacific Symphony’s strings and harp (Michelle Temple) delivered it with melting eloquence and sensitivity.

Mahler marks attacca at the link between the Adagietto and Rondo-Finale, so that there’s no break between the former’s long fade to pppp (and yes, the Pacific Symphony strings managed even that extreme marking!) and the latter’s opening sustained horn note, by Mr. Popejoy now relieved of his Corno obligato label and seated. (This continuity is additionally useful now, so that tendencies towards inter-movement applause for the only part of this symphony that everyone knows is always rendered still-born.)

The Rondo-Finale proved to be the coping-stone on what was overall an extremely fine performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. After some built-in hesitancies, he marks the opening of the movement’s main body Allegro giocoso and Frisch (fresh), and Maestro Prieta established just the right mixture of the wide-eyed bucolic and the businesslike.

As the movement progressed he navigated its many discursions without losing grasp of the main thread, with the orchestra seemingly tireless in its articulation of Mahler’s relentless textural complexity so that the music continually danced. Maybe when the final repetition of the second-movement chorale arrived, juiced up by cascading strings, the massed brass showed the smallest signs of fatigue, but who could blame them? Certainly none of the roaringly appreciative audience, showing yet again how Mahler continues to beguile and enthuse 21st-century listeners. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday March 14, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; Haydn, Mahler, and Mahler's hut: Wikimedia Commons; Gabriela Ortiz: Composer website.

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Friday, March 22, 2024

PLAY/WRITE CD Looks Toward a Musical Future


Planet M Records, Seattle


Composer and violist extraordinaire Melia Watras seems limitless in her creativity, constantly generating new and unique material. Her new CD album, PLAY/WRITE, showcases her many facets as both a writer and performer of new music. Always innovative, the Seattle-based Watras utilizes her partnerships with writers, poets and other composers and musicians to portray the joy that is generated when words and music coalesce. The entire effect is one of spirituality and introspection that enables the listener at once to concentrate deeply, yet take their consciousness to a meditative level.

Included in this joint effort are luminaries of the Seattle music world: Sheila Daniels, narrator; Leilehua Lanzilotti, composer; Rachel Lee Priday, violin; Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin; Herbert Woodward Martin, voice/poet; Valérie Muzzolini, harp; James Pritchett, writer; David Alexander Rahbee, conductor; Carrie Henneman Shaw, voice; Frances White, composer; and the Brazen butterfly ensemble.

Melia Watras

The CD is “a reflection of my work as a violist and a composer (one who wields both bow and pen!) and the joy that exists in the overlap between words and music,” says Watras.

All of the compositions, those covered here and others that appear on the CD, are well thought out, beautifully performed and show a great deal of understanding of the nature of the instruments and the human voice, both by the composer and by the artists. A number of pieces are World Premiere Recordings.  

5 Poems of Herbert Woodward Martin for narrator, violin and viola (2021) stems from the composer’s long-standing relationship with poet and scholar Martin, an associate of her father. Thus, Song: An Endless Flight for narrator, violin and viola has special significance for Watras. Her setting of this poem and others of Martin evokes a bright, optimistically sunny outlook, with a perfect balance between the words and the obbligato-like violin and viola: light, airy, and pleasant to listen to, the piece evokes sunniness and pleasant meditations.

Michael Jinsoo Lim
Herbert Woodward Martin
Watras introduces A brazen butterfly alights (2021) with a monologue of great depth to which is added harp and other strings. A fairy-like fantasy, it is reminiscent of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro in its orchestration and atmosphere. The harp effects are striking and beautifully played. Another Watras composition, Echo, features a cadenza-like violin solo that gently transports the listener to other worlds with its improvisatory character and captures the essence of what makes the violin the most multifaceted of instruments.

Roses are the theme for As night falls for violin, viola narrator and electronic sound (2012) by Frances White and James Pritchett. Written for Watras and her violinist husband Michael Jinsoo Lim, the piece stands out for its captivating ambiance describing a charming and unique love story told from the woman’s point of view. The dialogue is interspersed with arpeggios that evoke the ever-changing nature of relationships and morphs into a background for the narrator’s introspection, along with the echoes of the male voice and crashing surf.

The multitalented Lim wrote the poem that is the basis for Weeping Pendula (2021) for voice and loop pedal:

Weeping Pendula 
Reaching to the ground 
Asking to be found. 
Casting penumbra, 
Waiting to be crowned.

The music Watras writes for this poem is otherworldly; minimalist, yet full of special vocal effects that take the listener on a journey to a far-off place.

Carrie Henneman Shaw, Michael Jinsoo Lim, Melia Watras

The title of Native Hawaiian composer/sound artist Leilehua Lanzilotti’s to be two for violin and viola (2021), also written for Watras and Lim, is taken from the book by philosopher/linguist Luce Ingaray. The instruments utilize fluttering, strumming and arpeggiated passages to create an atmosphere that reveals a duality between mysticism and reality. Ingaray writes:

“Thanks to perception, we can become, the one for the other, a bridge towards a becoming which is yours, mine, and ours…While I become me, I remember you.”

A 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music finalist, Lanzilotti uses what is called “radical indigenous contemporaneity” to explore new paths in timbre. As the finale to the entire collection, the piece ends with an arpeggiated passage on open strings, trailing off into the beyond.

Watras and her colleagues have created an unusual spectrum with PLAY/WRITE. There is much to unpack here in the way of unique sounds, colors and vibrations, giving the listener insight into musical possibilities that look into the future. 


Photo credits: Michelle Smith-Lewis

 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Martinů, Copland, and Suk at Second Sunday

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Steven Vanhauwaert, Jocelyn Aubrun.


Ambroise and Jocelyn Aubrun, and Steven Vanhauwaert, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Advancing years make you realize ever more clearly that some composers' oeuvres are so large that it's increasingly unlikely you'll live long enough to get to know them really well. For a few, their works are so voluminous in number that however early you started, this was never likely to be the case (the complete Telemann, anyone?), while for others like (fill in your own blank here)… well, do you really care?

Bohuslav Martinů.
But in some cases it’s a real regret, and high on my list is the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). His “H” numbers (from the catalog by musicologist Harry Heilbrech) reach to 384, with a substantial roster in just about every major genre: 16 operas; 15 ballets; over 50 orchestral works including six symphonies and nearly 30 concertos for differing forces; much solo keyboard music; many songs and a few choral/orchestral pieces; and around 80 chamber works ranging from duos to nonets. The projected complete edition of his music is estimated eventually to fill 106 volumes—enough said.

Of course, sheer numbers mean nothing, but encounters with Martinů’s music have never yet failed to be rewarding, from the revelatory series of early and opulent orchestral works on the Toccata Classics label, through the relatively familiar (or less unfamiliar) symphonies, to the gaunt purity of his late oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh H. 351, which I was lucky enough to hear twice in London many years ago.

In recent years there have been few local live performances of his chamber music (one exception was the brilliant Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola H. 313 in the inaugural season of Cécilia Tsan’s “Concerts in the [Mount Wilson] Dome,” reviewed here), so the inclusion of two of his three trios for flute, violin and keyboard in the March “Second Sundays at Two” recital from Classical Crossroads, Inc., could not have been more welcome.

Steven Vanhauwaert (piano), Artistic Director of the series, was joined by Jocelyn Aubrun (flute) and Ambroise Aubrun (violin) in the Sonata H. 254 (1937, Paris) and Madrigal-Sonata H. 291 (1942, New York). In the four-movement Sonata’s opening Allegro poco moderato, the flute and violin alternate (here with perfect aplomb) both the perky staccato opening motif and the cantabile second subject, while the piano comes into its own with an eloquent stepwise melody, also marked cantabile, in the development.

The whole movement is a perfectly balanced sonata-form design, an object-lesson in concision and immediacy lasting just four minutes. Similarly brief is the Adagio, though its serene melodic continuity conveys an impression of spaciousness that belies its actual duration. The skill of these players, combined with Martinů’s masterly allotting of his material between the instruments, ensured that despite all three playing almost continuously, nowhere did the textures ever become clotted.

The succeeding Allegretto is a scherzo-and-trio, complete with formal repeats in the trio, wherein a broad-spanning tune is delivered by the flute in the first half, by the violin in the second, and by the piano in a coda before the scherzo da capo. The Moderato (poco Allegro) finale is again a concise, modified sonata design, opening with 20 measures of piano alone, and in its development featuring a cadenza-like, Poco Andante flute solo over tremolando violin, exquisitely handled by the brothers Aubrun.

Martinů in New York, 1943.
Though it has the same concision, ebullience, and aerated textures, the Madrigal-Sonata H. 291 is far more formally free than the earlier Sonata H. 254. The first of its two movements retains some shadow of sonata design, but is more in the character of a continuous toccata.

The longer second movement opens Moderato with a wistful, rather vocal-sounding melody on the flute—the clearest instance, perhaps, of the “madrigal” influence—but the music trills off into unpredictable and restless by-ways before pulling itself together into an impulsive Allegro.

This drives to a climax but then relaxes into a return of the opening Moderato, which in turn accelerates into an even more frenetic version of the Allegro. Shot through with irregular rhythms and sudden changes of direction texturally, harmonically, and dynamically, it must be a real challenge for performers to hold together, but Vanhauwaert and the Aubruns made it all sound easy.

Aaron Copland, 1971.
Martinů’s two sonatas were separated by the last completed work of Aaron Copland (1900-1990), his Duo for Flute and Piano (1971). Its first movement, marked Flowing, oscillates between a pared-down conspectus of his earlier “Western” style—from wide open spaces to quasi-hoedown—but in II Poetic, somewhat mournful, an altogether darker and more agitated mood appears, which is not altogether dispelled by the determinedly Lively, with bounce third movement.

Throughout, the textures are as spare as those of Martinů teem with interlocking intricacy, so that often Copland has only single lines passing from one instrument to the other, here done with featherlight clarity by Aubrun and Vanhauwaert.

It’s probable that Martinů’s output in toto bulks larger than those combined of Copland and Martinů’s compatriot and elder by half a generation, Josef Suk (1874-1935). Though the latter wrote some very large-scale and still under-appreciated works, today we were treated, just as an encore, to his charming miniature Bagatela „S kyticí v ruce“ (With Nosegay in Hand), played with all the affection it deserved by the Aubruns and Vanhauwaert.

Josef Suk.
These three players were going straight on to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where Ambroise Aubrun is Associate Professor of Violin, to make a commercial recording of Martinů chamber works including the two sonatas—which was a reminder that another “Second Sunday” recital of some 18 months ago also preceded a commercial recording. 

In that case it was the duo of Laurence Kayaleh (violin) and Bernadene Blaha (piano) playing violin sonatas by Żeleński and Noskowski (reviewed here), whose disc of them has now appeared on the Naxos label. Meanwhile the current splendid "Second Sunday" recital can be enjoyed on Vimeo here


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, March 10, 2024, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Martinů (1): Music and the Holocaust, (2) Wikimedia Commons; Copland: Library of Congress; Suk:, St Petersburg.

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Sunday, March 17, 2024

A Celebration of Strings to Open Mason House Season

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Cécilia Tsan, Kate Hamilton.


Aubrun, Hamilton, and Tsan play eight works by seven composers at Mason House

Mason House in West LA started its 2024 season with a concert featuring two of the series’ most familiar and cherished performers, violinist Ambroise Aubrun and cellist Cécilia Tsan. They are locally-based but global-class musicians, and there is really no reason ever to skip a concert that either is playing in. Here, however, they were joined by a violist new to Mason House, Kate Hamilton, also well-traveled and vastly experienced. Based on these performances, she shares Tsan and Aubrun’s marvelous ear for mixing and matching string tones.

Hamilton and Aubrun also perform and tour as Duo Novae, and together they played all five short pieces that took up the first half, among them host Todd Mason’s Duo for Violin and Viola. After intermission, Tsan joined Aubrun to play Bach, and then all three as a trio gave us the show’s two main courses, the one-movement Schubert String Trio in B-flat major D. 471, and the world premiere of Mason’s String Trio

Opening his pre-concert talk, LA Opus’ David Brown (right) said that Todd had challenged him to “find a common thread" among the seven composers and eight compositions featured in the concert, and the challenge led him on a fascinating sweep through eras of Western classical music history, from J. S. Bach’s time to the present day. Taking the composers chronologically rather than in performance order, we learned: 

… that the much-loved Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, has been arranged in at least 56 different ways from Bach’s original for two violins, strings and continuo (and not including the one we were to hear today)….

… about where in Franz Schubert’s brief and chaotic timeline he found time to compose (but not finish) this particular trio (when he was 19 and had just moved out of his “crowded and oppressive” family home, personal turmoil not betrayed by the calm, civilized discourse of the piece itself)…

.. that Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), now obscure as a composer, was a professor at the Vienna Conservatory who taught some of the most celebrated 20th century composers, including Enescu, Korngold, Mahler, Wolf, and Sibelius...

… that the Norwegian Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), whose piece was to close the first half, is also a rather neglected composer now, but in his lifetime was a celebrated violinist and conductor: his output included three symphonies… 

… that Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was incredibly prolific: when the Swedish company BIS took on the challenge of recording his entire output, it ran to 75 CDs’ worth, of which 11 were devoted to chamber works that are mostly unknown, including what we were to hear today…

… and that the inexhaustible 20th century Polish modernist Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020), known for music so jarring that it regularly winds up in horror films like The Exorcist and The Shining, turned toward a more tonal and romantic style in the late 1970s and continued to compose well into the 2010s.

Finally, we learned from Todd Mason (left)—speaking for himself as the only living composer on the program—that the Duo had been commissioned by Duo Novae, and that the Trio was written because his concert series has acquainted him with so many great string players.

This bounty of information foreshadowed a bounty of music and of styles, specifically the styles and techniques a violinist, a violist, and a cellist use to perform a wide range of compositions.

Sibelius, c.1891.
Each of the first six pieces lasted less than eight minutes, and the jumping between eras and style reminded me of when I played in student recitals during high school and college. In a recital, the pieces program themselves, and that was sort of true for this concert—if there was a common thread, it was the love by composers of string musicians, and the myriad ways players can serve composers’ artistic needs.

The first item was Sibelius’ Duo in C Major for Violin and Viola, JS 66 (1891), and its opening highlighted Aubrun’s violin singing plaintively over a steady, soft, liquid beat of arpeggios on Hamilton’s viola; as if he were walking alongside a river singing his song.

Penderecki, 2008.
Penderecki’s Ciaccona for Violin & Viola (2005) came next. Originally written in memory of Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope who died that year, it was later incorporated into the composer’s Polish Requiem. It vividly presented the violin as a conveyor of grief and yearning. Hamilton provided support in the form of murmurs, whispers, and gentle reminders. It was hard to listen to this piece and not visualize two grieving souls, working through loss together.

Nos 3, 4, 8 and 12 from Fuchs’ 12 Duos for Violin and Viola Op. 60 (1898) felt the most like what one would expect to hear at a recital—clever studies to showcase techniques and the qualities of each instrument. Of the four pieces, the third (#8 if you’re keeping score) intrigued me the most, as it gave Aubrun yet another opportunity to showcase his beautiful tone. Hamilton’s unerring rhythmic framing propelled the final, charming, #12.

Robert Fuchs.
Mason’s Duo was next. Although this concert was its LA debut, the Duo is already popular and has been included in concerts around the US, which is appropriate, because the piece feels a bit like a travelogue. Mason gave Hamilton her best opportunity up until this point in the concert to show off her gorgeous tone, her “liquid gold” as one reviewer put it.

But this piece was also ready to confront the listener, as one of its shifting moods. It felt dissonant with a purpose—to wake up the listener. And it’s also a showcase for two virtuosos, and it makes perfect sense that violinists and violists around the country have been excited to play it.

Johan Halvorsen.
Halvorsen’s Sarabande with Variations (1897) was almost jarringly familiar after these unfamiliar explorations. The piece is based on a theme by Handel—the one that haunts Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Barry Lyndon. After immersing us in the languor of the dirge-like theme, in the ensuing 11 variations Halvorson creates a maze of challenging virtuoso moments that Aubrun and Hamilton navigated with style and skill.

With the Bach that opened the second half of the program, I was again reminded of the period of my life attending and playing in recitals. The three movements of the “Bach double,” as everyone called it, were each perfect showcases for strings fast and slow, joyous and sedate. Aubrun and Tsan played only the central Largo, which includes one of Bach’s most beautiful melodic lines.

It was interesting to hear this highly familiar piece played by a spare ensemble of two voices from different parts of the scale, in this new arrangement for violin and cello by cellist Cicely Parnas (right). The contrasts between their instruments illuminated different qualities of Bach’s writing. This movement can have a hypnotic, even soporific effect, but heard this way it seemed more formal and abstract, allowing us to hear the voices more independently. The word in my notes for this performance was “painterly,” meaning I could hear the brushstrokes. It made something old hat sound new.

Schubert, by Klimt.
After the Bach, all three musicians took to the Mason House stage to conclude the concert. Schubert’s Trio in B-flat was completely satisfying as a kind of midpoint between Classical charm and craft and the more passionate feelings and images that early Romanticism evokes.

Aubrun again amazed me here, but with a different skill—his ability to pull back, to shave a little bit from the bright, singing tone he used to help fill the room during the duos, and make more space for music in which the spotlight was intended to be shared equally.

That quality of musicians listening to one another and making intuitive small adjustments was most in evidence in the Schubert. Being able to perceive this interplay is one of the key pleasures of hearing chamber music in the small performance space of Mason House. As the Schubert wound down, Aubrun, Hamilton, and Tsan played ever more quietly, leaving each moment that much more exposed, until finally ending in unison, on a downbeat so soft it sounded like a breath.

After receiving grateful applause, they returned to take us on another journey entirely in Todd Mason’s String Trio, an acute reflection of the anxieties of now, which began harshly and spun into a kind of chase scene, each instrument running to a rhythmic pattern of 16th notes, making brief sonic gestures, two or three notes, before rejoining the unsettling, unpredictable flow.

Then, as if finding each other in a safe place, the running stops, and lyrical passages begin, led mostly by Aubrun, wailing laments gradually coming under control, allowing the three voices to come alive together and achieve a kind of peace and clarity. Then, with about a minute to go in this 11-minute piece, the slashing and running resumed but with a slightly different orientation—excited, almost giddy, accelerating toward what sounded like home.

Altogether this program was quite a workout for Aubrun, Hamilton and Tsan, packed with music that stretched their talents in so many directions, both artistically and technically. Nonetheless, these musicians proved to be the perfect vessels for the artistry of composers from the 18th to the 21st centuries. 


Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, January 20, 2024. 
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Sibelius, Penderecki, Fuchs, Halvorsen, Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Cicely Parnas: artist website.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Supplication, Serenade, and Cosmogony at Long Beach

The Long Beach Camerata Singers and UCLA Chamber Singers, with soloists Elissa Johnston
and Kevin Deas, perform Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, with the LBSO under Music
Director Eckart Preu.


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

Some politicians are prone to saying that their attitudes to certain issues have “evolved”—and that does sum up my feelings toward Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45. Time was when its lack of the Verdi Requiem's operatic flamboyance and intensity, or Berlioz’s apocalyptic grandeur and extraordinary orchestral innovation, were minus points: perhaps as a hangover from first getting to know it via now-forgotten and less-than-ideal performances, there seemed always the threat that this choral magnum opus of Brahms’ earlier years could turn out simply dull.

But comparisons are indeed odious, and last Saturday’s performance of the Requiem by the Long Beach Symphony, Long Beach Camerata Singers, UCLA Chamber Singers, and soloists Elissa Johnston and Kevin Deas, all under the baton of LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu (right), was the perfect storm to blow away any last tatters of such a view: a cogent, lovingly-shaped account, clocking in at a trim 65 minutes or thereabouts, sung with skill, commitment, and palpable joy by the choirs, and underpinned by and clothed in orchestral playing of depth, sensitivity and poise.

By omitting the Requiem’s ad lib organ part, and with it any “churchy” connotations, Maestro Preu nailed his colors to the mast that this is essentially a humanistic rather than a narrowly religious work—a view that had been adumbrated in his rewarding pre-concert conversation with Dr. James Bass (below, left), Artistic Director of the Camerata Singers, and Mr. Deas.

The removal of that sepulchral rumble aerated Brahms’ textures in the lower register of the orchestra and exposed fascinating details often obscured. At the very opening, marked Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck (Rather slow and with expression) one could hear far more clearly than usual the two low horns an octave apart: an arresting sound, at once ominous but somehow vulnerable. Again, at the beginning of the third movement, they perfectly complemented Mr. Deas’s oaken tones as he began his first big solo.

Brahms in 1868, the year he completed
the German Requiem.
Brahms began composing the Requiem in the wake of his mother’s death early in 1865, and it’s often been opined that in it he also memorialized his mentor and friend Robert Schumann. The work’s growth was spasmodic and protracted: movements I, II and IV were written by the end of April 1865, but the remainder of what was conceived as a six-movement whole was not completed until August 1866. This had its premiere, to considerable acclaim, in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday, 1868, but within a month Brahms had added a seventh movement, to be inserted between the existing IV and V.

For his texts Brahms did not use the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, instead selecting verses in the Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha from the Lutheran Bible, and in so doing side-stepped anything overtly doctrinal. Rather than redemption through Christ’s sacrifice, or condemnation for unbelievers (no Dies Irae here), the message is comfort for the mourning, acknowledgment of the transience of life, and a measure of aspiration for something after death.

Kevin Deas.
Musically, Brahms embraces the richest and widest of contrasts, from gentle consolation to implacable fortitude to exuberant hope—the latter expressed in propulsive contrapuntal and fugal writing for the chorus, especially in movements II, III, and VI. The massed Long Beach forces excelled in all of this, perhaps most notably in II, which was propelled from the solemn funeral march of Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass) into the fugal Allegro non troppo at Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen (And the ransomed of the Lord shall return) with a galvanic sense of accumulated tension being released.

Elissa Johnston.
The baritone soloist only appears in movements III and VI, while the soprano has even less to do: nonetheless Ms. Johnston duly seized her moment in movement V, exquisitely floating the solo line from the opening Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (And ye now therefore have sorrow) onward, while Mr. Deas was as sonorously reflective as could be desired in his two movements. Given the uniqueness of the German Requiem’s text and Brahms’ response to it, one’s only regret about the performance was that the words were neither projected as supertitles nor printed in or enclosed with the program book.

Brahms’ Requiem, unlike the Verdi, Berlioz or Dvořák, is a little too short to fill a whole concert but—as with the Requiems of such varied composers as Donizetti, Stanford, and Arnold Rosner—only requires an additional 25-30 minutes of programming to make up the full evening. The latter half of Maestro Preu’s imaginative solution was to turn to another composer who was a past master at cherry-picking texts from many sources to suit his expressive purposes, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (center, back row) and
Sir Henry Wood (center, front row) with the
Serenade to Music’s 16 original singers. Their
recording was recently remastered, together
with solo performances by each of the singers.
However, unlike his large-scale choral works Sancta Civitas and Dona Nobis Pacem, for the Serenade to Music, composed by Vaughan Williams in 1938 to mark the 50th anniversary of conductor Sir Henry Wood's first concert, the composer chose a single text, from William Shakespeare, and set Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica in praise of music from Act V, Scene 1, of The Merchant of Venice for 16 celebrated singers of the day (right).

After 32 measures of orchestral introduction the singers come together as a chorus for the first four lines, but thereafter enter sequentially as soloists, singing one or two lines each, and only again together in four brief instances. The total effect is of magical intimacy and a rare perfect match between text and music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1936.
Given the large choir, and the fact that RVW later made versions of the Serenade for SATB soloists plus chorus, and for chorus only (both with orchestra), I wondered whether Maestro Preu would opt for either of those, but in the event his performance retained the solo contributions, albeit shared between 10 singers rather than 16, and used the full chorus elsewhere.

All drawn from the Long Beach Camerata Singers, these were Emily Scott, Sarah Lonsert, Maddie Reynolds (sopranos), Kate Gremillion, Kim Mendez (altos), David Morales, Dongwhi Baek (tenors), and Randall Gremillion, Brandon Guzman, Connor Licharz (basses).

This really was a solution that made the best of both worlds, with the effect maintained in the main body of the piece of the differing solo voices seeming to hand on each to the next the jeweled words, but book-ended by and briefly interspersed with the sumptuous combination of full chorus and orchestra. Finally, the seraphic playing by Concertmaster Roger Wilkie of the violin solo that suffuses the introduction made me think that yet another of RVW’s arrangements of the Serenade, for violin and orchestra alone, would grace any future concert…

Serenade to Music.
Though the LBSO’s devoted playing was integral to the success of both the Brahms and the Vaughan Williams, neither work enabled the orchestra to properly show off its purely virtuosic chops. That, however, had already been remedied in the opening item. Many composers have been drawn to the cosmos as a subject, and to judge by its opening movement, Aleph, the Cosmic Trilogy by Guillaume Connesson (b.1970) is a worthy addition to the roster.

Guillaume Connesson.
Reviewers of its only commercial recording so far likened its sound-world to a range of other composers: for me the ones that came most immediately to mind were two Johns—Adams and Williams—given the prevalence of strong but intricately detailed and restlessly changing rhythmic patterns, punchy scoring with plenty of percussion (the opening represents nothing less than the Big Bang itself!), and in Aleph’s latter half, an aspiring theme emerging on violas that brought to mind ET and Elliott’s aerial bike-ride across the Moon’s disc.

It would be easy to call the piece derivative, but in this performance Aleph made a marvelously invigorating concert-opener, greatly contrasted with the works to come. The LBSO under Maestro Preu threw themselves into it with galvanic energy, commitment and, so far as one could tell, accuracy—proving yet again to be a virtuoso orchestra that seemingly can take on and conquer any challenge it's faced with, however unfamiliar. Bravo!

Overall this quite splendid concert made one look forward even more to the one remaining blockbuster program in the LBSO’s 2023-24 season: 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, March 9, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Joseph Hower; Eckart Preu: Caught in the Moment Photography; Dr. James Bass: Long Beach Camerata Singers; Brahms:; Kevin Deas, Elissa Johnston: artists' websites; Serenade to Music CD cover: Courtesy Albion Records; Vaughan Williams: National Portrait Gallery, London; Guillaume Connesson: Christophe Peus (composer website).

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