Thursday, June 13, 2024

Bruckner and Tchaikovsky Crown The LBSO Season


LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu and soloist Awadagin Pratt greet the ovation following
their performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

REVIEW

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

The audience hook for the final concert in the Long Beach Symphony’s very impressive 2023-2024 season was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto—and if you regard the programming of it with Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony as a contest between Tchaikovsky’s undoubted popularity and Bruckner’s deemed reputation as box-office poison, then the former was undoubtedly the winner, given the volume of patrons in the Terrace Theater.

Tchaikovsky in 1874, the year of the
First Piano Concerto.
There was a clear sigh of pleasure and even a faintly audible hum-along as the signature pum-pum-pum-paaahhh of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor Op. 23, from horns noticeably energized under the baton of Music Director Eckart Preu, heralded what is still arguably the world’s most popular piano concerto (just as the same rhythm, but very much faster, kicks off the most famous symphony!).

But any fears that the leonine stage presence of soloist Awadagin Pratt might hint some lack of subtlety in his performance were scotched by his very first entry with those massive and equally unmistakable chords striding up the keyboard. 

Here he carefully observed, as so many do not, the piano’s marking (as in the original score) of only forte compared with the preceding fortissimo orchestral tutti, and he thereafter reduced his dynamic further to provide as subtly nuanced an arpeggiated accompaniment to the big mezzo-forte 1st violins/cellos tune (which famously never returns), as anyone could desire.

Awadagin Pratt.
This welcome lack of barnstorming continued to characterize the first movement, with generally swift tempi, aerated textures, and a pervasive sense of spontaneity in the playing of orchestra and soloist alike.

To the movement’s main cadenza Mr. Pratt brought a ruminative, improvisatory quality (though it is fully written out in Tchaikovsky’s score), and the conclusion of the movement, brought in at a fleet 20 minutes, surged with such emphatic vigor that for once the burst of applause was as justified as it was inevitable.

The opening of the Andantino simplice was marked by the delicacy of the string pizzicati, a truly dolcissimo flute solo from section principal Heather Clark, and an appropriately self-effacing piano entry. Maestro Preu maintained a steady forward motion, avoiding any indulgent lingering, but with Tchaikovsky’s restlessly sensitive scoring this gave the music a feeling of vulnerable fragility that was only enhanced by the hectic and uncarefree skittering of the central Allegro vivace assai section—all underlining that this concerto, for all its ingenuity and indelible memorability, was the work of a disturbed, even tormented, composer.

Tchaikovsky seated on a bench in front of the Belle Vue Hotel on the Corso Imperatrice in San Remo, sometime between December 1877 and February 1878.
With barely a pause, the Allegro con fuoco finale swept in headlong, and if any misguided listeners were up to this point feeling a little shortchanged on sheer virtuosity, it surely made up for it. Throughout, orchestra and soloist were as nimble, robust, and integrated as anyone could desire, culminating in a passage of double octaves delivered by Mr. Pratt at a speed that seemed to defy human possibility, and a surge to the finish that brought a roaring standing ovation that surpassed anything I can recall at these concerts. Altogether it was a performance that provided the perfect antidote to any “… surely not again!” feelings about this particular concerto.

For me, though, it was the performance of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB 104, “Romantic” that made the event most memorable. In southern California, celebrations of the 200th birth anniversary of one of the greatest of all symphonists have been remarkably thin on the ground, (very) honorable exceptions being the Santa Clarita Master Chorale’s enterprising whole-evening celebration of his choral music and a fine LAPO account of the Seventh Symphony (reviewed respectively here and here).

In Long Beach at least, this was made up for by the LBSO and Maestro Preu, a self-confessed lifelong Bruckner fan, who in his pre-concert talk (left) gave an enthusiastically spontaneous run-down of what makes this composer so individual—his very large-scale and highly sectional layout of movements; the extreme dynamic range and sudden juxtapositions thereof; his often obsessive rhythmic patterning; and the "terraced" way of orchestral scoring that was drawn originally from his organ improvisation at St. Florian Priory.

Preu also sketched in aspects of Bruckner’s personal life, his social naivety, the cautiousness of his development as a composer, and the extreme lack of self-confidence that led to so much revision, sometimes unnecessary, of his symphonies and in later life to his damaging willingness to accept advice and alterations to them by acolytes—all of which has led to an ongoing academic industry around the ever-expanding plethora of editions of his works.

The Fourth Symphony exists in at least eight versions, but in terms really meaningful to performance these devolve to three: the original of 1874 (and thus pretty much simultaneous with Tchaikovsky’s composition of his First Piano Concerto some one thousand miles east-north-east), Bruckner’s own major reworking of 1878-1880, and his final pre-publication revision (with “help”) of 1888. Of these, by far the most often performed is the 1878-1880 version, and this was what Preu and the LBSO gave us. 

Anton Bruckner in 1885.
Of all composers, Bruckner seems to trigger the most extreme reactions amongst devotees, and I can imagine some who like to hear his symphonies played as spaciously as possible not responding well to Maestro Preu’s interpretation—but in nearly 60 years of listening to countless performances and recordings of this symphony, I can recall few readings as cogent as his.

As an experiment to aid mutual audibility across the orchestra in the Terrace Theater’s unforgiving acoustic, a demountable baffle had been erected at the rear of the platform, and this seemed to give improved clarity to section principal Melia Badalian’s faultless intonation (mezzo-forte just as marked) of the opening solo horn motif against tremolandi in all the strings—and here they delivered the truly ppp whisper of sound demanded by the score.

On from this impressive start came an underlying sense of firm direction, with the first of the symphony’s countless fortissimo tuttis immaculate in ensemble and new-minted brightness. With inner counterpoints clearly delineated and transitions between its various sections beautifully shaped and paced, Preu’s handling—taking only around 17 minutes compared with the 20+ sometimes heard—clearly presented the first movement as something Bruckner thoroughly got right in 1878-1880, but rarely sounding as seamless as this.

Caricature of Bruckner
improvising at the organ.
On some previous occasions I’ve found this symphony’s slow movement a little problematic, having neither the immediate melodic richness of its counterparts in Symphonies 5 and 6, nor the epic Alpine climb-to-the-summit of Nos. 7-9. In particular, the long melody on violas against pizzicati in the violins and cellos that begins at measure 51 can seem interminable if played dully —but not here! Obviously exhaustively rehearsed, the LBSO section brought it glowingly to life as they faithfully observed every one of Bruckner’s many expressive markings, and fully deserved their special shout-out from Maestro Preu at the performance’s conclusion.

Similarly, in a less than expert account the long literal repeat of the “Hunting” Scherzo after the Trio’s folksy twists and turns can become tiresome if there’s the slightest suspicion of rote, but here again the sheer vigor of Preu’s interpretation and the light and shade in the LBSO’s playing made it, and indeed the whole movement’s 10 minutes or so (in this movement, as with the 15-minute Andante, his tempi per se weren’t much faster than usual) pass effortlessly.

Bruckner's tomb beneath the organ in St. Florian Priory.
The Finale is both the longest in duration and the movement that gave its composer the most difficulty in bringing to a satisfactory form, being subject to an additional major revision between the 1874 original and the version at which he arrived by 1880.

Its juxtaposing of several major and distinctive thematic groups, and their widely differing emotional character—including a steady build-up to a grandiloquent brass chorale and a thunderous recall of the work’s opening horn theme, a pensive counter-theme in the strings, and an amiable peasant dance—make it a challenge to hold together, but Preu’s command of the long view, attention to detail, and ability to carry the orchestra with him, paid full dividends.

The symphony’s final climax truly crowned the performance—no echo here of Sir Thomas Beecham’s remark in a different Brucknerian context that he “took note of six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages”—and in awe-inspiring fashion managed, as it always does in the best performances, somehow to express simultaneously tragedy, resigned acceptance, and triumph.

Eckart Preu heralds the LBSO’s viola section for their contribution to the performance of
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.
This performance was a personal triumph for Eckart Preu, and it’s to be hoped that any of the Long Beach audience members with a hitherto dim view of Bruckner were duly converted by it, and—now that the dream team of him as Music Director and Kelly Ruggirello as President have had their contracts renewed through 2028-2029—that he has the opportunity after next season’s 90th anniversary celebrations are over, to give us more Bruckner. How about, instead of (or as well as!) another symphony (No. 6?), a collaboration with the Long Beach Camerata Singers in the Te Deum or the Mass in F minor?—there would still be room in the other half for more Tchaikovsky!

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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, June 1, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Awadagin Pratt: Boston Musical Intelligencer; Tchaikovsky: tchaikovsky-research.net; Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons; Bruckner's tomb: findagrave.com.

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Saturday, June 8, 2024

Mason Concerts Season Ends With Three String Quartets



REVIEW

The Zelter String Quartet play Beethoven, Mason, and Korngold at Mason House
DAVID J BROWN

Though pot-pourri programs of varied smaller pieces and arrangements can often be fun and sometimes very rewarding, for this listener at least there’s really nothing to match an imaginatively chosen set of larger-scale works that explore and reveal what can be achieved by composers from different time-periods in one of the archetypal chamber music genres.

… And this was exactly what the redoubtable Zelter String Quartet (Gallia Kastner and Kyle Gilner, violins; Carson Rick, viola; Allan Hon, cello) provided for the final recital of the Mason Home Concerts’ 10th anniversary year: an early Beethoven quartet, and the middle items in two composers’ outputs of three—Erich Wolfgang Korngold and host Todd Mason himself, though in his case we hope and expect that there will be more!

Kyle Gilner and Gallia Kastner.
A couple of months ago a story hit the internet, or at least those bits of it concerned with classical music, on the uncovering of a supposed “secret code” in Beethoven’s manuscripts by which the composer is said to have intended to convey layers of expressive nuance above and beyond the normal indications that made it into the published editions of his works.

Intriguing? Yes... Likely? Probably not… Clickbait? Undoubtedly. But in the close and impactful proximity afforded by the purpose-designed Mason concert room, the notion began to seem not quite so outlandish as I followed with the printed score the Zelters’ account of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18 No. 6 (probably the last to be written of the set of six, though the compositional chronology between 1798-1800 of Beethoven’s highly accomplished first claim on the genre that Joseph Haydn, above all, had raised to pre-eminence in the chamber music sphere, is otherwise not known for certain).

Beethoven in 1803: painting
by Christian Hornemann. 
These wonderful players’ almost limpet-like precision in following, from the outset of the Allegro con brio first movement, the wealth of expressive markings—sudden changes of dynamic, mode of attack, etc.—that are spattered across the pages certainly underlined the impression of a composer obsessively intent on pushing his vision as vividly as possible, though maintaining this forensic attention to detail did not preclude spontaneity in the movement’s unfolding.

Their approach also underlined that there’s more to the Adagio ma non troppo second movement than limpid Mozartian serenity, with its central turn to the minor more clouded than usual, and gave an additional unsettled edge to the off-kilter urgency of the Scherzo. In the Trio, Ms. Kastner relished the insouciant twists and turns of the soloistic role that Beethoven gives the 1st violin.

The expressive range covered within this work’s compact and outwardly conventional four-movement design certainly comes to the fore in the lengthy Adagio introduction to the finale. Entitled La Malinconia and carrying the instruction Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezzo (this piece must be treated with the greatest delicacy), it almost amounts to a separate extra slow movement.

But only “almost,” and the Zelters avoided any smoothing of the emotional jolt between its rapt, sometimes racked, introspection and the blithe jollity of the movement’s main body, punctuated though it is by brief further returns to the La Malinconia mood. Overall, this performance dug deeper into the ambiguities of this earlyish Beethoven masterpiece than any other that I can recall.

Allan Hon and Carson Rick.
The Zelter String Quartet had previously performed Todd Mason’s First (2019) and Third (2021) string quartets respectively at Mason House and in the 100-inch telescope dome at Mount Wilson Observatory (reviewed by my LA Opus colleague John Stodder here and here). While the First Quartet’s four movements, mostly in slow to moderate tempi, adumbrate an acknowledged life-journey from innocence to experience, and the single movement of the Third seems primarily a vehicle for timbral and harmonic experimentation, No. 2 (2020) is firmly structured in three separate movements, fast-slow-fast.

Todd Mason.
The Zelter seemed particularly adept at not just navigating but positively relishing the opening Allegro energico’s near-constant rhythmic wrong-footing—from 7/8 to 5/8 to 6/8 to 2/4 to 3/8, and so on—never exactly repeating a pattern and sometimes with half a dozen changes of time signature in as many measures. The result was jagged, compulsive, and unsettling, as if players and audience alike were hanging on by their fingertips to a near out-of-control vehicle. Mason does build in calmer sections, but the motion resumes and climaxes in a ff slam on the brakes.

The second movement is in the greatest contrast, opening as it does with slow pianissimo drifting initially on the 1st and 2nd violins and then all four instruments. This dreamy motion seems to belie the initial Allegretto con passione marking, but via two silent 2/4 measures that punctuate the pervasive 4/4, it works up to a powerful ff climax before subsiding back into the opening mood, the sense of stasis enhanced by mutes being added in the last 10 measures.

The finale has another complete change of mood—mutes off, and away on what sounded like a swirling peasant dance, all chattering groups of 16th notes and vigorous octave leaps, with something of a central European tinge that was surely an homage to models in Bartók and Kodály. As often in Mason's works, this movement has something of an ABA structure, with a slower Più lento con il sentimento section before the dance returns. As ever, the Zelter Quartet seemed unfazed by its stringent demands, and their virtuoso account was met with ringing cheers. Hearing the String Quartet No. 2 in its original form made a fascinating contrast with its later guise as Chamber Suite for String Orchestra, recorded as fill-up to Mason's impressive Violin Concerto, available on Ulysses Arts.


After the interval, with the Mason Concert experience corporeally enriched as ever by Ethel Phipps’s marvelous catering, Ms. Kastner and Mr. Gilner swopped the 1st and 2nd violin chairs for Korngold’s String Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 26. His three string quartets were much more widely separated in time than Mason’s three: No. 1 in A major, Op. 16 was written between 1920-1923, at the height of his early operatic triumphs, while No. 3 in D major, Op. 34 (1944-1945) dates from the latter part of Korngold's signal career as a Hollywood film composer.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his
wife Luzi en route to America.
The four-movement Second Quartet lies almost exactly equidistant in time between them: Korngold composed it in 1933 when he was still living in Vienna, and shortly before his first trip to Hollywood to work with Max Reinhardt on the latter's film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though the quartet still left the feeling that something essential in Korngold’s musical persona is diminished if not lost when he doesn’t have the sumptuous resources of a large orchestra—as is not the case with some other great composers (and Korngold was a great composer) who essay chamber music as well as orchestral works and opera—the Zelters’ affectionate performance was a perfect contrast after Beethoven’s youthful brilliance and Mason’s wide-ranging challenges.

To these ears, both the concise sonata-design Allegro and the whimsical Allegretto con moto that does duty as scherzo-and-trio recalled elements of Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing incidental music, while after some introductory measures of eerie harmonics there was plenty of aural schlagobers to be enjoyed in the romantic Lento and in particular the concluding Tempo di valse.

Finally, we had not one but two encores: first the traditional Danish folk song Æ Rømeser, in a 2017 arrangement by the Danish String Quartet, and then, right out of left field, The Beatles’ Come Together as reworked by Quatuor Ébène in 2010.

Altogether what a feast of music this was, and a reminder if one were needed by now that within greater LA’s teeming chamber music scene, the Mason Concerts remain a unique pleasure, garnished as they are not only with Ethel Phipps’s unequalled food but also the informal and witty introductory talks by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano. Roll on the 2025 season!

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Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, May 11, 2024.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Beethoven: musicwithease.com; Korngold: The Korngold Society.

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