Thursday, November 25, 2021

POP Flies Humperdinck’s Fairytale Over LA’s Necropolis


Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel at Forest Lawn.

REVIEW

Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”, Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale
DAVID J BROWN

Child poverty, neglect, and murder, a subtext on the duality of hunger and greed (not to mention cannibalism), food used as child bait, and a final opportunistic act of geronticide—clearly these are perfect ingredients for a family entertainment, and indeed Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921, right) in Hänsel und Gretel so sweetly baked his concoction, and so liberally sprinkled it with fairy dust, that it retained barely a hint of Grimm seasoning and remains the perfect holiday event.

It certainly was in Artistic Director Josh Shaw’s brightly colored and energetic production for his Pacific Opera Project. This object lesson in maximizing limited resources was staged outdoors on the terrace at the top of Forest Lawn in a chamber ensemble arrangement by Kathleen Kelly, and doubtless with fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be chilled out by early onset of winter or blown away by the Santa Ana winds.

On the last of its four-evening run, which we attended, the late-November chill had relented a bit from previous nights, but the winds, funneled through Forest Lawn’s avenue of buildings into the performance area, did send some empty cans rolling and paper napkins flying from the picnic tables at which most of the capacity audience were seated.

Fortunately the wind was not so strong as to seriously threaten the set, a construction robust and versatile enough to earn a round of applause each time it metamorphosed—from hut exterior at the outset to hut interior, via the folding out and sideways deployment of its two front halves; to forest backdrop revealed when the halves, closed again during the “Witch’s Ride” entr’acte between Acts One and Two, folded out a second time; and finally in Act Three after the interval, when it became the exterior of the gingerbread house and finally its interior by the same hinged means.

Pre-opera picnicking as the sun sets.

Another strength of the performance—and of POP’s productions in general in my experience—was the skilled choice of singers for parts. Hänsel und Gretel’s first scene always seems to me to go on a bit, with nothing except the titular siblings dancing around and singing about how hungry they are, and with a large number of potentially restive kids in the audience I did wonder how attention-spans would hold up—particularly as it follows straight on from the substantial overture, which exposed the limitations of the chamber arrangement (string quartet, three winds, and keyboard played by Music Director Brian Holman) with no stage action to divert attention.

However, the expertly cast duo (left) of Emily Rosenberg (soprano, Gretel) and Kara Morgan (mezzo-soprano, Hänsel) energetically interacted until the arrival of Mother (Erin Theodorakis, mezzo-soprano), who knocks over the milk-jug while scolding and chasing the children and then sends them out into the forest to find berries. In due course, boozy broom-maker Father (Daniel Scofield, baritone, in stentorian form), arrives home and, between swigs, sounds the alarm about the child-devouring Witch who lives in the forest.

Hänsel und Gretel’s roundabout genesis began with a request in April 1890 from Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid for music to accompany some nursery rhymes she had written. Building upon his interest in composing a comic opera, other family members later joined Adelheid in putting together the libretto for a singspiel based on the Grimm fairytale, and with more music composed for this, the result was a family entertainment for Christmas, 1890.

Erin Theodorakis and Daniel Scofield.
Humperdinck became further engaged in developing his planned opera around the songs already written, and over the next two years gradually assembled the work between his day jobs of teaching and review-writing. All this goes towards explaining the somewhat patchwork nature of the plot, but also the eventual success of Hänsel und Gretel, with its indelibly tuneful score.

One element injected at the singspiel stage and not present in the Grimm original was the dream pantomime, with angels and the Sandman—portrayed in this production by soprano Anastasia Malliaras as a sort of rickety elf in tights and frock coat, crowned by a top hat of Dickensian eccentricity (below)—lulling the forest outcast children off to sleep. This was particularly successful, with pointilliste light effects sprinkled over the audience and the Dew Fairy (Brooke Iva Lohman, soprano) wanding her benedictions from the top of the forest backdrop.


This underlined the production's one disappointment—that nothing was made of the “Witch’s Ride” other than it aurally accompanying some darkened fumblings at the back of the set: surely at least she could have malevolently peered over the top of it? However, when the Witch finally appeared in Act Three, mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar—first in sweet old lady guise and then in full black pointy-hat witch get-up in the gingerbread house interior (below)—gave the part her all...


... as indeed, the production made the most that could be done with the hasty, and frankly perfunctory, way Humperdinck builds up to and then despatches the Witch by having Gretel shove her past its skull-decorated door into the oven. The final scene, with the liberation of the other lost children from gingerbreadhood and the immolation of the Witch into edible form, was the textbook happy ending (below), enthusiastically applauded by the capacity audience.


This, all the way from the perfectly floated horn solo that launched the Overture to the end of the work, was another signal success for POP, and made one look forward eagerly to what is by far the most intriguing item in its current Fairytale Season, a rare outing for Tchaikovsky’s final opera, the one-act Iolanta, to be staged at the Aratani Theatre in late March 2022 with the blind soprano Cristina Jones in the title role, and what looks to be something approaching the composer’s full orchestral requirements. Don’t miss it!

Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale, 5:00 p.m., Sunday, November 21, 2021.
Images: Production photos: Martha Benedict; Humperdinck: Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The LBSO Return, with Coleridge-Taylor and Beethoven


Party preparations for opening night.

REVIEW
Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

Ernie Ehrhardt (1946-2021),
the LBSO cellist whose
memory this concert honored.
The Long Beach Symphony management team seemed to me barely to put a foot wrong in how they handled the Covid-related challenges and pitfalls of returning to live performance for the inaugural concert of the orchestra’s “welcome back” 2021-2022 season.

Out went both the pre-concert talk and the concert interval, on the grounds of minimizing the chance of any infections spread between audience members seated for the former and milling around during the later; in came a pre-concert “party” outside, where the ample terrace of the eponymous theater had plenty of room for food trucks, drinks stations, and seating around fire pits that on such a warm evening were useful more for their decorative, welcoming appeal than any need for actual heating.

The only things to be regretted were the abandonment of printed programs in favor of hovering your smartphone’s camera over a QR code on a small leaflet to access the online notes—a step too far in the pursuit of touchless nirvana—and the necessarily truncated duration of the concert itself. However, for the latter, the LBSO players under their Music Director Eckart Preu more than made up in quality what was lacking in quantity.

Copland in 1942, the
year he wrote Fanfare
for the Common Man.
After what seemed a somewhat more fervent than usual "Star-Spangled Banner", the LBSO’s particularly sonorous tam-tam at a healthy fortissimo ushered in Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the plain-spoken, defiant heroism of which seemed entirely appropriate for the occasion. Then we were on to the serious meat of the concert, which was held in memory of Ernest F. Ehrhardt Jr., tenured cellist with the orchestra for almost 50 years.

The life of the Afro-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) had the most inauspicious of beginnings. The illegitimate offspring of a Creole doctor from Sierra Leone—who returned home seven months before Samuel was born and probably never knew that he was to be a father—and the 18-year-old daughter, herself also illegitimate, of a South London farrier, he nonetheless evinced exceptional musical talent from early childhood

This was nurtured by his maternal grandfather, a keen amateur musician. After himself teaching the boy the violin, he engaged a professional tutor to progress his grandson's studies, and by the age of 10 young Samuel was playing, and singing, in his school and at church. At only 15 he entered the Royal College of Music, and three years later gained a composition scholarship there.

Coleridge-Taylor aged 23, when
he wrote his Ballade for Orchestra.
Music poured from Coleridge-Taylor’s pen, earning the approbation even of the famously exacting Professor of Composition, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. His Symphony in A minor Op. 8 was performed at the RCM, and his Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor Op. 10—composed in direct response to a challenge by Stanford to write a quintet not influenced by Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet—was met with “You've done it, my boy!

Advocacy by Elgar, and more specifically Alfred Jaeger—Elgar’s “Nimrod” in the Enigma Variations—secured a commission for an orchestral work at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, and the result was Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for Orchestra in A minor, Op. 33

One critic of the premiere, conducted by the composer, called the piece “stimulating, highly coloured” and with “barbaric moments”, while another deemed it “a striking work, [with] a masterful force and half untamed and fiery exuberance that give it memorable distinctiveness”—reactions that doubtless also reflected the Victorian audience’s startled reaction when the young man’s ethnicity was revealed as he strode onto the platform.

The Ballade in form lies somewhere between symphonic poem and an extended scherzo-and-trio, and introducing it to the Long Beach audience last Saturday, Eckart Preu launched the LBSO’s performance with all the energico asked for in the score. The wind and brass attack on the Allegro vivace opening complex of “scherzo” themes, tinged with Dvořákian harmonies, was bitingly unanimous, and no less memorable and committed were the strings' embrace of the romantically soaring dolce “trio” section.

Maybe the Ballade’s themes, however memorable, come around once too often, but Coleridge-Taylor’s claims on present-day audiences could not have been more convincingly demonstrated—and perhaps even more specifically for an American audience, given the startling success of his career not only in England but also in the US, where over three visits in 1904, 1906, and 1910 he wowed both listeners and performers, most importantly as a role-model inspiration for Black musicians of the time. (For the full story, it's well worth watching a remarkable two-hour documentary "Samuel Coleridge Taylor and His Music in America, 1900–1912" on YouTube here.) 

Beethoven in 1812, the year of the Seventh Symphony:
computer visualization from his life mask.
The Ballade, however, was just the prelude to a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 that was simply thrilling. Wagner famously called this work “the Apotheosis of the Dance”, and it is often referred to in terms of human joy and exuberance. But beyond this, and perhaps more than any other work you care to name, this symphony seems to tap into, release, and form a conduit for some inexhaustible source of pure energy, ever renewable and renewing.

Everything stems from the slow(ish) introduction—at 62 measures the longest that Beethoven ever wrote—but with its grandiose tonal architecture, emphatic unisons, and multiplicity of rising dotted scales, this majestic poco sostenuto is as much a statement in itself as preludial to what follows. Preu’s forward-pressing control of tempo, and the orchestra’s mastery of rhythmic articulation, brought off this balancing act perfectly, and when Beethoven’s faux-hesitant hints of the main movement’s rhythm finally ushered it in, the fairly measured tempo for the Vivace made it the inevitable continuation of a seamless whole.

Preu made an applause-thwarting attaca into the slow movement, whose Allegretto marking he took at face-value so that it became an evenly-paced processional, always leaning forward, rather than the solemn dirge of some slower performances. His avoidance of any slowing for the clarinet-led major-key interludes that contrast with the solemnity was just as welcome as his refusal to slam the brakes on for the scherzo’s trio section, where the LBSO winds screaming at the top of their lungs above the timpani’s roar made one marvel for the umpteenth time that Beethoven achieves this with an orchestra no larger than Haydn’s in his “London” symphonies.

The great English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey wrote that “the finale is and remains unapproached in music as a triumph of Bacchic fury”, and for once the LBSO and Preu’s headlong dive into this movement made it really live up to that description. His observance of the exposition repeat, quite rare in performances of this finale, only prolonged the excitement (as the comparable repeat in the first movement also had done), and the orchestra’s machine-gun punch for the final measures triggered an ovation, Preu looking as surprised as he was pleased as the audience on their feet brought him back for a third time. They are back! 


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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, November 13, 2021, 8 p.m. 
Images: The Terrace: Todd Mason; Ernie Erhardt: CS Violin Shop; The performers: Courtesy LBSO; Coleridge-Taylor: Goodmusic Publishing; Copland: Fine Art America; Beethoven: Hadi Karimi.


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Monday, November 15, 2021

Grieg and Franck Violin Sonatas for "Second Sunday"


left: Laurence Kayaleh; right: Bernadene Blaha.

REVIEW

Bernadene Blaha and Laurence Kayaleh, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

The November recital in Classical Crossroads’ Second Sundays at Two series, recorded—as is now customary for this season in the presence of a small invited audience, duly Covid-vetted and masked—for YouTube posting on the due date, revealed an intriguing symmetry between the pair of sonatas played by Laurence Kayaleh (violin) and Bernadene Blaha (piano).

Edvard Grieg was 20 years junior to César Franck (their birthdays falling respectively in June 1843 and December 1822), but the former’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in F major, Op. 8 (the first of his three) was composed in 1865, whereas Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, M. 8, did not emerge from his pen until two decades later, in 1886. Thus we heard the work of, on the one hand, a very young man, and on the other, a composer in late middle age.

What is so intriguing is that whereas in his sonata Grieg—usually characterized as the author of lyrical piano miniatures often nationalistic in subject and character—showed himself at that early age the confident master of traditional sonata design with only passing hints of Norwegian folk music, the mature Franck took only what he wanted and no more from such formality, evolving an innovatory structure as dramatic as it is original, whose four movements form one of the most cumulatively powerful wholes in the violin/piano literature.

Edvard Grieg in his 20s.
This contrast between the two works, but also their shared vividness and memorability, was underlined by the performances, as vibrant and driven as they were eloquent and sensitive, from Ms. Kayaleh and Ms. Blaha, who were clearly relishing their return to live concert performance after many months of Covid-dictated seclusion.

They launched the Grieg with all the “con brio” the first movement’s marking asks for and, given the plethora of memorable ideas deployed in the long exposition, it was good to be able to hear them all again via the duo's observation of the formal repeat. My only reservation was over their, for me, rather too lingering treatment of the thirteen Andante measures that link the exposition’s end to the beginning of the development, which slowed the music to a real “dark moment” rather than the passing reflective interlude that its context seems to imply.

Grieg’s obedience to traditional form goes only so far and no farther, the second of the three movements being essentially a minuet-and-trio but with a canny hint of slow movement. Ms. Kayaleh and Ms. Blaha emphasized the latter with their stately treatment of the outer Allegretto quasi Andantino sections, and then plunged wholeheartedly into the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle impression in the Più vivo “trio.” Finally, they seized the finale’s Allegro molto vivace instruction and, bypassing the marked repeat, ran with it, even managing to accelerate into the Presto that Grieg piles on for the conclusion.

César Franck.
While Grieg’s Op. 8 is confident and memorable enough to make one regret—as do the second and third violin sonatas, the cello sonata, the piano concerto, and even the early symphony—that he did not give us more large-scale, multi-movement works, César Franck’s one-and-only Violin Sonata is a defining statement of his entire career, and simply one of the greatest works in the violin sonata repertoire.

The limpidity with which Ms. Kayaleh floated the first theme made one marvel once again how something so gentle and apparently self-contained could become the source of such resourceful and unpredictable development as ensues, while Ms. Blaha’s no less eloquent handling of the second subject underlined the originality with which Franck makes each of the two instruments “own” their respective melodies.

Ms. Blaha unerringly clarified the leading voices within the tumble of piano figuration that launches and underpins much of the dramatic second movement—effectively the work’s scherzo but not thus named—while Ms. Kayaleh was truly molto dolce in her projection of the poco più lento and Quasi lento sections that Franck intercalates into the tumult.

Again, in the seemingly-improvisatory-but-not-really Recitativo-Fantasia that is as original a take on the role of “slow movement” as its predecessor is a scherzo, both players were unfailing responsive to Franck’s multiplicity of expressive indications, so that when the finale opened with its plain-spoken but indelibly memorable main theme, it seemed like a thankful homecoming after a long, unpredictable, and sometimes perilous journey. What a masterpiece this sonata is, and how masterfully the Kayaleh/Blaha duo realized it. 

The two brief encores that followed, Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin and Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of “It Ain't Necessarily So” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, were just two small bon-bons to top an already rich feast, all of which can be enjoyed for the next month on YouTube. Don’t miss it. 

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Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, November 14, 2021, 2.00 p.m. 
Images: The performers: Classical Crossroads Inc.; Grieg and Franck portraits: Wikimedia Commons.

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Saturday, November 6, 2021

Choral Contemplations and Visions at the Segerstrom


The Pacific Chorale, divided into three for Hyo-Won Woo’s Me-Na-Ri (Space Music),
at the start of their “welcome back” concert.

REVIEW

Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN

Rachmaninoff working at his
Ivanovka estate, c.1910.
I suppose it would be mischievous to speculate whether concert promoters sometimes use the title “Vespers” for the great a cappella sacred work which Sergei Rachmaninoff completed in less than two weeks of January and February 1915 because the more correct title might provoke alarm amongst potential audiences. And indeed, though far from lasting all night, at close upon an hour the piece does present a formidable listen.

However, the return to the Segerstrom Concert Hall platform of the Pacific Chorale under their Artistic Director Robert Istad could not have been more warmly welcomed, and their performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil Op. 37 that was the main item, filling the second half (and with the bass Ryan Thomas Antal in the first, mezzo-soprano I-Chin Betty Feinblatt in the second, and tenor Nicholas Preston in the fourth and fifth of the work's 15 movements), showed the Chorale to have lost none of its security of pitch, clarity of articulation, and control of dynamic and rhythmic nuance, despite the long Covid-enforced absence.

Robert Istad.
In its masterful choral writing, great beauty, and sustained elevation of mood, All-Night Vigil is clearly a masterpiece, and Rachmaninoff is said to have regarded it as one of his two favorites amongst his own works, the other being the choral symphony The Bells Op. 35, written two years earlier (now that, sung by the Pacific Chorale with the Pacific Symphony at very full strength in the Segerstrom would be quite something!).

Nonetheless, to listen with sustained attention and comprehension was a challenge, not only because this essentially static and contemplative music, however beautiful, requires “different ears” from the "classical" developmental style of so many Western orchestral and instrumental works, but also because the translated supertitles of the text—normally to be welcomed for works sung in languages other than English—were distracting here, dragging attention away from the music per se to its specific, and repetitive, religious devotions, sometimes clumsily expressed.

That said, however, All-Night Vigil could not have had more fervent and accomplished advocates, resolving one to explore further a genre of 19th- and 20th-century Russian sacred music that stemmed originally from Rachmaninoff’s admired model Tchaikovsky, whose fascination with traditional chant led to his own settings of this and other Orthodox texts.

Damien Geter.
Three 21st-century works by living composers filled the first half of the concert, the longest and last-performed being Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, written in 2020 by the Portland, Oregon-based composer and bass-baritone Damien Geter (b.1980) for the Washington Chorus but, due to Covid, receiving its live premiere here at the Segerstrom, with the soprano Aundi Marie Moore and Warren Hagerty, principal cellist of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, joining the Pacific Chorale.

The concert program notes (by Dr John Koegel of CSU Fullerton, and a model of their kind) discussed in detail Geter’s creative response to his chosen challenge: “inspired by the death of George Floyd, to write a work that would present a hopeful vision for the future in the midst of strife, inequity, and struggle…” His starting point quotes directly from J. S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 12, Weinen, Klagen (Wailing, Crying), with the solo cello acting as continuo, but this first of the five brief, linked movements (entitled “Fear”) segues at its midpoint into the African-American Spiritual idiom that imbues the remainder of the work.

Aundi Marie Moore.
The solo soprano leads off the second movement, “The Prayer”, and indeed, the performance thereafter was dominated by the vibrant stage presence and voice (but amplified—why?) of Ms. Moore. YouTube has a recording of the Washington Choir performing the cantata, but in this the third movement, “Breathe”, is overlain by literal breathing, medical machine beeps, and other “atmosphere”—I much preferred the straight account by the Pacific Chorale, who also sounded more numerous and vocally secure.

Inevitably, as with the plethora of artistic responses to 9/11, there is the question whether works that react to tragedy can ever “measure up” to the significance of the real-world event. And is it even meaningful or appropriate to ask? Also, can a work thus prompted, with “hopeful” in its very title, avoid seeming naive in its optimism, as one might also ask regarding, say, the intoning of “Deep River” at the end of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, a work like the Geter inspired by an atrocity?

For me, the most telling element in Geter’s cantata was the cello which, after its Bachian initiation, and in addition to its accompanying function, sometimes moves into strange independent areas of its own, even seeming at times to undermine rather than underscore the “feelgood” mood. One thing Geter’s work is not is opportunistic—his career embraces his African American heritage and embodies a commitment to draw together the worlds of Black and “classical” music. His An African American Requiem is to be premiered next year; it will be well worth looking out for.

Tarik O'Regan.
Geter’s work was preceded by a Pacific Chorale commission, also delayed by Covid from 2020. This was The Stillness Chained by Tarik O’Regan (b.1978), a setting of texts by the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (1875-1947). Its soft bitonal clashes and slowly shifting harmonies were delivered with devoted poise and accuracy by the Chorale, the sense of unresolved, poignant ache reminiscent of the work of Morten Lauridsen.

Hyo-Won Woo.
This was in complete contrast to the opening piece, Me-Na-Ri (Space Music), composed in 2005 by the Korean Hyo-Won Woo (b. 1974). From its gong-crash beginning to murmured close, the piece employs a startling range of spatial, dynamic, and timbral resources. Separated sections of the choir, on the stage and spotlit on the side aisles, chant and vocalize wordlessly to a repeated three-note rhythm on a Korean drum.

A distant soprano solo (Jane Hyun-Jung Shim in this performance) blends with the choirs, the two in the side aisles slowly move forward to join their on-stage fellows, syllabic chanting quickens and builds to a furious percussion-driven crescendo (masterfully played by Sangyoun Park, below right), which is dramatically cut off at its peak. Then a long, slow diminuendo… and fade to black. It was a masterfully dramatic opening for the Pacific Chorale's return to the concert platform. 



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Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, 7pm, Saturday, October 30, 2021.
Images: The performers: Doug Gifford; Rachmaninoff: Wikimedia Commons; Damien Geter: Resonance Ensemble; Tarik O'Regan: Frances Marshall Photography. Hyo-Won Woo: Courtesy, Phoenix Chorale.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Distinguished Late Substitutes for a "First Friday"


left: Ambroise Aubrun; right: Steven Vanhauwaert.

REVIEW

Ambroise Aubrun, Steven Vanhauwaert, “First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

Like the previous concert in the “First Fridays” series from Classical Crossroads, the November recital was recorded in advance before an invited audience, duly masked and Covid-vetted. Due, however, to another and rather more common virus, the previously announced performers had to withdraw until a later date, and the slot was filled at very short notice by the highly skilled team of Ambroise Aubrun (violin) and Steven Vanhauwaert (piano).

Eric Zeisl.
The main items in their program were sonatas by Mozart and Brahms, but for me the greater interest lay with the short encore piece, Menuchim’s Song by the Austrian-born Eric Zeisl (1905-1959). This passionately eloquent vignette gave a tantalizing glimpse of the unfinished magnum opus by a little-known member of the great cohort of Jewish creative artists who sought and found sanctuary abroad from the Nazi tyranny, in Zeisl’s case settling like many others in Los Angeles.

Amongst a large roster of other music—solo vocal, choral, instrumental, chamber, orchestral, stage and film—Zeisl began work in 1939 on his opera Job, based on the eponymous novel by Joseph Roth (1894-1939) (also Jewish and Austrian-born) but had completed only two of the planned four acts by the time he died. The “Job” figure in the novel is a Jewish religious teacher who suffers both physical hardships and a crisis of faith when he emigrates from Eastern Europe to New York; Menuchim is the son who eventually helps to restore his father’s faith.

Job
has been completed and was staged in Munich in 2014, and the vivid immediacy of Menuchim’s Song in the hands of Vanhauwaert and Aubrun certainly whetted one’s appetite to hear more of Zeisl’s music; fortunately this is possible on their Hortus label CD (right), which contains not only Menuchim’s Song but also the large-scale Brandeis Sonata for Violin and Piano (1950) as well as a movement from his (very) early Suite, Op. 2.

The disc’s title “Paris <> Los Angeles” references the exiled Zeisl’s arrival first in Paris in 1938, where he was befriended and supported by his fellow Jewish composer Darius Milhaud, and then the final move to LA. Milhaud in his turn fled to California in 1940, where the friendship between the two continued until Zeisl’s death. (I am indebted for all this information to M. Aubrun’s CD booklet notes, his doctoral thesis on Zeisl's String Quartet No. 2, and the Zeisl website.)

The final work on the CD is Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 21 in E minor, K. 304—included because it was, we are told, Zeisl’s favorite violin sonata—and it was with this that M. Aubrun and Mr. Vanhauwaert began their “First Fridays” recital. Omitting a major repeat (which they observe in the recorded performance) only served to make this account of the two-movement sonata all the more concentrated and homogeneous, the serene melancholy of the opening Allegro complemented by the Tempo di Menuetto’s limpid pathos.

No less unified and economical (“doing more with less”, as Mr. Vanhauwaert noted in brief preliminary remarks) is Brahms’ Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100—and as with the Mozart the primacy of keyboard over strings in the work’s titling is justified by the frequency with which the former takes the lead in presenting and developing thematic material.

Johannes Brahms.
The performers brought out fully the work’s gracious, song-like character, with no real change of mood across its three movements—their respective headings of Allegro amabile, Andante tranquillo, and Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante) clearly signal the prevailing lyricism. Any chance of monotony is avoided, however, by the way Brahms folds what amounts to a scherzo into his nominal slow movement by the insertion of a twice-repeated Vivace section—and you can almost see him grinning wryly into his beard when, just as the movement seems to be settling into a final quietude, he brings back a mere seven measures of the Vivace to end. Delicious.

You can catch this “First Fridays at First!~fff” recital by Ambroise Aubrun and Steven Vanhauwaert when it goes live at 12.15 p.m. on Friday, November 5: come for the Mozart and Brahms, but stay for Zeisl… 

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“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, November 5 (recorded Monday, November 1), 2021.
Images: The performers: Courtesy Linda Wehrli, Pastimes for a Lifetime; Zeisl: Composer website; Brahms: Wikimedia Commons.

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Mozart and Schubert Masterpieces in the South Bay


The New Hollywood String Quartet, l-r: Tereza Stanislav (violin), Andrew Shulman (cello),
Rafael Rishik (violin), and Robert Brophy (viola).


REVIEW

New Hollywood String Quartet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes
DAVID J BROWN

Mozart in 1782, the year he completed
his String Quartet No. 14.
Some works subtitled "Spring" really justify the epithet—think of the "bursting-from-the-bud" exuberance with which Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major opens, or the leafy radiance that imbues Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 5. But to my ears there's not much vernal imagery in Mozart's "Spring" quartet, as his String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387 is sometimes nicknamed.

And that, I hasten to add, is anything but an adverse criticism of the performance by the New Hollywood String Quartet (Tereza Stanislav and Rafael Rishik, violins; Robert Brophy, viola; Andrew Shulman, cello) that formed the first half of the SBCMS's October concert; this was a tough-minded and scrupulously detailed account of a work that eschews pictorialism and, as much as any other in his output, belies any view of Mozart as a purveyor of aural candy.

Haydn, c.1770.
Within his total of 23 string quartets, two groups of six were particularly influenced by the example of Joseph Haydn: Nos. 8-13 (1773), written in the wake of exposure to Haydn's Op. 17 and Op. 20 sets (1770/ 1771), and Nos. 14-19 (1782-1785), which respond as much to Haydn's Op. 33 set (1781) as the earlier group did to their exemplars. By this time, however, the two composers' personal friendship and mutual esteem had reinforced the link; these six quartets of Mozart were dedicated to Haydn, and indeed have become known as his "Haydn" quartets.

Before Haydn's Op. 20, string quartets tended to feature a soloistic first violin part supported by the other instruments, but here for the first time all four became independent equals; a decade later Op. 33 built on this achievement but in works that are often lighter in texture and tone than their predecessors. In his "Haydn" quartets Mozart took all of Haydn's "lessons" and ran with them, and K.387 is arguably the most intricately wrought of the lot.

Title-page of Mozart's String Quartets
14-19
, with dedication to Haydn.
Motifs are stated, combined, and developed by all four instruments with brilliant resourcefulness, and the New Hollywoods' attention to details of dynamic and balance in the Pacific Unitarian Church's relatively dry acoustic revealed "the fruit of long and laborious study" (Mozart writing to Haydn, on the occasion of his dedication when the six quartets were finally published in 1785) with all the clarity that one could desire.

Perhaps the most remarkable movement is the Menuetto, very long (in full sonata form) and with innovative rhythmic and dynamic dislocations that jolt the ear as much as they must tax the players: for example, all four in turn have to switch nimbly between piano and forte on the successive single notes of the up-and-down sliding chromatic scale that forms part of the first subject—the New Hollywood Quartet managed this without dropping a stitch.

A generous clutch of repeats added to the pleasure of this superb performance, including the expositions of both first movement and finale, and every single one in the Menuetto and its Trio—making the movement (usually the shortest in a Classical sonata) in this case the longest in duration. Only the very rarely observed second-half repeats of the first and last movements were omitted.

Antonio Lysy.
A single half-hour item in the first half of the concert and only one other piece in the second half? Few indeed are the great Classical chamber works on sufficient scale for this program layout not to leave an audience short-changed, but there was no chance of that here, with the inclusion of Schubert's last, most expansive and, in the view of many, greatest masterpiece, his String Quintet in C major, D. 956.

Completed only a few weeks before his death at the age of 31 on November 19, 1828, it manages to be at once a valedictory vision from the very cliff-edge of mortality, a triumphant affirmation of creativity, and a heartfelt expression of the emotional heights and depths of human experience. No one performance can encompass all that this astonishing work contains, but the New Hollywood Quartet, together with Antonio Lysy playing the crucial second cello part, did pretty well.

Schubert in 1827.
Unlike a previous performance by Cécilia Tsan and friends reviewed here, they omitted the long exposition repeat in the first movement, but otherwise were masters of its magnificently wide-ranging architecture. Similarly effective were the divine stasis of the Adagio's opening and close, and the seismic turbulence of its central section, not to mention both the exuberance of the Scherzo and its 180-degree plunge into Stygian darkness in the Trio. 

Most telling of all, though, was the Allegretto finale, where the New Hollywood Quartet's scrupulousness revealed, in the dry acoustic of the Pacific Unitarian Church, all the complexities of inner detail that make the finale a truly worthy crown to this pinnacle of Schubert's achievement.

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South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, October 24, 2021.
Images: New Hollywood String Quartet: Sam Muller; Haydn, Mozart, Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Title-page: fjhaydn.com; Antonio Lysy: Connor Vance. 

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MYTHOLOGIES debuts at Skirball Cultural Center




Review
RODNEY PUNT

MYTHOLOGIES, a suite of seven vocal and instrumental works inspired by The Odyssey and other myths of ancient Greece, with music and lyrics by Danaë Xanthe Vlasse (left), received its live-performance premiere on October 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Its CD and digital versions have been available since August 6 on the Cezanne label (CZ088).

In her introduction to an audience that seemed as diverse as a United Nations assembly, Vlasse credited the work’s inspiration to her own Greek origins. When the audience learned that her father was born on the same island of Ithaca that was home to the mythical Odysseus, her claim gained serious credibility. 

In the composer's words, "MYTHOLOGIES celebrates some of the most lasting myths of history and invites listeners to ponder long-standing cultural concepts, such as idolized heroism, divine power, crisis of faith and morality, and the junction of fate and free-will."

Each of the work's seven pieces is a tone-poem unto itself, employing wide-ranging, yet cohesive, musical styles owing allegiance to Romanticism, Impressionism, and the Baroque, with a passing nod to the ethereal weightlessness of more modern sounds. Given the mix of styles, the work coalesces remarkably well in Vlasse's skillful musical voice, evoking the sense of an epic and timeless past.

Five of the pieces feature bracing duets for two lyric sopranos (the well-matched Hila Plitmann andSangeeta Kaur in both recording and live performance), whose stratospheric tessituras defy gravity as they send shivers up spines. At the performance, that high-flying melisma understandably occluded full comprehension of the subtle lyric poetry.  Fortunately, having printed lyrics on hand enabled me to follow the narrative. (For those interested, the CD, with its booklet with lyrics and impressive artwork can be obtained from the composer through her website: danaevlasse.com).

Anchoring the composer's instrumentals was a piano, complemented by violin, cello and an ancient lyra plucked by Vlasse at the live performance. All infused atmosphere and varying colors in each movement. (Flutes and percussion add even more colors on the CD version). At its live premiere, that piano’s arpeggiated runs, chordal exclamations, and busy hand-crossings were animated by one of the Southland’s most poetic pianists, Robert Thies. On the CD he shares duties with Brendan White and Vlasse herself.

Opening the program was the film screening of a 12-minute music video, featuring a slightly expanded version of the first musical composition, Sirens, that would begin the evening’s live program (and on the CD). The filmed Sirens features mermaids of Greek mythology swimming underwater, their liquid visuals tailored precisely to Vlasse's music. This film's production & post-production, Vlasse reports, had crews and professionals working on three continents. After this screening, the evening's purely musical program commenced, as reported in its live and CD versions in the narrative below.



Narrative overview of the music and action in MYTHOLOGIES 

Sirens – Rumbling piano arpeggios evoke a storm-tossed Aegean Sea. Two alluring sirens (Plitmann and Kaur) beckon weary sailors to join them in its treacherous, roiling waters. Part woman and part fish, these creatures rule the shadowy depths. As their agitated come-hither enticements reach a breaking point, a sharp clap announces the cracking apart of the reeling ship, with all souls lost. 

Poseidon & Odysseus – Portentous slow murmurs from the concert's cello and piano (bass and contrabass flutes on CD) bode ill for the storm-tossed ship of Odysseus. As evoked by sopranos Kaur and Plitmann, a massive sea storm builds and capsizes it. Under the sea's thrashing surface, in calmer waters, the two sopranos eulogize the lost ship, with its sailors scattered in Poseidon’s sea. An Impressionistic piano and violin (high flute on CD) join the sirens. The slow 6/8-time denouement focuses on the survival of the sorely tried Odysseus. Its arrival on a hopeful Db Major chord gives promise that the hero's protective goddess, Athena, had saved him and will now guide him home. 

Penelope
— The scene moves to Ithaca, as singers, piano and violin (flutes on CD) announce Penelope’s plight, as threatening to herself as the challenges facing Odysseus. She copes with the endless sorrow of his long absence from her, while also handling a more imminent challenge: how to delay insistent suitors to her hand in marriage. Penelope employs her feminine wit to stall for time until her husband's safe return. Arpeggiated piano swirls reveal the scheme: claiming she is duty bound to finish a funeral tapestry for a deceased relative before marriage, she works on it by day, while by night she secretly unravels her day's labor. In the words of Vlasse, Penelope “epitomizes loyalty to her own heart, trust in her choices, and a perceptive understanding of how to navigate social expectations while maintaining her power and defining her destiny.
  
  

Nepenthe — A potion from the gods arrives at this worrisome moment. Nepenthe, the ancient Greek equivalent of getting a little opioid help from your friends, provides respite from the tension. Drinking it, mortals temporarily forget their troubles, depicted in musical terms by the classical trio configuration of violin, cello, and piano. For a brief moment, the weary protagonists forget all sorrow and pain. The music is an anthem in unabashed Romantic style, a march suggesting eventual triumph. Nepenthe ends on a reassuring E major, as if to provide cathartic relief.

Euterpe’s Lament — Taking a step into today's current events, Vlasse invokes Euterpe, one of the eight daughters of Zeus and the patron saint of music, to remind us that all life's blessings are fragile. Such a moment has arrived in our own time with the global pandemic of 2020, still not gone at the close of 2021. For the arts, this long interval has been our own era's great storm, silencing concert halls and closing museums around the world. Vlasse's thoughts remain hopeful: "And after the storm goes away, together we will build the genuine beauty of human nature."

Metamorphoses — Due to time constraints this elaborate tone-poem was not included in the live program at the Skirball. It is the most dense (in a good way) musical statement on the CD. The Roman poet Ovid, born a millennium after Homer, paid homage to his own era's inherited Greek myths in his Metamorphosen Libri, a history of the world in 250 myths. Vlasse's theme and variations on two themes by Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann, (as important in his day as were Bach and Handel) models itself on Ovid's poetic homage, themselves variations on literary themes by the earlier Homer.

In purely musical terms, Metamorphoses is one of the most interesting (certainly the most academically learned) work on the CD. Its first variation on Telemann elaborates with more filigreed urgency. Later variations increase the tempi and frivolity. The fifth one takes a solemn approach, and so on through several more, all brilliant in their resemblance to authentic Baroque-era statements. Surprisingly, new variations playfully revel in later styles. Scalar runs and intense repeated chords go off the tracks, and thrillingly, in virtuosic Liszt-like abandon. Chord clusters fly about as if Rachmaninoff had just arrived on the scene. Impressionistic filigree climbs up the range of the piano to surprise us with a sudden hint of a flirtatious Gershwin rag tune. The tour-de-force closes in a quiet, bluesy reverie that might well have been the musical backdrop for that lonely, late-night couple in the Edward Hopper painting. A terrific journey.

In her notes on this piece, Vlasse declares that “the structure of the music is designed to evolve in a way that parallels the natural transformation of stories, as each generation imprints new perspective upon history.” Indeed, much music history, with its ancient world stories, is fast-reeled in this charming episode.

Sirens (cinematic version) — The final track of the album is an extended version of the first track, with a significant instrumental opening to set the mood to come. An elaborate piano part with evocative percussion instruments (glass harp, rain stick, ocean drum, and thunder sheet) convey the visceral cinematic experience. The return to the earlier music of the sirens as final statement for the evening (and CD album) lends the project a cyclic feel, bookending the impressive MYTHOLOGIES survey.


For those interested, the video referenced above is available to view on composer Vlasse's website (linked above) and here on her official youtube channel.


Danaë Xanthe Vlasse (center) introducing Euterpe's Lament, with (l-r) Robert Thies,
Charles Tyler, Virginia d'Avezac de Castéra, Sangeeta Kaur, and Hila Plitmann. Photo: Bobby Vu

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CD CREDITS

Sopranos: Hila Plitmann & Sangeeta Kaur
Flute: Wouter Kellerman
Strings: Lili Haydn (violin), Virginie d’Avezac de Castéra (viola), Éru Matsumoto (cello)
Lyra: Danaë Xanthe Vlasse
Percussion: Nadeem Majdalandy & Emilio D. Miler
Pianists: Danaë Xanthe Vlasse, Robert Thies, Brendan White 
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Producers: Danaë Xanthe Vlasse & Emilio D. Miler
Engineering: Gerhard Joost (Groove Mountain Studios)
Additional engineering: Nick Tipp
Mastering engineer: Silas Brown (Legacy Sound)
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Album artwork: Greg Spalenka
Graphic design: Jeff Burne.
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Recorded 09/10/2016 – 03/15-2021 in Los Angeles, USA, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Buenos Aires, Argentina 
©℗ 2021 Danaë Xanthe Vlasse (ASCAP 4554219)