Vicki Paris Goodman
The Long Beach Symphony wrapped up its 80th anniversary season with a program combining the seldom heard with the tried and true.
I am quite certain I’ve never heard a trombone concerto before, so Ferdinand David’s Concerto, opus 4, in E-flat Major allows me to cross one such item decisively off my bucket list. But before I critique the night’s featured soloist, I have to address the rousing opener of the evening– the “Italian” Symphony in A Major by Felix Mendelssohn.
Given the orchestra’s continuing search for a new music director, its anniversary season has welcomed a roster of guest conductors varied in style and personality.
Mr. Cumming’s abrupt turn to face the orchestra, leading to a downbeat no more than a split second hence, might have suggested carelessness and the risk of establishing the wrong mood or tempo. But each instance miraculously rendered perfect interpretation and a buoyancy that comes only from getting it exactly right.
As the Mendelssohn got off to its crisp and self-assured start, I noticed there were only four brass players on the stage. Two trumpets sat stage left in their customary positions, while two French horns ingeniously mirrored the trumpets’ location stage right– not at all customary!– presumably for balance in a section of the music that featured the two instruments in “stereo” counterpoint. A wonderful effect.
Close your eyes and allow the symphony to take you to the sunny warmth of the Italian countryside with its upbeat tempo and lightness of strings. The first yields to the second movement’s melancholy beauty, while the frantic scherzo of the final movement convinces the listener that Mendelssohn’s days spent as a young man in Italy were indeed joyous. The “Italian” Symphony is always a crowd-pleaser.
Now for the evening’s rarity, the trombone concerto! As the Long Beach Symphony is a small-town orchestra (at least as compared to the LA Phil), there is no greater loyalty than that of its regular subscribing attendees to orchestra principals when they are featured as soloists.
LBSO principal trombonist Alexander Iles took to the stage dressed in a dark suit with its jacket open to expose a bright-red sweater vest that communicated warmth and gratitude to a welcoming audience. Mr. Iles’s devoted orchestra mates played his orchestral accompaniment with every bit of skill and enthusiasm they would have committed to a greater known artist.
As the unique and pleasing concerto continued apace, conductor Cumming yielded to the considerable liberty taken by Mr. Iles with respect to tempo and interpretation. Imperfect moments occurred, with the trombone slightly off the beat at times from Iles’s willing orchestra. Iles’s intonation faltered a bit, as well. But the trombone is like that, being the only instrument in the brass family with a slide used to change pitch rather than valves.
Minor flaws notwithstanding, Iles’s performance was magical, the added “character” seeming to enhance the piece all the way through. At concerto’s end, Iles was clearly touched by the enthusiastic crowd response. His encore of a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy” had everyone leaving for intermission with a smile. In short, Iles’s overall performance was charming, even endearing.
Post-intermission featured Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in C minor, quite probably the most beloved piece of classical music in existence. Once again, Cumming’s direction was spot-on, resulting in a performance equal to most recordings I’ve heard of the piece, and in some sections exceeding them.
With the 5th Symphony, it’s all about those initial four notes and the ways Beethoven found to use the motif over and over and over again. Every instrument plays them in different ways, at different times, throughout the piece. Even the timpani percusses the rhythm as the composer overlays melodies on top of, or underneath, the device that somehow remains consistently exciting for an entire half hour! The 5th Symphony is an event, and this performance elevated the event to a special occasion.
What a way to end the orchestra’s 80th anniversay season! Bravo!
The Long Beach Symphony Orchestra performs its Classics Series concerts at the Long Beach Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. Tickets for Classics Series concerts range from $20 to $88. For tickets and concert information, for both Classics and Pops! Series concerts, visit lbso.org .