There is much to unpack about the latest Long Beach Symphony concert at the Terrace Theater. Let’s begin with the repertoire.
Music director Eckart Preu artfully juxtaposed music you don’t know, music you should know, and music you know very well. They had something to do with one another, all of it from countries up north (Finland, Iceland and Russia), and therefore formed a cohesive program out of disparate elements.
The heart and center of the evening was Sibelius Symphony No. 3, a relatively unknown work that turns out to be a masterpiece. Sibelius writes tunes in fragments that stick in the brain, and he can also uncork a haunting melody; I’m still humming the second movement. The first part of the finale is a scherzo more sprightly than rollicking, and the whole piece belies the composer’s reputation for grim solemnity. This is a good-humored, endlessly entertaining work that deserves to be performed often.
Sibelius was the only Finnish composer worth knowing until Einojuhani Rautavaara came along. The younger composer’s fourth movement from his Symphony No. 7 opened the program, and played for an enchanting 10 minutes. Majestic brass over swirling strings culminated in a grand climax that then seemed to evaporate into thin air. I found it captivating.
Sibelius’s familiar and beloved “Finlandia” opened the second half. We then proceeded to two movements from Daniel Bjarnason’s “Bow to String,” with Joshua Roman as soloist. The latter did not impress, neither the first selection’s frenetic cacophony nor the second’s gentle dullness. Roman’s playing of his heavily miked cello was assured.
He unplugged for Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Following all this intriguing music with tuneful kitsch was either inane and incongruous or refreshing and charming, depending on your point of view. What we can all agree on is that Roman’s playing had tons of flair and character, and his overt expressiveness (not to mention extraordinary technical facility) made the piece come alive. Even at the end of a long evening, the audience demanded an encore, which they got, and responded with the obligatory standing ovation.
For this concert, the orchestra moved slightly downstage from their previous position, and the resulting sound was brighter and clearer. I hope they stay there. Brass sang out thrillingly, the winds could be heard more distinctly, and the strings were marvelous. They recently filled some chairs, formerly occupied by substitutes, with new regular members, and it showed.
Preu conducted with his usual mastery, and his spoken introduction was a textbook example of how to do this sort of thing. Not a preconcert lecture or program notes, he gave just enough information to satisfy old and new audiences alike, communicated his enthusiasm for the music, and got everybody ready and eager to listen.
The Long Beach Symphony has had its good and bad years, but it hasn’t always been interesting. Now it is.