Musical Notes Graphic

The place was packed.

The attraction at the latest Long Beach Symphony Classics concert Saturday night at the Terrace Theater probably wasn’t the repertoire, a program of what conductor Eckart Preu referred to as “rather eccentric French music.” More likely it was the opportunity to take a gander at Preu himself, in his first concert here since being named the orchestra’s music director-designate.

That program of French masterpieces, three tone poems and a symphony, came off sounding brilliant. In our interview last week, Preu said he wanted a “juicy, Romantic sound” and for his players to “sing” and “play with heart.” That it was, and that they did.

Starting with the opening “Danse macabre,” Preu showed an unmistakable affinity with French music, maintaining a tight control while keeping the rhythmic feel supple and the phrasings flexible. The orchestra responded with a huge, gorgeous palette of orchestral color, and a wider dynamic range than we’ve heard around here recently. Roger Wilkie, who seemed to want to go a tad faster than Preu did, played the diabolical fiddle part with his usual authority and beautiful sound.

Heather Clark played the opening flute solo in Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” with melting beauty, and all the wind solos were played sublimely by principals Gary Bovyer (clarinet), Julie Feves (bassoon) and Joe Stone, subbing at principal oboe.

Like “Danse macabre,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is known unfortunately today mainly as cartoon music. The pieces also share a similar structure; a mysterious opening is followed by a jaunty tune (here bassoon, as played magnificently by Feves), and the piece builds to a big climax followed by a peaceful denouement. Preu seems to like starting cool and then letting things heat up, which makes said climaxes all the more thrilling.

There was no guest soloist, so the attention was all on Preu. He gave an engaging and witty introduction to the second half “Symphonie fantastique,” and then proceeded to demonstrate why the LBSO chose him over two years’ worth of candidates. He totally controlled the dynamics and pace, and managed to create a tight artistic statement with a piece that has a tendency to sprawl. Sarah Beck played the third movement English horn solo with a huge sound and exquisite musicality. Preu encouraged his players to play out, and they did. In the finale, when he let the climax build and asked for even more sound from the brass, he got it.

If there were a couple of untidy moments, Preu and his orchestra are still, as he said, in the dating phase. There was enough good about this concert to make next season, when Preu will conduct all six concerts and in which the repertoire is more adventuresome, something to look forward to.

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