Eckart Preu had an idea.
And the Long Beach Symphony music director's conception came to beautiful fruition at the orchestra's latest concert Saturday night at the Terrace Theater.
Preu designed this French program to begin calmly, and then grow gradually more agitated and excited, culminating in an explosive conclusion. Also, the orchestra would grow as players would be added for each successive piece. And so it was.
I was not entirely convinced by Debussy's "Clair de Lune" in André Caplet's orchestral arrangement. The thing is a famous piano standard, after all, and for me piano technique and timbre are an integral part of the composition. That said, the orchestra's strings, winds, and harp played beautifully, and got the concert off to an appropriately tranquil start.
The Intermezzo from Franz Schmidt's opera "Notre Dame" is the lamentably neglected composer's best-known piece, and the subject matter qualified the Austrian's inclusion among the otherwise French stuff. This is a lush, post-Romantic gem, and the addition of trumpets to the ensemble made for a full, rich, thickly textured sound. In contrast to the ethereal delicacy of the Debussy, Roger Willkie's violins and the rest of the orchestra here played with searing intensity.
And then things got dramatic. Like this concert as a whole, César Franck's "Le Chasseur maudit" (The Accursed Huntsman) after an opening horn fanfare begins calmly enough. But in the last section, which depicts the eponymous huntsman pursued to his doom by infernal demons, literally all Hell breaks loose. This is program music, which means it tells a story, all about a noble hunter's horrible, not good, very bad day.
Added here, the lower brass depicted the emergence of the demons from the underworld in appropriately spooky fashion. The horns had a lot to do, and they were magnificent. The pursuit itself was frantic and wild, with virtuoso playing from all concerned. Preu's involved, energetic conducting led a gripping, completely successful performance.
Throw in an organ and a piano, and you've got Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, the main event. I see I didn’t take any notes about the performance. This is a good sign; it means the playing was exemplary, Preu’s conducting stylish and authoritative, and the entire experience captivating. I was too busy enjoying the stellar work, especially of the brass, and the overall orchestral excellence to take notes.
Everything about the piece is big. The orchestra, the conception, the structure — are all supersized. There are two large, sprawling, multi-sectional movements instead of the usual four. The pause between them is wildly inappropriate for applause, so of course there was some. But other than that, this was about as good as it gets. The Long Beach Symphony in full cry is a thrilling thing.
Preu likes encores, but how do you follow an act like that? Raucously, in a fun way, with the “Can-Can” from Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” The clapping, stomping, cheering audience went nuts.
So Long Beach Symphony classical concerts, besides being artistically exemplary, can also be fun. Who knew?