Musical Notes Graphic

Every day in every way they get better and better.

The progress that the Long Beach Symphony has made since Eckart Preu became music director was on full display Saturday night at their latest concert at the Terrace Theater.

Start with the programming. It was not that long ago that the symphony played standard warhorses almost exclusively. All of the music on this concert, while not exactly groundbreaking, was written in the 20th Century, a rarity for this orchestra, as is the fact that one of the composers represented is actually still alive. And when I say rarity, I mean up until now; a glance at next season’s brochure tells me to expect much more of this kind of thing going forward.

Then there was the playing. This orchestra is playing with not only technical superiority but also with a panache and swagger that is thrilling to witness. Some chairs were recently filled, and while all the newbies were not present, new principal second violin Chloé Tardif and new associate principal viola Jonah Sirota were; the strings sounded fabulous. New principal trumpet Miles McAllister and new percussionist Brian Cannady had prominent solos and made an excellent first impression.

Can I be forgiven for calling this concert the Gary Bovyer show? Bovyer, the orchestra’s longtime principal clarinet, had solos in all of the pieces, including the famous first iteration of “Simple Gifts” in “Appalachian Spring,” and played with his customary luscious tone and innate musicality. He was assisted in “El Salón México” by Mike Grego on E-flat clarinet.

Then, finally, there was Preu. You need look no further than Herbert von Karajan’s recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” to know that German conductors aren’t always idiomatic in American music. Here, conducting a program of American and Mexican music, Preu was seemingly to the manner born.

That “El Salón México” was a good example. Preu struck a balance between wild and disciplined, and while I might wish he had cut loose a bit more, it was an exciting, rhythmically precise, flavorful performance that caught all of Copland’s exuberance. Arturo Màrquez’s harp concerto, “Mascaras,” may have been the evening’s highlight, and not just because of soloist Ina Zdorovetchi’s spectacular red dress. The piece opens beautifully, and continues sometimes raucously, but with enchanting harp solos and a wild, rhumba-flavored finale. In the latter, Preu, soloist, and orchestra really started to, to borrow a jazz term, cook.

I have a confession. He is the dean of Mexican composers, and an influence on an entire generation of musicians, but I have never cared for Carlos Chàvez’s music. And his “Sinfonía india,” which opened the second half, shows why. There’s an awful lot of unison string playing, to no effect, and a great deal of repetition, of figures that aren’t memorable to begin with. He does not share Copland’s ability to write (or borrow) catchy tunes, and all his very large orchestra does in the end is make a big noise.

Several musicians left the stage before the final “Appalachian Spring,” and Copland proceeded to show Chávez how to do less with more. This was a lovingly shaped, beautiful performance, and both the orchestra and Preu were at their best, which is very good indeed.

Onward and upward.

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