The search continues.
The latest in a series of guests who are vying for the position of music director with the Long Beach Symphony, Benjamin Wallfisch, was on the podium for the orchestra’s Classics concert at the Terrace Theater the other night.
He made a good impression, on the limited basis of one concert. I judge a conductor by whether he looks like the music he’s leading, whether he employs a variety of gestures or merely beats time, whether he seems engaged with the musicians, and whether he exudes authority and control. Young Wallfisch scored on all counts.
The program was a varied one, albeit one featuring the music of only two composers, both of them French. The “Bacchanale” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera “Samson and Delilah” got things off to a rousing start, and Wallfisch led a taut, colorful, exciting performance. Instead of being in their usual place behind the winds, the horns were positioned out in left field, which helped make their outbursts all the more dramatic.
Cécilia Tsan, the orchestra’s radiant principal cellist, was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 1, and this, too, was a thrilling performance. We benefit as she continues to explore the concerto repertoire with our orchestra (Elgar, Dvořák, etc.), with dazzling results in each case. I’m hoping to hear Walton one of these days. Anyway, she clearly had a mastery of the Saint-Saëns that few cellists today could match; it’s a wonderful piece, and she was wonderful in it.
The second half was devoted to three Spanish-flavored pieces by Ravel. This was not the tidiest “Rapsodie espagnole” I’ve ever heard, but I don’t know that you want this piece tidy. You want sensual and evocative, and this was. The most successful movement was the closing “Feria,” in which the orchestra cut loose and sounded confident. By contrast, the other three movements sounded timid and a bit hesitant.
We were on firmer ground with “Alborada del gracioso.” The orchestra exhibited the requisite snap, crackle and pop, and bassoonist Julie Feves played her solo beautifully.
Wallfisch paced the closing “Boléro” perfectly, beginning in an atmosphere of calm but with an underlying tension, and building gradually and inexorably to a frenzied climax. The orchestra magnificently rose to the occasion, each solo by the various instruments a polished gem. Special kudos go to percussionist Bill Carpenter, who kept the famous snare drum rhythmic pulse going for some 15 minutes. He’s icing his wrists even as we speak.
Wallfisch is a film composer with several distinguished credits who has taken up residence in Southern California. That’s a plus as far as the LBSO’s plans are concerned. He’s also, obviously, very talented.
Whether that adds up to anything remains to be seen; there are three more conductors on view this season, one of them a repeat from last year.
This is getting interesting.