A New Year Begins for the Pacific Symphony
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Christopher Theofanides: Rainbow Body
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Cho-Liang Lin (violin)
The Pacific Symphony, Carl St.Clair (conductor)
The Pacific Symphony fielded a large orchestra for the first performance of the New Year in their sumptuous new concert hall. Conductor Carl St. Clair came running onto the stage, leaning forward, his long silver hair blowing back as if in a wind. St. Clair welcomed the audience and introduced the concert, recounting the remarkable watershed year that had just past for the Pacific Symphony, celebrating the inauguration of the concert hall and a successful first European tour. He described both the hall and the orchestra as works in progress- a reference to the acoustic tuning of the hall that is still going on and to the relative youth of the Pacific Symphony itself, compared to other major orchestras around the world. The concert hall’s huge concrete reverberation doors on each level (acoustics consultant Russell Johnson’s signature apparatus) were closed at the stage level and about 20% open on the top two balconies.
St. Clair announced that for first time, the season was 90% sold out. The hall was about nine tenths full that night. Given the challenges of the immense and diffuse market for the arts in Southern California, and the long shadow of the Los Angeles Philharmonic just to the north, the Pacific Symphony is thriving. The young orchestra is doing well, holding its own in an arts system devoid of governmental support.
St. Clair introduced the first piece, “Rainbow Body” by Chris Theofanides, born in 1967, scored for the large orchestra. This accessible contemporary piece has already enjoyed many performances. St. Clair explained that the piece sprang from two inspirations, the medieval composer Hildegard Von Bingen, and the Buddhist doctrine of the “Rainbow Body”, the notion that at the moment of death the human spirit is cast out over the earth in the form of a rainbow. Theofanides was haunted by Hildegard’s use of plain chant, a single melodic line over a harmonic base line, giving rise to ethereal overtones. This technique recurs three times in the piece.
“Rainbow Body” begins hauntingly, string and flute trills tossed out into the hall, with a striking cello accompaniment. The lilting harmonic overtones openly recalled Hildegard Von Bingen. The opening was stunning, but the question of where the piece could go from there was left hanging in the air. A kind of fanfare, the movement also recalled Copeland and made me wonder what Balanchine might have choreographed to this music. The low trombones were strong as was the percussion, with lean muscular textures. The piece created a compelling musical world, spiritual and evocatively Buddhist. Then a moment of drama brought Puccini to mind.
The journey brought us to crescendos and epiphanies, followed by silence. Then the double bass section began again with a hum, and once again took up the chant. The final crescendo was an epic triumph, masterfully conducted. It seemed that St. Clair was trying to wring every ounce of power from the orchestra, but could have used even more. If the power was there the audience would have leapt to its feet, but the piece did not quite get that far.
Debussy’s “La Mer” provided the perfect test case for the sound of both the orchestra and the acoustic quality of the hall. The subtle quiet opening was flawed by coughs and rustling paper programs, but the hall itself offered an excellent silence, black as night. Ideally “La Mer” would have opened out of that stillness. But both the orchestra and the acoustics were outstanding, offering an intimate tapestry of sound. The musicians were fine, the flute and woodwinds superior. Even the gong was subtle, impressionist but crisp. The cellos blended luxuriously. The first crescendo was superb- they aced it. Then the music faded instantaneously into an absolute silence.
The second movement “The Play of the Waves” was gorgeous, lively and crisp with perfect pizzicatti. It was breathtaking and happy, the conductor and orchestra finding the inner lines together, the flute and harp, with subtle cymbals. The percussion, the clarinets and oboes were also ideal. In the last movement the trumpets, cellos and bass stood out. The finale, “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea,” was well rendered, if not utterly confident. “La Mer” is a ruthless adversary, a warhorse that is played often, but not often well. The orchestra’s pace was exceptional, meticulously carved; the performance was fresh, the best of the night. What a delight to experience this difficult tone poem performed so skillfully.
The Brahms Violin Concerto, one of the summits on the musical landscape, offers a comparable challenge, one that is often attempted but rarely achieved. Cho-Liang Lin, however, is a strong, seasoned interpreter. The orchestra opened confidently, Lin’s violin was incisive. Carl St. Clair was a sensitive accompanist, eager to follow closely, his feet never moving but conducting with his arms, bending at the waist and knees. Lin’s reading was straight ahead, with little vibrato, confident but not supremely emotional. The violinist and conductor had an effortless rapport. Lin did not have the force of Heifitz but was exceedingly solid. The buoyant orchestra offered shimmering beauty without great passion. There was a little distraction of noise from the chairs in the first balcony. The performance brought a clean simplicity to the piece, an approach more classical than romantic, more toward Beethoven than Tchaikovsky, looking back more than forward. The adagio in the second movement was jewel-like, heartbreaking in its beauty but not sentimental, the beauty of nature more than of the human heart. In the finale, the violinist and orchestra conquered the demanding concerto, asserting utter control over the glistening score.
Thomas Aujero Small