Music review: Long Beach Symphony begins 75th season
Saturday night the Long Beach Symphony celebrated the beginning of its 75th season. The mayor, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the State Assembly and Senate sent proclamations. Champagne and cake were served in the Terrace Theater Lobby. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was served on stage.
Although impressive, the anniversary is slightly deceiving, in that the orchestra, which began as a volunteer “recreational ensemble” in 1935 with four concerts a year, did not turn fully professional until 1966 when it began presenting 23 concerts a season. Two years later, the orchestra hired Alberto Bolet, a capable Cuban conductor and brother of the famed pianist, Jorge Bolet, and people began to take notice.
In 1989, the orchestra broke important ground hiring a woman as music director, JoAnn Falletta, when that was still a daring thing to do. Saturday, Enrique Arturo Diemecke, a Mexican conductor with showy side but real musical flair, began his ninth season as music director.
Following so closely on the heels of another Beethoven Ninth also led by an animated Latin conductor whose name begins with a D – the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “¡Bienvenido Gustavo!” at the Hollywood Bowl two weeks earlier welcoming Gustavo Dudamel to town has already been heralded as an event of historic importance -- Long Beach’s celebration was in danger of being seriously over-shadowed. But California's sixth largest city gets populist points for filling a 3,000-seat theater with a gratifyingly diverse audience that included young as well as old; black and Latino as well as Anglo. Men in dinner jackets mingled with others in Hawaiian shirts or even T-shirts and shorts.
Plus, the orchestra created a sense of occasion by inviting Marilyn Horne as the reader in Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” the opening work on the program. Horne grew up in Long Beach (her family moved from Pennsylvania when she was 11) and in brief remarks to the audience the acclaimed mezzo-soprano mentioned her fondness for the dodgy old Pike amusement park.
Lincoln Portrait” proved a brilliant preface to Beethoven’s Ninth, which concludes with a setting for four vocal soloists and chorus of Friedrich’s Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” “As I would not be slave,” Lincoln said, “so I shall not be a master.” “Be embraced, ye millions!” Schiller wrote, “This kiss is for the whole world.” Abe Lincoln was the better poet, but the sentiments of universal brotherhood were shared.
Horne, at 75, remains a riveting stage presence, and she read Lincoln’s words with an intensity that brokered no dissent. The program notes quipped that so many in government gravitate to this work (Barack Obama has performed it; so, believe it or not, has Margaret Thatcher) it has been dubbed “Concerto for Politician and Orchestra.” Horne, Saturday, was electable.
Diemecke’s interpretation may have been slightly weird – he played up, rather than connected, Copland’s cowboy and authoritarian sides. But he made "Lincoln" an apt lead-in to the Ninth, which he did not begin as awestruck mystery but rather as a lilting upbeat to a spirited occasion.
A kinetic conductor, Diemecke’s Beethoven Saturday was at its most convincing when it danced and when the sun shone through it, which was much of the time. Sunny, indeed, were the engagingly bouncy Scherzo, the expressive slow movement made to sound sweet as honey and an infectious if sometimes sloppy Finale.
The orchestra was often persuasive, although it was also beset with intonation problems and unsure instrumental solos. The vocal soloists (Susan Montgomery, Jennifer Wallace, Kevin St. Clair and Ralph Cato) were hard pressed and not helped by being placed behind the orchestra and in front of a forceful chorus (the Southern California Master Chorale joined by the Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Chorus), which was corralled, so to speak, far from the audience behind what looked like police barricades.
Diemecke’s real obstacle was the hall. I heard the symphony from the loge section, under an overhang and it felt as though the performers were in a different county. I sat close to the orchestra for the Copland and that wasn’t agreeable either. I can’t imagine the players can hear themselves very well.
An orchestra that has survived 75 years, that has worthy audience development and education ambitions and that, with this Ninth, begins a Beethoven cycle (the nine symphonies will take up a good deal of the programming for the season’s six concerts), needs appropriate acoustics. Sound enhancement might help as an immediate solution to the Terrace. I’d bet Saturday’s Ninth would have been triply engrossing in the intimate Richard and Karen Carpenter Center at California State University Long Beach. Thinking small might be better than thinking big.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: (top) Enrique Arturo Diemecke conducts the Long Beach Symphony with choruses and soloists Saturday in Terrace Theater; (bottom) Marilyn Horne is soloist in "Lincoln Portrait." Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu/Los Angeles Times.