Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Afternoon with the Venice Boardwalk and an Evening with the Culver City Symphony Orchestra

Alma and I went to the beach earlier than usual yesterday because we had an evening engagement planned with a friend at the 2010-11 debut concert of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra. The weather yesterday afternoon was simply gorgeous. As a result, we were unable to find parking in our customary spot and instead had to park further down on Brooks Ave. Brooks feeds straight into the heart of the Venice Boardwalk, a strip of t-shirt, tatoo and trinket vendors, and we decided to walk down the Boardwalk between Brooks and Windward Circle, rather than venture out onto the sand. I shall have far more to write about the Boardwalk in subsequent posts. Suffice it to say for now that the feeling and energy right now on the Boardwalk are somewhat muted, given that the high season is over. There are still many vendors hawking their wares there, but there are noticeably empty spots which during the high season would be filled.

Still, we had a nice walk and I did not get a sunburn. I was concerned, because I all too frequently forget to bring sun block. And, although I forgot to bring any yesterday, I managed to find shady spots along the Boardwalk to tarry while Alma perused the vendors' wares and looked for any unusual art supplies.

We had to walk early because we would be attending the concert that started at about 7 p.m. last night. Now I should point out that I have something of a background in popular and classical music. When I came out to Los Angeles from the midwest in 1994, I tried to break into the pop music business out here (with at best mixed results). I play guitar, piano and a few other instruments. Before I earned B.A. degrees in English and History, I studied classical piano performance for two years at the Conservatory of Music in Kansas City, Missouri.  So I know a little bit more than the average citizen about classical music, you could say.

This performance last night brought to mind Samuel Johnson's witticism regarding Milton's Paradise Lost: No one would have wished it any longer. It really is a shame, as there was a large audience for the concert. One had the feeling that this audience was a bit untutored in classical music, as witnessed by its proclivity to clap at inopportune moments. Still, the audience did not get to feel the magic of a truly electric live performance of classical music. One of the orchestra's adminsitrative flunkies actually came out before the concert started to instruct the audience in proper concert etiquette, i.e., no cell phones and no talking. Not a good harbinger of what was to come, as it turned out.

The program was billed as a tribute to veterans and, in keeping with that theme, started with a medley of U.S. military service agency themes, like 'Anchors Away' and the 'Marine Hymn.' I knew we would be in for a long night when, upon the conclusion of a hum-drum prosaic rendition, the conductor (Frank Fetta) turned to face the clapping audience and beckoned the audience (but not the orchestra!) to stand. "Only in LA," I thought "would a conductor motion to his or her audience for a standing ovation." Very strange. At intermission, Alma confided that she thought the conductor was trying to signal to us that this would be as good as last night's performance was going to get.

The program continued with 'Excerpts' from Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite. Why 'Excerpts'? No explanation given in the program notes for why nor for how or why the specific excerpts were chosen. I started noticing ensemble problems though almost from the start of this piece, as entrances were just a few milliseconds late and notes held a few milliseconds too long, particularly among the violins and violas.

The first half of the program concluded with Schumann's Cello Concerto. The soloist, Peter Myers, played quite passionately in his solo passages and cadenzas and convincingly conveyed some of Schumann's Romantic spirit. But I could not help but feel that the orchestra held back Myers' performance. In a concerto, the primary role of the orchestra should be to accompany the soloist and allow the soloist to set the pace. In this case, though, the orchestra did not seem to be accompanying the soloist so much as playing its own concerto to its own tempo, one that the soloist kept trying with only mixed success to speed up.

Indeed, tempo proved a constant challenge for this director and orchestra. And nowhere more so than in the second half of the program, when the orchestra played Beethoven's "Eroica" in its entirety. Beethoven marked the first movement as 'Allegro con brio' meaning 'Fast with spirit'. Instead, the conductor chose to conduct the movement to almost an 'Andante non con brio' tempo. What was the conductor thinking? He was nothing if not consistent, however, as each of the next 3 movements played more slowly than either Beethoven intended or modern convention typically has them. Especially obnoxious was the final movement "Allegro molto". It seemed to me that the most the audience ever got was an Allegretto. The ensemble problems I had begun to notice in the Stravinsky became really noticeable in the 4th movement.

There were some good things about last night's performance: the orchestra's intonation in general was good. I noticed that the woodwinds and brass played with passion and feeling. The oboist was especially noteworthy during the 2nd movement (the so-called Funeral March) of the Eroica.

However, good intonation and good intentions do not a masterful performance make. It was not all the director's fault. The acoustics in the hall were less than optimal. But I constantly heard voicing problems throughout -- by 'voicing,' I mean that the balance between the sections seemed off at crucial moments in each piece. I swear there were places in the Beethoven where it seemed like instruments were simply missing, the balance between sections was so poor. That I do hold the conductor responsible for. And rather than wave his arms melodramatically through the air like some swimming -- or perhaps drowning -- aquatic mammal, would it be too much to ask that the conductor first use his baton like a metronome to make sure that all members are playing on the beat? Upon the recapitulation of Beethoven's 3rd movement (the "Scherzo"), unless I miss my guess, the orchestra simply dropped two beats of music, skipped over them as though they did not exist, replacing the glory of Beethoven with ... two fewer beats of Beethoven.

When Alma and I left that night, we overheard a violinist outside the hall complain about the 'blitzkrieg of notes'.  Had he overheard that comment, Beethoven would be stomping his feet, tearing his hair and throwing his baton at the offending orchestra member. When an orchestra's instrumentalists feel they are dealing with a "blitzkrieg of notes," that might explain why they would be tempted to skip a couple beats here and there.

I hate to say this, but the Culver City Symphony Orchestra should not have performed Beethoven's 3rd last night. It should have stuck with the 1st or 2nd -- both relatively simple pieces by comparison -- and left the 3rd to the big boys and girls at the LA Philharmonic. (The LA Philharmonic might want to give that oboist a good listen though.) The really sad thing from last night's performance is that the magic of the music did not come through in the slightest. It is safe to say that those who came without prior exposure to any of the pieces left unmoved. And given my prior exposure to some of the pieces, I was left feeling vaguely resentful and determined that I would spend no more time in this orchestra's and director's presence. If you are going to play Beethoven, you should play him as he intended he be played or you should propound an original vision of his work. You do the audience and Beethoven a dis-service if you promulgate a wishy-washy mish-mash of half-baked musical nostrums and hide behind a melodramatic presentation to disguise the utter emptiness, vacuity and banality of your soundscape

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