The most flabbergasting debut last season was, without doubt, that of a teenage Dutch composer and violinist with a Stan Laurel fixation.
In April, Marijn Simons -- already at 19 a sensation in Europe but as yet unknown in America -- appeared as a flamboyant soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in the premiere of his exuberant Second Violin Concerto, "Secret Notes." He brought the house down, and you would have expected the Philharmonic would have rushed to bring him back.
But it was the Long Beach Symphony that invited Simons to return to the Southland, and he appeared as soloist in a Villa-Lobos violin concerto titled "Fantasia de Movimentos Mixtos" (Fantasy of Mixed Movements) Saturday night at the Terrace Theater. Once again, Simons played quirky music to which he had a personal connection, and once again he proved irresistible.
Strangely enough, there was no mention in the program or even by music director Enrique Arturo Diemecke in his concert preview discussion that Villa-Lobos' concerto from 1941 was receiving its U.S. premiere. It had been lost for more than half a century and was only recently found by Simons' father at the bottom of a barrel in an Amsterdam secondhand music shop.
That the work had long been overlooked, though, is not surprising. Villa-Lobos was an astoundingly prolific composer who is known outside his native Brazil for only a handful of his some 2,000 scores. The Fantasia appears to have been hastily thrown together for a concert in Rio de Janeiro. Two movements were adapted from violin pieces written years earlier. A third movement may or may not have been newly composed -- there is, Diemecke said, uncertainly about the dating. Apparently, the disappearance of such a work by a famously disorganized and uneven composer, whose output no one could hope to keep track of, hardly registered.
Given that so much of Villa-Lobos' best music is little heard, the discovery of this pastiche is not exactly earth-shaking. There are dozens of solo, chamber, vocal and orchestral works most of us are waiting to "discover." Still the Fantasia is substantial, lasting a half-hour. The movements are titled. The first, "Tortured Soul," is in Villa-Lobos' powerful, dramatic style; the second, "Serenity," is moody, lyrical; the third, "Contentment," has a wonderfully showy violin part and comes closer to the swinging Brazilian folk style that made Villa-Lobos popular.
A cool operator on stage, Simons, wearing a florid vest, played without score and with wonderful assurance. His tone was not always big enough to make an ideal impact in the cavernous acoustic of the Terrace Theater, but there was no mistaking the intonation and Paganini-like ability to make virtuosity look easy. There was also no mistaking how much he enjoys himself performing before the pubic -- at the end, he gave a thumbs-up to the orchestra and made a V-sign with his fingers to the audience. There were calls for an encore, and one would have been welcome.
Diemecke surrounded this colorful soloist with an operatic program that began with Verdi's Overture to "The Sicilian Vespers" and concluded with a kind of Wagner symphony made up of the "Ride of the Valkyries," the Prelude to Act III of "Lohengrin," the Prelude and Love-Death from "Tristan and Isolde" and the Overture to "Tannhauser." Such a chain of opera excerpts is not satisfying programming, but Diemecke compensated with his considerable dramatic flair.
Now in his second season with the Long Beach Symphony, Diemecke has added considerable panache to the orchestra's playing. There was the occasional uncertain wind entrance in the "Tristan" Prelude, the not always centered string playing in the "Tannhauser" Overture, but the theatrical thrills made this listener hope Diemecke will program a complete opera with the orchestra one day.