Do you have one of those friends that are good at seemingly everything they do? You might already know that they’re like that, but when you see them in action you always have to shake your head in surprise and admiration.
Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are like that.
They kicked off their 2012/2013 season Saturday evening in Glendale with a generous program, featuring West Coast premieres of works by Andrew Norman and James Matheson sandwiched in between two very different concertos: the Ravel Piano Concerto in D with Mr. Kahane conducting from the keyboard, and the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Augustin Hadelich in his LACO debut.
With its mix of different compositional styles and performance requirements, the concert gave Mr. Kahane and the orchestra a great opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of their musicality and talent. If one had never been to a LACO concert before, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better way to become acquainted with the variety of things these musicians can do in an orchestral setting. Taken in combination with their other series for smaller ensembles (most prominent among them are the “Baroque Conversations” downtown and innovative “Westside Connections” in Santa Monica), it was the kind of concert that shows how LACO continues to stretch the boundaries of what a traditional “chamber orchestra” can and should be. Thank God for that.
The night began with Ravel’s jazzy piano concerto. Mr. Kahane conducts the orchestra from behind the keyboard with regularity, and has even done it with this particular concerto back in 2003. Still, it would seem like a more difficult proposition than, say, Mozart or Beethoven because of the work’s rhythmic angularities and Ravel’s typically rich and colorful orchestration.
This time around, conductor/pianist and orchestra took a few bars to get synched up, but once they did, it was wonderful. Mr. Kahane played the outer movements with a rollicking sensibility, demonstrating an ideal combination of pinpoint technique with a rich tone. His take on the inner, more plaintive second movement began arrestingly straightforward and unsentimental, but it worked as an interesting foil to the relaxed bloom of the orchestra as it joined him. Lara Wickes played the prominent English horn lines with great tenderness.
A performance of Andrew Norman‘s The Great Swiftness marked the beginning of the Midwesterner-cum-Californian’s three-year term as LACO’s new Composer-in-Residence. Commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony and inspired by Alexander Calder’s “stabile” sculpture, La Grande Vitesse (which can be translated as “The Great Swiftness” or, alternately, “Grand Rapids”), the four-minute work is compact in form but big in sound. Brass and woodwinds dominate, with swoops and slides that start deliberately before growing and accelerating with repeated waves of orchestral flourishes, before easing into its finish. It was an auspicious, albeit small, start to the composer’s residency with the orchestra. I look forward to hearing more substantial pieces of his, especially the world premiere of a new LACO “Sound Investments” commission coming later this season.
True South by James Matheson was inspired by a very different work: Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary set in the South Pole. More specifically, the program describes how Mr. Matheson “noted that Antarctica was a place that attracts people he characterized as ‘perpetual wanderers’ who ‘live at the periphery.’ “
In performance, True South is evocative of that landscape and those people in a very different way than, say, the picture-postcard pleasantries of George Fenton’s film score for Frozen Planet heard earlier this year at the Hollywood Bowl. It is full of music that is intricate yet transparent, and features some inspired, prismatically colorful orchestration of which Ravel would have been proud: among the many notable moments is a soaring solo for trumpet and the absolute genius use of a Caribbean steel drum; the strings often take a supporting role, providing harmonic texture and rhythmic propulsion. It is music that, like the South Pole, can be harsh and bleak one moment, and energetic and inspiring the next. More importantly, it is music that has a distinct personality that is not easily pigeon-holed into any particular classification. Mr. Matheson has already received numerous prominent commissions and awards. Let’s hope that his compositional star burns ever bright, and that we continue to have the pleasure to hear more major works from him.
Mr. Kahane and the orchestra dug into both of the new works, giving them clean and inspired performances. Even in the relatively dull acoustics of the Alex Theatre, there was a brightness to their sound in both pieces that doesn’t always make its way across the proscenium. True South got a particularly compelling reading, and the full complement of strings used by the orchestra gave it a broad, lush sound that was unlikely found in the work’s premiere performance by a smaller, sinfonietta-sized ensemble of the New York Philharmonic.
Augustin Hadelich is not a newcomer to Southland audiences — he has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic twice at the Hollywood Bowl, performing the Prokofiev 2nd and Mendelssohn concertos — but this weekend marked the 28-year old German violinist’s first time performing with the LA Chamber Orchestra. This was the first time I had heard him perform live, and it became immediately became clear why his reputation has been growing: his tone is clean and pure, and he plays with charisma and virtuosity without ever being showy.
For these concerts, he chose to perform Beethoven’s lone violin concerto — which happens to be among my less-than-favorite Beethoven works and/or violin concertos in general, primarily because of the stuffy, meandering, and long-winded first movement. Thankfully, Mr. Hadelich gave it a refined and unfussy interpretation which managed to hold my interest until he blew me away with an amazingly speedy and crisply articulated cadenza (written by Fritz Kreisler).
The rest of the concerto is much more to my liking under most circumstances, and this rendition was no exception: soloist and orchestra played the lovely “Larghetto” second movement with easy grace; the third movement was charming and lively, with additional fireworks care of another of Kreisler’s cadenza. When it was all done, Mr. Hadelich received a prolonged ovation from the audience and orchestra; he responded by playing the quiet sounds of the Andante from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2 as an encore — it proved to be a nice postlude to the evening.
Random other thoughts
- A hallmark of LACO concerts at the Alex is the accessibility to the audience of the performers and composers in the venue’s lobby and courtyard after the concert. Most of the musicians mix and mingle, greeting old friends and new fans alike. It is a simple, yet wonderfully humanizing opportunity for everyone involved.
- This mingling is often cranked up a notch when the orchestra offers one of their many post-concert receptions, complete with complimentary snacks and grown-up beverages (this time, it was caipirinhas courtesy of the nice folks at Leblon Cachaça). The fact that many people, patrons and musicians alike, were willing to wait in a line twenty people deep for some free alcohol (especially some yummy caiprinhas) never surprises me. That many people are willing to crowd around a table for some free chips and salsa always surprises me.
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: October 6, 2012; Alex Theatre (Glendale, CA)
Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and piano
Augustin Hadelich, violin
RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G major
ANDREW NORMAN: The Great Swiftness (West Coast premiere)
JAMES MATHESON: True South (West Coast premiere)
BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
- Andrew Norman: courtesy of Schott Music
- James Matheson: www.jamesmatheson.com
- Augustin Hadelich: Rosalie O’Connor
- La Grande Vitesse by Alexander Calder: Tricia Woolfenden