The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra finally returned to the stage this past week. And there was much rejoicing (yaaaaay).
These weren’t the first classical music concerts in Southern California since the US began emerging from the haze of the Covid-19 crisis. The Los Angeles Philharmonic made that happen, playing two orchestral concerts at the Hollywood Bowl for essential workers.
They weren’t the first indoor concerts either. That was done by Los Angeles Opera a few weeks ago in a stirring performance of one of my all-time favorites: Stravinsky’s epic, if foreboding, Oedipus Rex (a version of which is available to stream for free through July 18). Uplifting? Um, no. Rewarding? Absolutely.
Yet as important as those were, this was different. This was better.
How? The pair of free LACO concerts within the span of five nights featured a combination that none of the previous events offered: joyous music played in spectacular acoustical environs. Together, they were inspirational and artistic triumphs.
The programs were finely constructed, insightfully interpreted, and magnificently performed. They showed the orchestra and its charismatic Music Director Jaime Martin to be an excellent match. The music-making was top notch throughout, from romantic warhorses to contemporary compositions, in both intimate works and larger symphonies. They reaffirmed LACO’s critical place in Southern California’s — indeed, America’s — musical and cultural landscape in a post-pandemic world.
This past Saturday, Mr. Martin and his musicians re-opened Walt Disney Concert Hall for a mix of supporters and the general public, the first notes played for an audience there since the venue closed in March 2020. That LACO was given the honor — and public relations coup — is a pleasant surprise. This kind of gesture would’ve been unthinkable when Deborah Borda helmed the LA Phil, and is perhaps a welcome sign of increased collegiality between the two organizations who’ve had minimal collaborations in the past.
They made the most of the opportunity, demonstrating the combination of technical and artistic quality for which they’re justifiably renowned.
The evening began with Variaciones concertantes by Ginastera. The work functions as a concerto for orchestra, starting with a lone cello playing the main theme accompanied by a harp, then metamorphosing through multiple instrumental solos interspersed with variations and interludes for larger instrumental cohorts.
Principal Cello Andrew Shulman played the opening with soulful and stirring elegance. His many colleagues followed with lovely solos of their own, among whom Joshua Ranz (Principal Clarinet), Erik Rynearson (Principal Viola), and Margaret Batjer (Concertmaster) were the most noteworthy; in addition, a duet between Principal Oboe Claire Brazeau and Principal Bassoon Kenneth Munday was particularly poignant.
Mr. Martin gave it all space to breath, injecting energy whenever needed. The work’s rousing final variation was propulsive and valedictory. Overall, it was a convincing reading of a somewhat disjointed work, melding the episodic variations into a coherent whole.
Mariachitlán by Juan Pablo Contreras, a graduate of USC Thornton and CalArts, was the centerpiece of the concert. While it was played this night in a newly commissioned chamber orchestra version, the original score was nominated for a Latin Grammy. It’s easy to see why — Mariachitlán stole the show.
The composer is a native of the Mexican state of Jalisco, the birthplace of mariachi music. His homage to that form is unabashedly exuberant, persuasively riffing on folk-like themes without resorting to pandering on the one hand or cold deconstruction on the other.
As the composer describes, “(T)he strings emulate the strumming patterns of vihuelas, while the contrabasses growl like guitarrones.” At some point, a police whistle briefly halts the festivities, to no avail. The revelry can’t be stopped.
Think Bartok or Mahler downing shots of Red Bull and mezcal while partying with Vicente Fernández, and you’re approaching the right ballpark.
Conductor and orchestra dug into Mariachitlán‘s challenges with gusto, clearly having loads of fun in the process. Huge kudos to Principal Trumpet David Washburn and his sectionmate Erick Jovel for astonishing tone, timbre, and phrasing which perfectly mimicked the mariachi style without parodying it.
Mendelssohn’s 4th Symphony, the “Italian,” closed the concert. It was a spirited performance. Mr. Martin chose relatively quick tempos throughout, eliciting bright yet transparent playing from the orchestra. They sounded in midseason form, so much so that those rare moments when blend in the violins was less than tidy or unsteadiness was evident in the horns were reminders that these musicians hadn’t played together in almost a year-and-a-half.
Mr. Martin and crew then offered two encores. The first was dedicated to donors Terri and Jerry Kohl for underwriting the concert. As Mr. Martin described it to the audience, Mr. Kohl had jokingly grumbled that the program didn’t feature the conductor playing the flute. Though he emphasized his role as LACO’s conductor, the former Principal Flute of three major London orchestras dutifully pulled out his instrument and played a gorgeous rendition of the tender “Cunando” from Telemann’s Sonata No. 3 in E minor; Mr. Shulman provided the sensitive accompaniment.
The second, Intermedio de la Boda de Luis Alonzo by Gimenez, featured the full orchestra, and provided a buoyant exclamation point to the celebratory evening.
The audience went wild, inoculated from any remaining coronavirus ennui for the remainder of the evening, and perhaps longer.
Last Thursday night, Mr. Martin and LACO were on stage again, this time at The Huntington in San Marino. Tickets were invitation only, reserved for supporters and associates of the orchestra.
Whereas the concert at WDCH seemed like a fiesta featuring over 1,000 people, this event for about 300 felt like a dinner party of long separated friends: more subdued, yes, but no less full of smiles.
And while crystaline yet airy Disney Hall allowed LACO to flex their muscles as a larger ensemble, the cozier Rothenberg Hall gave them the chance to show off their flexibility and skills in much smaller groupings.
Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune opened the concert. The chamber-sized arrangement by Paolo Fradiani replaced the original scoring for full orchestra with single instruments on each part and with a piano taking over for the two harps. The result was not as lush, but in Rothenberg’s lively acoustics, no less vibrant than the larger-scale version.
It’s a flute-heavy work, so it was no surprise that Mr. Martin knew just how and when to push and pull tempos, making phrases sound as natural as inhaling and exhaling. Sandy Hughes, sliding over from her usual second chair to play Acting Principal Flute for both of these concerts, imbued her featured part with grace.
Flower by KiMani Bridges was up next. The young composer is now a student at Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music, and has worked with Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellen Reid (LACO creative advisor and Composer in Residence) at the Luna Lab based in New York’s Kaufman Music Center.
This work was written while Ms. Bridges was still in high school. It represents, she says, “the life of a flower starting with the seed being carried and planted into the ground, to the growth and eventual storm, and finally concluding with the bloom and the death of the flower.”
To achieve this, she puts the flute, violin, viola, and percussion through their paces, sometimes with veritable stabs and swoops, other times with literal clapping, stomping, and snapping. She varies rhythm and mood, adding more complexity and altering lines as the piece evolves.
Flower received Luna Lab’s G. Schirmer Prize in 2020. With Mr. Martin leading four LACO musicians in tackling its complexities, it’d be hard to imagine a more earnest rendition. It is an intriguing work, full of ideas and interesting moments.
Ultimately, however, I found the whole much less compelling than the sum of its parts, especially on the heels of hearing the Debussy masterpiece. It’s not a fair comparison, of course, and frankly, Ms. Bridges would’ve been better served if Flower had opened the concert so that the audience could have experienced it with fresh ears.
All that said, I’d be open to hearing more from Ms. Bridges. I am very interested to see how her style and voice grows and evolves.
[Side note: the choice of a high school student’s composition on such an important program is, at a minimum, an act of great generosity on LACO’s part. I would have found it particularly curious if Flower were offered for paying customers; that it was instead part of a private concert for orchestra supporters makes its inclusion much more reasonable.]
Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo, scored for LACO’s reduced forces, was the evening’s finale. Local legend Suzanna Guzmán was the mezzo-soprano soloist.
Before the performance began, Mr. Martin took pains to say that while he and and the composer are countrymen, Northern Spaniards find the south of the Spain to be a different world. Indeed, his native Santander on the north coast is about as far apart as you can get from Falla’s hometown of Cádiz near Gibraltar. He even had the orchestra preview a few bars, suggesting to the audience how the passage evoked a Moroccan souk. His wide-eyed foreigner’s attitude might have made one concerned that he’d have trouble getting a feel for it.
Not to worry. Mr. Martin’s El amor brujo was visceral and pointed, as if its underlying Andalusian vibe was emanating from his bones. He couldn’t have asked for a more ideal partner than Ms. Guzmán. She inhabited the role of Candela, singing and speaking with beauty and conviction.
The result had the kind of frisson that you only get in live performances, made more potent by the intimate conditions. They even danced during one of the orchestral interludes. Occasionally, Mr. Martin allowed the orchestra to over-power Ms. Guzmán despite her being amplified; however, that didn’t distract or take away from what was an eminently enjoyable performance.
Throughout it all, the musicians played with richness and virtuosity. Brava to Ms. Brazeau for her magnificent oboe playing throughout and most notably in the sinuous moments within the “Danza ritual del fuego.”
Given that these two successful performances came after a too-long hiatus, it’s easy to forget that LACO is an orchestra in transition. Mr. Martin’s first season as Music Director was cut short by the pandemic. Executive Director Ben Cadwallader’s first day on the job was March 9, 2020, and the country went on lockdown a few days later. Neither of the orchestra’s leaders has really had the opportunity to implement his vision yet.
LACO already sounded great. Mr. Cadwallader says that orchestral finances are solid. These two concerts are positive indications of what’s to come, and I’m eager to see and hear what changes LACO has in store.
Random other thoughts:
- During the ovation for Variaciones Concertantes, Mr. Martin made a point of asking each of the musicians who played prominent parts to take a solo bow; however, he forgot to include Mr. Rynearson. Before the encores, Mr. Martin took the microphone and made a point of asking him to stand for his own applause, apologizing for having neglected him. Mr. Rynearson self-deprecatingly replied, “That’s okay, people always forget violas.” (Insert rim shot here)
- In remarks prior to the start of the second concert, Mr. Cadwallader took a moment to acknowledge how great it was that LACO was making their return in two venues — WDCH and Rothenberg Hall — with stellar acoustics. He added an intriguing statement: he got LACO board members to agree that the orchestra deserved superlative acoustics whenever/wherever it performed. That leads to some fun speculation as to what that can/will mean.
- Two of the orchestra’s current regular venues are great: Royce Hall is an acoustical gem and Rothenberg Hall excellent.
- A third venue, First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica is not my favorite, but its acoustics are solid.
- The glaring outlier is the Alex Theatre in Glendale which is historic and looks great, but makes the orchestra sound like they’re playing behind curtains, deadening higher frequencies and homogenizing lower ones. Might this lead to LACO decamping for somewhere nearby with better acoustics, and if so where? (*cough* The Ambassador Auditorium *cough cough*).
- Additionally, might the LACO appearance at WDCH be the first of more to come? After all, the home of the LA Phil and LA Master Chorale is usually vacant between early June and mid October. If they can play in the hall once, it’s reasonable to think it can happen again.
- In place of printed programs, LACO provided links to digital programs that audience members could access on their phones. During the concerts at Rothenberg Hall, the audience was encouraged to read English translations of the Spanish lyrics and spoken lines (there were no supertitles); few, if any, actually did.
- JoAnne Turovsky, the orchestra’s regular harpist, was originally listed in the program for the concert at WDCH; however, she was indisposed. Elizabeth Zosseder took her place, and the digital program was later updated.
- Things are looking up: LA Chamber Orchestra to re-open Walt Disney Concert Hall with free concert, extend Jaime Martin’s contract, and more
- A chat with Jaime Martin: LACO’s new chief discusses his approach to conducting new music, plus soloists and composers he’ll feature in his first season
- How and why Jaime Martin became LA Chamber Orchestra’s next Music Director: an in-depth look behind the scenes
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: June 26, 2021; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Jaime Martin, conductor
Ginastera: Variaciones Concertantes
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A Major, “Italian”
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: July 1, 2021; Rothenberg Hall at The Huntington (San Marino, CA)
Jaime Martin, conductor
Suzanna Guzmán, mezzo-soprano
Margaret Batjer, Concertmaster
Sarah Thornblade, violin II
Erik Rynearson, viola
Andrew Shulman, cello
David Grossman, bass
Sandy Hughes, flute
Claire Brazeau, oboe
Chris Stoutenborough, clarinet
Michael Thornton, horn
Erick Jovel, trumpet
Rober Thies, keyboard
Tyler Stell, percussion
Debussy: Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune (arr: Paolo Fradiani)
Falla: El amor brujo (original 1915 version)
- Jaime Martin and LACO at Walt Disney Concert Hall: Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging
- Jaime Martin and LACO at Rothenberg Hall: courtesy of LACO Facebook page
- Suzanna Guzman, Jaime Martin, and LACO at Rothenberg Hall: CK Dexter Haven