OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Alex Theatre

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena
Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

______________________

 

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane,
conductor; John Kimura Parker, piano

John Harbison: Gil accordi pi usati (The Most Often Used
Chords),
Op. 22;

Dvorak: Serenade in
E major for Strings; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, (Emperor)

Saturday, April 16,
2011 Alex Theatre

Next performance:
Tonight at 7 p.m., Royce Hall (UCLA)

Information:
www.laco.org

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What a treasure the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is! Year
after year, concert after concert, the ensemble — now in its 42nd season –
consistently delivers satisfying, interesting programs in which Music Director
Jeffrey Kahane — now in his 14th season with the ensemble — often finds ways to
mix new music with old.

 

Consider, for
example, last night at the Alex Theatre (to be repeated tonight in Royce Hall).
The concert opened with Kahane conducting John Harbison’s Gil accordi pi usati (The Most Often Used Chords) and it concluded
with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano
Concerto, because, as Kahane remarked, Beethoven found a way to write a
remarkable piece consisting mainly of chords and arpeggios, not dissimilar in
concept to Harbison’s 18-minute piece, which was a LACO commission in 1993.

 

Christof Perick was
the music director who commissioned Harbison to write The Most Often Used Chords six years after the composer won a
Pulitzer Prize for his oratorio, The
Flight into Egypt,
but last night Kahane seemed to make the piece
completely his own.

 

The title comes from
a printed chart of often-used chords that Harbison found in a notebook on a
trip to Italy. The first three movements refer to Baroque musical forms: a
spunky Toccata, followed by a
haunting Varizoni, and a Ciaconna that ends with the harp fading
away wistfully. A sassy Finale
concludes the piece; the orchestra played it all sensitively with rhythmic
precision.

 

While the Harbison
piece was receiving just its second LACO hearing last night, Dvorak’s Serenade
in E Major for strings was being played for the eighth time in the orchestra’s
history (the first airing was in 1970 when Sir Neville Marriner programmed it
during the orchestra’s inaugural season). Last night, the interplay between the
various string sections and the lean tone from the celli and basses helped to
make this a memorable performance. Kahane alternated between using a baton for
the rhythmic inner sections and sculpting the lyrical outer movements with his
hands.

 

The last time Kahane
and LACO tackled Beethoven’s Emperor,
he led the concerto from the keyboard in 2003 at Hollywood Bowl during a week
where he and the orchestra played all five Beethoven concertos.

 

Last night, Kahane
was content to concentrate solely on conducting and Canadian pianist Jon Kimura
Parker (who towers over Kahane physically) was the soloist. I found Parker, who
won the 1984 Leeds International Piano Competition, to be a perplexing soloist.
He was ultra-muscular in the many powerful sections of this majestic concerto
but in the introspective measures he seemed to focus almost exclusively on
playing precise, almost brittle notes in his runs and trills. Most of the
audience loved it; I found it to be like watching an ice sculpture. By
contrast, the accompaniment from Kahane the orchestra had all the sensitivity
that Parker’s playing lacked. To me, it made for a curious combination.

 

In response to the
thunderous ovation, Parker offered his best pile-driver imitation as he flew
through the finale to Beethoven’s Appassionata
Sonata. He and Kahane concluded the evening with a boisterous four-hand
rendition of George Gershwin’s I Got
Rhythm.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Before the first
piece, Kahane announced that the Philadelphia Orchestra apparently is planning
on declaring bankruptcy (LINK) and noted “how fragile orchestras are.” He then
got a big laugh when he noted wryly, “Remember that as you consider your
subscription renewal for next season.”

Using the work “bankruptcy”
in this regard is somewhat misleading to the unknowing patron. Unlike Border’s,
for example, which is closing hundreds of stores, the Philadelphia Orchestra
does not plan any changes to its current or upcoming season. However, Kahane’s
point about the fragility of classical music organizations remains valid, as
LACO well knows from its own history, which nearly included a trip to bankruptcy
court in the 1990s.

The orchestra’s
double bass section included Mary Reed, a 22-year-old Master’s candidate at the
USC Thornton School of Music, who won a competition for the right to play with
the orchestra last night and tonight. She was one of nine nominees who
auditioned last fall in a new mentorship program between LACO and the school.

If you thought you
recognized the Dvorak Serenade, it might be because the main theme from the
first and last movement was played during a Theresienstadt sequence in the
television miniseries War and Remembrance, based on the novel by Herman Wouk.

Kudos to Parker
for announcing his encores clearly (and humorously) before playing. Not
everyone in the audience would have known what they were.

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(c) Copyright 2011,
Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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