OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra opens season with scintillating concert

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor

Ravel Piano Concerto in G; Jeffrey Kahane, soloist.

Andrew Norman: The
Great Swiftness.
James Matheson: True
South.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Augustin Hadelich,
soloist.

Sunday, October 7, 2012 Royce Hall

Next performances:
Nov. 10 at Alex Theatre; Nov. 11 at Royce Hall

Information: www.laco.org

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Orchestras love themes and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
is no exception. According to the printed program book, the overall theme of
LACO’s 44th season is “Concerto Rhapsody” (although, interestingly,
the phrase doesn’t appear on LACO’s Web site). If the balance of the
orchestra’s concerts this season matches what I heard last night, it will be a
magical one, indeed.

 

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Last night at UCLA’s Royce Hall Jeffrey Kahane (right) –
beginning his 16th season as LACO music director — scheduled not one
but two concertos: Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major to begin the program and
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major to conclude it. In between, he inserted
two interesting West Coast premieres. It made for a full evening, but a
memorable one.

 

Although I would have lost a bet guessing the answer to this
question, Ravel’s G Major Concerto has been played four previous times by LACO
and this was the second time that Kahane has conducted it from the keyboard
(the first was in 2003). He opened last night with a playful, almost jaunty
rendition of the outer movements and received wonderfully soulful playing from
his wind principals, particularly English horn player Laura Wickes, in the second movement. It
proved to be a delightful precursor of what would come after intermission.

 

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Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is one of the staples of the
repertoire but I have never heard it performed like it was last night by
28-year-old violinist Augustin Hadelich, Kahane and the orchestra. Hadelich
(left) — who was born in Italy of German parents and studied at The Juilliard
School — has a stain-smooth tone and prodigious technique and displayed both
along with his own distinctive, but highly musical take on this very familiar
work.

 

However, what set the performance apart was how he, Kahane
and the orchestra melded together as one musical unit. Golfers talk about
“being in the zone” and I felt like this was the case last night.

 

I was fortunate to have a seat that gave me an unusual angle
on Kahane as he conducted and the entire performance was mesmerizing. There
were moments when he beat notes in 4/4 time, others when he was beating in two,
and still others when he wasn’t beating at all. Sometimes he conducted with a
baton; at others he led solely with his hands. It was as if he and the
orchestra were absolutely on the same wavelength. In addition, they were locked
in with Hadelich, as well, which wasn’t easy because the soloist was making frequent
subtle shifts that could have spelled trouble in less-skilled hands.

 

I’ve just read back over the above paragraph and it doesn’t
do justice to what occurred — you had to be there to experience it. Moreover,
if anyone wanted a prime example of why a live performance is preferable to
even the finest recording, last night was it. Seldom has an instantaneous
standing ovation been so well deserved. Hadelich obliged with an encore,
dashing off Paganini’s 24th Caprice as if it were mere child’s play.

 

Subsumed in the euphoria over the Beethoven were the two
West Coast premieres, which is too bad because they each proved to be worth
hearing.

 

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The Great Swiftness, by
Andrew Norman, is a five-minute musical description of an Alexander Calder
stabile in Norman’s hometown of Grand Rapid, Michigan. “My
piece is a bit like talking a walk around the Calder,” he wrote in the program
book. “The same melodic shapes happen over and over, but with each repetition
their relationship to each other shifts, as if one is looking at a stationery sculpture
from an every-changing point of view.” The title also refers to the river
flowing through the town that gives the city its name.

 

All of that translated to a series of swoops and musical
curves, which proved to be intriguing. The piece also served as a sort of
calling card; Norman is beginning a three-year-term as LACO’s
Composer-in-Residence and next spring the orchestra will perform the world
premiere of a work he is writing under LACO’s “Sound Investment” commissioning
program.

 

Far more substantive was True
South,
a work that American composer James Matheson wrote in 2010 on a
commission by the New York Philharmonic. Matheson revealed that the original
commission was for 22 players, including just two on each string part. “When I
heard that LACO was going to perform the piece with a full string complement,”
he said in introductory remarks, “I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

 

The genesis of True
South
was a Werner Herzog documentary entitled Encounters at the End of the Earth, i.e., the South Pole). There
were moments that felt like the icy wastes of that region (with overtones of
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Simphonia
Antarctica
sneaking in), interspersed
with lush, melodic sections and swooping screeches that sounded like birds
wailing. I found it all fascinating and would love to hear it again. Of course,
that was true of the entire concert.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

The evening began with the announcement that the Center
for the Art of Performance at UCLA (the new unwieldy name for the arts
impresario arm of the university) has named LACO as CAP UCLA’s
Orchestra-in-Residence for the next three years.

In 2011, The American Academy of Arts and Letters honored
Matheson with the Charles Ives Living, an award of $100,000 a year for 2 years
(2012-2014). Matheson was well aware of LACO; in 2009 he was named director of
the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer Fellowship program.

Kudos to LACO for having the most informative program book
among local arts groups. The program notes by Christine Gengaro, PhD, are
highly informative even to non-musicians, the orchestra always includes the
group’s complete performance history of each piece being played, and there’s a
box with composition dates, instrumentation used, and the estimated duration of
each piece.

Now, if we could just get the concerts to start on time.
Speeches last night began 11 minutes after the scheduled 7 p.m. “curtain time”
and the music didn’t actually commence until 7:16 p.m. Even so, the orchestra
allowed latecomers to be seated after the first movement of the Ravel.

In LACO’s Nov. 10 and 11 concerts, Benjamin Wallfisch will
lead the world premiere of his Violin Concerto, which was written for Tereza
Stanislav, LACO’s assistant concertmaster. The balance of the program will be
Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for
Strings,
Op. 47 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Information: www.laco.org

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.