By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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
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.
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.
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 frequently making 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.
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 (pictured right). “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.
• 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 two 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
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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