By Ted AYALA
There is a tendency among many young musicians – especially today – to make a needless show of their musical prowess. Or, worse, to mimic the outward manifestations of what they think “soulful” music-making looks like, turning what could have been a pleasant concert into a saccharine display of pretension and egoism. There’s the anguished look, the tousled hair, the moaning and groaning a la Glenn Gould – and I haven’t even touched upon their actual playing, which often seeks to “impress” by taking extreme tempos and by willfully distorting phrasing and rubato to the point of incoherence. In other words, far too many young soloists, seemingly unable to trust the music they play or the intelligence of the audience that is seated before them, instead resort to bringing in a whiff of the circus sideshow for their listeners.
So it’s very rare to hear a young musician with the consummate taste and intelligence that violinist Nigel Armstrong demonstrated at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s (LACO) concert Saturday night at the Alex Theatre.
Armstrong’s playing in Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 3” was something to be treasured. Here was playing that was about as ideal as anything I’ve ever heard in this work, in concert or recordings. His tone was warm and rich, even cherubic. From the first bar all the way to the whimsical coda, Armstrong lovingly guided the listener through the concerto with all the enthusiasm of a new discovery. Songful and sweet he most certainly was, though his playing of the tasteful cadenzas by Robert Levin showed off his chops most winningly, leaving a taste for what he must sound like in more heavy-duty repertoire.
LACO, with principal cellist Andrew Shulman playing the part of conductor for the evening, accompanied Armstrong with seamless unity and obvious enjoyment of their guest’s musicianship.
Following several curtain calls after the concerto, Armstrong obliged his audience by playing John Corigliano’s “Stomp” as a solo encore. Here his playing bristled with an extrovert brilliance and assertiveness that was superior to Corigliano’s score itself, which wanly echoed Aaron Copland in cowboy mood. Not even the gimmicky foot-stomping that the score calls for could rouge up this pallid score, though its direction for the violinist to play certain passages while holding the violin behind his back was an amusing parlor trick that was executed with panache by Armstrong.
Opening the concert was a work composed by Mozart at the age of 16: his “Symphony No. 29.” Shulman, conducting without baton, led a performance that was shaped with aristocratic elegance, allowing the music to unfurl naturally without ever being pushed. The finale, taken at a comfortable pace, glimmered with pert articulation and sly wit.
From tender youth we were taken to the cryptic ruminations of the elderly via William Walton’s “Sonata for Strings.” The piece had the air of a homecoming for LACO as it was the second performance that the orchestra had given of the work since they played its American premiere in 1973.
Acting on a suggestion by British conductor and former LACO music director Sir Neville Marriner, Walton dusted off his A-minor String Quartet and reworked it for string orchestra. For listeners who know Walton best from the pomp and flash of his scores like the “Orb and Scepter March,” “Belshazzar’s Feast,” and his music for films, the “Sonata for Strings” may be a shock.
An austere and haunting work, the work shares a mood of melancholic bitterness similar to the late works of his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich. Fragmentary, strange and elusive, Walton’s score also hauntingly lingers in the mind. Stark counterpoint, telling use of the solo quartet, and attractive themes come together to form one of Walton’s finest musical utterances.
Fellow Briton Shulman was in his element here. The respect and affection he holds for this music was in fine display, with the LACO players giving their all.
Especially beautiful were the viola solos played by Roland Kato, emerging from the nocturnal whisperings of the third movement like a shaft of moonlight.