Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1959 “Cello Concerto No. 1” is a compact, grim little piece in four movements that tends to veer off into the darker end of the emotional spectrum for nearly the whole of its 25-minute duration. Not that the composer would have told you or anybody else that. Shostakovich was infamously guarded when discussing his own music and it was no different in this work. Writing to his friend Isaak Glikman soon after the concerto’s completion, Shostakovich skimmed over the tragic mien of the score, instead stressing that it was optimistic in tone and noting that its opening movement was a “jocular little march.”
Mstislav Rostropovich, to whom the piece was dedicated, seemed to have missed the memo. In his hands the cello wailed and sobbed, revealing a piece of tragic grandiosity and acidulous irony. Alicia Weilerstein, the guest soloist at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s (LACO) final performance of its 2012-13 season preferred to take the composer at his word, airing out the score’s gnarly darkness with a sunniness rarely heard in Shostakovich.
Paired with the pert and lissome accompaniment of LACO led by Jeffrey Kahane, Weilerstein’s conception of the concerto rounded off far too smoothly the rawness at the heart of the piece, its impassioned energy diluted into neutral Gebrauchsmusik that made it sound like Russified Hans Eisler or Paul Dessau (perhaps not so inappropriate as both of those East German composers professed admiration for the Russian).
Her rendering of the concerto’s middle movements missed the pathos and eeriness of the music. Instead she focused on small details – especially extreme pianissimi – that were detrimental to the piece’s overall architecture. In the long third movement cadenza, her phrasing was stiff, unable to break free of the bar lines. She was better in the outer movements, though still not entirely convincing. Throughout the piece she displayed a commanding technique. But her conception of the score was one viewed from the outside looking in, not sure of itself yet, a work in progress.
Opening the program were works by a pair of young composers, Anna Clyne and Hugo Gonzalez-Pioli. Clyne’s piece isn’t a stranger to Los Angeles audiences as a few may have heard it in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s valedictory Green Umbrella concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in 2009.
Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” a 15-minute elegy for strings dedicated to the composer’s mother, managed to draw from the ancient and the new and fused them both into her own vibrant language. Made up of sliding semi-tones and ghostly reminisces of half-remembered snatches of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd that may have never existed after all, it congealed into a fragile web of sound that surged gently before fading away altogether. A remarkably beautiful work – think of it as a kind of 21st century answer to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ haunting “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” – and given a remarkably beautiful performance.
Gonzalez-Pioli’s “The Love of Zero” was more modest in language in tone and scope. A bassoon concerto that also doubles as a film score for Robert Florey’s eponymous 1927 silent film, it was a bright piece where the influence of Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and any number of Nino Rota scores were never too far away. Bassoonist Kenneth Munday navigated the witty score with deft humor and expressiveness.
Preceding the Shostakovich was a fleet and sober “Coriolan Overture” that cast the piece as an extension of Cherubini and the Mozart of “Don Giovanni.” Wagner and Mahler both were drawn to the heroic image of Beethoven as a revolutionary; Kahane instead tamed the composer’s unruly mane into a dapper crew cut. He drew from LACO playing of pellucid luminosity and civilized poise that once again demonstrate that it occupies an exalted place among the world’s chamber orchestras, one in which it is helping to define the standards and push them even further.