By Ted AYALA
These days, the partnership of conductor and orchestra tend to be short lived bursts. Like supernovas, they often beginning in a burst of energy, then quickly burn out. Sometimes because the conductor is eager to move on to the next big thing; other times because the relationship between the orchestra and conductor turns sour.
But the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) has been from its inception a world-class ensemble that has been nurtured under past greats such as Sir Neville Marriner and Gerad Schwartz. But it has been under the collegial and sensitive baton of Jeffrey Kahane that the orchestra has attained its peak.
“These are definitely the golden years for the orchestra,” said oboist Allan Vogel before the concert in a brief speech celebrating Kahane’s 15th year with the orchestra. The program – an imaginative combination of the old and new that was dubbed “electric” – was certainly testament to that.
With an ease of transparency and grace, the joyful polyphony of Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute” sprung forth to open the program. Alert phrasing, pert wind playing and a perfect sense of tempi made this oft-heard work shine anew.
But it was in the two brief works that followed when the orchestra really proved its mettle.
To the LACO fell the honor of giving the West Coast premiere of “Sidereus” by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. Much feted and in high demand after the millennial premiere of his “Pasión según San Marcos,” inspired equally by Bach and Latin American urban music, “Sidereus” has been one of the latest in a string of commissions for the composer. Unusually, the commission wasn’t for a single orchestra, but for 35. Honoring the work of Henry Fogel – former president and CEO of the League of American Orchestra and a well-respected teacher and music critic – Golijov rose to the occasion and composed a work that was able to satisfy the various qualities of all 35 orchestras.
Not that you’d ever guess so from the LACO’s immaculate rendition of the work. Their lustrous playing combined with a total sense of security gave the impression that not only had the work been composed solely for them, but that they had lived with this music for years. Golijov’s luminous brass chords and shimmering, swirling strings fit the sonorities of the LACO hand-in-glove.
Taking its inspiration from an astronomical treatise by Galileo, the work conveyed a rich, nocturnal atmosphere that was at once questing and resigned. Lasting less than 10 minutes, the work peters out on a spectral dying of light. It’s a strangely beautiful and elusive work; a different face of the composer known for his more populist works. But its effective and subtle use of orchestral colors linger in the memory far more than his better known music. A success, to be certain, and one hopes the composer pursues this path further.
Derek Bermel, the LACO’s composer-in-residence, fused together two unlikely elements in his “Ritornello:” Baroque form and the electric guitar. But it’s not as incongruous a combo as one may think. The acoustic guitar is a notoriously difficult instrument to feature in a concerto with orchestra. Though concertos for the instrument abound, it’s gentle sound can very easily be swamped even by a chamber ensemble. So it makes sense to compose a work for its electric cousin, which can be heard clearly without fear of being lost in the din of orchestral sound.
According to the composer, the work touches on influences from thrash metal and prog rock. But the listener expecting pounding rhythms and slashing power chords may be taken aback by Bermel’s work. Though incorporating a touch of those elements in his concerto, “Ritornello” seems closer to Jim Croce and Vivaldi than to Megadeth. Bermel has composed a very civilized work, rich with fragile, folksy lyricism, and neo-Baroque recitatives. Though doing a bit of thrashing in his cadenzas, guitarist Wiek Hijmans seemed to highlight the work’s wistful qualities. Thoroughly musical from beginning to end, his tone remained utterly genial and warm, and was a persuasive advocate for Bermel’s muse.
Following the intermission was a graceful and rich toned traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4. Jeffrey Kahane was the soloist, conducting from the keyboard. The real affection the orchestra and conductor have for each other was most readily apparent here. With an unforced regality, Kahane and the LACO allowed Beethoven’s music to pour forth over the audience. Before the concert, Allan Vogel mentioned how Kahane’s pianism was an inspiration to the orchestra. Indeed it was: his luminescent and pearly tone seemed to lead the orchestra to blossom forth with unhurried and ripe tone. The closing rondo was played with delightful and pointed wit – and would have made for a satisfying close to the program.
But what followed was a lovely encore: the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Against a tapestry of warm strings and sweetly mournful winds, Kahane’s limpid and expressive pianism made for a very unexpected and unforgettable end to the concert – and made one hopeful for another 15 years of this rich partnership between conductor and orchestra.