By Ted AYALA
Following a stunning season debut last month, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), under the ever genial baton of its music director Jeffrey Kahane, returned to the Alex Theatre on Saturday for a program that sat side-by-side two sprawling explorative musical works: one a psychological journey, the other an exploration of the frontiers of musical form and a celebration of the freedom and dignity of the human spirit.
But commencing the concert was a brief aperitif: a Nocturne for string orchestra by Antonin Dvorak. Standing with his arms lying still at his sides, Kahane refrained from beating time at the work’s opening, instead trusting the sure-footed instincts of LACO’s principal cellist Andrew Shulman to lead the way. In his brief opening solo, his instrument emerged from the darkness, with Kahane leading the rest of the orchestra in to join the starlit reverie. Lasting just short of 10 minutes, the work’s verdant melodies and the LACO’s pliant strings set the mood perfectly for the following work.
Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations sets a selection of poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud for voice and string orchestra. Britten, ever the consummate musical craftsman, extracted from his string section a riot of color that proved that the string body could produce just as wide a panorama of sonorities as a full orchestra. Richly sub-divided and making full use of various unusual string effects – such as playing the instruments col legno, strumming them in the manner of a guitar, and making extraordinary use of playing the strings on the bridge – the LACO were the perfect tapestry upon which the voice of soprano Karina Gauvin could burst to full bloom. Though her diction could sometimes be a bit mushy, that was a minor quibble easily forgiven through the richness of her voice – a powerful and firm chest register with a creamy top range.
Britten certainly challenged Gauvin to a fine duel, pitting her voice against the full roar of the LACO strings. But her voice powered through with like a pillar of sound and with all the sureness of intonation of a laser. Kahane was a superb accompanist, giving his soloist plenty of room to breathe and allow the music to unfurl without pressure.
Closing the concert was a nimble rendition of the Beethoven Third Symphony. The work has become something of a signature piece for Kahane and the LACO, featuring in their inaugural season together and returning at key points in their history.
This was a young man’s Beethoven, a reminder that Beethoven was only 34 when he completed work on a symphony that would rock and forever change musical history. The blunt E-flat major triads that burst open at the symphony’s start, as well as the grinding dissonances of its first movement’s development section, heralded the new world of Romanticism, an element of danger and surprise hitherto unheard of in music.
Kahane’s interpretation, however, demonstrated that Beethoven, while certainly a musical revolutionary, was also not eager to burn the bridges to the musical past. Under him, the work echoes with the voices of Handel, Gluck, and Haydn and show Beethoven as Janus-faced figure sitting astride 18th and 19th Century.
Adding to this impression were his breezy tempi, which were close to those indicated by the composer himself in the score. Though sometimes pressing the music uncomfortably forward – with the symphony’s famous Funeral Marche being less a cortege and more a quickstep – it undoubtedly added to the symphony’s youthful energy. The coda, taken at a dizzying tempo, had the LACO shining at its finest with playing of superb clarity and pinpoint precision. It was certainly a very overwhelming and heady experience.
No doubt, Beethoven would have approved.