By Ted AYALA
One often hears the phrase “Christmas in July” – but “July in Christmas?” Specifically what the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) offered its Alex Theatre audience on Saturday night was a glimpse of a bright July 4th in the midst of a chilly December night.
Three of the composers that comprised LACO’s program – Aaron Copland, John Adams, and George Gershwin – are Americans. Though a Bohemian by birth, Antonín Dvořák, whose “Serenade for Winds” opened the concert, became later in life one of the United States’ favorite adopted musical sons. His “Symphony No.9,” subtitled “From the New World,” was composed while he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City and has remained a favorite with U.S. audiences.
The Serenade, for winds augmented by cello and bass, from the 1870s was a sunny piece brimming with long-breathed and gorgeously spun melodies. Its four movements, beginning with a tongue-in-cheek Baroque pastiche, were musical confections that the LACO players imbued with their own honeyed tone.
Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” followed, presented in its original version for chamber orchestra. Typical of Copland’s populist middle period, its textures are thin, even scanty; a fault that the more famous version for full orchestra partially obscures. In the chamber version, the music sounds emaciated, climaxes anemic. To its credit, LACO managed to polish this chip to as bright a sheen as it could, extracting from the score as beautiful a reading as one could ever hope to hear even if the music itself failed to live up to the quality of the playing.
Superior in quality was John Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony” that opened the program’s second half. A pop-influenced minimalist aesthetic, with a touch of Bill Lava and Stravinskian spikiness, animated its three movements that crackled with a twitchy energy and wry humor.
George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” closed the program and a fine performance it was with LACO musical director Jeffrey Kahane at the piano. The original version of the piece as composed for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was employed by LACO, giving the music a bite that the more famous full orchestra version cannot match. Rhythms were cleanly delineated and allowed to work their absorbing spell on the listener’s ears. There was a welcome rawness to the music balanced with the pearlescent tone of Kahane’s pianism at the core. As ever, his technique was a marvel to listen to – brilliance coupled with aristocratic elegance.