By Ted AYALA
Saturday’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) concert at the Alex Theatre was one that was appropriately entitled “Reflection.” Binding the program were the works of 19th, 20th, and 21st century composers reflecting on and finding inspiration in the music of the baroque and early classical eras. But the night was also one of personal reflection for the LACO as it celebrated the 20th anniversary of the massive mural along the northbound 110 Freeway in downtown that has immortalized a handful of LACO musicians. Artist Kent Twitchell, creator of “Harbor Freeway Overture,” the eight story mural that graces the side of a parking structure adjacent to the Seventh Street Marketplace, was in attendance to join in the commemoration.
The program began with Maurice Ravel’s wistful “Le tombeau de Couperin.” Ravel’s suite, originally a six movement piano work from which he orchestrated four, is not merely a tribute from one master to another. It is also a memorial to fallen comrades – and a yearning, nostalgic gaze into a world long vanished.
Composed amidst the destruction and death of World War I, which the composer saw first-hand in his role as an ambulance driver for the French Army, each movement is dedicated to a fallen comrade. The music, in its gentle evocations of the style of the French Baroque, seem to find the composer seeking a kind of spiritual refuge in the world of Couperin. The refined and civilized world of Couperin’s age must have seemed blissfully idyllic to Ravel amidst the horrors of the “Great War.”
The performance of the LACO, in particular the ravishing playing of oboist Allan Vogel, was a marvel of grace and poise. Ravel’s sparkling orchestration was presented with all the fine detail and filigree of a silverpoint etching.
Grace and poise, not to mention patrician elegance, also marked their playing in the following work, Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations.” Joining them was cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, artistic director of the forthcoming Piatigorsky International Cello Festival. A life-long admirer of Mozart’s music, Tchaikovsky composed the “Rococo Variations” as an homage to the master, and is one of Tchaikovsky’s most joyous works. Despite some technical lapses on Kirshbaum’s part, his restrained yet warm sense of musicianship were a boon here. A touching interpretation of the “Sarabande” from Bach’s “Suite No. 3 for Cello: was a very welcome encore.
Opening the concert’s second half were the “Three Studies from Couperin” by British composer Thomas Adès. A meeting of minds between Adès, lauded widely as one of our era’s finest composers, and Couperin would seem to promise a work of striking invention that would shed some new insight into the work of the elder composer. Taking three keyboard works by Couperin, Adès arranged them for modern chamber orchestra – albeit one augmented with some exotic percussion instruments, and with the strings divided into two separate sections. Despite some of the novel sonorities and unusual techniques employed, including having the back-desk violinists play while their front-desk colleagues, including the concertmaster, remained silent, the work was curiously edgeless; managing to sound new yet inoffensive to the point of being soporific. For all the composer’s strivings of bringing this music into the 21st Century, the arrangement was stubbornly dull and pallid; added nothing new or insightful to Couperin. A very unusual misfire from this often brilliant composer.
The paucity of vitality in the Adès was cruelly highlighted by Respighi’s “The Birds,” the program’s concluding work. Best remembered as the composer of the “Roman Trilogy” of tone poems, which have been often dismissed by critics for its brazen and wild tone colors, Respighi was also a highly erudite musicologist who made a profound study of baroque music. “The Birds,” which is Respighi’s orchestration of a clutch of baroque keyboard pieces depicting various birds, amply demonstrates the deceptive subtlety of Respighi’s art, and was one of the fruits of his interest in baroque music. It manages not only to remain true to the spirits of the composers the work is based upon, but it also reimagines their music in a way that made them relevant and approachable to modern audiences; enlivened considerably with some humorous orchestral touches.
On every level the LACO was magnificent. Every note pulsated with energy and the orchestra reveled in Respighi’s dazzling instrumental color. Patricia Mabee, the LACO’s keyboardist, was a pure delight in the dashes of celesta color that Respighi accents his music with.
Forget being immortalized on an eight story parking structure. This is a world-class ensemble that deserves to be commemorated on a mural at least the size of Everest.