One might be forgiven for feeling that programming two concertos on one concert program might be a tad overkill. And ordinarily I’d be chief among the tongue-cluckers, but last night the ever-versatile musicians of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra happily proved me wrong. The orchestra’s 44th season opened with an extremely well-received concert at Glendale’s art deco Alex Theatre, one of the ensemble’s two principal venues. The program offered was an imaginative sandwich of two contemporary works bookended by two popular and increasingly performed concertos.
Conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, now in his 16th season as LACO’s music director, began the evening with a colourful reading of Ravel’s lush Piano Concerto in G major, which he conducted from the keyboard. The concerto, one of my favourite for piano, is one of the benchmarks of 20th century musical impressionism, rich with suggestively tumescent phrases and partly shaped both by the Classical concertos that long-preceded it as well as the jazz music which informed so much of the more adventuresome compositions of the 1920s and ‘30s. While there are many conductor/pianists who can admirably lead a performance from the keyboard, I can imagine very few who would have the chops to do so with the Ravel. A bit of initial lag between the brass and strings at the top of the first movement notwithstanding, both Kahane and his musicians acquitted themselves beautifully. This is an orchestra of virtuosi, and we were reminded of that in their superb performance of a unique and virtuosic work.
Andrew Norman’s The Great Swiftness, originally commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony, received its West Coast premiere on this program. The work is inspired by a massive, 40’ x 54’ public sculpture by Alexander Calder. With this programmatic model, Norman sculpted a seductive aural tableau whose sinuous, undulating musical lines are evocative of the lines of Calder’s sculpture. Some interesting instrumental colours and relatively light textures reminded me a bit of Copland’s Inscape. “My piece is a bit like taking a walk around the Calder,” says Norman in the program notes to the work. “The same melodic shapes happen over and over, but with each repetition their relationship to each other shifts slightly, as if one is looking at a stationary sculpture from an ever-changing point of view.” The Great Swiftness, all four minutes of it, is an intriguing sonic etude which gives considerable insight into the musical aesthetic of a fast-rising star among contemporary composers.
|Alexander Calder's La Grande Vitesse|
I first met the young Mr. Norman last summer when he came to Aspen for the world premiere by the Aspen Chamber Symphony of his piece Time’s Fool, based on Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 116. This season marks the first of a Norman’s three-season tenure as LACO’s composer-in-residence. Later this season will see the world premiere of yet another Norman work, a product of LACO’s Sound Investment commissioning program. According to the composer, it’s “going to be huge”.
The incredible sonic feast of the first half of the program was rounded out by yet another West Coast premiere, this one of James Matheson’s True South. The piece was commissioned in 2010 by the New York Philharmonic. Says the composer, “I use harmonies and sounds that have a familiar aspect to them…but I try to use them in ways that are unusual and not expected. I love, for instance, to create an expectation only to go around it, to subvert it.” The sound-world of this piece is truly remarkable, with deeply reverberant, hard-charging strings set against percussion and vivid, dancing melodic figures from the woodwinds. Matheson’s work calls for, and indeed received, some wonderful sonorities. This chamber orchestra plays with the depth of an ensemble twice its size and the strings especially can dig in in a way that is almost gasp-inducing.
The fantastic Italian-born German violinist Augustin Hadelich is another of those young artists whose star is currently burning brightly in the musical firmament. He burst on to the scene in 2009 when he won the Avery Fisher Career Grant. Just two seasons ago he made his U.S. orchestra debut with the New York Philharmonic at Vail and has spent past season making the usual orchestral rounds. Last summer I also had the chance to hear Hadelich for the first time when he joined Julia Fischer in a performance of Schnitke’s ConcertoGrosso No. 1 for Two Violins, Harpsichord, and Prepared Piano at Aspen. He closed last night’s L.A. Chamber Orchestra program with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, one of the biggest and most demanding, both technically and musically, of the major violin concerti. Hadelich’s performance brought out the contrasting quiet sensitivity and defiant nobility that pervades the work. The orchestra provided unobtrusive well balanced accompaniment but also was quick to establish its own equally defiant presence in the tutti sections. Hadelich opted to perform the cadenzas written by Fritz Kreisler, which was a surprising treat given Kreisler is a composer better known for miniatures and Viennese schmaltz than for sober, full-bodied Romanticism.