Live Music: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall

BY DON HECKMAN

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra opened its new season with a bang Sunday night at Royce Hall.  A bang, that is, along with a lot of other unlikely orchestral sounds that surfaced during the premieres of a pair of new compositions.  But more on that later.

Typically for the LACO, it was a diverse program, featuring some major classical repertoire works, along with some fascinating new music.  But, unexpectedly, there was also a significant announcement from Kristy Edmunds, the Executive and Artistic Director of CAP UCLA – the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, said Edmunds, would now become Royce Hall’s resident orchestra.  Which is a great match, from any perspective, combining the adventurous new ideas being surfaced by Edmunds with the equally audacious programming characteristic of LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane.

Los Angeles Chamber Orchesra

Expect to be offered some compelling LACO concerts over the course of their association with CAP UCLA.  And this event was a brilliant forecast of what to expect.

The predictable musical highlights of the evening were a pair of extremely popular concertos – the Ravel Piano Concerto in C Major opened the program, with the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major bringing it to a dramatic ending.  The Ravel Concerto is often cited for its alleged jazz qualities.  And it does, indeed, have a few, usually via some harmonic and rhythmic qualities clearly influenced by George Gershwin.  As well as an occasional glance in the direction of the industrial sounds that fascinated a few cutting edge composers in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Jeffrey Kahane

The Ravel Concerto is at its best in the hands of a pianist who has the right touch to move comfortably from jazz-like articulation to an intimate togetherness in the tutti passages with the orchestra.  And one couldn’t have asked for a better choice than Jeffrey Kahane.  To give the performance even more authenticity, he conducted from the piano.  Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn have done the same in the past – Bernstein with an affection for jazz and Gershwin, Previn with the rhythmic feel for the piano role that could only be provided by an actual jazz player – as Previn was.

Kahane took a similar tack, convincingly driving the music and the orchestra with a fiery determination that produced both a memorable interpretation as well as a fascinating view of the inner and outer aspects of Ravel’s score.

The Beethoven Violin Concerto, equally favored by many listeners for its memorable themes and layers of emotional expression, featured German violinist Augustin Hadelich, making his LACO debut. The much-praised Hadelich, now 26, was severely burned on his upper body and bow arm when he was fifteen years old, returning again to playing two years later.

Augustin Hadelich

It may or may not have been that alarming experience that broadened the emotional perspective Hadelich brought to the Beethoven Concerto. Whatever the cause, Hadelich’s interpretation offered a stunning balance between soaring lyricism, subtle dynamics and unerring technical precision.  The Beethoven Concerto is one of the initial emerging voices of 19th century Romanticism, and Hadelich – with the equally authentic aid of Kahane and the LACO — fully captured its influential intensity.

Now about those “unlikely orchestral sounds.”  Credit goes to composer Andrew Norman’s “The Great Swiftness,” a lush textured work inspired by a “stabile” by artist Alexander Calder.  And Norman’s facile ease with an orchestra emerges in a multi-faceted view of the Calder work, “a bit” says Norman, “like taking a walk around the Calder.”

A second new composition, James Matheson’s True South, was a different matter, driven by an equally adept mastery of orchestral timbres and textures.  Fascinating as sheer episodes of sound, however, it lacked something as a musical work – a mini-concerto for orchestra, without the sort of melodic contrasts that might have brought it to life beyond its orchestral sound effects.

All that said, it was easy to join in the enthusiastic audience applause generated by the program’s final musical episode – a solo encore of Paganini’s 24th Caprice by Hadelich.  Call it a welcome indication of the pleasures yet to come from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, in its new role as the resident orchestra at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

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