Thursday, March 29, 2012

LACO Refracts a Mozart Concerto with Timothy Andres

Review by Rodney Punt

Sunday’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert promised a world premiere of a new work by a hot young composer. Also a familiar concerto and symphony by Mozart. More than the new work, however, it was the radical makeover of a classic that garnered the evening’s most attention.

Mozart’s Coronation Concerto in D Major, K. 537, is something of an orphan. Its “gallant” style, while surface-sweet, is less personal and interestingly written than the composer’s other mature works in the genre, and he never got around to notating most of this penultimate concerto’s left-hand piano part. A later editor’s speculative filling in of the blanks is dutiful but bland, leaving few subsequent pianists convinced. LACO’s pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane has performed it only once, to complete his survey of all Mozart’s piano concertos with the orchestra. He admits to “hating” the work.
Enter Timothy Andres, LACO’s featured artist for the evening, a Palo Alto-born, Brooklyn-based composer-pianist specializing in writing and performing -- with considerable pianistic skill -- works for piano and orchestra. The twenty-something composer (also known as "Timo") is creating quite a stir this season with his appearances at LACO and at the Cal Arts "Wild Up" contempo music series.

Andres has rewritten Mozart’s missing left-hand part and calls his new version of the Coronation a “re-composition”, justifying his score tampering as an answer to the concerto’s checkered history. Rather than striving for Mozart’s original intentions, Andres’s approach was to complete the work in his own style. His post-modern and eclectic influences embrace everything from Francis Poulenc to John Adams. LACO’s program title “refracted” implied we would hear Mozart’s conventions bent somewhat askew. And, boy, did we ever.

The West Coast premiere of the Coronation’s new version at Royce Hall was kinky, quirky and cute. It ruffled sensibilities with spikey dissonances, intricate polyrhythms, and seemingly incongruous harmonies. That they were jarring to hear was clearly Andres’s intention. The pianistic additions might have been an uncomfortable appliqué on Mozart’s purity, but they made an intriguing sow’s ear of his incomplete silk purse.

Ruffled sensibilities aside, the perverse bad-boy character of the whole was always listenable, exquisitely performed, and, in some time-travelling way, redolent of Mozart’s reputedly playful personality. Andres stated earlier he hoped people wouldn’t think he intentionally “gave the finger” to Mozart. But he needn’t worry. The exercise came off more like a good-natured, thumb-nosing tribute to the irreverent genius from Salzburg.

Opening the program was the world premiere of Andres’s own work, Old Keys, a ten-minute exercise in eclectic razzle-dazzle for piano and orchestra. Commissioned by LACO’s Sound Investment project, the
splashy showpiece employs bright orchestral effects in support of a virtuosic piano protagonist. Andres claims the title refers to tonalities not in use today and old themes long residing in his desk. Influences would seem to be John Adams’s formal devices, Ligeti’s rhythmic manipulations, and Ravel's piano concerto colorings, had they been juiced with steroids. The young composer still has some proportionality to get under control; the latter part of the short piece strives for a conclusion too colossally large for so short a statement. It was as if that section was conceived for the finale of a much larger work. Perhaps it will be reemployed in just that capacity some day.

In both of Andres’ works, the indisputable
element was the pianist’s fluid pianism. His cross-hand technique was a marvel and the command of his thorny rhythms and textures impressive. Kahane and his orchestra provided solid support in both works, though the concerto’s classical-era orchestral score seemed something of a limiting horse-and-buggy vehicle for Andres’ hot racecar piano.

Conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s traversal of another penultimate work of Mozart, his much beloved Symphony No. 40 in G minor, was sculpted as if from fine marble: taut, with well-gauged, lively-paced tempi emphasizing propulsive sturm-und-drang over minor-key pathos, but allowing room for delicate details, as in the second movement‘s interplay of woodwinds and strings and the trio’s phrase-ending ritardandi. Kahane’s orchestra was with him all the way in poise and precision. Particular kudos in the Menuetto are due the strings for their stabbing assertiveness and the horns for their mellow assurances. The last movement’s collaboration between musicians and conductor generated a spatial intensity worthy of the work’s profound statement.

In the end, we were able to enjoy Mozart at his best and on his own terms.


A sad note: At the beginning of the concert, Maestro Kahane announced that long-time music patron and member of the LACO family Ronald Rosen had passed away earlier that week. Rosen's steadfast support of the musical life of Los Angeles will be sorely missed by all music lovers in Southern California and beyond, including this reviewer, who had shared musical moments with him on many an occasion.

Photo: Timothy ("Timo") Andres, used by permission of the artist.

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