Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Disney Hall first time opening post-Covid, for LACO

LACO Music Director Jaime Martín with Concertmaster Margaret Batjer.

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles

For this special late-June LACO Summerfest concert—a one-off invitation-only event, underwritten by the philanthropists Terri and Jerry Kohl, "for LACO friends and family, vital community partners and others who have helped the orchestra weather the pandemic"—the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was definitely acting as a pathfinder in the careful tiptoe back to something resembling live concert-going normality.

A palpable sense of anticipatory joy and relief invested the 800-strong, fully vaccinated audience—despite the concert start-time being pushed back considerably due to some stumbles in Disney Hall's ticket issuing and distribution around the Covid-checking tables outside—and this exploded into applause when firstly LACO's Executive Director Ben Cadwallader, then Concertmaster Margaret Batjer, and finally Music Director Jaime Martín successively took to the platform.

Alberto Ginastera.
Señor Martín's (splendidly unhackneyed) program sought to "pay homage to a physical location, in two pieces, the birthplace of the composer, and in the third, an inspirational destination" and thus it moved from mid-20th century Argentina as represented in a work by Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), back to Italy in the early 19th century, seen and heard through the eyes and ears of Felix Mendelssohn on his tour of Europe, separated by a leap forward in time to an aural fresco of 21st century mariachi from the young Mexican composer, Juan Pablo Contreras (born 1987).

Ginastera's Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23, composed in 1953, is just what each half of its title says it is—a set of variations and a kind of concerto for chamber orchestra—but it has neither, on the one hand, a strongly contoured tune whose possibilities are explored in various ways, nor, on the other, any soloistic grandstanding, so that it instead fulfills its designations by the evocation of various moods, mostly contemplative or anticipatory, through changing instrumental colors and pacing, as if glinting off the facets of an idly turning mirrored disco ball.

The construction of Variaciones concertantes is as subtle as its sound-world (names of LACO soloists in this performance noted as follows). Against slow guitar-like arpeggios on the harp (Elisabeth Zosseder), a solo cello (Andrew Shulman) intones the slowly stepwise-rising theme. An equally contemplative interlude on the strings precedes the first (giocosa) variation, and here, as in all those to come, the designated flute (Sandy Hughes) proved to be in more of an equal concerto grosso type of relationship with the main body of players than a full-fledged soloist.

Successively the clarinet (Joshua Ranz), viola (Erik Rynearson), oboe and bassoon (Claire Brazeau and Ken Monday), trumpet and trombone (David Washburn and Alex Iles), violin (Margaret Batjer), and horn (Michael Thornton) fulfilled their highly varied concertante roles, before another interlude, this time for winds, led to a reprise of the theme, now on solo double bass (David Grossman) against those familiar harp arpeggios, giving way in turn to a joyous variation finale in rondo form for the full forces.

Sandy Hughes (flute) and
Claire Brazeau (oboe).
The orchestra clearly relished every opportunity that Ginastera's mastery of each instrument's characteristics and possibilities afforded them, both individually and in ensemble playing as tight as it was whiplash clear, as heard from high aloft in the Disney Hall's balcony, and the audience loved it.

For me Contreras' Mariachitlán suffered a little in comparison, following as it did such a many-sided and subtle masterpiece, but then one could, and probably should, regard it simply as a skillfully wrought occasional piece meant to do nothing but entertain—which it certainly did, in this chamber orchestra version newly-commissioned by LACO from the 2016 full orchestra original (which can be enjoyed on the composer's website).

In his own words Mariachitlán "recounts my experience visiting the Plaza de los Mariachis in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, a place where mariachis play their songs in every corner and interrupt each other to win over the crowd." My observant spouse also likened it to hearing your car radio keep losing the signal and drifting between stations—in this case from a canción ranchera to a vals romántico to a son jalisciense, and back—beguiling, ear-tickling, fun.

Juan Pablo Contreras enjoys the enthusiastic applause following Jaime Martín and the LACO's performance of his Mariachitlán.

The great English critic and musicologist Donald Tovey described the Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 "Italian" as "one of Mendelssohn's most perfect works" and in a performance as smiling and celebratory as Jaime Martín and LACO delivered, who could argue? My only cavil was the omission of the first movement exposition repeat (why, when Mendelssohn took the trouble to write one of the longest lead-backs, all 23 measures of it, in the Classical symphonic repertoire?).

Mendelssohn at the time of
the composition of his
Italian Symphony.
Otherwise there was plenty to appreciate in the Symphony's scrupulously accented Allegro vivace first movement—its textures all the more brilliant and aerated by it not being taken too fast—and in the attention to dynamics and articulation of the cellos' and basses' steady groups of staccato eighth notes that underpin of much of the slow movement.

Though it is marked Con moto moderato, the minuet-like third movement was to my ears perhaps a bit too leisurely—its themes do come around a lot of times—but there was nothing but gain in the Presto Saltarello finale not being taken at quite the Derby-winner dash which some performances affect, but here still with all the élan and precision that one could desire.

Inevitably, such a celebratory evening had to have an encore, and in making his choice Jaime Martín completed the trio of Iberia-related pieces by turning to his native Spain for the Intermedio from El baile de Luis Alonso, a two-acter written in 1896 by the Seville-born Zarzuela composer Gerónimo Giménez (1854-1923). This seems to be his only piece with any concert or recording presence, at least outside Spain, and its cheery, castanets-driven five minutes, played and conducted with swagger and panache, made a good advertisement for seeking out more music by Giménez.

Jaime Martín and Andrew Shulman play Telemann's Cunando.

Before the "official" encore, however, there had been an extra item. In response to a specific request from the principal sponsors, who were seated in the front row, Señor Martín laid down the baton and took up his flute (before his conducting career he had for many years been a distinguished orchestra principal and solo flautist) for a performance of the brief and touching third movement Cunando from Telemann's Sonate metodiche No. 3 in E minor, TWV 41:e2

 As anyone who has experienced, say, Yo Yo Ma's accounts of the Bach solo Cello Suites at the Proms in London's vast Royal Albert Hall, there is a unique magic to chamber music performed in a very large auditorium, and here in Disney's cavernous expanses the sound of Señor Martín's flute had a remote and ineffable purity that seemed to make the entire audience catch and hold its collective breath for the two-and-a-half minutes or so, with Mr. Shulman's cello etching in the accompanying continuo role with the utmost delicacy. Memorable indeed. 


Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Walt Disney Hall, Saturday, June 26, 2021, 7 p.m.
Photos: The performance: Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging; Ginastera: Wikimedia Commons; Mendelssohn: pencil drawing by Eduard Bendemann, c 1833, Wikimedia Commons.

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