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Review: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra plays Golijov, Bermel

LACO’s concert this past Saturday night at the Alex Theatre featuring West Coast premieres from composer-in-residence Derek Bermel and Argentine megastar (in some circles) Osvaldo Golijov was a serious kicker of a season opener.

Maestro Jeffrey Kahane, who is celebrating his 15th year as LACO’s music director, opened the show with a surprisingly energized and bold sounding Overture from The Magic Flute. For a piece we’ve all heard a million times (and I wasn’t particularly excited to hear again), Jeff and the LACO cats breathed some serious new life into it.

I had brought a few friends who dig modernism but find most traditional classical music really dull, and they both said that it might have been the best performed piece of the night, and that they were totally into it. LACO 1, 99% of period instrument ensembles 0.

Golijov’s Sidereus was probably the highlight of the evening, although it didn’t overshadow Bermel’s Ritornello for a moment. The Golijov managed a bit of a post-minimalist, almost Inception-soundtrack-Hans Zimmer sound at times, with descending seventh chord arpeggios in the upper strings, but modal lines in the winds and constantly changing textures kept the piece interesting. Some particularly exciting downbeat-heavy brass polyrhythms toward the climax really carried the piece across the line from “well that was cool” to “where can I get a recording?”

Possibly the most impressive thing about it was Kahane’s handling of the rhythm. I’ve always thought of him as a colorist. He’s very sensitive to balance, and lets everything breathe, but I couldn’t personally imagine enjoying him doing, say, Rite of Spring. After this past Saturday I’d certainly like to hear it.

The Bermel, with Wiek Hijmans on electric guitar, may have been the stylistic high point of the evening. Most electric guitar concertos fail miserably, in that composers use sounds that are so idiomatic of the electric guitar – bent strings, chunky power chords, etc. – that the pieces sound totally forced, almost like a show of “look at me, I know how to rock too!” Such was not the case with Bermel’s Ritornello. If anything, he managed to find the perfect blend between the guitar and the ensemble, with the guitar’s broken triplet pattern being perfectly backed by the perfectly tonal harmonies outlined in the strings.

Hijmans is an excellent improviser – downright inspiring – and Bermel certainly gave him room to play. In what may have been good taste, Hijmans kept his improvisations short and to the point. I would have enjoyed it a bit more if he had extended his solo sections a bit further, but that was in no way detrimental to enjoying the piece.

The second half, Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto, saw Kahane return to his colorist self. There’s no doubt about his abilities as a virtuosic pianist, and it is great to see him conduct from the keyboard, but I felt that the performance lacked the punch and boldness it really needed to carry it over the edge. The audience dug it though, and called him back for an extended encore. Mark Swed over at the LA times seemed to think it rocked a little harder than I did, so read his review too.

LACO’s got a few cool concerts coming up. The next one we’ll be covering here is December 10th, which will feature some music from Brit boy-genius Thomas Adès. If the season opener is any indication of things to come, I’m excited already.

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