On October 27th, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra brought a program of Sibelius, Pärt, Grieg and Nielsen to Glendale’s Alex Theatre. Led by conductor Thomas Dausgaard, the ensemble sounded exceptional—crisp and intimate, but equally able to swell and saturate the hall when needed. Starting the evening with Grieg’s Two Norwegian Airs, Dausgaard demonstrated an immediate and deep connection with the strings, weaving together moments of drama and restraint with impeccable taste and timing. The musicians of LACO must have felt similarly because they met his every move with astounding cohesiveness, not only in the opening airs, but throughout the entire night.
Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto featured Anthony McGill, who brought so much personality to his performance that it was easy to miss the incredible amount of virtuosity required to navigate the clarinet passages. Compositionally, the Nielsen was the most difficult, not so much for its instrumental passages as for its disparate and sometimes confusing layering. But the soloist and ensemble approached even the most impervious moments with a sense of ownership and direction, and as a result the piece offered a fun, if challenging, display of McGill’s incredible technique and musical intuition.
In the second half, Dausgaard (I assume) made the decision to move seamlessly from the patient, meditative iterations of Pärt’s Silouan’s Song into Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3 with such conviction that most of the audience was moved to applaud at the end of the first movement of the symphony assuming the Pärt had contained some hidden inner movement. But the applause was well-justified if misplaced, as the strength of the shared musical ideas between conductor and ensemble was as strong and tight as any I’ve heard. Moreover, the ensemble inhabited the sound world of each piece with an easy confidence that highlighted what a traditional programming format can be at its best: old and new, refined and showy, serious and fun. It was each of those things, with each work standing on its own—greater than the sum of its parts, but not built around supporting a single centerpiece. Had any single piece not been performed so brilliantly, the same program might have felt passively formulaic. Instead it made the case for the formula.
Tonight, soprano Elissa Johnston will join the Lyris Quartet at Monk Space for what’s sure to be a beautiful night of music. In anticipation of the quickly approaching concert, I had the opportunity to interview Lyris Quartet members Alyssa Park (violin), Shalini Vijayan (violin), and Luke Maurer (viola) about the program, thoughts on collaboration, and more. Here’s what they said:
The program contains a set of lyrical, moving, and experimental works from a variety of composers, including Arvo Pärt, Pin Hsin Lin, John Tavener, David Hertzberg, and Evan Beigel. From a programming perspective, how do the pieces relate to each other, and/or how do they contrast?
Perhaps the unity of the concept for this program lies in the reflective and complex writings of each composer. Each of these pieces have their own unique meditative quality which is not to say that they lack power. On the contrary, because of the subtleties and contrasts within each piece, it creates a haunting beauty. We hope this selection of composers and their pieces will help the listener look inward and be able to escape all the chaos around us…to be in the moment and just feel. (Alyssa)
How often do you perform with vocalists? What has the process of collaborating with soprano Elissa Johnston been like?
We’ve had the opportunity to work with vocalists in a number of different settings. As the featured string quartet on Long Beach Opera’s production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field several seasons ago, we had the rare chance to support an entire cast of vocalists. That said, when we get the chance to work with a singer in an intimate setting such as this, it is always a special treat. The beauty of the voice is the ideal to which all instrumentalists aspire, in phrasing, tone and timbre. Elissa is always such a joy to work with because she can grasp such a wide array of styles with her captivating voice. Not to mention, that she is a fabulous person and really fun to be around! (Shalini)
Both you and Elissa Johnston are known for performing a wide variety of works, both from the classical canon as well as living composers. Has this repertoire informed your playing in any ways you’d be interested in sharing?
We do have a great foundation of having played many of the celebrated works for quartet together, and it’s always great to revisit pieces from past eras after working on those from this century. We are fortunate to often have the chance to work directly with composers on new music for quartet. Indeed, three of the pieces on Tuesday’s program are by composers right here in Los Angeles! Years of collaboration with many composers definitely has expanded our own individual instrumental technique, and it has built up our ability as a group to listen and react to each other. (Luke)
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.
Saturday, November 15, 2014 found the Lyris Quartet at the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on North La Brea for a Music and Conversations concert. Surrounded by the art of Bruce Richards and a selection of Casa Torelli wines, about 75 people turned out to hear the music of Arvo Part, Jane Brockman – who also produced the concert – and a Beethoven string quartet. Eric Jacobs, playing clarinet and bass clarinet, joined the Lyris Quartet for the first two pieces.
The opening piece of the concert was Es Sang vor langen Jahren, by Arvo Pärt. This is scored for strings and countertenor but for this performance Eric Jacobs played the voice part on bass clarinet from offstage. This was an effective substitution and gave the piece a folk-like character that was at once charming and mysterious. The opening stringendo in the strings was offset by a slow, solemn melody from the bass clarinet. These passages were echoed in the strings from time to time and a pedal tone in the cello was most effective in setting an introspective mood. Variations added some drama, especially in the lower strings, that also included some spare – but lovely – harmonies, and a peaceful feel. The playing by the Lyris Quartet was right on target, and the strong clear tone of the bass clarinet was especially soulful. Es Sang vor langen Jahren was nicely played throughout and the higher registers of the bass clarinet proved to be a good choice for realizing the vocal line.
Scenes from Lemuria by Jane Brockman followed and in her remarks Ms. Brockman disclosed that her training was in New York as part of the academic “uptown” scene of the late 20th century. Writing what she irreverently referred to as ‘root canal music’, the move to Los Angeles around the year 2000 had, she explained, mellowed her sound somewhat. Scenes from Lemuria began with a high, arcing clarinet line by Eric Jacobs that was soon joined by a series of rapid string passages that gave a bustling feeling of movement and motion. The clarinet and strings went back and forth and the contrasting dynamics were especially effective. Although animated and bright, this piece conveys an optimistic feel that could be described as mellow. The interior harmonies were nicely balanced and full, giving a warm feeling that often morphed into a more exotic sound. Although complex and lively at times, Scenes from Lemuria is ultimately an inviting and welcoming experience. The playing was accurate and precise, a credit to both the Lyris Quartet and Eric Jacobs who had to cover a lot of material.
The final piece in the concert was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 in Bb major. This is one of Beethoven’s later works, composed when he was fully deaf. It consists of six movements instead of the usual four, and there are two possible final movements. The playing in the opening movement was solid with good precision in the faster sections and also had a smooth, romantic feel that was, at times, sunny and optimistic. In the second movement the fast passages and close harmonies were navigated with the necessary skill and care – there was a detectible wit and playfulness that came through nicely. The third movement was slower and more deliberate with the melody line in the violin rising agreeably to the top of the texture with good balance below. The dance-like fourth movement contained some complex rhythms and a melody that was passed effortlessly between the players while the more empathetic and slower tempos highlighted the pathos present in the fifth movement.
For this performance the Lyris Quartet elected to play the original Grosse Fugue for the last movement. The first playing of this movement generated such an uproar that Beethoven was convinced by his publisher to write an alternate version. The Grosse Fugue has a lot of moving parts – four subjects in all – and a big, almost harsh sound. There is a complex and frenetic feel to this and the Lyris Quartet looked to be intently focused. This is challenging music with meandering and interweaving passages that arguably might have prefigured early 20th century music. From our vantage point today the Grosse Fugue is certainly very forward looking for its time.
The next Music and Conversations concert will take place in early 2015.