Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Saturday, June 26 at 7:00pm
On Saturday, June 26, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra invited vaccinated supporters to gather at Walt Disney Concert Hall for a celebratory performance—a musical victory lap of sorts for having emerged from the pandemic’s deafening silence. The scheduled program was of a familiar LACO construction: something old, something new, something showy.
The Old: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, “Italian,” which closed the scheduled program, was performed with the incredible degree of precision and musical nuance we have come to expect from LACO. Music Director Jaime Martín has an incisive musical intuition for bringing unexpected details to the foreground of the music, which breathes new life into even the most well-known and loved works in the canon. Here was no exception, the intricate details of Mendelssohn’s rapidly-animated textures emerging in the spaces of longer melodic lines. As an accomplished performer himself, Martín brings a natural sense for stepping back and entrusting the musicians to do what they do best; the Mendelssohn, as a result, felt fresh and immediate, while always mantaining an unambiguous coherence.
Juan Pablo Contreras’s chamber arrangement of his orchestral work, Mariachitlán, roused the hall with an energetic juxtaposition of musical textures that drop the listener into the vibrant intersection of traditions, styles, and sounds of Guadalajara. An unmistakable tribute to mariachi overlaps with passages evoking the guitar, soloistic moments for the brass, strings, and harp, and a startling whistle which initiates a chant for which the piece is titled. There is a romanticism and a grit to Mariachitlán that both performers and audience responded to: Contreras’s writing feels fun and serious, fractured and coherent, modern and traditional.
The program’s opening work, Variaciones Concertantes was the showy one. Written by the great Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera, in the middle of the 20th century, the work is beautiful, effective, and haunting, revealing a strong influence by Aaron Copland not only in its orchestration, but also in the personal approach to incorporating folk material. Principal Cello Andrew Shulman and harpist Elizabeth Zosseder performed a stunning and intimate duet that opens the work, which unfolded into episodes of lively, shimmering episodes that showcased most of the ensemble’s principal musicians including notable solos by Erik Rynearson (Principal Viola), Ken Monday (Principal Bassoon), Sandy Hughes (Acting Principal Flute), Claire Brazeau (Principal Oboe) and David Grossman (Principal Bass), among others. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer’s virtuosic performance on Variaciones was truly extraordinary, with impeccable musicianship and phrasing that enraptured the audience throughout the concerto-like violin solo. Martín managed the considerable technical aspects of Ginastera’s writing while threading the variations with a sense of continuous, fluid development that anchored the choreography of solos moving through the ensemble.
After the scheduled program, Martín returned to an enthralled audience to thank those supporters who made this year—and this concert—possible. A touching, personal flute performance by Martín of Telemann’s Cunando, accompanied by Shulman on cello, was followed by an upbeat performance of Gerónimo Giménez’s Intermedio de la Boda de Luis Alonzo by the ensemble. But I was particularly struck by the sincerity and depth of gratitude evident in the hall, not only from the musicians towards their audience of supporters, but from the audience towards their musicians. These two pillars of our music community, LACO and Walt Disney Hall, remind us that making art is not just entertainment. After a year of prolonged isolation, the immeasurable loss of loved ones, and a persistent sense of uncertainty, making art reminds us what we do still have, what we do still share. Seeing that reminder worn on the faces both on and off stage assigned real weight to the words we have been waiting to hear:
LACO’s second live performance since the pandemic will be happening on Thursday, July 1 at The Huntington in San Marino. The program includes the original 1915 version of de Falla’s extraordinary sung ballet El amor brujo conducted by Music Director Jaime Martín and featuring
LA’s own celebrated mezzo soprano Suzanna Guzmán. Martín also leads Debussy’s iconic Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune” and the world premiere of KiMani Bridges’ The Flower. For more information go to www.laco.org
Saturday’s opening concert inagurated a new era at Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra—one not only marked by a new conductor in Jaime Martín, but also a season that feels almost startlingly fresh in everything from its commissioning projects to its slick new logo and updated website.
The season opened with the first installment of an Andrew Norman commission, aptly titled Begin. Norman’s writing was, expectedly, sensitive and immensely creative, with hocketing lines across the orchestra dissolving into a timbral stew before swirling and bubbling up into moments of coalescence. Norman’s particular brand of magic is creating a sense of impossible inevitability from even the most exploratory ideas, and Begin was no exception, arriving at intense, coordinated thrusts of sound that seem somehow simultaneously unimaginable and unavoidable. Like with his recent Sustain, in Begin Norman shows incredible maturity and restraint, always leaving a hint of his material devolving back into chaos. The orchestration was especially effective in articulating the drama of the piece, with quiet moments smeared thinly across the stage while tutti gestures are brought forward with thick, rich resonance; a conversational approach which helped reinforced the spirit of a concerto for chamber orchestra.
The performance by LACO was so lively and convincing that a newcomer might well have wondered what Berlioz and Beethoven were doing on the program of a new music ensemble. Anne Sofie von Otter was charming, but the Berlioz (and encores) that concluded the first half were effective, if unexceptional. Martín managed the balance with von Otter’s soft mezzo-soprano voice quite well, lending the piece an easy nonchalance, and from a programming perspective, it was a sensible choice to follow the Norman (and seemed to resonate with many in the audience). Musically, though, it did not showcase the ensemble’s technical or musical potential, save a few of the cycle’s softest moments.
The performance of Beethoven Symphony No.7, on the other hand, was extraordinary. Martín brought his experience in the woodwinds section to his interpretation, bringing out Beethoven’s subtle lines and details as they move through the orchestra with incredible clarity. The work was precise and raucous, intimate and boisterous—all the dramatic contradictions that make Beethoven, well, Beethoven. And it was in this performance that Martín really showed the musical sensitivity that is his own magic, each adjustment he showed from the podium elicited a (somehow) more perfect music. From the minute details to the overarching form, LACO and Martín’s performance on the Beethoven was simply exquisite, and might be the best performance of it I have ever heard, live or recorded.
There are small things I could critique: the position of the second violin section really needs to be adjusted slightly to face the audience as they were much too quiet, and their sound, even when it cuts through, is muffled from being angled back towards the orchestra. The lack of young (or even middle-aged) audience members is also concerning, though LACO seems to be doing their part to reach out to younger audiences, and the Royce Hall performances certainly attract more young people to attend. But overall, what we learned from Saturday’s performance is that under Martín, LACO is an ensemble capable of making new works feel like established classics, and established classics feel brand new. Paired with an administration which is proving to have a nuanced understanding of the LA music scene and a real plan for the future, LACO is certainly the organization to watch this season.
LACO Welcomes Jaime!
Jaime Martín, Conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
September 28th, 8:00 pm at Glendale’s Alex Theater
September 29th, 7:00pm at Royce Hall
*See LACO.org for more information on open rehearsal, reception, and pre-concert festivities in honor of the opening of the season
On September 28th, flute virtuoso and conductor Jaime Martín will officially take the baton as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO is one of the institutions at the heart of the Los Angeles music scene, balancing excellent traditional programming with the commissioning of new works and a wildly adventurous SESSION series. The commencement of Martín’s role is, on the surface, a sensible import of the European tradition for an ensemble which shines in that repertoire—and certainly, this season does not shy away from tried-and-true major works, nor from utilizing Martín’s relationships with world-class soloists like Anne Sofie von Otter and Christian Tetzlaff. But there is more to this appointment than simply a conductor with deep ties to the global classical music scene: Martín is a sensitive and curious leader, whose passion for collaboration is already coming into focus for LACO. And in a moment when Los Angeles has an abundance of musical talent, creativity and energy, this combination might make Martín just the person to harness west-coast excitement into world-class refinement.
In anticipation of LACO’s opening concerts on September 28th and 29th, I was able to sit down with Martín to talk about his appointment as Music Director. He is charismatic and energetic, and he speaks about the ensemble and Los Angeles with a genuine spark in his eyes. Over the course of our conversation, the importance of relationships, trust, and freedom in his music-making emerged as clear through-lines. Looking at the programs and music of this coming season, you get the sense that these are not just ideals, but foundational to the way he engages with and creates music.
With his background as a performer, it is natural that Martín treats his role at the podium with a deep sense of trust for the musicians in front of him. One of the things he values most, he says, is “if the musicians tell me after the concert that they had the feeling of being free; that they feel I let them breathe with the music.” And with a chamber orchestra of LACO’s caliber, that freedom has created some wonderful moments, already, under Martín’s baton. “There are no passengers in an orchestra, everybody is driving in a way,” Martín explains–and this core belief is evident in his responsiveness while leading the musicians, as well as in his commitment to bring world-class soloists and commission works to celebrate the ensemble.
Which brings us to another facet of Martín’s relationship-building: Composers. Besides an impressive lineup of soloists, the new works presented this season include the beginning of a prolonged collaboration with Andrew Norman, a commission and SESSION curation for Missy Mazzoli, and collaborations with Juan Pablo Contreras, Christopher Rountree, and Derrick Spiva Jr., among others. An emphasis on Los Angeles talent is clear, but the half-dozen commissions (one for each of the six concerts Martín will conduct this season) articulate an overall support for living composers that itself feels Angeleno at heart. Of course, placing new works alongside staples of the canon risks the forced, awkward juxtapositions that other orchestras have tried in recent years, where intermission is marked by donors leaving and students arriving. But somehow LACO’s 2019-2020 program feels genuine in putting forth new and established works with equal esteem.
This sense of genuineness comes in part from an emphasis on building longer-term relationships with composers like Norman, Reid and Mazzoli, who are already becoming widely accepted as worthy companions to the great masters of old. But the intent to find and support new masterworks is also a broader impulse on Martín’s part, who hates the word “routine,” and sees what is happening in Los Angeles right now as a unique opportunity to bring great new works forward:
I don’t think we need to find excuses to program. We have to make people excited and curious; I think that is the starting point. In the end, the ideal situation is when you create a relationship of trust with the audience. Then, that audience looks at the program in five years and maybe they don’t recognize any of the pieces, but they say “you know what, I’m going to go because if they’re performing that, it must be worth listening to—and maybe I’ll be surprised!” If we could achieve that, it would be fantastic. But you cannot demand that trust, you have to earn it.
The opening concert of the season is a clear signal of Martín’s seriousness about earning this trust: Andrew Norman—a Los Angeles composer who probably knows LACO better than any other—will premiere the first part of a three-year collaboration with the orchestra, alongside Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été (featuring renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter), and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Fusing old and new, local and global, this season at LACO is poised to pick up the baton left by the LA Phil’s astonishing centennial season, and in doing so, it may help define the livewire that is the Los Angeles music scene today.