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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Saturday, April 27, 2013
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and piano

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

FULL CIRCLE FOR KAHANE

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, April 27, 2013

Since the conclusion of his decade-long tenure with the Santa Rosa Symphony in 2006, conductor laureate Jeffrey Kahane has traveled widely, but he has often circled back to Sonoma County as a piano soloist. On Saturday evening, April 27, he upped the ante by not only bringing his prodigious keyboard talents back to the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, but also his own ensemble, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

A chamber orchestra in name only, LACO generates a powerful sound, which proved more than adequate for filling every nook and cranny of the GMC's nearly full Weill Hall. The orchestra includes almost every instrument found in a full-blown symphony, but with fewer players on a part, particularly in the strings. There are, for example, only four cellos and four violas. The reduced sections bring the total players to around 40, about half the number found in larger orchestras.

The loss of volume from fewer players is more than made up for by LACO's dexterity, unanimity and all-around great sound. Every member of the ensemble is a potential soloist. Indeed, in the brand-new "Music in Circles III" by contemporary composer Andrew Norman, each one got a chance to be an actual soloist, however briefly.

That piece began the second half of the program, after an informative introduction from Kahane, an inveterate proselytizer for modern music. As he explained, LACO had premiered the piece just the week before and had already played it several times, including a performance to an auditorium filled with grade-school children, who had listened with rapt attention.

As Kahane observed, "Music in Circles" is really about the act of listening. It begins in dead silence. In turn, the various instruments in the orchestra make short, expressive sounds. A violinist, for example, plays harmonics, whereas a violist bounces his bow off a string. Throughout this spare introduction, Kahane held out his fingers to count off the solos.

Gradually (and predictably), all the instruments joined in, creating a dense sound that hovered around a tonal center without going anywhere in particular. Kahane's metronomic arm motions became a major focus of the piece, as he kept everyone together in the intricate but evanescent cloud of noise. A long decrescendo ensued, giving the piece the familiar soft-loud-soft structure that can be summarized with two sideways Vs: <>.

Whatever the merits of "Music in Circles," the performance was beguiling. With one possible exception, the musicians played their solos with aplomb, and the texture of the sound seemed to pull the audience in--perhaps not as completely as the grade schoolers, but close enough.

Earlier in the evening, the concert began at the other end of the musical timescale with a captivating, Kahane-less performance of Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 11. Led by concertmistress Margaret Batjer, a scaled-down ensemble of about a dozen standing violin, viola and bass players--along with two seated cellists and a harpsichordist--zipped through the Baroque master's charming reworking of one his own organ concertos.

Batjer immediately established herself as a solid player with shimmering technique and authoritative bowing. Although her body movements were restrained, she brought the entire ensemble along with her: every eye within sight was glued to her bow. The five-movement concerto really caught fire in the concluding Allegro, propelled by a series of calls and responses from soloist to orchestra.

Afterward, Kahane and a lidless Steinway emerged from the wings to perform Mozart's beloved Piano Concerto No. 22. The orchestra--which now included a fuller complement of strings, winds and timpani--arranged itself around the piano. The keyboard faced the audience but was soon obscured by the seated Kahane, who rose to conduct whenever he wasn't playing.

The performance was everything one would expect from Kahane: fluid, virtuosic, lyrical, transcendent. The piano sound meshed well with the orchestra, floating above the stage rather than projecting outward. Kahane's own cadenza to the first movement was particularly memorable. Taking the liberty of a cadenza at face value, Kahane brought the timpanist into his improvisations, the drums offering a surprisingly effective restatement of the main theme.

As almost always in Mozart, the slow movement was the most endearing, nowhere more so here than in the various woodwind duets. The dark, almost tragic, mood stood in stark contrast to the outer movements. In the concluding Rondo, it was hard to believe that Kahane could play so quickly. His trills were relentless and his fingers a blur, but the phrasing was nonetheless exquisite. The standing ovation at the end was well deserved.

Another well-deserved ovation arrived at the end of the program, after Ginastera's "Variaciones concertantes," a heartfelt set of variations on Argentine themes. Composed in 1953, the piece has worn well over the last 60 years, a testament to the solidity of its melodies and the rewards of its structure.

"Variaciones concertantes" consists of a series of 11 mini-concertos for various instruments in the orchestra, followed by a rousing finale. It opens with a soulful duet between harp and cello, which spends almost all its time in the upper registers. The soloists here and throughout the piece were superb, but the real standout was violist Victoria Miskolczy, who made the most of her "Variacion dramatica" by producing a full-bodied sound of searing intensity.

In the end, the concert offered further proof--as if any were needed--of Kahane's stature as both performer and conductor. One can only hope that not too much time will pass before he circles back again to his musical home.