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Respirator

Mozart and Mendelssohn’s Grand Tour,
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Royce Hall, May 2015 —

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1968″, as their program states, “as an artistic outlet for the recording industry’s most gifted musicians”. Its first concert took place the following year led by the group’s original music director, Sir Neville Marriner. For the past 18 seasons the ensemble has been under the baton of the energetic conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane. A performance on May 17th–the final offering in L.A.C.O.’s current season–illustrated that Kahane’s players are some of the best, conservatory-trained “studio musicians” available. The concert was held at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

L.A.C.O.’s “Sound Investment” donors commission several new compositions each season and one of them, Respirator, received its world premiere at this concert. Ted Hearne, the young, award-winning composer, based his fifteen-minute piece on a serious medical problem he suffered as a small child. His asthma attacks were so severe that he was often hospitalized, strapped to a face mask that helped him inhale oxygen and medications. “The sound of my lungs felt amplified, with all its noisy drips and hisses, clinging to the determined hum of my breath. This struggle could be scary to listen to, so I would often focus on the pulse of my heartbeat…’Respirator’ is an attempt to turn those memories into music.”

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In addition to music, Respirator turned the chamber orchestra into a virtual machine, huffing, puffing, following the beat of trap drums, seeming to work up the energy to explode. For any instrument that required breath—pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, French horns, bassoons, trumpets and a single trombone—Hearne asked the musicians to augment the written notes, perhaps by humming, grunting or singing one tone as they played another. One of the flutists later described achieving this effect as “really difficult, like a breathing exercise in Yoga or learning to give CPR. You feel it in your gut.” The machine-like regularity called to mind Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231, written in 1923, a musical impression of a railway train and its chugging engine.

The opening and closing sections of the composition rose and fell with a steady punctuation of “prepared” piano chords. Drumsticks hit cymbals that rested on the tympani and a shortness of breath sensation never let up. The exquisite, all-too-brief central portion of “Respirator”–with string sections united in an undulant fantasia of yearning, Hindemith-like chords–was a quiet, beautiful departure from what preceded and followed. This is a fresh, sophisticated piece of music from a composer with a long career ahead.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major was performed next. The pianist was Jonathan Biss and the orchestra was conducted, as it was throughout the evening, with great gusto by Jeffrey Kahane. Mozart, the” boy genius”, was perhaps the most famous person in the world in the latter half of the 1700’s. Princes and popes were fascinated by the prodigy who was able to completely structure a composition in his head before writing a single note. Immensely skilled in technique, harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, Mozart wowed all of Europe but nevertheless died a pauper’s death in Vienna, only 35 years old, in 1791.

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An extremely fast composer—he dashed off his final three symphonies in under two weeks—Mozart wrote fifteen piano concertos in only four years in the early 1780’s. One of the very best of those is No. 21. The first movement, marked Allegro Maestoso (quick and lively, but majestic) was presented at a truly rapid pace by Kahane. Soloist Biss was impressive but he, too, seemed almost rushed. There was an occasional stumble but given the torrent of notes that Mozart wrote, it’s a miracle any pianist can play all of them flawlessly, especially without a score. The L.A.C.O. ensemble exhibited good, clean playing by one and all and the Royce Hall acoustics, at least from a balcony seat, sounded warm and distinct.

Everyone is familiar with the second movement, the solemn Andante, not only because it was used as the score of the 1967 Swedish film, Elvira Madigan—a lush, romantic but sappy box office hit in its day–but because the music is Mozart at his most sublime. He achieved a perfect balance between the orchestra and piano throughout this concerto and they are truly equal partners. The elegant rendition by Jonathan Biss and the poise of the chamber orchestra was just right.

The sadness that shrouds the second movement—probably inspired by how poor and troubled Mozart was when he wrote it—is definitely banished in the finale. Marked Allegro Vivace Assai (very fast and vivacious), the third movement is like being on a musical race course with two elements hurtling towards the finish line. The orchestra played the familiar theme, the piano answered it, then variations from both. It is rousing music, exactly what you think of when you think of Mozart. All parties played wonderfully, to great audience response, and Mr. Biss came back on stage for a quiet, unidentified encore at the piano.

The second half of the program was devoted to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Like Mozart, he was a prodigy who studied and performed music as a child and played before the crowned heads of Europe, including Queen Victoria, (He would also die before he turned 40.) Felix enjoyed the wealth of a highly educated family who diminished their Jewish heritage by becoming Christians. He was a skilled watercolorist, loved his sister, Fanny, who was nearly as talented as he and began seriously composing music when he was a boy. By the time he was 17, having already penned several string symphonies and a justifiably famous Octet, Mendelssohn—after reading Shakespeare’s plays with his sister—wrote an Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The evocative scoring and rich texture of the orchestration brought greater attention to the young composer. (Sixteen years later, at the urging of, and with a commission from, the King of Prussia, Mendelssohn composed some incidental music to the fanciful tale.)

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L.A.C.O. played the Nocturne and Scherzo movements from Midsummer. The Nocturne that accompanies the play’s lovers and struck me as more modern than the usual Romantic fare; with the French horn heard at the start, the work anticipates Richard Strauss by many years. The Scherzo has a very familiar melody, introduced by the flutes over the strings, and soon all the woodwinds joined in a merry chase. It’s easy to take Mendelssohn for granted until you hear again just how good his music is.

Mendelssohn loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and conducted the first performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion since the older composer died, more than half a century earlier. It was a great success in Germany, Mendelssohn’s home country, so he took it on to London, for more successful performances. That event, and the comfort afforded by his family’s considerable wealth, convinced the 20-year old to embark on The Grand Tour of Europe, which in those days was a privilege enjoyed by all young men with means.

His travels lasted, on and off, for almost three years. While in Scotland, he wrote the richly orchestrated Hebrides overture and his third symphony, The Scottish. Descriptions of the sights he saw and the people he met were recorded in vivid letters, filled with sketches, to his sister Fanny. Visits to Rome and Naples in 1833 inspired his fourth symphony, The Italian. His resulting fame and popularity earned him the appointment, two years later, as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. This was the pinnacle of Mendelssohn’s career and he worked hard, hoping to make Leipzig the musical center of Germany.

The L.A. Chamber Orchestra played the Italian Symphony with zest, displaying spritely ensemble work on the opening Allegro movement. The imposing Andante section that follows, with flutes floating above the strings, was inspired by an Italian religious procession that the composer came upon in Naples. (Tchaikovsky, born thirty years later than Mendelssohn, was surely familiar with the German’s music and the influence is clear in these first two movements.) The simple, bucolic, Romantic-era dances in the third section lead into more dramatic brass passages. The finale, marked Saltarello Presto, refers to a lively Italian dance. Strong, quick work from L.A.C.O.’s string section here. Then flutes led the woodwinds into a chase with the strings.

The musical sketches and notes made by Mendelssohn during his multiple trips to Italy were used effectively in his Italian symphony. Kahane and the L. A. Chamber Orchestra rendered that work and the others at this concert, with commendable brio and skill.

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