9 things you never knew about the cello

The program for LACO’s upcoming Mozart Serenade (October 18 and 19, buy your tickets now!) features a George Benjamin piece and (spoiler alert!) a Mozart Serenade. But since the concert will also feature Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major, featuring guest cellist Steven Isserlis, it’s the perfect time to bone up on cello trivia. Whet your appetite with these 9 Things You Never Knew About the Cello! 

read more →The Cello’s Full Name. Cello is actually an abbreviated word. The full name name for the instrument is violoncello, which translates to “little violone.” The violone, which was larger, is the direct ancestor of the double bass.

A Workout For Your Calves. The wood or metal spike at the base of the cello that allows the cellist to rest their instrument on the floor is called an endpin. Even though the cello dates back to the 16th century, endpins weren’t commonly used until the beginning of the 20th century. The first to attach an endpin to their cello was Belgian composer and cellist Adrien-François Servais, who did so around 1845. He must have been tired of holding his cello between his calves, which was the standard practice for hundreds of years.

Pluralize It! There are two acceptable ways to pluralize the word “cello”: cellos and celli.

You Sound Like a Cello. Many musicians and experts have claimed that, of all the instruments that make up an orchestra, the cello is the one that most closely sounds like the human voice. Tod Machover, a composer and Professor of Music and Media at MIT, explained why: “The cello range is identical to the human voice – that is, the male and female voice combined. The lowest cello note is at the bottom range of a basso profundo, and although the cello can scream higher than any singer, it has a more normal top range that competes with a diva coloratura.” (from Machover’s essay “My Cello,” included in the book “Evocative Objects: Things We Think With”)

Expensive…and Broken! In 2012, a Stradivarius cello thought to be worth $20 million dollars was broken when it fell off a table during a photo shoot at the Spanish Royal Palace in Madrid. It’s part of a set of instruments known as ‘The Quartet’ that were acquired by King Philip V of Spain during the 1700s. 

Spruced Up. The top plate of a cello is commonly made of spruce, a softwood that’s known for having good sound radiating qualities. Spruce is popular among manufacturers of many stringed instruments, including violins and guitars, because of its high stiffness-to-weight ratio.

High Fashion Cello. What’s famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s connection to luxury fashion icon Louis Vuitton? The Louis Vuitton Foundation has loaned Ma the Davidov cello, which was made by Stradivarius in 1712. It’s one of many cellos that Ma uses during performances, and one that he frequently performs Baroque music on. The Louis Vuitton Foundation has at least three other instruments that they loan out to musicians: two violins (the Zahn and the Reynier), and a cello (the Vaslin).

Medical Testing. The oldest surviving cello, called the ‘King’ and made by 16th-century luthier Andrea Amati, recently entered a hospital for testing. In 2013, researchers at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, used a CAT scanner to examine the condition of the ‘King,’ and to try to identify the originality of the materials used during construction.

24 Hours of Cello. There’s one cello-centric Guinness World Record, and it’s for Longest Cello Marathon. The current record was set in 2005 by Shamita Achenbach-König, who played the cello for 24 continuous hours on November 5th and 6th, 2005. Her day-long concert included pieces by many of the biggest names in music, including Bach, Chopin, and Dvorak, as well as folk songs and spirituals. The record was set at the Impossibility Challenger Games in Munich, which celebrates the limits of the human spirit and body. Achenbach-König’s record wasn’t the only one set during the Games: a Swiss bodybuilder tore a 960-page phone book in half in under 3 seconds, a Slovakian man juggled three 20-pound balls for 25.66 seconds, and Jennifer Davies from Canada set two Guinness World Records for whistling the highest and lowest notes ever whistled in history. ↑ less ↑

flashback to 1985 before the LACO season premiere

What an exciting time: the new LACO season is almost upon us! On Sept. 20 and 21, LACO will kick off their 46th Orchestral Series with Beethoven 5, a concert that celebrates the classics while ushering a new masterpiece into the world. The program includes the world premiere of Cameron Patrick’s Lines of the Southern Cross, Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5, and Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5, known as his “Egyptian” concerto. It’s no surprise that LACO hasn’t performed Lines of the Southern Cross before, as it is a world premiere. I was surprised, however, to hear that the other two pieces have only been played once before on the LACO stage. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was introduced to LACO audiences in 2009 (as the inaugural piece in their compelling and unique “Discover” format), but Saint Saens’ “Egyptian” Concerto hasn’t been performed since 1985 – 29 years ago! Thinking back to 1985 doesn’t yield many memories from outside my home or school, but then again, I was only six years old. Turns out, though, that 1985 was a notable year in many regards. Are you ready for a flashback? 

read more → Two popular orchestral pieces were heard for the first time in 1985, both thanks to commissions by major American symphonies. The Milwaukee Symphony commissioned American composer John Adams, and the end result was The Chairman Dances, which has since been recorded at least three times. 1,000 miles to the east, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned English composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who delivered Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a popular work that’s known for being one of the few classical pieces to feature a bagpipe solo.

If you tuned your radio to the top-40 stations, you’d likely hear hits from some of the biggest names in music. Madonna released Like A Virgin in late 1984, and her smashes “Material Girl” and “Into the Groove” were played throughout most of 1985. Bruce Springsteen also had a hit 1984 album, Born in the U.S.A., with hit singles “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days” hitting airwaves in 1985. Phil Collins’ third solo album, No Jacket Required, hit store shelves in January 1985, and it would go on to be the #1 album in the country for seven weeks, and eventually win three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.

Film audiences craved adventure, with Back to the Future and The Goonies filling theaters coast-to-coast. If you were in an action mood, you could buy a ticket for Commando or your choice of Sylvester Stallone sequels: Rambo: First Blood Part II or Rocky IV. Meanwhile, classical music fans celebrated when Amadeus cleaned up at the 57th Annual Academy Awards (handed out in March 1985) – the Mozart film won 8 statues, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.

Those who opted to stay home had plenty to choose from, with laughter being a likely outcome. Five of the top ten highest-rated television shows were comedies: The Cosby Show, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Cheers, and Who’s The Boss?. 1985 also saw the debuts of many television staples: David Letterman presented his first Top Ten List on September 18th (topic: “Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas”), Elmo made his first appearance on Sesame Street on November 18th, and CNN introduced a new nightly interview show, Larry King Live, on June 3rd.

A couple new products were introduced into the marketplace, with differing results: Coca-Cola tinkered with its 99-year-old formula and released New Coke, but public backlash and savage reviews forced the company to reintroduce its Classic beverage just months later. At the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft introduced the first version of Windows, called Windows 1.0, and the product is still going strong nearly 3 decades later.

Some final fun facts about 1985: It was the year that Michael Jordan was named NBA Rookie of the Year, the year that the cost of a first-class stamp rose from 20 to 22 cents, and the year that the English version of the immensely popular musical Les Miserables premiered (in London). And if you wanted to fill up your gas tank? The average price, per gallon, was only $1.09.  ↑ less ↑

a silent tribute to los angeles

I’m still smiling from my excellent weekend – one that was capped by a sensational Sunday night performance by LACO. The occasion was the annual Silent Film Gala, where classic films are screened at Royce Hall, with LACO performing the scores live. This year’s festivities, which featured two Charlie Chaplin films (“Modern Times” and “Kid Auto Races in Venice”), were especially noteworthy, as they marked a number of milestones, including the 25th anniversary of the first Silent Film Gala, and the 125th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth. I suspected I might leave Royce Hall feeling jubilant, but I didn’t anticipate leaving with a desire to explore the city around me. But that’s what LACO concerts will do to a person: they’ll change you, and in ways you don’t expect.

read more →The Silent Film Gala is a big deal, and if you go next year (and I highly recommend that you do), get ready, because there’s about 20 minutes of introductions before the orchestra even enters the auditorium. In addition to thanking and honoring the many donors and board members who worked to put this event together (including event co-chair Hanna Kennedy, who’s been working tirelessly on Silent Film Galas since their inception), much was said this year about how the Silent Film Gala benefits and enriches the entire city. For some reason, this little morsel planted itself in my brain.

I’ll be honest and say that I got a little antsy during the pre-concert speeches. I appreciated Leonard Maltin providing cultural context regarding the films we’d be watching, but let’s get on with the show! Soon enough, the orchestra pit was filled with dozens of musicians, and conductor (and composer) Timothy Brock made his entrance.

“Kid Auto Races in Venice” is a short film that can’t be more than 15 minutes long. Brock had written an entirely new score for it that highlighted and showcased the laughs and captured the energy and spirit of the film, and it was a joy to watch (and listen to).

“Modern Times” is feature length (clocking in at just under 90 minutes), and if you’re not aware of the importance of this film, than stop what you’re doing and go read about it. (You can finish reading this blog post first.) (And after you’re done reading about it, go watch it – it’s available on YouTube and DVD.) The film is joyous to watch. It’s funny and smart, clever and nuanced, broad and specific. The musicians sounded wonderful, and with a story so engrossing, I actually forgot, at times, that they were there!

It was at some point during “Modern Times” that I was overtaken by a hunch. I suspected that Chaplin likely filmed this masterpiece all over Los Angeles. I did a little research when I got home, and my hunch was confirmed. The scenes at the harbor and shipyard were filmed at the port and in San Pedro. The department store exteriors were at Sunset and Vine in the heart of Hollywood. A sequence where the Tramp and the Gamin escape the cops was filmed in Santa Monica. The dream house where the Tramp and the Gamin imagine their perfect life was in the valley, near Universal City. And the final scene, where the Tramp and the Gamin walk towards the horizon to begin a new life, was filmed on a stretch of the Sierra Highway beyond Santa Clarita, outside a little town called Acton.

I found it fitting that during this milestone year for the Silent Film Gala, a film that embraced a variety of Los Angeles locales was chosen, because that’s exactly what LACOdoes. One of LACO’s slogans says that they “bring great music to life,” and that idea could be expanded upon to include the fact that, chances are, they also bring that great music to you, no matter where you live. Their orchestral series is performed both in Glendale and Westwood. They do an annual event in Pasadena, and smaller concert series downtown and in Santa Monica. You’re never too far from a LACO venue, just like you’re never too far from a “Modern Times” location. I’ve attendedLACO concerts at most of these venues, and I get a kick out of visiting new-to-me neighborhoods and seeing what’s around. Now, thanks to Sunday’s Silent Film Gala, I have a new goal:

I enjoy exercise, but sometimes I need external motivation to get me on my feet. One of the things I love to do is go and work out in places featured in classic films. I’ve run two 10k races through the backlots at Universal Studios, and ran the public stairways featured in classic Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy comedies. Next on the to-do list? I’m going to run down Sierra Highway, along the same stretch of road that Charlie Chaplin walked almost 80 years ago. I enjoy feeling connected to my surroundings, and if I have a good workout in a location immortalized in a classic film, well… that will be a greatday.

So thank you, LACO. Thank you for a beautiful evening. Thank you for making me think about the city around me. And thank you for inspiring me to take another healthy step. It’ll probably end up being hundreds of steps along the Sierra Highway’s shoulders, but who’s counting?

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a whole lotta pianos

Man, if you love pianos, than the Alex Theatre was the place to be this past Saturday. LACO’s program for theBach & Mozart: Double Concertos concert featured not one pianist, not two pianists, and not three pianists. It hadfour pianists! They ranged in age from 12 to significantly older than 12, and they were backed by the orchestra in a glorious array on concertos from the masters of classical music. Plus, there was a program switcharoo that really kept me on my toes!

read more →Let’s address the switcheroo first and get it over with. I had time to peruse the program notes before the concert began, and my ears perked up, Scooby-Doo style, when I read this sentence: “[Gyorgy] Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is scored for a small orchestra with some non-traditional instruments, including slide whistle, alto ocarina (a small, egg-shaped flute) and harmonica.” Get out! Slide whistle?The same slide whistle that’s used at the circus when a clown’s pants fall down will be gracing the LACO stage? In theory, yes. In actuality, no. And that’s because at some point after the program book was published months ago, there was a program change, and the Ligeti Piano Concerto was booted off the list and replaced by a concerto by Beethoven.

I don’t know when it happened, and I don’t know why it happened, but it was a bummer for me, since the program already featured two old-timey concertos (ones by Bach and Mozart), and it would have been nice to hear a more modern take (the Ligeti concerto was written in the ’80s). You know who else was bummed? The slide whistle player, who, for all we know, was elated for a chance to graduate from kids’ birthday party gigs to the major leagues, only to get a call saying not to come. “We’re not playing the Ligeti anymore,” the slide whistle player might have been told, “and that jerk Beethoven didn’t include any slide whistle in his concerto.”

Enough talk about what wasn’t played on Saturday. Let’s focus on what was played. The evening began with Bach’s lovely and lively Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Pianos, and those two pianos were played by Music Director Jeffrey Kahane and 12-year-old guest Ray Ushikubo. Yep, you read that right, 12 years old. The kid’s clearly a star, and if I had any thoughts that he was out of his league playing with all these grown-ups, those thoughts dissipated in 2 seconds. The concerto has a never-ending piano part, and Kahane and Ushikubo traded off playing it, passing it back and forth like tennis players. You could close your eyes and not know who was playing what, even in the second movement, which is basically a piano duet, with the orchestra not playing a single note.

Next up was Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, with Mr. Kahane being joined by the second guest pianist of the evening, Joanne Pearce Martin. My favorite movement of this piece was the third one, which had the catchiest hook of the evening (to use a phrase common in current popular music). Mr. Kahane pulled double duty during this piece, standing up when he could and conducting the orchestra before sitting back down and tackling his next piano section.

The only non-concerto piece in the program was a selection of 3 Ligeti Etudes, a solo piece played by guest pianist Jeremy Denk right after intermission. I’m usually grateful that a modern piece was included, as I do like variety, but these kinda stuck out like a sore thumb, because 1) everything else was a concerto, and 2) nothing else was solo. Mr. Denk’s introduction of the Etudes provided some much appreciated context, but I found myself awaiting the next concerto.

That next concerto was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, with Mr. Denk tackling the piano part, and Mr. Kahane conducting everyone else. Mr. Denk proved to be my favorite pianist of the evening to watch, because he was very animated and invested. I must confess, though, that I held a bit of a grudge during this piece, as it was this Concerto that knocked the modern Ligeti concerto off the program. My mind wandered and I kept thinking of the slide whistle player, cold and alone, strolling through the streets, with nowhere to play his instrument. Maybe LACOcould make things right and include a slide whistle solo piece among next season’s offerings. It’s not too late to make that change, is it? Have the program book been printed?

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anticipating the anticipation

LACO’s annual Sound Investment premiere concert is quickly becoming one of my favorites of the year. This year, the official name of the concert was “Chopin: Piano Concerto,” but I didn’t show up for Chopin, I showed up for Sound Investment premiere. I’m glad I heard the Chopin, and I’ll get to that piece a little later, but I’ll start with the Sound Investment premiere. Did I mention it was a premiere?

read more →Sound Investment is LACO’s commissioning club. It’s been around for 13 years, but this is only my second year participating. In a nutshell, you make a donation to join the club, and all those donations get compiled and are given to a promising, exciting young composer, who then writes a brand-spanking-new piece of music. It provides a very rare opportunity for any Joe Sixpack (or Untrained Ear, like myself) to help bring a new piece of orchestral music into the world, and during the course of the season, investors get invited to a few events to see how the work is coming along. Learn more about Sound Investment and join the club!

This year’s Sound Investment composer was Hannah Lash, and she introduced her piece, This Ease, by saying that it was not influenced by any sort of outside event or emotion. I’m a creative sort, and that struck me as intriguing, and actually probably very difficult to pull off. Kudos to Ms. Lash for retreating into a creative space, again and again over the course of a year, and never letting anything seep in to color or affect this piece of music!

I ended up feeling one resounding thing as I listened toThis Ease: anticipation. There’s a moment in many adventure movies – think The Goonies or Indiana Jones – where an object of desire (some sort of treasure, medallion, or jewel, for example) is revealed for the first time. The music is humming with anticipation: bright sounds that reflect the grandeur and importance of the object, with unsettling elements weaving their way through the background, like musical foreshadowing that hints of the danger, mystery, and power that the object can bring.

This Ease sounded like an 18-20 minute experiment in that moment. The piece evolved and grew, but it never lost that sense of anticipation. It was full of complex sounds and stunning instrument combinations, and was enjoyable, and, at moments, breathtaking to listen to. In a way, though, I felt unsatisfied, because that anticipation never grew into anything. There was no sense of conclusion. Imagine being handed a wrapped present and spending 20 minutes looking at it, smelling it, shaking it, turning it over in your hands, imagining the multitude of things it could contain, but never being able to open it. That’s how I felt at the end of This Ease. It was an exciting exploration, and beautiful too, but anticlimactic.

Chopin, on the other hand, knew how to write a climax. His Piano Concert No. 2 ended with a exhilarating flourish, delivered by the impressive LACO musicians and an incredibly dynamic guest soloist, Natasha Paremski. The solo passages throughout all three movements were endlessly impressive. Ms. Paremski’s fingers danced up and down the keyboard for the duration of the piece, and her encore, which was the 3rd movement of some Prokofiev piece (I couldn’t quite hear her from my seat), was downright dizzying. The Chopin provided me some unintentional chuckles, too. While Jeffrey Kahane conducted the entire evening, he was blocked entirely by the raised piano lid during the Chopin, and there were stretches that I forgot he was even there, until I would see, during his grander gestures, a single outstretched arm, baton in hand, enthusiastically leading the musicians. Ah, piano lids!

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fiddlefest: history in the making

When I hear the word ‘fiddlefest,’ my mind paints a very specific picture: bales of hay, people wearing overalls and biting pieces of straw, lots of “yee-haws” filing the air, and a crowd of folks dancing and having a great time. But thanks to LACO’s astounding Stradivarius FiddleFest concert, that image will forever be replaced with the memories from last Friday night. I’ve enjoyed my share ofLACO concerts over the years, but I’ve never left a venue feeling so in awe, so invigorated, and so giddy.

read more →The set-up was simple: 5 violinists. 5 violins. Occasional accompaniment on piano or bass. But they weren’t just any violinists, and they weren’t just any violins.

The musicians were all world-class, exceptional violinists, and all of them were playing Stradivarius violins. Each and every one of them.

I didn’t know much about Stradivarius before I arrived at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. I knew the name, and that it’s synonymous with the best violins ever made. I remembered how a Stradivarius figured into a tense scene in “The Prince of Tides,” and can clearly recall Homer finding a Stradivarius at a yard sale in a classic episode of “The Simpsons” (“Stradi-who-vius?” he exclaimed, before tossing it aside).

There was plenty of time for me to read the program before the concert began, and I’m glad I did, because LACOincluded bios of not only the musicians, but the violins themselves, and I gained a new appreciation for the history on that stage. And man oh man, there was a TON of history on that stage. There was history oozing from every corner, during every moment. The violins were all around 300 years old. They predate the original settlement that would eventually turn into Los Angeles by 50-60 years! There were violins that had “disappeared” for centuries before surfacing again. Violins that had been played by the violin masters of generations past. Violins that had traveled the world, again and again, decade after decade after decade.

And to compound the amount of history on hand, let me mention this: During the FiddleFest, these violins were the instruments that brought the music of 12 composers to life. Composers from all corners of the western world, some dating back 300 years to the time when these violins were crafted, to one that’s still alive today.

Every minute of every piece was a celebration of orchestral music’s illustrious and glorious past, and the five immensely talented violinists (Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint, and Xiang Yu) proceeded, again and again, to make it startlingly vibrant and alive. The stand-out pieces for me were the two Piazzola tangos (each of which featured 4 violins and Nico Abondolo on bass), which swelled and surged with passion, pride and overlapping rhythms. Chee-Yun captivated with her performance of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (accompanied by Jeffrey Kahane on piano), which built to a jaw-droppingly vigorous and exhilarating finale.

Most of the concert featured some, but not all, of the violins. Philippe Quint performed a soulful solo of music adapted from John Corigliano’s score from the movie The Red Violin. It appeared that Xiang Yu performed much of Franck’s Sonata in A major with his eyes closed, and Margaret Batjer was one of a few musicians who performed an entire piece (in her case, Brahms’ Scherzo in C minor) from memory, without a music stand. It was one impressive, superb performance after another!

It wasn’t until the finale of the concert that we got to hear all the violins at once. The piece was Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, and it certainly provided a bang to end the evening with. Each violinist had a section to themselves, accompanied by Kahane, and then they all joined in together for the final rousing, animated movement. The crowd jumped to their feet in a boisterous standing ovation. It was a concert 300 years in the making, and one that I won’t ever forget.

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what do you get a 329-year-old music icon?

This weekend LACO celebrated Bach’s birthday and in a major social faux-pas, I plumb forgot to bring a present.Whoops! Johann Sebastian Bach was born this month in 1685, and I’m not exactly sure what you get for a man firmly rooted in his fourth century of being a major player in the international music scene. Perhaps something that he wasn’t able to enjoy during his lifetime? After all, Bach died in 1750, before many commonplace things we use daily even existed, including the first published dictionary (1755), carbonated beverages (1767), the flush toilet (1775), and the hot air balloon (1783). Hell, Bach never got to see the horrors of the guillotine (1789) – but that’d make for a pretty lousy birthday present.

read more →It turns out a present wasn’t necessary. In fact, I was actually the recipient of a present from the talented musicians of LACO: the gift of music, lovingly given to me and the hundreds of others gathered at the Alex Theatre on Saturday night. And how did I respond to this beautiful and gracious gift? By promptly falling asleep. I’m making light of it now, but I really am embarrassed, primarily because I’m given this space on the blog to write about my LACOconcert-going experiences, and I literally slept through the entire first two pieces. I considering faking my way through this post, but honesty in the best policy. So here’s the truth: The concert came at the end of a long day that began at the gym and included a drive from the valley to Orange County and back again. I love LACO concerts, but I was pooped. And whatdoyouknow? A dark room and beautiful music can be a winning combo to induce a spontaneous nap.

I’m bummed I missed out on the Mendelssohn, and especially the West Coast premiere of Prince of Clouds(because I love hearing new music), but I was fully awake when the man of the hour, Bach himself, was honored with a performance of his Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. This performance featured two guest musicians, Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh, playing the featured violin parts, and while the rest of the evening was conducted by James Feddeck, making his Los Angeles debut, this concerto was led by Koh and Laredo. I loved the way the piece wove those two violin parts in and around the rest of the orchestra, including the other violins on stage. Ms. Koh was especially enjoyable to watch, as her performance style was incredibly physical. She lurched and swooped and twisted and leaned, all while never missing a note on her violin – and, might I add, all this while wearing a strapless gown! Her playing was magnificent (as was Mr. Laredo’s), and probably even proved some laws of physics, too, but you’d have to ask a scientist about that!

After intermission, the orchestra played Schubert’s 3rd Symphony. This was my favorite piece of the evening (of the pieces I was awake to hear) – in particular, the first and fourth movements. I’m not sure how I could best explain it, but they both sounded, by design, like they were continually on the cusp of completely falling apart. There was so much movement, such complex layering of sounds and melodies, and so many notes to play… and yet the LACO musicians pulled it off with ease. Their precision, under Mr. Feddeck’s leadership, was impeccable.

Next year, Bach will be turning the big 3-3-0. PerhapsLACO will pick another of Bach piece and honor his birthday during their March 2015 concert. If so, I’ll be there. And I’ve give myself a special gift before the concert begins: the gift of caffeine!

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beethoven’s eroica, inside and out

I look forward to LACO’s annual “Discover” concert more than any other concert on their schedule. It’s a concert cut out for an orchestral music novice like me, because in addition to hearing a staggering performance of a classic, I’m also exposed to a tremendous amount of great information, and that’s due to the unique structure of the concert. Unlike the rest of LACO’s concerts, the “Discover” concert focuses on a singular piece of music, but before you hear it played, LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane serves as what’s called a “musical tour guide,” and presents what I can best describe as a cross between a lecture and a musical presentation. He dives into the history of the piece, the composer’s life and point-of-view when it was written, and draws comparisons and contrasts to the music that proceeded it and the music that came after. This year, that treatment was given to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, known as the “Eroica,” and, like the “Discover” concerts in previous years, this was a compelling and thoroughly entertaining evening.

read more →I won’t bother trying to distill Kahane’s hour-long presentation, and I’m not going to summarize any of the talking points (as I’m sure to get them wrong). But I can vouch with utter certainty that Kahane provided a rich, complex tapestry of context for the “Eroica” Symphony. He spent a good amount of time explaining the piece’s connections to the Prometheus myth, which served as a major influence and source of inspiration. I found it particularly interesting how Beethoven adapted the meter of the ancient Greek poems about Prometheus and used it in his music. It was also fun to hear how Beethoven wove the same melody into four different pieces in four different ways.

Oh, and did I mention that all these musical talking points were illustrated, on the spot, by the orchestra, which was onstage during the entire presentation? Any time Kahane wanted us to hear a snippet of music, whether it be an entire overture, a melody line, or even a few chords, the musicians swung into action and played them. He even brought in a harpist to play a snippet from the only Beethoven piece that featured a harp, and there was a grand piano front and center so Kahane himself could play passages and chords that were relevant to the topic.

There were a few times when I got a little lost, especially when Kahane addressed repeating notes and themes that were woven throughout the “Eroica.” Kahane also mentioned, at the beginning, how revolutionary “Eroica” was at the time, and how it forever changed classical music, but he never really explained why or how. (Perhaps he did during the Q&A that followed the concert, but I wasn’t able to stick around.)

All in all, I don’t have much to complain about. Kahane mentioned that there are literally a million pages of academic text over the years about this piece of music and its place in the grand scheme of things, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to boil down all that information and theory into a thought-provoking and educational one-hour presentation.

After the intermission, we got to hear the “Eroica” performed in its entirety, and man oh man, it was beautiful. I loved the moments when I could pinpoint themes and passages that Kahane had discussed earlier. I felt swept up by the whole evening. I was swept up into the past, having heard so much about the very beginnings of the 19th century, when Beethoven wrote this piece. I was also swept up in the present, as part of an audience at an event designed to keep us connected to that past in vibrant and spectacular ways.

Only roughly 364 days until the next “Discover” concert – will I see you there?

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the musical surprise I was never expecting

I’ve been coming to LACO concerts for years (I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for them since 2008… time has just flown by!). So you’d think one of these days I’d learn my lesson and not indulge any preconceived notions of what I’ll like or not like, because every single time I do that, I’m wrong. The LACO concert last weekend (Mozart, Beethoven & Haydn) was a perfect example. I arrived to Royce Hall early, and was able to spend a few minutes perusing the wonderful program notes before the concert. I read about Musica Celestis by Aaron Jay Kernis, a piece I was particularly interested in because 1) he’s a current, very-much-alive composer and 2) I’ve never heard of him or his music. And as soon as I read the first six words about this piece of music, I had my mind made up. And I was dead wrong.

read more →The paragraph begins with “Musica Celestis is an ethereal piece…” and that was all I needed to rudely dismiss it as something I wasn’t going to like. When I think of “ethereal” music, my mind goes to meandering or atonal music that’s lacking structure and is a complete snooze. Because of that, I was certain I wasn’t going to enjoy Musica Celestis, but sure enough… it was by far my favorite piece of the evening.

It was simply stunning. The piece only required strings, and was built around layered, thick, extended notes and chords that fluidly morphed and evolved in a variety of ways. There were very regal, weighty passages and lighter, floating sections as well. I found the sounds isolating and desolate, but welcoming all the same.

Musica Celestis, along with the rest of the program, was led by guest conductor Matthew Halls, a handsome fellow who was incredibly familiar with the pieces in the program. How familiar was he? He led the entire concert without referring to a single score. There wasn’t even a music stand on his platform. Homeboy knows his classical music! Now that’s impressive!

The rest of the program consisted of pieces by Mozart, Beethoven & Haydn – the three composers that made up the concert’s name. The Mozart portion was the Ballet Music from Idomeneo, his 1780 opera. I was pleasantly surprised by the vigor and energy in this piece, which didn’t seem appropriate for a ballet, but what do I know? I know less about ballet than I do about classical music, and my classical music knowledge is nothing to shake a stick at.

The Haydn and Beethoven were enjoyable and beautifully executed, but I found them completely forgettable. I’m writing this less than 48 hours after the concert, and I don’t remember a single thing about them, except that the Haydn had four soloists and was a sinfonia concertante, which is a form of music that I had never been exposed to before.

The Beethoven piece was his Symphony #1, and it turns out this was the second time I’ve heard LACO perform it. I was in the audience when it was performed in 2009, and in my blog post about that concert, I didn’t even mention it at all. Not a single word. Must’ve been forgettable for me back then, too! I suppose Beethoven’s First Symphony and me go together like oil and water.

How funny that LACO named the concert after the three powerhouse composers that ended up leaving the smaller impact on me. If it was up to me, I would’ve named this concert Musica Celestis!

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what on earth is a cimbalom?

Sometimes when I attend LACO concerts, I’m excited for very specific reasons. Perhaps there’s an unfamiliar composer or a premiere that I’m looking forward to hearing, or maybe there’s a piece I’m actually familiar with that I get to hear performed live for the first time. This past weekend, at the Beethoven: Pastoral concert at the Alex Theater, my expectations were slightly lower: I just wanted to stay awake. My day had started very early that morning, and I hadn’t slept well the night before, so if I could keep my eyes open throughout the entire concert, the evening would be a success. And don’t go pretending you’ve never walked into an event thinking the same thing! I’m happy to report that not only did my eyes stay wide open, but I had a great time, too.

read more →LACO continued their recent trend of bringing in talented and handsome guest musicians. This time around, it was Alessio Bax, a pianist making his Los Angeles debut by performing, with the orchestra, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. I liked the third movement most of all, especially when Bax’s intricate and precise piano solos alternated with very majestic and regal sections played by the musicians behind him.

Bax wasn’t the only guest – the other was Hans Graf, who was making his LACO debut as the conductor. From my seat, I could barely see Graf during the Mozart Concerto, as he was nearly fully blocked by the lid of the piano, but thankfully, there were two other pieces where he could be watched, unobstructed. I don’t really know how to watch a conductor, truth be told. I know they keep the musicians together and dictate the pace and rhythm of a piece, and that they wave a fun baton around in order to accomplish such goals, but that’s about it. My lack of knowledge doesn’t prevent me from having a good time, though – I enjoy watching conductors immensely, Graf included.

The first piece of the evening was an interesting piece by Frenchman Henri Dutilleux, and it involved mostly string instruments, percussion, and . . . what is that thing? I noticed a strange box on legs when I took my seat. It was an instrument I’ve never seen before, and I had no idea what it was. My first thought was that it was some sort of small harpsichord, but then, when the piece started, I noticed the musician playing it with mallets. The mystery deepens!

In the program, it’s noted that Dutilleux’s Mystere de l’instant requires something called a ‘cimbalom’ – so that box must be a cimbalom. It produced a unique, twangy sound, but I still had no idea how the sound was being made. When I looked it up at home, the first definition I read didn’t help at all. A cimbalom is “a concert-hammered dulcimer” – which is great and all, except I don’t know what ‘concert-hammered’ means, nor do I know what a dulcimer is. Off to a great start! Further exploration revealed that the box is loaded with tons of strings, and the musician strikes them with the mallets, and that produces the sound. I love learning new things, and I love getting introduced to those things at LACO concerts!

Even though I had no trouble staying awake during the first half, I thought I’d be a goner during the second half. The hour was only growing later, and just the name of the remaining piece sounded snooze-inducing: Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, which is known as the Pastoral Symphony. But once it began, I perked right up, for one big reason: I was familiar with it! The first movement of this symphony is one of those classical standards that pops up a lot in movies, TV and cartoons. I remember it fromFantasia, although all I really remember is the part when the flying horses that live in nests (Pegasuses? Pegasi?) had babies and one baby had trouble learning how to fly.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the entire symphony before, and although the first movement has the most fame, all of it is beautiful. The movements have descriptive names, and I thought I’d enjoy the fourth movement, titled Tempest; Storm the most, because it was sure to be bold and noisy and raucous. But I actually enjoy the third movement, entitled Merry gathering of peasants the most. It was lively and layered, and built around a melody that I simply couldn’t get out of my head. As is the norm, the orchestra sounded wonderful, and even though I practically fell into bed as soon as I got home, I’m thankful I stayed awake to hear an enchanting evening of music.

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