shaky snakes / THE INTIMIDATOR!

Welcome back to a new season of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and thus a new season of my “Newbie Blog”. Although I’ve been doing this for three years now, I’d still say I’m a classical newbie. Maybe I’ve learned enough to be called “Somewhat Seasoned-ie” but that doesn’t sound great so we’ll just stick with newbie.

read more →Opening night began with a new piece commissioned by LACO called “Lines of the Southern Cross” and conductor Jeffery Kahane explained that the piece was about Australia and would feature a bit of aboriginal influence. He also mentioned that aboriginal Australians are the oldest living culture in the world which I didn’t know. Classic newbie move. Anyways, “Lines of the Southern Cross” like most modern compositions had it’s fair share of dark, foreboding parts. These parts were broken up in cool unexpected ways thanks to the use of a number of unusual instruments some of which I don’t know the names of so I made up some new ones. The first I’m going to call “shaky snakes”. “Shaky snakes” are quite similar to rain sticks (long hollow sticks partially filled with beans that make a rain like sound when you flip it upside down) but more slithery and shifty sounding…like a snake. I could be wrong but I think I heard three distinct types of “shaky snakes” used during the performance. Or perhaps one can adjust a “shaky snake” to three different settings. The other mystery instrument were “wheat sticks”. “Wheat sticks” look like a big old piece of wheat and unsurprisingly make the sound of foliage moving ever so slightly. I have to commend the “shaky snake”/”wheat stick” players Wade Culbreath and Kenneth McGrath who had to also play a ton of other instruments including chimes, a drip sound (I have no idea what they used to make this sound), xylophone, AND my favorite instrument the triangle. These guys have to be the most stressed players in all of LACO. Having to switch between multiple strange instruments at just the right time would probably be the end of me. I could only handle triangle at best.

Next up was Camille Saint Saëns’ Piano Concerto #5 op 103 in F Major aka “The Egyptian”. A bit of a tangent but I must say that I absolutely love it when complicatedly named pieces get a cool nickname like “The Egyptian”. In fact, I’m going to think of a cool one for Beethoven’s 5th by the next paragraph. I had never heard of Saint Saëns before but I absolutely loved “The Egyptian”. The piece was at times light, dreamy, airy and never held the completely serious / somber weight that some classical pieces do. It felt accessible and adventurous. Like something that could be enjoyed at a bar (in the 1890s) or concert hall: a little fancy yet still approachable. According to the program notes Saint Saëns loved to travel and that vibe really came through in the piano performance by soloist Juho Pohjonen. Pohjonen did an excellent job and looked like he was having a lot of fun playing this lovely piece.

After a break, it was time for the big event of the night: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 or as I will now call it “The Intimidator”. “The Intimidator” storms right in with the iconic DUN DUN DUN DUH then slowly subsides only to come back again fiercely hence it’s new nickname ala Saëns. The thing I enjoyed most about hearing “The Intimidator” live was the surround sound feeling. By that I mean one side of the orchestra with the violins would be playing and then suddenly the other side with the cellos would respond making it the feel like the sound was darting back and fourth around the room. Like Audio table tennis. In conclusion, here are two excellent paintings of Beethoven by great friend of the blog Dr. Taghi Tirgari.

Beethoven IMG_2098

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an excellent bunch of showoffs

Many people think classical music is antiquated, and only for older people. I mean, sure, technically a lot of the stuff played at LACO is really old music. And sure, looking around at the Alex theater you see a lot of…distinguished hair. But, for those who attended the April 26th LACO performance, what they got was in some ways a celebration of youth; a concert that showed all the classical haters out there that you don’t have to be old to rock a concerto.

read more →The evening began with the premier of 33-year-old Hannah Lash’s This Ease. The piece was commissioned as part of LACO’s cleverly named Sound Investment program. Sound Investment is an annual event that allows LACO donors to give aspiring up and coming composers the opportunity to create a brand new piece of music. Before the concert began, Lash came out and briefly described her creative process. She imagined she was working in a terrarium full of conceptual animals, which gave her feelings of nostalgia and sadness. Based on this description, I hoped the orchestra would come out dressed in cool, imaginary animal costumes. They did not.

Slight tangent: I was glad to see that Jeffery Kahane was back as conductor. He’s been noticeably absent lately. Where the heck has that guy been? For awhile I was worried that he was either kidnapped or being wooed by a rival Orchestra. Luckily, JK was back this evening, and no rescue mission and/or orchestral retaliation was necessary.

Anyways, back to This Ease. The piece began as a twinkly, Alice In Wonderland sort of reverie; but, it quickly took on a foreboding, and sometimes scary tone. For me, it conjured the image of landing on a seemingly remote tropical island and finding ostensibly friendly natives. As they show you their cool tree houses and hand shucked canoes, you start to get the sinking suspicion that they actually might be cannibals… Slowly but surely, the piece ratcheted up its piercing strings to highly creepy levels. In my imaginary scenario, this is when you happen upon a pile of skulls on your way to the bathroom.

Next up was the night’s titular performance, Chopin’s concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21. Chopin actually wrote this piece when he was 20 years old as a way to showcase his abilities on the piano (what a showoff). Luckily, LACO brought in a fantastic guest showoff to play the piece: 26-year-old piano wizard (or witch – the cool kind not like the evil kind or anything) Natasha Paremski. She came out in a stunning blue dress and tiara. I thought about tiaras a lot during the performance and concluded that very, VERY few people can pull them off. Natasha is one of those select few. Her performance was so expressive, and the piano parts required her to go from stormy and intense, to cautious sounding tingles. It must be noted that she had NO sheet music and performed this complicated composition off the top of her head (showoff)!

The end of Concerto No. 2 was my favorite part because it felt like the orchestral equivalent of a Taaaaa Daaaaaa! After a lightening fast, almost playful piano solo, the rest of the orchestra heralds a triumphant end. Natasha came back for an encore, playing what I think was the 3rd movement of the second piano concerto by Sergei Prokofiev. She didn’t have a microphone so it was a little hard to hear exactly what it was. And as a complete Prokofiev newbie, I couldn’t tell you what it was based off of the music alone. My my classical ear is still maturing, but I think that develops along with the… distinguished hair. This undetermined Prokofiev movement was another incredibly complicated piece of music. It was more frantic than Chopin, and Natasha nailed it once again.

Finally the night ended with Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major. This piece doesn’t fit perfectly into my theme of youthfulness because it didn’t feature any young, hot-shot soloists, or new-fangled up and coming composers. But the piece did have a youthful exuberance that I believe is common in many classical pieces. However, No. 102 felt somewhat more regal than the other pieces performed throughout the night, which makes sense because I read in the program that Haydn wrote a lot of his music specifically for a prince. During one part I wrote down “this is totally horse music” (I thought it would be the perfect music to ride a horse to). It was a treat.

Overall, April 26th’s LACO concert was unique, intricate and of course, youthful. Based on the talents displayed by the performers of all ages it feels like classical music is in excellent hands going forward.

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older, not necessarily wiser

Warning: this Newbie blog could seem more refined, more elegant, and/or wiser than those in the past*. This is because I came into LACO’s Jan 25th performance of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn at Alex Theater in Glendale with a different and potentially advanced appreciation of classical music. You see, I turned 30 four days earlier and presumed that I would hear these classical pieces with an air of sophistication I lacked in my 20s. I was ready forLACO to “wow” me with music that I was sure would go straight over the heads of the 29 and under crowd.

read more →The evening’s performance started off with a piece from Mozart, whom, I have to admit, I don’t usually care for (I once famously compared him to the Black Eyed Peas: If that wasn’t enough, the title of the piece was called “Ballet Music from Idomeneo”. …Yikes… I was hoping there weren’t any bullies around to see me listening to sissy ballet music. (I’m a tough man in my 30s after all. Can’t ruin my street cred.) BUT, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite enjoyed this piece. It helped that guest conductor Matthew Halls brought tangible energy to it; enthusiastically leading the orchestra through the music. The piece featured confident, regal violin bursts that I found very appealing. Frankly, I don’t know how a ballerina would be to dance to the first movement, seeing as the music seemed erratic to me. I imagine a lot of jumping and sweating would be involved. However, as the piece continued Mozart did slip in some slower, traditional seeming ballet-y moments, but they didn’t last long. He often went back to the triumphant sounding violins that I personally loved.

Next up was Haydn’s “Sinfonia Concertante”. I have to admit, I wasn’t very into this piece. It featured four soloists: violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon. Don’t get me wrong, they all performed very well, but “Sinfonia” featured too many cutesy repetitive bits that annoyed my soul. It felt like an overly long best man/maid of honor wedding speech – it starts from a nice place, but then it enters into an uncomfortable territory at around minute two. You start to feel some excitement around minute four because you think it’s getting to a merciful end, but then the speech suddenly reignites and keeps on going for what feels like an eternity.

Next up was the only modern piece of the night: “Musica Celestis,” by Aaron Jay Kernis. “Celetis” is the best piece of contemporary music I have heard thus far at LACO. It brought on a sense of wonder and awe you might feel while looking up at the stars on a clear night away from the city. Or, one of the very rare times where you wake up early in the morning on a beautiful day and everything is still and peaceful. While “Celestis” did feel quite modern it never became too edgy and unnecessarily noisy like some contemporary pieces tend to, in my opinion. It had a warmth and elegance that felt great to hear. Guest Conductor Hall was also wearing a very Star Trek-esque tunic that fit well with the music.

The night ended with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, which was, as the title suggests, the first symphony he wrote. I thought the piece was fairly pleasant, but also very busy and meticulous. It made me picture an obsessive-compulsive person happily cleaning their house. In my opinion, Symphony No. 1 is not as good as some of Beethoven’s later work, like No. 6 ( but every great artist has to start somewhere. The idea of Beethoven’s first work made me contemplate his original fans – the ones who got on board the Beethoven bandwagon at Symphony No. 1. I wondered if during the height of Beethoven’s popularity those early fans felt contempt towards the newer fans. Perhaps original fans thought that Beethoven’s early stuff was much better than the stuff he composed after he went deaf and sold out. They probably rolled their eyes when they overheard people raving about Beethoven’s Fifth during brunch in downtown Vienna.

Overall, I enjoyed the evening of music from LACO and look forward to attending more concerts now that I’m 30 and more cultured.**

*Editor’s note: This newbie blog does not seem more elegant, refined or wise.

  • Editor’s note: Def not more cultured.

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LACO’s November performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony was a pretty cool one for me because I got to bring a very special guest: my mom. A resident of British Columbia, she doesn’t make it down to LA very often; so I when I saw there was a LACO performance scheduled for the week she was visiting, I knew I had to bring her. She reads all of my blogs (obligatory mom thing) and was interested to see some of the people I’ve written about in action. I wanted her to experience the magic of Jeffrey Kahane, or Margaret Batjer, or any of the other amazing composers, concertmasters, and soloists I’ve seen. I just really wanted her to enjoy LACO as much as I have.

read more →…But…as I paged through the program that night I didn’t see JK’s name listed, or MB’s. In fact, I didn’t recognizeANY of the names in the program. Instead, I saw that some guy named Hans Graf was going to be conducting. Who on earth is that? I mean, I love the name Hans Graf (sounds like a cool futuristic bounty hunter’s name), but having a cool name doesn’t mean you’re going to be a wizard with that baton. All I knew was that my mom’s enjoyment of LACO was in this new guy’s hands, and he had a lot to prove.

The evening began with an excellent Hitchcockian thriller called Mystère de l’instant. The piece had many moments of tension, suspense, surprise; it rose and dipped in a way that kept you captivated throughout. And, although I would describe it as somewhat scary, it wasn’t too weirdly modern like some of the other pieces I’ve heard at LACO, such as Witold Lutosławski’s Chain 2. At one point Teresea Stanislav, who filled in nicely for Margret as the concertmaster, pulled off an impressive violin solo that sonically conveyed the mindset of a Norman Bates. So farLACO was coming through for my mom.

Next up was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor. I usually find Mozart’s music a bit too intense, and No. 24 was no different. It sounded like the thoughts of a cantankerous old curmudgeon haunted by memories of better times in his life. The highlight of the concerto was guest pianist Alessio Bax (whose name sounds like a solid Star Wars character). This guy used no sheet music and absolutely nailed the jaw-droppingly complex piano requirements of the piece. I think my mom was pretty impressed.

The final piece of the evening was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, aka “Pastoral”. I absolutely loved this symphony. It felt like a perfect fit for the fall/winter holiday season. It had a certain joy and celebratory mood that made me feel happy to be with my mom…until the fifth movement. The fifth movement went really dark. LikeREALLY dark. It was essentially an instrumental reproduction of a terrifying thunderstorm, and it didn’t fit in with the rest of the piece. I’m really curious to learn why Beethoven included it in this at all. Like why is there a storm song in the middle of this nice, cheery pastoral? Storms are not pastorial-y. What was he thinking? You blew it Beethoven.

Despite Beethoven’s questionable musical choices and JK and Margaret’s absence, LACO put on a great concert. I can confidently add Hans Graf to my list of awesome conductors, and undoubtedly my mother had a great time.

Final tangent: The beginning of the Pastoral symphony sounded incredibly familiar to me and I couldn’t place where I knew it from. After the concert I did some research and found that Pastoral had been famously featured inFantasia. As a fidgety and active child I knew I had been taken to see Fantasia at some point but I remembered none of the music or incredible animation except Mickey with a bunch of terrifying buckets and brooms. I re-watched the clip of the Pastoral part on youtube and felt like I had never seen it before. Weird Pegasus families flying around? No thanks. Faun babies pestering unicorns? Pass. No wonder I didn’t like that film. Then it came to me:Animaniacs. I realized that this cartoon was one of my earliest exposures to Beethoven and I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not. You be the judge:

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Haydn: Cello Concerto ranked among my favorite performances from LACO over the past two years I’ve been blogging.

The evening started out with Benjamin Britten’s Variations on Frank Bridge. Jeffrey Kahane really hyped this one out, calling it one of the greatest pieces of music EVER. Before the piece even began, I noticed with concern that all of the many violinists in the orchestra were NOT supplied with chairs. The cello players seemed to have taken up all the standard folding chairs, leaving the poor violinists standing. As something of a lay-about myself, this seemed incredibly malicious. Sure Britten’s piece might be one of the best ever, but does that really mean those violinists must stand through the whole thing while the cello guys live it up in their chairs? Perhaps it was an experiment in ergonomics? Perhaps it was a prank masterminded by the cellists?

read more →However, once the orchestra began playing Variations my concern for the seating arrangement faded away. I was enchanted by the music. It repeatedly employed a string plucking technique called “pizzicato” (if Wikipedia is to be believed), which I absolutely loved. At times the quick plucks seemed to demand attention, while later it seemed to add a dash of humor or lightness. Variations felt like a classic but at the same time at home in our current modern world.

The next piece was Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major. I have to admit that the piece itself wasn’t exactly my speed, BUT the performance itself was stellar. So stellar, in fact, that it helped me coin the term “cellousy.” What is “cellousy” you ask? It’s when you’re really jealous of a cellist. Enter guest cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. This guy is a total hunk and very stylish. He strode on stage wearing a cool, v-neck-ish white button up shirt, no tie (obviously), and pointy black shoes that only cool, vaguely European guys can pull off. Worst/best of all: he made performing this clearly difficult cello concerto look easy. He bow nimbly flew across the cello — making incredibly complex and soulful sounds. To top it off he humbly played an encore performance of Bach’s Cello Suite #1, which was just as incredible as the Haydn Cello Concerto he killed minutes earlier. I’ve never wanted to be a cellist more (or ever) until that fateful Saturday evening. Classic case of cellousy.

After intermission came Mozart’s Serenata Notturna. This next statement is going to sound terrible, and in many ways it is (I apologize in advance), but hear me out:Serenata Notturna reminded me of the semi-obnoxious contemporary pop group, the Black Eyed Peas. Obviously Mozart’s music is much more complex, interesting and important than anything found within the Black Eyed Peas’ catalog (thus far). With that being said this Notturna is repetitive, noticeably silly, historically intended as background music for a party, and wildly popular in its time. This is exactly how I would describe the Black Eyed Peas. According to the LACO program notes, in the 1770s, when Notturna was written, serenades were considered a disposable form of entertainment. ClearlyNotturna is not disposable, since it’s still being played today, but I think perhaps Mozart’s original intent for this piece was not all that different from “I Got A Feelin’.”

The night’s performance concluded with a interesting modern collaboration between composer Bruce Adolphe and Laurie Rubin, a blind mezzo-soprano. Adolphe set music to Rubin’s poem about her experiences in being blind; more specifically, how people who are not visually impaired perceive her experiences. Although I think Rubin has an incredibly beautiful voice, I wasn’t fully able to appreciate all of the lyrics because I’m not used to hearing a mezzo-soprano in English, or really any other language. Somewhat shamefully, I’m also the type of person who will go sing karaoke and know very few of the ACTUAL words to some of my favorite jams. Basically, unless I see the words written down I may not fully grasp a song’s meaning. But, after reading the program notes I thought the lyrics described a fascinating perspective, how a blind person would explain color, that I’d never thought much about before.

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It’s a new season of LACO and your favorite “Newbie” blogger is back with some insightful, and maybe somewhat misguided, perspective on all things to do with classical music! Not that this season I can call myself an expert or anything, but I can safely say that LACO is slowly chipping away at my willful cultural ignorance, and I continue to write about that process here.

read more →One of the first things I noticed in the opening of the 2013-14 LACO season at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena was that conductor Jeffery Kahane looked quite tan. Most might take this as a good sign, that Jeff is perhaps well rested, but I was worried. Shouldn’t conductors eat, sleep and live their entire lives in dark concert halls? Has he not been practicing? Would concertmaster Margaret Batjer be forced to take over half way? Would he be booed off stage, never to pick up a baton again? Well as usual the pros of LACO proved my concerns to be silly.

Beethoven’s Twelve Contredanses for Orchestra was the first piece of music performed and was by far my favorite of the evening. It was a collection of 12 jubilant little gems likely meant for merrymaking at some point in the early 1800s. Each contredanse (I’m going to try to work this word into my daily vocabulary) was around a minute in length, so the pieces didn’t wear out, as I find some longer classical music tends to do. I also noticed that the performance included the only instrument I fantasize about being able to learn if I really wanted to: the triangle. Not to take anything away from the triangle, but of all the instruments in a chamber orchestra it is surely the hardest to screw up. Tangent alert: I did once try to learn how to play an instrument in elementary school. I picked the saxophone in second grade purely because I had seen President Bill Clinton jam on it while looking super cool in his sunglasses.

Despite multiple warnings from instructors that the sax’ wasn’t a good basic level instrument for a young first time musician, I pressed on, dreaming of the day where I too would look super cool killing it on the sax while wearing shades. Needless to say, my enthusiasm for sax quickly faded. I was often disgusted by the difficult process of cleaning out old spit from the horrid maze deep within the brass bowels of the sax. I also worried about getting splinters in my tongue from having to use little wooden reeds in order to play it. Within a month the sax had fallen by the wayside. I just ended up getting some sunglasses and decided to focus my energy on just looking cool, sans sax. But, what if I had focused my limited attention on learning something like say. . .the triangle? Maybe I could be touring the world, bringing together a contredanse or two with an impeccably timed ‘ding’. Sigh. If only.

The second piece performed, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major was a tad fancy for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong, it was brilliantly performed and featured an incredibly young looking violin soloist, Benjamin Beilman. He was mesmerizing as he brought to life this very sophisticated and sensitive piece of music. Sometimes you felt the piece conveying joy, other times deep sorrow. At times the piece had that hint ofcontredanse whimsy that I so love, but it would quickly change gears and head straight to sorrow-town. I kept imagining a peasant who somehow scored tickets to see Mozart in 1775. He went in hoping to dance with a nice wench to his favorite contredanse but instead gets this emotional roller coaster of a concerto. It makes him reflect upon his terrible agricultural season, how he has no idea what a “Turkish” is and that he will never own a beautiful white wig like everyone else around him.

After intermission, LACO performed Chain 2 by Witold Lutosławski, not to be confused with contemporary Grammy nominated rapper 2 Chainz.

Chain 2 is a song that can best be described as incredibly traumatic. I did enjoy hearing this comparatively contemporary piece but I wouldn’t call it a pleasant experience. Hearing Chain 2 was like existing within the soundtrack to a dark noir thriller. There were lots of shocking and possibly horrific discoveries, stressful chases through dark alleys and by my count no happy ending. Overall Chain 2 ranked a zero on the contradanse scale of cheer. My favorite triangle playing percussionists (Kenneth McGrath and Ted Atkatz) increased my enjoyment of the piece with their addition of great big iconic drum sounds during many moments. These drum parts surely inspired John Williams for the part in Star Wars: A New Hope where the sand people attack Luke Skywalker. I was very impressed that Beilman, the guest violinist, showed incredible range by returning to perform on Chain 2. It was so wholly different than the delicate Mozart piece he had performed just moments before.

The final piece was Zoltan Kodály’s Dance of Galánta, apparently based on a collection of dances inspired by Hungarian folk/military recruitment music. I found the piece to be quite miscellaneous. Sometimes it sounded like the theme song for a chubby Hungarian kid walking around a chocolate market, other times it would seem more like the sweeping adventure of a swashbuckling Hungarian pirate. The performance ended fantastically with an impressive burst of energy in the music. It’s the kind of situation that naturally makes you want to stand up and clap because you’re so jazzed up, plus it just looked really hard to perform.

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mostly misshapen pearl

As a classical music rookie I think it’s fair to say the term Baroque is an intimidating term if you have no idea what it means. Frankly it sounds complicated and severe. So when I saw “Mostly Baroque” in my calendar I frowned a little. Not knowing what Baroque meant, I imagined it might be the Latin phrase for the drawn out and very technical mourning process for the death of a royal. Turns out it’s just a period of music and actually means “misshapen pearl” in Portuguese. I like weird jewels as much as the next guy and after the concert I decided I also liked Baroque. Mostly.

The concert started off with Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major “Gran Partita”. Admittedly “Gran Partita” was a little long for my taste but I did find something familiar in the music. Oddly enough it reminded me of a big family dinner put together by your mom where you end up having to help out because mom is clearly stressing out. The second movement had that distinct passive aggressive motherly feel to it. You know the feeling: when she’s being nice but it’s secretly kind of nagging. It’s not her fault, just the stress of hosting a big dinner. At some point Mozart’s mother probably saw that he didn’t fully set the table and politely yet sharply pointed it out. Mozart rolled his eyes because do they really need two forks for each place setting? But he was a good son and trudged to the silverware drawer to get those missing items. The third movement had a back and fourth part that almost sounded like a conversation. That means Mozart’s talkative uncle has arrived. The fourth movement had a very festive almost Christmas-y tone to it which I assume represents the actual dinner. The fifth movement has a bossy, annoyed mom part that indicates that the dinner conversation has clearly gone in a direction Mozart’s mother does not approve of and she’s trying to change the subject. It’s very likely that Mozart’s uncle made an off color joke. After a moment of uncomfortable laughter among the Mozart family, the Serenade ends with the final movement in joyous upbeat manor that tells me the party was ultimately a success.

After an intermission came Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-Flat major, “Dumbarton Oaks”. I quite liked this piece because it felt very American and dramatic which is often a good combination. It felt like manifest destiny had a musical baby with capitalism. The result is full of sorrowful strings (sorry Native Americans), mischievous oboes (you got us robber barons), and focused bass plucking (baby boomers) but had a triumphant and satisfying end (the internet!).

After the patriotic musical journey through America’s past came Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major,BWV. I really liked this one mainly because of the KILLERpiano solo at the end. The piece was just very upbeat and fun thanks to support of a variety of strings that come in at the perfect moments to uplift the brilliant piano work. If my notes and Wikipedia are correct, this kick ass piano solo technically should have been performed on the harpsichord but for this performance was not. I’m going to take an uneducated and inappropriate guess and say that Jeffery Kahane might have a mortal vendetta against playing the harpsichord. I suspect one of his mentors was killed by a rouge harpsichord. If someone asks him about playing the harpsichord (don’t do it) he will get a sad twinkle in his eye and unconsciously crush the baton he is holding. In any case the piece worked out really well on piano.

read more →Handel’s Water Music was the last piece and made me really appreciate the crew who sets up for the Chamber Orchestra. All four of the pieces that were performed required completely different arrangements of musicians and instruments. The crews had to scramble to change things around on stage after each piece ended. Water Music did include Mr. Kahane’s hypothetical mortal enemy, the harpsichord. To his credit, he did not smash it and the performance was all the better for it. The harpsichord’s unique sound added to the regal feeling of the music. The horn section also really drove home the royal ceremonial sentiment. But I have to say, nothing about this piece of music made me think of water. I wonder if anyone in LACO can play glasses of water. That might have been too on the nose though.

All in all, I can now safely say that I am no longer intimidated by the word Baroque. I really enjoyed these misshapen pearls of classical music. As you might expect with a weird clam’s valuable byproduct each Baroque (and mostly Baroque-like) piece was different and had it’s quirky charm. It was a true testament to the versatility of the LA Chamber Orchestra.

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ripped to shreds by thracian maenads: an awesome beethoven discovery

I have to admit that on Saturday February 23rd I was nervous. I was nervous because I was about to attend LACO’s Discover Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Why be nervous about a concerto you ask? I thought Discover sounded suspiciously like a cool way to disguise a lecture. I was having flashbacks to Finite Mathematics and my incredibly finite attention span for the lectures in that course. Since I understand the composition of music even less than basic college math I felt resigned to being a bored dummy once again.

read more →Not only was I living in fear of Discover-ing a dreaded lecture I was also venturing into previously forbidden territory. The concert was to be held in the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. I had seen the auditorium every day this past summer when I worked on the Ambassador campus for the television show King of the Nerds (plug: airing now on TBS!). While working I was able to roam around the Ambassador campus but was expressly forbidden from going inside the mysterious Auditorium, which looks like a cross between a Greek temple and a 1960s era science fiction space ship. What were the Ambassadors hiding in this auditorium? Bad pun alert: thanks to LACO I would “discover” what was inside.

The auditorium was quite incredible, complete with grand balconies and strange colorful carpets with geometric patterns. Were these patterns foreshadowing of a lecture about how calculus factored into Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4? As Jeffrey Kahane took the stage and I mentally prepared for the equations he would be referring to. Where would he be putting the chalkboard? To my relief Mr. Kahane didn’t begin with equations or even talking but rather the first few notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, music that was familiar to even me, the math dummy. He explained that these iconic notes were genetically similar to the Concerto No. 4 and throughout much of Beethoven’s work. The notes were even used in World War II as Morse code for victory. These interesting antidotes eased the grip of my lecture paranoia. In fact I found it incredibly easy to listen to Mr. Kahane’s lively and passionate discussion of Beethoven. I have to admit that some of the music vernacular went well over my head but I never felt bored or alienated by it. Mr. Kahane and the Orchestra also referenced a few choice bits of music by playing parts of Mozart and Bach compositions which was fun.

My very favorite part of Kahane’s address was about the second movement of the Concerto, aka Andante con moto. Kahane admitted that no one could authoritatively say what Beethoven was trying to say with the Concerto but presented one excellent theory from a music professor named Owen Jander. He theorized that this movement was a musical retelling of Orpheus’ decent into hell to rescue his recently deceased wife. Mr. Kahane broke down each part of the music and how it corresponded to the story. I had always liked Greek mythology so I was totally on board with this theory. However Kahane broke with Jander’s ideas when it came to the third movement, Rondo-Vivace. Apparently Jander believed that it was about the less celebrated story of Orpheus’ death when he was literally ripped to shreds by Thracian Maenads (aka raving women with talons) for not honoring his previous patronage to their god. Needless to say I could not wait to hear this part of the concerto.

After an intermission Mr. Kahane and the Orchestra played the entire concerto, allowing us to listen to the music with the new perspective he had given us earlier. For me, it was very satisfying to have more context about the music while hearing it. The first movement, Allegro moderato, flowed between quiet and graceful piano playing and at times turned into a more sorrowful sounding piece.

During the second movement, Andante con moto, I obviously had Orpheus on the brain. The part of the music I thought Mr. Kahane most deftly illustrated reflected a back and fourth with the guards of hell, the Furies. Orpheus, represented by the piano, was pitted against the Furies, represented by a harsh string section. Just like the story, the piano slowly wears down the strings through a back and fourth and eventually wins them over to his side. With the underworld defeated, Orpheus is allowed to take his wife out of the underworld on the condition that he doesn’t look back at her until she is out. The joyful and suddenly louder orchestra chimes in with Orpheus the piano to mirror his excitement. Of course right before Orpheus and his wife make it to the surface he looks back at her and she’s gone forever.

Now for the part we had all been waiting for: Orpheus the piano’s musical death scene in the third movement (aka Rondo-Vivace)! How will Beethoven recreate the ritualistic shredding of Orpheus by mad women with his notes? Like Mr. Kahane, I unfortunately found no signs of an insane death scene in the third movement. Rather than making me want to yell “watch out piano Orpheus, the crazy women are behind you! Oh no, they are literally tearing you to shreds!”, the movement came across as plucky and joyful. This was no musical expression of the murder of an iconic Greek legend. I thought it was just Beethoven showing off. I’m no expert but this third movement felt like the most complex due to it’s quick pace and robust participation of the orchestra and piano. The finale included the most impressive part of the performance as Mr. Kahane played a flurry of piano keys with seemingly inhuman speed and accuracy.

Despite my slight disappointment with the murder-less third movement I thought this Discover concert was excellent overall. I was delighted that Mr. Kahane’s lecture ended up being eclectic and fascinating rather than boring and mathematical. It really added to my enjoyment of the concerto and makes me wonder if the upcoming Mostly Baroque concert will actually about Odysseus poking out the eye of a Cyclops. My fingers are crossed.

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rilling me softly

First of all, if you’re reading this, happy 2013 to you. LACOstarted out 2013 with an all Mozart extravaganza featuring Mozart’s unfinished final composition Requiem in D minor K. 626. Tangent: If you’re like me you’re probably wondering what the heck a “K. 626” is. No, it’s not the planet where “Aliens” takes place (LV-426). Apparently it’s a designation of the Köchel catalog, which is a chronology of all Mozart’s work created in 1862 by a guy named Ludwig von Köchel. I’m almost positive that Ludwig would have LOVED Wikipedia. End of tangent.

read more →The evening began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 (K. 543 for all you Köchel Catalog enthusiasts out there). This evening featured guest conductor Helmuth Rilling who was as cool as his name would suggest. I knew Rilling was an original gangster of conducting the moment he walked on stage wearing a coat with tails. He walked up to his conducting podium and . . oh that’s odd . . . there was no sheet music for him to refer to for the performance. At first I figured one of those crazy bassoon guys must have been playing a trick on the new guy, a classic hide the sheet music gag. Psh, yeah right! Turns out Helmuth doesn’t even use sheet music! He knew all these Mozart pieces off the top of his head! It was just him and his baton.

Anyways, Symphony 39 was an enjoyable piece to listen to. It began in a regal waltz-y way but would suddenly get manic and faster paced only to go back to being elegant and delicate for awhile. It was schizophrenic but in a good way. I kept imagining a bunch of high society party goers circa 1787 in frilly dresses/suits and white wigs trying to waltz to it and getting really frustrated. And they would have to keep spraying themselves with perfume because bathing back then wasn’t as easy as it is now. At some of the more serene points I also imagined Jane Austen swooning.

After intermission it was time for Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. This performance was quite a production featuring singers. This meant that not only was a guest classical music boss/don (aka Helmuth Rilling) in the house but we also had USC’s Thorton Chamber Singers and four lead vocalists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) who joined in as well. As the Requiem began I was slightly creeped out by the eerie singing of the chamber singers. It seemed like a soundtrack to doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing but you do it anyways. Like sneaking into a shadowy secret society that explicitly doesn’t allow outsiders. Speaking of which, apparently much of Mozart’s final compositions were inspired by his membership to the mysterious Masons (read it in the LACO program notes).

The Requiem mellows out after a bit but certainly goes back it’s earlier sinister choir sound at points. Since the four lead vocalists sat up front I couldn’t help but interpret their facial expressions over the course of the performance. During their required parts, each singer would stand and sing on their own or occasionally together. But for vast stretches they would just sit there. Three out of four of them seemed pretty happy to be performing, occasionally smiling or observing the orchestra. But the bass singer, Michael Dean, was a rock of somberness verging on ornery. He NEVER smiled! When he wasn’t singing he was darkly looking off into space. Not angry or annoyed mind you. It was pure intensity. But it totally fit the tone of his parts since his deep voice was often applied during the darker moments of the Requiem. He was like the Daniel Day Lewis of the Requiem. He also sort of reminded me of sad jailhouse Mr. Bates (Downton Abbey represent). Of course the USC Chamber Singers were by far the most excited to be there. They were enjoyably animated and really provided the heart of the Requiem performance.

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rhapsody in blood

Ok so there really wasn’t any blood, I just thought it was a cool sounding title. Anyways, on Saturday I attended theRhapsody in Blue concert at the Alex Theater and thought it was one of the strongest nights I’ve seen so far fromLACO. But it was not without it’s drama (that I probably projected).

read more →The night began with Antoine Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, Op. 44. I liked the piece and thought it might be a good soundtrack for a very regular road trip. A road trip where you’re just driving to get somewhere, perhaps San Diego. You see some nice sights or towns, nothing too crazy happens and you arrive on time. Like zero on the danger scale but a seven on the pleasant scale. I noticed early on that the clarinet guys had a tough job in this performance because they had to constantly clean out their instruments. I assume this is because they are full of spit. So much spit that whenever the clarinet was not required the clarinetists would feverishly deconstruct their instrument and run what I can only describe as a “scrag” (fancier than a rag, not as wearable as a scarf) through the disconnected parts to clean them. Then they would quickly reassemble the clarinet and continue to play. I was stressed out just watching it. This semi disgusting but obviously necessary practice came to an awkward head when principal clarinet Joshua Ranz was caught in the middle of a “scrag” job right when the second part of the piece ended (during one of the no clap pauses discussed in previous blog). Ranz scrambled to clear the spit out before the next part began but since the clarinet was apparently crucial to the next part, Jeffery Kahane gave him a look that I interpreted as “Yo Ranz, we’re waiting on you pal.” And Ranz gave a look back like “Come on bro, you know I’ve got to clean out all this spit or this movement ain’t happening!” To his credit, Ranz “scrag’d” well under pressure and the Serenade quickly continued as planned.

Next up was Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite which I really liked. It felt very grand, American and oddly familiar. It was the kind of music that made me feel that I should probably go see Lincoln. In fact it seems to me like John Williams was likely influenced by Copland’s music. In my research I was also excited to learn it had been featured in the epic cat and dog team up film The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Jeffrey Kahane impressively pulled double duty by conducting and playing on piano. My curiosity was peaked when I noticed that a woman in a black dress was sitting next to Kahane with no discernible instrument. What was she up to just sitting there? Was she going to throw down some vocals? Perhaps some sort of dance accompanies this piece? The program did say it was originally made for a ballet. A few minutes passed and still no moves from this mysterious chair lady. Suddenly as Kahane began to play on the piano she moved towards him. I thought to myself, “of course, they’re going to do some chopsticks style duet piano action. But I was wrong as usual. The mystery woman didn’t touch the piano but instead flipped Kahane’s sheet music! This turn of events left me impressed that Kahane had a page-turner but at the same time I felt concern for this turnstress. One wrong turn of the page and the whole piece comes crashing down. Also she has to avoid disrupting or injuring Kahane’s golden paws. He needs those for conducting and piano playing and there were still another two pieces of music after this. Thankfully the page turning was completed without incident and the Suite was a success. However, I was slightly outraged when at the completion of the piece the whole orchestra got up and took multiple bows EXCEPT for the page-turner. She just sat there and watched as the unsung hero of the chamber.

Next up was my least favorite performance but favorite title: John Adams’ Son of Chamber Orchestra. I found the piece to be a bit too chaotic and random. Speaking of chaos, I felt that this piece had some added tension due to the proximity of the violinists to each other. Perhaps it was the location of my seat but it looked like they were going to collide bows several times during the performance. These close calls were likely due to the numerous amounts of strange violin sounds called for in this piece, which caused bows to fly in several directions. Luckily, or unluckily if you like bow collisions, the pros in the chamber orchestra managed to keep their instruments from hitting the others. Also of note, the thankless page-turner from the previous piece reappeared but this times actually played what I thought was a miniature piano (real name: celesta) in Son of Chamber Orchestra .

The night ended with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Bluewhich of course everyone knows from United Airlines commercials and seat belt demonstration videos. Despite this pre-existing association I thought the piece really soars above and beyond any corporate ties (like a United air craft in flight). Rhapsody is just such a fun piece of music to listen to that I would even go as far as to say it was splendid (like a first class seat on United). I was really impressed when Jeffery Kahane played the piano parts sans sheet music (with the precision of a United pilot flying into a major airport). Joshua Ranz returned to give a flawless clarinet performance of arguably the most iconic part of the Rhapsody earning him recognition from Kahane who likely finally forgave him for his earlier “scraging” debacle (like a successful United customer service experience).

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