if it’s baroque, don’t fix it

I love the Baroque Era in music and art. It’s always exquisitely rendered, with a staggering amount of complexity. It’s beautiful and satisfying and diverting. Because of its essential playfulness, I have a bit of difficulty taking it seriously, so I was very interested in what I would learn from Maestro Kahane about JS Bach’s Cantata No. 140 “Sleepers Awake,” at this past Saturday’s Discover Concert in Pasadena.

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Jeffrey Kahane first explained the Cantata was written for the last Sunday in the ecclesiastical year, which calls for giving thought to the second advent of Christ. The spoken sermon for this date would be taken from the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the arrival of “the bridegroom”. The Cantata is a celebration of the “soul’s impending union with its Saviour”. Kind of heavy stuff, right? He also broke down the structure of the piece, giving vocal and instrumental examples of recurring themes and motifs so we would have a better understanding of the import and meaning of what we were hearing when, after intermission, the entire Cantata was performed flawlessly by the Orchestra, the USC Thornton Chamber Singers, the LA Children’s Chorus and soloists Kathryn Mueller (soprano), Colin Ainsworth (tenor) and Andrew Craig Brown (bass). We were also provided with a translation into English of the German lyrics, which was great as it allowed me to connect with the story (with which I was unfamiliar).

Kahane also gave us some examples of current events that personally connected him to the sentiments of Bach’s Cantatas. They were beautifully bittersweet true tales of unconditional love and unreserved sacrifice for one’s fellow humans and they made me cry, at both the inhuman cruelty of the situations that led to the sacrifice and the power of true brotherly (sisterly) love. Even though the individuals involved made the ultimate sacrifice, their stories gave me hope that the “best” in us will prevail overall. I felt the examples were much more connected to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, rather than the resurrection or the Second Advent, but I got the general connection he was making. I enjoyed very much receiving insight into Kahane’s intellectual and emotional process when preparing to present a piece to the public.

One of the coolest things about Bach’s creative gifts was his ability to conjure up seemingly endless, expressive melodies within the symmetry of two chorale fantasias and a four-part closing chorale, which framed two sequences of recitative and aria. Another thing I liked was how he jumped in with both feet and gave us not one, but two duets with slightly over the top romance-y, almost bedchamber entendres (“I am yours, – love will never part us. I will with you – you will with me – graze among heaven’s roses, where complete pleasure and delight will be.”) that seemed designed to make everyone fidget a bit. It very effectively brought home the human experience of a passionate readiness to accept Christ into the physical body as well as the heart and soul. It was shameless. Bach was a Cantata original gangster.

A final comment – the audience was invited to sing along with the last chorale after the performance. More audience fidgeting, but I thought it was a nice touch. All in all, an enlightening evening.

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the best of bach

Think of a task you have to complete weekly. Perhaps it’s a report you have to generate for work, or something you have to do around the house. Now imagine that your weekly duties involve the performance of a musical piece complete with solo songs, instrumental interludes, and a chorus at the end. Imagine that you must compose this music, find the musicians to perform it, and run the rehearsals. This is the type of thing that Johann Sebastian Bach did weekly when he worked at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig after he took over the position of Kantor in 1723.

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The job was a prestigious one, which was likely why Bach felt it so important to move his growing family from Cöthen to Leipzig. It was the most challenging position he had taken thus far in his life, having worked at Cöthen, Weimar, Mühlhausen, and Arnstadt before this. Some of the advantages of working as Kantor for the church included working in a small yet robust city with a stable local government, and good educational opportunities for Bach’s own children. But he was expected to do a lot in exchange for this stability. Bach was in charge of providing music for the four churches in the area: St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, St. Matthew, and St. Peter. The cantata was a staple of the Lutheran service, and it was Bach’s duty to make sure one was ready for each Sunday service and also for holy days throughout the year. Bach could have performed some already existing cantatas, but preferred to write his own. He also had the opportunity to use singers and musicians that he himself had trained at the St. Thomas School.

The German cantata, not to be confused with the Italian cantata — which was a secular genre — has no set ensemble, but instead may feature a single soloist and continuo, a small group of soloists both vocal and instrumental, or even soloists and choir. Just as there is no set ensemble for a cantata, there is also no set formula.

Some of Bach’s larger church cantatas begin with a choral movement accompanied by the entire ensemble. Some of the smaller cantatas feature recitatives and arias sung by the soloist(s). There are two types of recitatives. The first type, called “secco” or “dry,” features the voice accompanied by only the continuo instruments. A recitative of this type has a rather thin texture, but the collaboration of soloist and continuo allows for more rhythmic flexibility in the vocal line. The other type of recitative is called “accompagnato” or “accompanied” because instruments of the orchestra support the voice. There is little rhythmic flexibility, but the texture of the music is fuller and thicker. In Bach cantatas, recitatives are usually paired with arias, florid song-like pieces. In each pair, the recitative often has more lines of text but is shorter in duration, while the aria tends to be longer despite its briefer text. Florid passages in the vocal line and repetitive phrases and sections account for this.

There is evidence to suggest Bach may have written five complete year-long cycles of cantatas, one for every Sunday. Unfortunately, only about 200 cantatas survive, but these cantatas are some of Bach’s most famous works. LACO’s upcoming Discover concert will take a closer look at one of the most famous cantatas from this collection, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. While employed at St. Thomas Church, Bach also wrote secular music for the Collegium musicum, a group of amateur musicians who attended the University in Leipzig. Among these works are some secular cantatas, the most famous being the Coffee Cantata. (Bach, a very productive composer, loved his coffee!) Historical sources say Bach may have written as many as forty of these secular cantatas, however, only about twenty survive.

The popular genre during the High Baroque period was the opera, but Bach composed none. He had a particular talent for writing vocal music, however, and the cantata provided him a chance to write vocal music that was both dramatic and narrative. If you have the opportunity to attend this concert, and learn more about Cantata 140, I hope you appreciate the kind of work that went into this kind of piece, and how fortunate we are that this work, and so many survived.

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looking back & moving forward

With so much to look forward to at LACO in the New Year, I want to share some highlights from the last 12 months:

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LACO’s performances throughout 2015 received enthusiastic audience and critical acclaim, from The LA Times noting that “the ensemble is in excellent shape,” to Violinist.com’s rave, “this is why we go to live concerts.”

• LACO musicians traveled to the historic Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara on May 10 for a performance that culminated in a standing ovation. With music director Jeffrey Kahane play-conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, the Orchestra’s performance was touted as “exhilarating” and “stunning” by CASA Magazine.

LACO @ the Movies, in collaboration with Walt Disney Animation Studios, drew a sold-out house to the glamorous Theatre at Ace Hotel in June. The Orchestra synchronized live performance with short films featuring Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and a special tribute in honor of the 75th anniversary of Fantasia.

Over 2,500 children from the greater Los Angeles area attended LACO’s Meet the Music concerts at Zipper Hall at The Colburn School, free of charge, this year. LACO education artists-in-residence wild Up, a ground-breaking experimental ensemble based in LA, joined LACO for the October performances for hundreds of LAUSD and PUSD students. wild Up’s recent performance in New York was recognized in The New York Times’ Best Classical 2015 list – wonderful recognition for our education partners.

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LACO delivered world-class orchestral music to a wider audience through a multitude of radio broadcasts, including 25 broadcasts nationally through “Performance Today” and a seven-week residency on Sunday evenings with Classical KUSC.

In November, LACO partnered with the USC Thornton School of Music to provide current music students the opportunity to play assigned orchestral excerpts behind a screen for a panel of musicians. The two winners of the LACO-USC Thornton Strings Mentorship Program Mock Auditions, violinists Joanna Lee and Philip Marten, will perform in two LACO performances in May 2016. We continue to develop new partnerships across Los Angeles and nurture our ongoing strong partnerships with the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Glendale Arts at The Alex Theatre and The Colburn School.

LACO performed five premieres in 2015, including three stunning world premieres and two West Coast premieres: Andrew Norman’s Frank’s House (world premiere), Joseph Hallman’s imagined landscapes (West Coast premiere), Ted Hearne’s Respirator (world premiere, LACO Sound Investment commission), Derrick Spiva’s Prisms, Cycles, Leaps (world premiere) and Timo Andres’ Word of Mouth (West Coast premiere).

On December 10, LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane appeared with the New York Philharmonic as a piano soloist in the world premiere of LACO composer-in-residence Andrew Norman’s composition Split. Their collaboration has been nurtured at LACO, making the rave reviews from the media a point of pride for all of us. The New York Times called Split “audacious, exhilarating and, in a way, exhausting,” because of the amazing frenetic energy of the piece and Jeffrey’s spirited performance. Moreover, Andrew and two 2015-16 season guest artists, Cho-Liang Lin and Marc-André Hamelin, received well-deserved GRAMMY nominations in December.

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With these exciting events of 2015 as our springboard, I am confident that 2016 will bring more thrilling performances, wide-reaching community engagement opportunities and so much more. Stay tuned!

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the agony, the ecstasy and beethoven

I woke up on Monday morning to the sound of the sweetest violin music coming from my living room. My husband, who attended Sunday’s performance of ‘Beethoven & Mendelssohn’ with me, was watching YouTube videos of Simone Porter, the young violinist who “filled in” at the last moment for the scheduled soloist, Stefan Jackiw. He was muttering to himself as he watched and listened to her play, “She’s just a kid, she’s so young…” and if you were there on Saturday or Sunday, you know exactly what he means. She’s 19. Minds were blown.

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The program, in its entirety, was a trip backwards in time. We began in 1939 with Bela Bartok’s Neo-Classical Divertimento. Peter Oundjian (the guest conductor), who has a very pleasing and charming demeanor, gave us a bit of back story for this piece and I really appreciated having a context through which to view it. Now, my daughter tells me that the word ‘divertimento’ means a piece designed for the entertainment of the performers and the audience. While I was very involved in the performance of this piece, entertained isn’t the word I would use. It was both lush and pointedly angular in sound and very well executed. It was so sad though! I felt like it was an ode to Hungary (his home country, which he left just a year later, never to return). It was angry, grief-stricken and nostalgic, rich and dark. It struck me as the musical version of a man coming to terms with the fact that a long term relationship with someone that he loves very much has changed for the worse and there is no way to fix it. It’s an orchestral break up letter….

Next, we travelled back 100 years for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor featuring this prodigy, this wunderkind who made her professional solo debut at age 10 with the Seattle Symphony and her international debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at age 13, Simone Porter. Since seeing her on Sunday, I’ve read lots about her as an “emerging” or a “future” star. Nope. She’s here, baby, and ready to roll. Her exposition is virtuosic and she handles the most explicitly written cadenzas as if they were born in her. I cannot even imagine the depth and breadth that her playing will have in ten years. Add to this, Kenneth Munday’s entreating and emotional solo passage for bassoon, which opens the Andante and the orchestra bringing their unerring accompaniment to the very fast and clean passages in the third movement and you have us on our feet once more, LACO. Now this was diverting!

To send us on our way totally satisfied, our dessert was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Not one with which I am familiar, but it expresses the same vital force and joy of life that I have come to expect from dear Ludwig. It is fresh and spontaneous, contains no tragedy and its form approaches perfection. I’m guessing that it’s often overlooked because it follows his watershed symphonic ideal, No. 3, and is surrounded by so many other wonderful works: the “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57, the three Razumovsky Quartets, Op. 59, the opera Fidelio, Op. 72, Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58, and the Violin Concerto, Op. 61, all of which were created in a similar timeframe. I just love Beethoven’s expansiveness and the finale is a brilliant exercise, contrasting convention and his freewheeling Boom Boom Booms (you know what I mean). It doesn’t call attention to itself like some of the more famous Beethoven finales, but it brings this symphony to a perfect conclusion.

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LACO’s been playing Bartok for 45 years!

LACO’s upcoming concert, “Beethoven & Mendelssohn” (December 12 & 13, get your tickets!), features a trio of masterpieces that our audiences have enjoyed for decades. In fact, these three pieces have collectively been performed 16 times in LACO’s history! One of the pieces, Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, was first performed on the LACO stage in 1970 – a solid 45 years ago! It’s incredible to think that audiences nearly half a century ago, right here in Los Angeles, were listening to the same music that we will hear next weekend – and performed by the same orchestra, no less! I have no memories from 1970 whatsoever – I wasn’t born until nine years later – so let’s take a trip into the past, you and me together. Are you ready for a flashback?

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Over in Europe, Czech composer Miloslav Kabelác premiered his Symphony No. 8, known as “Antiphonies.” Written as a response to the 1968 invasion by Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia, it was Kabelác’s final symphony, and features solo soprano, a choir, and spoken word, taken from the Bible. Meanwhile, in the US, Mario Davidovsky was partway through this Synchronisms series, and premiered Synchronism No. 6, for Piano and Electronic Sound, in 1970. The entire series is regarded as a pioneering piece in the then-relatively-new world of electronic music, and Davidovsky collected the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Synchronism No. 6 in 1971.

The biggest song of 1970 is one that is still beloved around the world: “Let It Be,” by the Beatles. The song was from the album of the same name, which was the Beatles’ final album, released in May 1970, one month after the band broke up. Simon and Garfunkel also released their final album together in 1970. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” would go on to win six Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, and sell 25 million copies. The autumn of 1970 was marred by the deaths of two music icons: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who both died from overdoses less than a month apart.

The biggest movie at the box office of 1970 was the Ali MacGraw/Ryan O’Neal tearjerker “Love Story,” although it was the biopic “Patton” that cleaned up at the Academy Awards, winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Several Oscar nominees and winners were born in 1970, including Matt Damon, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Connolly, Christopher Nolan, Uma Thurman, M. Night Shyamalan, and Ethan Hawke.

Classical music fans had a new way to enjoy the medium, when the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) went on the air on October 5, 1970. NBC renamed its evening broadcast “NBC Nightly News” on August 3rd, a few days after Chet Huntley retired, making the program’s previous name, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” obsolete. That newscast has remained “NBC Nightly News” ever since. Daytime views started tuning into a new soap opera in 1970, called “All My Children,” and primetime viewers had their pick of new comedies, including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Odd Couple,” and “The Partridge Family.”

1970 was a turbulent time around the globe: The United States invaded Cambodia, and combat deaths from the Vietnam War had reached well over 30,000. But there were events that positively captured the nation’s attention as well. The Apollo 13 mission successfully landed back on Earth, the first jumbo jet (the Boeing 747) began regular commercial service (between New York and London), and the floppy disk was invented.

The average new home in the US cost $23,400, while a new car would have set you back $3,900. A loaf of bread averaged 24 cents, while buying a postage stamp only required six pennies.
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5 fun facts you didn’t know: stefan jackiw & peter oundjian

school/music balance

“The 21-year-old American violinist’s weeping tone and spot-on intonation made you wonder whether this was what it was like to hear a Perlman or a Stern in his early years. Jackiw’s playing was by turns passionate, precise, and unflagging.” Washington Post

Clearly Stefan dedicates a lot of time and effort to achieve his quality sound. But when you’re in college practicing six hours a day, and playing over 30 concerts a year, sometimes you miss an assignment or two… or in Stefan’s case, an entire midterm. As countless university music students will tell you, some professors are not as accommodating when it comes to their students’ performance career. But despite getting a zero on a psychology midterm, Stefan graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts degree and an Artist Diploma from the New England Conservatory in 2007. While touring, he would bring his books with him and fax and email assignments on the road – talk about multitasking to the max!

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health insurance for your fingers?

When Stefan is not practicing his violin, he can be seen running through the streets of New York City. No, he is not late to his next world tour. Actually, Stefan’s favorite pastime is running, but sometimes it’s more than just a sweat he’s breaking. In 2013, Stefan fell while running and severely injured his arm and neck. Recounting it as one of his scariest moments, Stefan was forced to stop playing violin for six months and cancel his Australian tour and it wasn’t clear whether he would play again. But being the optimist he is (When asked if the glass is half empty of half full, he replies “overflowing.”) Stefan reflects that “all of a sudden I saw the bigger picture of where the violin is in relation to music, art even the world. I am not saying I discovered all of that just in two months but it gave me a little bit of perspective.” Given how devastating hand injuries can be for violinists, maybe a $3,500 monthly premium for insurance doesn’t seem so crazy after all.

from violinist chair to conductor’s podium

Before becoming an accomplished conductor, Peter Oundjian was a performing violinist who studied under Ivan Galamian, Itzhak Perlman and Dorothy DeLay. Like Stefan, Oundjian suffered injuries. But unlike him, Oundjian had to end his violin career permanently when he developed musician’s dystonia. If you’re a string player, the words “musician’s dystonia” probably sends shivers down your spine. The condition causes involuntary movements in the hands, and makes it difficult for string players to play with precision. Usually this means the end of musician’s career, but for Oundjian, it meant leaving the violinist chair for the conductor’s podium. With encouragement from his teacher Hubert Von Karajan, Oundjian created a career in conducting. Perhaps conducting was his true calling all along!

miracle worker

Although you won’t see Oundjian walking on water anytime soon, he performed a miraculous feat when he resurrected the declining Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Prior to Oundjian’s arrival, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was swimming in an $11 million debt. While many people thought the Toronto Symphony Orchestra would be become extinct, it turns out they were dead wrong. Since Oundjian took over as music director and conductor, the TSO is seeing record-breaking attendances and filling their concert halls with paying customers. This amazing comeback piqued the interest of film director Barbara Willis Sweete, and served as the inspiration for the Documentary 5 Days of December.

tickling your funny bone

Peter Oundjian isn’t Ellen Degeneres, but he is by far one of the funniest conductors you’ll ever meet. In fact, comedy runs in the family (his cousin is the British comedian Eric Idle of Monty Python fame). It’s not surprising, then, that Oundjian performed a Toronto Symphony Orchestra Program collaborating with the comedy ground Second City Chicago. You can watch the teaser here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFjkS08df5g. While Oundjian won’t be pulling out stuffed unicorns or wearing a gorilla suit when he’s conducting the LA Chamber Orchestra this season on December 12/13, after watching this performance, you can’t help but smile. Buy your tickets today!

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five (baroque) conversations about mahan esfahani

first things first
In 2008, for the first time in BBC history, a harpsichordist was named a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. That harpsichordist is Mahan Esfahani, who appears with LACO for one night only on November 12 at Zipper Concert Hall. In 2011, Mahan made history again as the first-ever harpsichordist chosen to give a solo harpsichord recital in the history of the BBC Proms.

In 2014, Mahan broke new ground as the first harpsichordist to be nominated for both the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist of the Year and Gramophone Artist of the Year. To add to his long list of musical accomplishments, Mahan received the BBC Music Magazine ‘Newcomer of the Year’ award in 2015, and was nominated for Best Baroque Instrument, Best Instrumental, and Artist of the Year for the Gramophone Awards. Just recently, his album Rameau: Pièces de clavecin was nominated for Limelight’s Recording of the Year. Not bad, not bad at all.

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how to annoy your father…
Mahan, who studied piano with his father growing up in Washington DC, reports, “I thought, ‘How can I annoy Dad? I’ll play the harpsichord.’ So you know, it was a bit of teenage rebellion..But the harpsichord I just always had a love for.”

Mahan Esfahani makes his case for his chosen instrument in this NPR interview with Robert Siegel. As Peter Lynan writes in the International Record Review, “[his playing] holds the attention with ease and is a pleasure to hear…the harpsichord may never quite be mainstream material, but you sense that, if it were ever to get there, Esfahani might just be the man to make it happen.”

Decide for yourself at Baroque Conversations on November 12.

go cardinal!
“…a brilliant player…dashingly eloquent, dizzyingly skilled, Esfahani makes the harpsichord seem an instrument reborn.”(The Times, London)

And in the world of academia, he is no slouch either. He pursued a double degree in musicology and history at Stanford, where he was mentored by George Houle before studying intensively with Peter Watchorn in Boston and the celebrated Zuzana Růžičková in Prague. Mahan was also the Artist-in-Residence at New College, Oxford from 2008 to 2010. Just this year, Mahan— became professor of harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

an oboist (allan vogel) and a harpsichordist (mahan esfahani) walk into a bar…
… and talk about goose feathers. Yes, goose feathers. Turns out that goose feathers are essential to both instruments. For oboes, goose feathers are used to distribute the moisture inside the instrument, and for harpsichords, the plectra (the hook that plucks the strings) is actually made from the quill of the feather. If you have more questions about goose feathers, the oboe or the harpsichord, come hear LACO principal oboe Allan Vogel perform Bach’s Sonata in G minor for Oboe and Harpsichord with Mahan Esfahani on November 12. Both Vogel and Esfahani will take questions after the performance. FYI, Esfahani, reputedly quite the raconteur, will also share his thoughts about the music to introduce the works on the program in LACO’s popular Baroque Conversations format. And, btw, all ticket holders are invited to a free wine reception before the concert. What’s not to like?

cello or harpsichord? here’s one good reason to choose the latter.
Cellists spend a fortune on flying their instruments to gigs. Will Mahan Esfahani buy a plane ticket for a harpsichord when he travels to Los Angeles? Luckily, no. He’ll get to choose the harpsichord he wishes to play from the collection housed in the basement studio of Curtis Berak in the warehouse district. You can read the back story of this premier supplier of harpsichords up and down the California coast here. And to hear Berak’s explanation of the saying often painted on Flemish harpsichords, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”), watch this video. Hint, it’s a double entendre which refers both to the harpsichord’s inability to sustain a note and the ephemeral brevity of life.

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an eclectic pairing

So this past Sunday at Royce was date night for me and the hubs. I thought he would really enjoy the eclectic pairing of a Marimba with a Chamber Orchestra and I do love me some Mozart. Also on tap was the West Coast premiere of Timo Andres’ ‘Word of Mouth’ and the ever popular Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major.

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The program opened with the West Coast premiere of Mr. Andres’ Word of Mouth. Before the orchestra began, Mr. Kahane gave us a small tutorial on some of the different kinds of sounds we would be hearing and even played us an excerpt of the Sacred Harp singing from which Mr. Andres drew inspiration. I really enjoyed this. Then began the piece. It is distinctly American: vibrant, energetic and innovative and exceedingly well played by this fine orchestra. I must admit that as a novice, I did not recognize the Sacred Harp influence, nor did I resonate with the comparison to Shaker furniture that I’ve read in other program notes. What I heard was reminiscent of mid-century movie music. I heard Copeland’s ‘Rodeo’, Alfred Newman’s ‘Street Scene’ and Bernstein’s ‘On the Town’. It was very visually evocative music. I saw bustling cityscapes and sweeping American vistas and small town life. There was a particularly notable and wonderful violin crescendo in the section called “Fata Morgana” (I believe). A very enjoyable beginning to the evening, indeed.

Then Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major! I am biased. I think Mozart was a genius, a rock star. He lures you in with his wonderfully lyric facility and you follow along blissfully as he exercises his creative virtuosity, spinning out more and more complex variations on the theme until you’re suddenly hit with just how deep in to the music he has taken you. It’s a bit like traveling fast in an exotic sports car with an expert behind the wheel: exhilarating, exciting and a bit overwhelming. The driver, in this case, was the much hailed (and rightly so) Richard Goode. He’s a great driver too. He handled every curve in the road, every hill and valley with depth and expressiveness. He literally played the hell out of this concerto (sorry but he did!). He exorcised every drop of powerful emotion out of this piece and delivered it straight to the audience, which was visibly energized by the piece and the player. Much applause. As an encore, Mr. Goode played a calming balm to soothe us; Bach’s Sarabande No. 1. Lovely.

Marimbas. Concertos. I didn’t really think of these two things organically going together, but together they did go, and it was a pleasure to watch and hear. Emmanuel Sejourne’s Concerto for Marimbas and Strings was a groovy fusion of sounds and to hear the marimbas successfully treated as a piano speaks to the skill of the marimbist, Wade Culbreath. Again I was reminded (in the first movement) of mid-century movie music, French movie music this time. This influence was confirmed when I read that Mr. Sejourne has scored many films. The second movement’s more dance-like rhythms provided a pleasing contrast. The audience, again, loved this concerto and rose to their collective feet at its denouement.

Can I just say that Jeffrey Kahane’s low-key swagger is really growing on me? The final piece of the evening was Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major and after a night of supporting (perfectly) soloist virtuosity, Mr. Kahane apparently decided it was time to let his orchestra show us what it’s all about. He really wound them up and let them run. His conducting was particularly expressive, with some wonderful examples coming in the Largo and then, in the Finale, he literally stepped off the podium and just turned them loose. He looked out at the audience, a “deal with that” expression on his face. It was definitely a “drop the mike” moment. You couldn’t argue with him either. They are an amazing, tight, talented and badass group of musicians. ‘Nuff said.

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eight things you never knew about the marimba

There’s many reasons to be excited for this weekend’s Mozart to Marimba concert, so get your tickets! Guest artist Richard Goode will be tackling Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18, alongside the LACO orchestra. Jeffrey Kahane will be conducting the west coast premiere of Word of Mouth by Timo Andres, as well as Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. But the reason that I’m counting the days until the concert is the Concerto for Marimba and Strings, featuring LACO principal percussionist Wade Culbreath. My first major introduction to the instrument was at a LACO concert in 2008, featuring Makoto Nakura on marimba, and it was a thrilling, jaw-dropping experience, and I’m sure this weekend’s concert will be equally exhilarating – at minimum! I’ve been brushing up on my marimba knowledge, and with my list of Eight Things You Never Knew About The Marimba, you can too!

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1) A marimba player is called a… um… marimba player, but a more fun word that’s also used is marimbist.

2) Marimba is a compound word, that combines two words from the Bantu languages in Africa: ‘ma’, meaning ‘many’, and ‘rimba’, meaning ‘single bar xylophone’.

3) Xylophones and similar instruments (like the marimba) date back to the 13th century in Africa. There’s an African origin story concerning its creation. According to a Zulu myth, a goddess named Marimba was cursed by another goddess, who told Marimba that her husband would die within a few months of their wedding day. Marimba’s first two husbands indeed perished, as foretold – one trampled by an elephant, the second killed by a lion. When Marimba’s son captured a stranger from another tribe and brought him to their village, Marimba took his bow and arrow, and used the arrow to affix a dried gourd to the bow, creating the first marimba. The villagers never heard anything like it, and Marimba’s songs grew more beautiful as she suffered continued heartbreak – including the death of her third and final husband.

4) While modern marimbas can be traced back to Central America, and, before that, Africa, similar instruments were being played in southeast Asia. In fact, the oldest-known musical instrument has been called a “stone marimba” and was discovered in Vietnam in 1949. It is estimated to be 5,000 years old!

5) While popular in folk music for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1940s that marimbas regularly became part of classical orchestras. The Clair Omar Musser marimba ensemble was an early example of marimbas in the concert hall, and they received a lot of attention after performing at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. New compositions also helped popularize the orchestral marimba. Early works include a concertino by American composer Paul Creston in 1940 and a  concerto by the French composer Darius Milhaud in 1947. And here’s a fun fact about this fun fact: Milhaud was a very popular and in-demand teacher, and his student roster included jazz great Dave Brubeck and songwriting/performing legend Burt Bacharach.

6) The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

7) Marimba has made a mark in mainstream music as well. The Rolling Stones songs “Under My Thumb” and “Out of Time” feature the marimba, as does “Island Girl” by Elton John and “Mamma Mia” by ABBA. Björk has collaborated with famed percussionist Evelyn Glennie multiple times, and the marimba can be heard on a few of her songs, including “My Spine,” from her album Telegram.

8) Marimbist Nancy Zeltsman, chair of the Percussion Department at the Boston Conservatory, explains on her website how easy it is to transport a marimba, which can often weigh well over 100 pounds: “[You can use] a van or station wagon–or even my Toyota Prius! A marimba breaks down into smaller parts quite impressively. The ‘white notes’ and ‘black notes’ of the keyboard are each strung up like huge necklaces which can just lift off and roll up. Each of the long braces across the instrument fold in half. The banks of resonators fold in half. The end pieces come off and go in separate cases. Eight or nine cases total.”

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marimba’s time to shine

LACO’s next concert features some very new and interesting works alongside two Classical favorites. This program is an excellent example of the way Jeffrey Kahane keeps LACO on top of current trends but still manages to satisfy those members of our audience who can’t live without the classics. One of the new pieces, Word of Mouth, is actually receiving its west coast premiere at our concert. The pieces by Haydn and Mozart might very well be familiar to you, so I thought I’d focus on the new pieces and their unique stories.

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Timo Andres composed Word of Mouth after being inspired by an American musical tradition called the Sacred Harp. In this tradition—which began within the Protestant religion, but now encompasses secular ideas as well—singers face inward and sing for each other. There is no conductor and no formal audience. Singing is a community experience. This music is often written with notes that have noteheads of varying shape. This type of notation is called shape note and it became associated with the Sacred Hard repertoire in the nineteenth century.

The program notes go into more detail about how Andres incorporates actual Sacred Harp tunes and other musical references, and I hope you will read all about that. But I know, even as a program annotator, that a unique piece like Word of Mouth will only truly come to life on stage. It’s definitely an experience that should not be missed. Andres has been bringing his one-of-a-kind style to LACO for a few years now. In 2012, LACO presented a work by Mozart, which was in Andres’ words a “re-composition.” The work in question is Mozart’s Coronation Concerto, K. 537, a piece that Mozart left incomplete. Andres’ new left-hand part for the piano gave us all a new perspective on this work, and on Mozart’s quintessentially Classical style. One reviewer called the result, “kinky, quirky and cute.” On that same night in 2012, Andres presented the world premiere for our “Sound Investment” commission, a scintillating work called Old Keys, composed for piano and orchestra. Andres is an innovator, and his ideas are fascinating meditations on the kinds of things he’s heard and experienced. All of his influences seem to be near the surface, ready to burst forth in something that is wholly new and truly interesting. Word of Mouth is sure to be no different, and I for one am excited to see it live.

The other modern piece on the program is a marimba concerto by French composer and percussionist, Emmanuel Séjourné. Like Timo Andres, Séjourné brings a unique collection of influences to the table. Some of these musical ingredients will certainly be noticeable when LACO’s own Wade Culbreath plays the solo part of this work. The second movement in particular seems to be based on Flamenco music, and overall Séjourné has written a marimba part that is almost guitar-like in its construction. In discussing the piece Culbreath has described the piece as both “extremely emotive” and “very groove-oriented.” Séjourné’s two-movement concerto for marimba and strings will be juxtaposed with Mozart’s eighteenth Piano Concerto. To see two such works, both under the same genre umbrella of “concerto,” side-by-side, is to understand the breadth and depth of the Western musical tradition. And it is wonderful to see that LACO is able to do both equally well.

If your experience of percussion instruments is limited, let me tell you a little about the marimba. It is an instrument that has roots in both Africa and Central America. It is actually the national instrument of Guatemala. The marimba is similar in design to the xylophone, although its bars are a bit larger and of a slightly different shape. Like the xylophone, the marimba’s wooden bars are constructed using the configuration of a piano keyboard. Underneath each bar, there is a tuned resonator, which looks like a metal tube (in earlier centuries, these resonators were made out of hollowed out gourds). The resonators amplify the sound of the bars when they are struck. The mallets used to play the marimba are usually softer than those used to play the xylophone because hard sticks or mallets might damage the wood of the marimba. The bars can be constructed with rosewood (first choice), mahogany, or bubinga. The most desirable type of rosewood for marimbas only grows in southern Guatemala and parts of Belize.

The marimba has a deep, warm sound that doesn’t have the same kind of attack that one might associate with the xylophone. This warmth is its strength, but it also means that when writing for the marimba, a composer must be aware that its sound can be easily covered up. Making it the solo instrument in a concerto is actually a brilliant use of the marimba, allowing it to shine when necessary, but also bring warmth and connection to the entire ensemble. Indeed the sound of the marimba is often described as “mellow.” I’m sure, though, in the hands of Wade Culbreath, with the support of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, we can add the adjectives, “fascinating” and “dazzling.”

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