Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

the untrained ear

reflection upon reflection

December 11, 2011

If there’s one thing I learned from coming to LACO’s concerts over the past few years, it’s that most orchestral music tells a story. Program notes and pre-concert preludes help explain the stories by providing context, like when the piece was written, what was going on in the composer’s life at the time, and so on, but as an audience member, it’s my own ears that fill in most of the gaps. I love nothing more than to be carried away by a piece of music at the Alex Theater or Royce Hall – pulled along by intertwining melodies, entranced by graceful arcs, jolted by powerful chords. The program of Reflection, the LACO concert I attended on Saturday, was rife with stories, but I was faced with an added challenge – none of the context and history meant anything to me. As I walked into the theater, I wondered… would this be the concert that I just didn’t understand? Luckily for me, the answer was a resounding NO.

All of the pieces in Reflection were somehow connected to or inspired by other works. There was a Ravel piece that was written in the style of another composer, Ades and Respighi pieces that were based on earlier pieces of music, and a Tchaikovsky piece built around a theme from a different era. To have a full appreciation of the music in Reflection, I think an awareness of all those source materials would be necessary. And guess who has two thumbs and absolutely no exposure to any of those source materials? This guy.

Fortunately, my lack of exposure to those source materials didn’t hinder my experience at the concert. As always, the LACO artists and musicians know how to out on a show. Guest cellist Ralph Kirshbaum was enthralling to watch during the Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme – he coaxed such a wide range of sounds and feelings from his instrument, and in such a subtle, nuanced way. The variations were performed without any pauses or breaks, and when it ended, he lowered his bow and slumped forward, visibly exhausted, and I can understand why! Thankfully for us, he returned to the stage for a beautiful solo encore (something by Bach, if I remember correctly).

Conductor Jaffrey Kahane took to the stage before the second half of the concert, and among other things, pointed out that Thomas Ades’ Three Studies from Couperin would feature a rare musical instrument that’s not seen onstage very often, the bass flute. I love being exposed to new instruments, and the bass flute is super cool. It seemed thicker than a regular flute and had a big bend in it, and it looks like the musician was playing a piece of plumbing. I’m not the greatest as isolating sounds in an orchestra, but I’m pretty sure I could figure out what the bass flute was contributing to the mix.

The final piece of the evening, Respighi’s The Birds, was overflowing with stories. Each of the movements was inspired by a different composer’s earlier work, and each was based around a different bird: a dove, a hen, a nightingale, and a cuckoo. The melodies were definitely reminiscent of bird songs, and there were fun, whimsical, abrupt changes in tone that suggested the erratic nature of a bird in flight.

Despite my lack of knowledge regarding the source materials, what I loved most about Reflection is that, like at most of LACO’s events, a new story was created: and it’s a story about a beautiful evening filled with beautiful music, played by musicians at the top of their game. That’s a story that I never get tired of being a part of!

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