Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

the untrained ear

mozart (mostly). entertaining (completely).

January 22, 2012

I’ve been going to LACO concerts for a few years now, and they deliver every single time. Sometimes the program isn’t necessarily my favorite cup of tea, but even then I can still appreciate their passion, their precision, and the pure artistry of what’s happening onstage. Last night, at the Mozart (Mostly) concert at the Alex Theatre, I added a new level of appreciation to the list, because something new dawned on me for the first time. It’s an idea that has probably percolated, to some extent, throughout my brain at previous concerts, but last night, it hit me like a ton of perfectly synchronized bricks: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is an outrageously attractive collection of people. And I mean that in the shallowest way possible – everyone on that stage is drop-dead beautiful. Every single one. It’s mind-boggling how much beauty is on that stage… and that’s before they pick up their instruments. Once they start playing the music… well, it’s enough to make one buckle over in a mix of awe and jealousy.

Only two words are needed to explain how last night’s epiphany came to be: Nigel Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong was the guest soloist, and it’s downright unfair that someone can be both ridiculously handsome and outrageously talented. And did I mention he’s twenty-one years old? It’s revolting how incredibly gifted this kid is, and in so many ways. Mr. Armstrong played the Mozart Violin Concerto #3 with LACO, and it was something to watch. His eyes were closed as he played more often than they were open, and you could see the music pulse through him, his body twisting and turning as his violin raced, the power bringing him onto the balls of his feet. His energy and enthusiasm for Concerto was palpable, and the audience responded fantastically, which led to Mr. Armstrong playing an enigmatic and tremendous encore. He played John Corigliano’s Stomp, an aggressive and jolting solo piece that actually did require Mr. Armstrong to accompany himself by stomping his foot (watch a video of him performing it in Russia). He also played a portion of the piece with his violin behind his back, but I don’t know if that was notated in the music or one of Mr. Armstrong’s impressive party tricks.

Mozart (Mostly) was the first LACO concert conducted by Andrew Shulman, LACO’s Principal Cellist, and he too was fun to watch. The first piece of the evening, Mozart’s 29th Symphony, was my least favorite, but watching Mr. Shulman was enjoyable. He didn’t use a baton, which led me to think about all sorts of baton-related questions: Are there advantages (or disadvantages) to using a baton? Is whether or not you use a baton just a matter of personal preference, or is there more to the decision? I wonder what the musicians prefer – is a baton easier to see or follow?

The Mozart symphony and concerto were written in 1770s, and after intermission, the concert leaped forward almost exactly 200 years with their performance of William Walton’s Sonata for Strings. This is was favorite piece from the night – it seemed to be both fluid and oddly jarring, melodic and… whatever the opposite or melodic is. There were terrific portions sections where some of the principal musicians were playing something different than the rest of the musicians in their section, and that’s something that I’ve never really noticed before (and I’m sure it happens regularly – or does it?). My friend Dan, who is a musician and conductor, told me at intermission that the Sonata has a beautiful waltz section, although I missed that altogether. It appears I can’t pick out a waltz even if it’s being played a few feet away by a top-notch orchestra! Ah, the learning never stops for this untrained ear. I can’t wait to learn something new at the next LACO concert, in March. And I get to watch a stage full of beautiful people while I learn it!

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