September 27, 2013
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.
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 of contredanse 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.