Sometimes when I attend LACO concerts, I’m excited for very specific reasons. Perhaps there’s an unfamiliar composer or a premiere that I’m looking forward to hearing, or maybe there’s a piece I’m actually familiar with that I get to hear performed live for the first time. This past weekend, at the Beethoven: Pastoral concert at the Alex Theater, my expectations were slightly lower: I just wanted to stay awake. My day had started very early that morning, and I hadn’t slept well the night before, so if I could keep my eyes open throughout the entire concert, the evening would be a success. And don’t go pretending you’ve never walked into an event thinking the same thing! I’m happy to report that not only did my eyes stay wide open, but I had a great time, too.
LACO continued their recent trend of bringing in talented and handsome guest musicians. This time around, it was Alessio Bax, a pianist making his Los Angeles debut by performing, with the orchestra, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. I liked the third movement most of all, especially when Bax’s intricate and precise piano solos alternated with very majestic and regal sections played by the musicians behind him.
Bax wasn’t the only guest – the other was Hans Graf, who was making his LACO debut as the conductor. From my seat, I could barely see Graf during the Mozart Concerto, as he was nearly fully blocked by the lid of the piano, but thankfully, there were two other pieces where he could be watched, unobstructed. I don’t really know how to watch a conductor, truth be told. I know they keep the musicians together and dictate the pace and rhythm of a piece, and that they wave a fun baton around in order to accomplish such goals, but that’s about it. My lack of knowledge doesn’t prevent me from having a good time, though – I enjoy watching conductors immensely, Graf included.
The first piece of the evening was an interesting piece by Frenchman Henri Dutilleux, and it involved mostly string instruments, percussion, and . . . what is that thing? I noticed a strange box on legs when I took my seat. It was an instrument I’ve never seen before, and I had no idea what it was. My first thought was that it was some sort of small harpsichord, but then, when the piece started, I noticed the musician playing it with mallets. The mystery deepens!
In the program, it’s noted that Dutilleux’s Mystere de l’instant requires something called a ‘cimbalom’ – so that box must be a cimbalom. It produced a unique, twangy sound, but I still had no idea how the sound was being made. When I looked it up at home, the first definition I read didn’t help at all. A cimbalom is “a concert-hammered dulcimer” – which is great and all, except I don’t know what ‘concert-hammered’ means, nor do I know what a dulcimer is. Off to a great start! Further exploration revealed that the box is loaded with tons of strings, and the musician strikes them with the mallets, and that produces the sound. I love learning new things, and I love getting introduced to those things at LACO concerts!
Even though I had no trouble staying awake during the first half, I thought I’d be a goner during the second half. The hour was only growing later, and just the name of the remaining piece sounded snooze-inducing: Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, which is known as the Pastoral Symphony. But once it began, I perked right up, for one big reason: I was familiar with it! The first movement of this symphony is one of those classical standards that pops up a lot in movies, TV and cartoons. I remember it fromFantasia, although all I really remember is the part when the flying horses that live in nests (Pegasuses? Pegasi?) had babies and one baby had trouble learning how to fly.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the entire symphony before, and although the first movement has the most fame, all of it is beautiful. The movements have descriptive names, and I thought I’d enjoy the fourth movement, titled Tempest; Storm the most, because it was sure to be bold and noisy and raucous. But I actually enjoy the third movement, entitled Merry gathering of peasants the most. It was lively and layered, and built around a melody that I simply couldn’t get out of my head. As is the norm, the orchestra sounded wonderful, and even though I practically fell into bed as soon as I got home, I’m thankful I stayed awake to hear an enchanting evening of music.