Marimbist Makoto Nakura dazzles with LACO
Some concertos are meant to be deep, probing dialogues between a solo instrument or two and an orchestra of one size or another. Others exist primarily as vehicles for a virtuoso, with the orchestra serving mainly as a backdrop.
Pierre Jalbert’s Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra from 2005 definitely belongs in the latter category. Indeed, the four-movement, 26-minute piece puts the soloist so far out in front that the orchestra nearly disappears into the walls.
But you can’t really blame Jalbert. He was, after all, writing a piece for the incredibly gifted Japanese marimbist Makoto Nakura, and the temptation to cram as many notes per square inch as possible into the solo part must have been overwhelming. And so Jalbert did — and Nakura got a dazzler of a solo vehicle in the deal, which he played Sunday night at Royce Hall with Jeffrey Kahane leading the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in the piece’s U.S. premiere.
In the opening movement, the pecking order was set as the orchestra provided little more than a drone underneath Nakura’s rapid tremolos, which eventually exploded into brilliant flurries all over the instrument. He was at home with all the complex syncopation within the scherzo, with the orchestra limited to pizzicato.
Although high-powered technique is one thing, what makes Nakura something special is the staggeringly wide range of nuance and color that he could command at will from his collection of mallets. As difficult as it must have been to reach an emotional apex on an instrument with no sustain ability, Nakura came very close in the climaxes of the slow movement — and actually pulled it off in a tremolo-laden solo arrangement of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as an encore.
He also knocked out “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” at a predictably supersonic speed.
LACO’s turn to shine came earlier, with Haydn’s oddball Symphony No. 31 (“Hornsignal”), whose theme-and-variations finale — a mini concerto for orchestra, if you will — provided many extended opportunities for the ensemble’s soloists. Even the double bass, ably handled by Susan Ranney on Sunday, gets a rare shot at solo exposure in this work. Kahane conducted from the harpsichord, doing what he could to keep the unorthodox scoring for four French horns from overloading the chamber orchestra with too much weight.
Richard Strauss’ brief, lovely Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments — a student work written in the shadow of Brahms with hardly a hint of the extravagant bravado to come later in the 1880s — led off the concert.
The performance was dedicated to the late Mitchell Lurie, LACO’s first principal clarinetist.
-- Richard S. Ginell
Photo: Makoto Nakura. Credit: Christian Steiner