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Review: Greatly improved sound at Glendale's Alex Theatre

April 19, 2009 |  3:55 pm

For all its amenities, the Alex Theatre in Glendale has never been a great place to listen to music. The sound was muddy, the reverberation time almost nonexistent. People in the balcony were less likely to complain (sound blends and gets better as it travels upward), but musicians were unhappy. They couldn’t hear themselves onstage, they said privately.

All that has changed.

The theater installed a new orchestral shell about two weeks ago, the latest step in its $6.2-million redevelopment project begun in 1992. On the basis of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert Saturday, one can smile. The acoustics in the 1925-built vaudeville-movie house — transformed at the end of 1993 into a performing arts center — have improved greatly.

The strings have presence and transparency. The winds and brass, now on risers at the back of the stage, remain a bit muffled and blurry. But tinkering is still possible. More important, LACO sounds more like it does in its other venue, Royce Hall at UCLA. It sounds, in short, more like its fine self.

The Saturday concert, scheduled to be repeated Sunday at Royce, was a program of firsts. The four-part bill included Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. But it also marked Joana Carneiro’s first LACO guest conductor appearance and David Fung’s LACO debut, playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G for the first time.

The Ravel concerto must be at the upper limit of the repertory for a chamber orchestra, if not beyond. The Alex stage was so packed that the Fazioli grand piano extended beyond the proscenium arch, compromising the blend although bringing Fung closer to the audience.

As the first piano graduate of the downtown Colburn Conservatory of Music, Fung, 25, also unwittingly bears the responsibility of representing the school. A former student of John Perry, Fung was up to the challenge, though there was perhaps more clarity and directness than poetry in his first encounter with Ravel’s score. Still, there is undoubted talent there, and he has already recorded for ABC Classics and Yarlung Records.

Carneiro is a familiar local figure. A native of Lisbon, she has led the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra and served as a LACO assistant conductor in the 2003-04 season and a conducting fellow and assistant conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2005-08. Her star is on the rise: In January, she was named successor to Berkeley Symphony music director Kent Nagano.

Carneiro opened the concert with a sparkling account of Mozart’s "Paris" Symphony and closed it with a buoyant reading of Beethoven’s First. She conducted with enthusiasm, clarity and elegant gestures. She sometimes expended more effort than she needed to, but that may be the exuberance of youth. While she was also an attentive collaborator with Fung, the high point may have been her passionate reading of Schoenberg’s impassioned score.

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