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Review: L.A. Chamber Orchestra season finale

May 17, 2009 |  4:05 pm

Jeffrey Kahane Fans of Robert Schumann were in the right place with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and conductor Jeffrey Kahane on Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. But the right time was the pre-concert talk an hour before the concert when rising 28-year-old pianist Jonathan Biss, in his LACO debut, performed four delightful Schumann four-hand piano works with Kahane.

The orchestra’s season finale, which included Schumann’s Piano Concerto and works by Manuel de Falla and Alberto Ginastera, began with the premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Radiant Mind.”

Theofanidis, a Texan born in 1967, is a gentle composer who has been criticized for a Mahler- and Stravinsky-lite style. His “Radiant Mind” broods but not for long. The effect is of dark clouds passing overhead until pleasant weather predictably returns. Nothing is overtly dramatic in this diaphanous 15-minute score, performed with balletic grace by Kahane and LACO. There’s some fine writing for the orchestra’s solid woodwind section, set against a background of quivering strings. Vivid statements from individual instruments -- the trumpet, for example -- suggested a larger musical narrative brewing in the composer’s mind.

In the pre-concert talk, Theofanidis said he admired the psychological dimension of Mahler’s music, its balance of “innocence and darkness, and how they relate to each other.” But rather than Mahlerian gloom, Kahane best conveyed the piece’s bright-sounding Copland-like serenity.

Serenity wasn’t a hallmark of Kahane and Biss’ gripping interpretation of Schumann’s Concerto. Yet no details were lost, with Biss maintaining flexibility of phrasing and sensitivity to the dreamy interplay between him and clarinetist Joshua Ranz and oboist Allan Vogel. Kahane kept orchestra and soloist evenly balanced. If the finale was a bit too driven for some, it was exciting nonetheless.

Biss treated the enthusiastic audience to a gentle encore, Schumann’s “The Poet Speaks” from “Kinderscenen,” in a limpid reading.

After intermission, Kahane offered Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” from “El Amor Brujo” (“Love, the Sorcerer”), performed with riveting precision. And Ginastera’s inventive and jazzy “Variaciones Concertantes” gave the ensemble more room to display its large color palette. But it wasn’t just the bravura playing that made this account so memorable. It was LACO’s elegance and warmth that lingered.

Note: The same program repeats at 7 p.m. today at Royce Hall, with a pre-concert talk at 6 that includes a mini-recital with Jeffrey Kahane and Jonathan Biss on piano.

-- Rick Schultz

Caption: Jeffrey Kahane Credit: Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times