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Music review: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra opens season

September 26, 2011 |  3:15 pm

Hijmans and Kahane
Once the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was on stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall Sunday night, longtime principal oboist Allan Vogel came forth to pay tribute to Jeffrey Kahane. The concert marked the start of Kahane’s 15th season as music director, and Vogel called this LACO’s golden age. He has some authority in that regard, having joined the ensemble as a young second oboe 39 years ago. Still, the proof was in the playing.

Kahane ended the program doing something he does supremely well, which is conduct Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto from the keyboard. There was a gripping theater to be experienced in the back-and-forth tug between a rhythmically incisive orchestra and Kahane’s molten, eloquent, urgent piano playing. The symphonic picture was large, while the drama was personal.

That’s one side of Kahane. There are others. Like the fact that he played guitar in a rock band as a kid growing up in L.A. in the ‘60s. And on the first half of the program, Kahane conducted the West Coast premiere of Derek Bermel’s Ritornello, which the composer describes as a “concerto grosso” for electric guitar and orchestra. This -- along with the West Coast premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s short “Sidereus” -- was the news of the night.

Inviting a rock instrument into a classical ensemble is anything but newfangled. Stockhausen did it in the ‘50s. Boulez joined the bandwagon in the ‘60s. At the time Kahane was a teen rocker, Frank Zappa could be found jamming (however uncomfortably) with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last spring, around the same time Ritornello was given its world premiere by the Albany Symphony in New York, the L.A. Philharmonic performed Steve Mackey’s double concerto for electric guitar and violin. Last month, the Cabrillo Festival presented Michael Daugherty’s “Gee’s Bend,” an electric guitar concerto.

But electric guitar concertos have, for the most part, remained self-conscious novelty works; that is certainly true of the nostalgic and trite “Gee’s Bend.” Ritornello, written for Wiek Hijmans, is different. The Dutch guitarist is certainly capable of conveying his instrument’s ecstatic wail and earthy distorted grunge. But he also produces an exceedingly beautiful tone on the same model guitar, he mentioned in a preconcert talk, George Harrison played on “Beatles for Sale.”

Bermel, who has been LACO’s most successful composer-in-residence (more evidence of a golden age), has an alluringly easy way with mixing genres. What is surprising here, however, is how readily King Crimson and the French Baroque can appear kissing cousins.

The ritornello, or repeated section, of the concerto is guitar bopping in broken triplets, the meter constantly changing, a homage perhaps to Fred Frith. But it also hints at Bermel’s recent Brazilian infatuation. A largo, with the dotted rhythms of Lully, breaks the sway and sets Hijmans off in the direction of heavy metal and a spellbindingly Clapton-esque improvised cadenza.

Ritornello is the real thing, an authentic electronic guitar concerto true to many musical spirits. But it lacks one crucial component, and that is scale. At 13 minutes, it is an electric guitar concerto movement, in need of others.

Golijov’s “Sidereus” lacks scale as well. At slightly more than eight minutes, it has the character of an overture. On the other hand, this is a piece that almost goes off the scale in terms of the number of initial performances it will receive. A consortium commission for 35 orchestras, it had its premiere in Memphis a year ago and is now making the rounds. Further performances in our parts the first half of next year will be by the Pacific Symphony and the Santa Barbara Symphony.

“Sidereus” also has a vast scale –- the starry sky, no less -- in its concept. The sidereal title is taken from a treatise by Galileo. Although written for small orchestra, the score creates a sense of vastness in its moody open chords, its high-lying melodies and its funny little unexpected filigrees that I heard as the universe’s quantum particles in unpredictable play.

Golijov has been a blocked composer of late. He failed to deliver last season on a new work for the St. Lawrence String Quartet and a violin concerto that was supposed to open the L.A. Philharmonic’s “Brahms Unbound” festival. So any notes on paper are welcome. But if a new start, “Sidereus” is a small one.

Kahane led a rapt performance, as he did of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” Overture, which opened the program. In the preconcert, he accompanied principal cellist Andrew Shulman in a set of Beethoven variations on a theme from Mozart’s “Flute.” That was followed by a group improvisation on that theme by Kahane, Hijmans and Bermel (who is a clarinetist). It was short and goofy but a gutsy golden-age party trick, nonetheless.

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 -- Mark Swed

Credit: Guitarist Wiek Hijmans is soloist in Derek Bermel's Ritornello, conducted by Jeffrey Kahane Sunday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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