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Derek Bermel with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

December 13, 2009 |  8:27 pm

Bernel Nothing quite haunts some of today’s composers like the disturbing story of Béla Bartók’s last five years. In 1940 he fled Nazi-influenced Budapest and moved to New York, where he lived in illness, obscurity and poverty. Young children threw pebbles at the crotchety old man who spoke a funny language as he wandered the boroughs, often lost. He died in 1945, just a couple of years too early to see how inspiring his integration of folk song and Modernism would be for future generations.

Maybe someday New York will finally erect a statue to Bartók. But at least we now have a touching and appropriately strange tribute from  Derek Bermel, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s new composer in residence. His “A shout, a whisper, and a trace” was written this year and given its West Coast premiere Saturday night at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
Bermel has long had his own fascination with Bartók’s fascination with Eastern European folk music. A 42-year-old native New Yorker and an excellent clarinetist, he has even followed in Bartók’s ethno-musicological footsteps and spent months in Bulgaria studying and documenting a dying folk clarinet tradition.

The three short movements of “A shout, a whisper, and a trace” were inspired by Bartók’s letters from New York. The “shout” is Serbo-Croatian folk song given a merrily screwy postmodern touch. The slow middle movement touches on Bartók’s eerie night music style,  with the addition of a bluesy trumpet solo to evoke the lonely, naked city. The "trace” calls up ghosts: Bartók takes his rightful place among the musical gods in a fluid melding of styles from a composer comfortable with a great many.

In their lighthearted banter during a preconcert talk, LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane and Bermel, whose association with the orchestra will last three years, proved an entertaining pair. Much could come from this collaboration. Saturday’s performance of the new score was an ideal balance of tenderness and raucousness, of stillness and intricate rhythms, of fine ensemble playing and scintillating trumpet, clarinet and violin solos from the orchestra’s principal players.

Claycomb,Laura.photobyLaurenceMullenders.rec'd2.2.09 The rest of the program, which had the title “Bel Canto,” revolved around the coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb. But, in fact, Copland’s “Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, which followed the Bermel, had little to do with the Italian style of 19th century singing that the term usually refers to. The Bartók connection, however, was intriguing.

Bartók is little mentioned in the Copland literature, but Copland did attend the 1940 New York recording session for Bartók’s “Contrasts,” which was written for the jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, and in 1947 Copland wrote his Clarinet Concerto for Goodman. More than that, Copland was America’s Bartók insofar as he gave a groundbreaking Modernist voice to America’s folk heritage. Copland’s Dickinson settings, which he began in 1950, capture the 19th century New England poet’s plain speech and sense of the fragility of life better than any other music ever has.

Claycomb, who was said to be suffering from a cold, did not carry well over the orchestra in this dry hall (but one that has benefitted from recent acoustical improvements) nor did she go overboard in bringing Dickinson's texts to dramatic life. But in the last song, “The Chariot,” she succeeded in wistfully conjuring another New York composer ghost to the premises.

Mozart and Strauss, the two composers Claycomb turned to after intermission, aren’t normally associated with the bel canto repertory either, but beautiful singing is beautiful singing.  And both Mozart’s concert aria, “Ch’io mi scordi di te … non temer, amato bene” (“To forget you … Do not fear, beloved”), and Zerbinetta’s aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” (“Most Gracious Princess”) from Richard Strauss’ opera “Ariadne auf Naxos,” are dazzlers.

In the Mozart, which Kahane gracefully conducted from the piano, Claycomb sounded again slightly underpowered but not inelegant. The Strauss aria, which she sang in the long 1912 version, is a coloratura feast. It needs a bit of flamboyance and Claycomb found it.

But if she was less restrained here than she had been in Copland or Mozart, she still showed more moderation than many other sopranos do, and that was not a bad thing either. Zerbinetta is a flirt with a soul. She has made her peace with an imperfect world (namely men), and the subtle hint of wistfulness that hung over all the music all evening remained in the room.

But then how could it not? The aria was preceded by the Sextet from Strauss’ last opera, “Capriccio.” The performance was lovely and made no pretense about the music's wistfulness. The opera was written in the early ‘40s. While Bartók wandered the lonely streets of New York, Strauss surveyed the ruins of Europe more comfortably from his mountain retreat near Munich, longingly summoning up the ghosts of his past.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: (top) Derek Bermel. Credit: Kevin Jerome Everson/Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. (below) Laura Claycomb. Credit: Laurence Mullenders/Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.