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Music review: Kahane, Denk and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

April 18, 2010 |  1:17 pm
In March the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra offered an imaginative and riveting program of music by Erwin Schulhoff and Kurt Weill. Mendelssohn’s sure-fire Violin Concerto promised not to scare off audiences, but even that was presented in its original 1844 version, or as violin soloist Daniel Hope described it, “the composer’s thoughts off the tip of his pen.” Conductor Jeffrey Kahane gave a stunning account of Weill’s masterly Symphony No. 2, a powerful reminder of just how good LACO can be.

Denk On Saturday, LACO offered a safer program of two works each by Stravinsky and Mozart. In the opening Concerto in D major for String Orchestra by Stravinsky, the ensemble deftly handled the composer’s characteristic harmonic pungency and bracing rhythms. Kahane took a Romantic approach to this late (1947) Neo-Classical piece, offset by the Alex Theatre’s slightly dry acoustic, which brought a fitting degree of astringency to the string sound. (The program repeats -- with a bonus prelude -- Sunday night at UCLA's Royce Hall.)

Before pianist Jeremy Denk appeared for Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Kahane explained the score’s “jarring moments” by noting that the concerto, written in 1924, partly reflected the composer’s reaction to World War I. Stravinsky wanted no expressive softening, so he omitted a string section, except for a few double basses.

Denk proved a first-rate soloist, alive to every staccato attack.

The concerto’s jazzy and Bach-like inspirations, or as Kahane put it, “Bach through a prism,” were comfortably balanced. Denk, who sometimes played with eyes closed and head tilted upward, conveyed the lovely cantabile passages and cadenzas in the Largo with a consistently rounded tone.

Music scholar Joseph Kerman called Mozart’s Concert Rondo in D major (K. 382), which followed, “a shamelessly popular display piece.” Composed as a replacement finale to an earlier concerto, there is no denying its crisp, lightly textured vibrancy, and Denk’s fleet-fingered reading made a persuasive case for it. Still, the Stravinsky concerto lasted about 20 minutes, the Mozart about 10. Why not a full-length Mozart concerto instead of a brief set of simple, if delightful, variations?

After intermission, there was a touching moment when Kahane announced that LACO’s principal double bass player for 29 years, Susan Ranney, was retiring. Then the band launched into a lean and invigorating reading of Mozart’s great “Jupiter” Symphony.” Tasteful and well-judged, the performance was not as revelatory as last month’s Weill symphony, but it was refreshing nonetheless.

-- Rick Schultz

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, 7 p.m. Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall. Info here. One hour before the concert, as part of LACO's Concert Preludes, Denk and Kahane are scheduled to perform Mozart's substantial (about 23 minutes) Sonata in C (K. 521) for four hands.

Photo: Jeremy Denk in Santa Monica in March. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times