Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Hauntingly Familiar

April 18, 2011

Jeffrey Kahane conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Photo: Ken Hively

Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra returned to their westside home, UCLA’s Royce Hall, this weekend in their penultimate performance of the season. The show featured works from Dvorák and Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. But for all the familiar favorites, the evening was also a reminder that LACO has and continues to have a significant hand in the new music arena even in a town with a number of significant venues for new(er) music. (The season's concluding performance will feature a new piece from Derek Bermel, Mar de Setembro, on May 14 and 15.) Kahane commented from the stage that he had long wanted to pair the Beethoven piano concerto with the first work on the program, Gli accordi più usate (“The Most Often Used Chords”), by John Harbison. The short four-movement piece was a commission from LACO for Harbison in 1993, and Kahane stated that he felt it was important to bring it back again given its beauty and the difficulty some new works have in seeing the light of day after their original performances. I for one was very glad he did, hearing this time around. Harbison based Gli accordi after a chart in an Italian music notebook identifying the most commonly used chords in musical composition. This guideline provided unintended inspiration for Harbison, who took it, and other charts in the notebook, as a kind of challenge to use familiar chords that rarely appeared in his own work at that time in new ways that fit into his musical world view. Kahane is right in that it is a lovely and very seductive piece. The third Ciaccona movement in particular suggests much deeper currents than its Baroque inspired name implies.

Jon Kimura Parker Photo: Tara McMullen

Harbison's piece was followed by Dvorák's Serenade in E major for Strings which is filled with more catchy turns of musical phrase than you can shake a stick at. Kahane led a well coordinated performance that made the most of the dance rhythms that permeate the piece. It wasn't the most Czech of all imaginable sounds, but the performance made up for any lack with its energy. After the break came the big piano concerto with Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker as soloist. As Kahane noted, this work starts from a similar place musically to Harbison's, relying on inventive uses of the most familiar of chords, scales and arpeggios arranged in a way for maximum effect. The LACO players sounded on top of things and provided a robust counterpoint to Parker's bright and athletic approach to the score. And yet it wasn't rushed in any way, though at some points I wished for a bit more reflection, particularly in the Adagio. On balance, the show played to LACO's strengths, pleasant, enthusiastic playing with a spirit of adventure and plenty of excitement. And revisiting the group's history of their own home grown commissions in the context of works they make a specialty in playing is always a good idea.


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