Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Come Blow Your Horn

March 25, 2012


Los Angeles concert stages were jam packed with new music this weekend. Living composers from both home and abroad were featured by local ensemble from the rambunctious wildUp to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to the august Los Angeles Philharmonic. I’ll have more on the former later, but let’s start with Saturday’s L.A. Phil concert conducted by the well-regarded music director of the Minnesota Orchestra Osmo Vänskä. It was probably the most Finnish-oriented program the L.A. Phil has ever presented in the absence of former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen; a reminder to local audiences that Finnish musical life does not being and end with the initials EPS. In addition to Vänskä on the podium, the concert featured the 2005 Clarinet Concerto Kalevi Aho wrote for soloist Martin Fröst (a Swede) as well as Sibelius Symphony No. 6.

But before all that was Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier suite that opened the evening. Vänskä took a measured approach that valued detail over grand gestures. But this is some of Strauss’ most crowd-pleasing music in any event and the crowd was clearly excited by it. It was an odd choice to start the show in this manner, in that it ended up inverting the typical flow of the program with the big familiar romantic piece starting the show instead of ending it. Complicating things further in this model was that despite the charms of both Aho’s concerto and Sibelius’ symphony, both end on decidedly somber and somewhat suddenly unexpected moments avoiding a telegraphed knockout punch. This isn’t to say that the ordering was a bad thing. In fact, I thought it rather inspired programming overall.

The Clarinet Concerto followed, and Martin Fröst made it clear he knows how to put on a show. (Fröst has recorded the concerto along with Nielsen's clarinet concerto under Vänskä for bis.) He arrived in a dark suite covered unexpectedly in white piping suggesting that Mr. Thibaudet may now be handing out the phone number of his personal tailor. If Aho’s concerto is anything, it sits firmly in the standard concerto model designed to highlight a players virtuosity. Five minutes in to the thirty minutes work I began to measure my own breaths wondering how Fröst could play so much so fast without ever seeming to breath. There were a couple of oases of calm in this seas of notes, most notably in the final movement, but the clarinet part is relentless. Of course, this may be the work’s downfall as well. Minute to minute Aho’s writing feels very much the same and the unchanging nature of the work made it come off longer than it actually was. Fröst followed up with the inevitable Klezmer encore which also seemed popular with the crowd who thankfully did not dissolve into clapping.

The Sibelius Symphony No. 6 that closed the evening is a rather odd work. It is all calm almost pastoral surfaces never stepping out of line for emphatic declamation or bombast. It’s sort of the opposite of a Shostakovich piece of music in a way. But it also isn’t particularly sweet and it never overly tried to endear itself, asking the audience instead to take it on its own terms. Vänskä and the orchestra again gave a detailed, well organized account right down to the end that comes as a surprise; not so much petering out as just stopping. It was a thoughtful, intriguing performance, though admittedly a hard one to wrap oneself up in. And that, too, isn’t always such a bad thing. The show repeats Sunday afternoon.


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