Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
April 27, 2014
While a less-informed observer might be tempted to think that the youth orchestra movement in Los Angeles began following the arrival of Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the first and foremost exhibit against this fallacy would be the American Youth Symphony, which will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary season this fall. AYS, which culls its members from a variety of schools and conservatories around town, continues to be one of the absolute best values in classical music anywhere. The concerts, though ticketed, are free for attendees providing a top notch concert experience to an audience that might not be able to afford to attend an orchestra performance of this caliber otherwise. AYS’ Music Director and Conductor, Alexander Treger, has been helming the orchestra since 1998, and his tradition of exciting, exuberant performances will continue into this coming anniversary season.
Two weeks ago AYS concluded its most recent season with an excellent performance designed to highlight it ensemble’s history and mission. The show was part of the orchestra’s Alumni Project where one of the group’s illustrious former members returns to celebrate AYS's legacy to the musical world. That is no small matter. AYS alumni populate major American orchestras of all stripes and make up significant percentages of most of the major performing ensemble here in Los Angeles.
This evening’s featured alumnus was violinist Nigel Armstrong who won 4th prize at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. Armstrong was featured in the first half of the evening, which focused heavily on French works including Chausson’s Poeme and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as seeing a soloist who is as well loved by the hosting ensemble as he is so technically skilled, and Armstrong quickly won over the audience with an articulate spirited performance. The rest of the night was devoted to Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony. Treger elicited a solid well-structured performance of this Romantic landmark work. It played to the orchestra’s strengths and most of all allowed the spirited excitement of the players to shine through. There will be more of these wonderful performances starting this fall when the ensemble returns for its anniversary season.
Sometimes context and surrounding circumstances can change a single performance into something much larger than the sum of its parts. Such was the case Sunday as the Los Angeles Master Chorale continued it’s 50th anniversary season with a show highlighting the ensemble’s fervent commitment to contemporary music under music director Grant Gershon. The evening was structured around two large works by living composers – David Lang’s the little match girl passion and Steve Reich’s You Are (Variations). Both are works the chorale is very familiar with, the latter a commission for the chorale, which they have recorded and performed around the world. But what informed the evening more than any of this was another event. Earlier in the week came news of the passing of the chorale’s music director emeritus, the great Paul Salamunovich. It cannot be understated how critical Salamunovich was in making the Chorale into the world-class ensemble it is today, and the evening started appropriately with an understated and powerful tribute to him. The tribute took the form of a performance of one of the former conductor’s favorite choral works, Ave Maria by Tomas Luis da Vittoria. It was a searing moment with Gershon conducting from the first row of vocalists and leaving the conductor’s spot vacant in memory of Salamunovich. The Amen was followed by silence, the Chorale leaving the stage without a sound. It was perhaps one of the most profound and appropriately stirring tributes to the passing of an artistic colleague I’ve yet seen on the stage.
The rest of the evening proceeded as planned, but the spirit of the former Music Director and grief and joy in his wake permeated everything in the rest of the show. Lang’s passion is well known and its twist on the story of humanity’s redemption is one of the darker and most emotionally fraught moments in contemporary music. The sparse rhythmic retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl and her lonely death in the New Year’s Eve cold can be shockingly warm and beautiful. It can also be hard to listen to given the bleakness of its subject matter. But I’ve never quite heard the soaring spirit of the work’s redemptive core as much as I did on Sunday. The Chorale managed the tricky rhythmic aspects of the piece with ease, and Lang received a well-deserved and very enthusiastic reception following the performance.
After the break, by contrast, was the more celebratory You Are (Variations). Admittedly, I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Reich’s incessantly bubbly and seemingly vacuous sound. Even this piece, which is so closely associated with the LAMC, can come off as unchangingly bright. But tonight it provided the perfect counterpoint to Lang’s sad reflection. Here was the celebration of life and art that the Chorale moves on with. The effusive warmth and glow of the work filled the hall with an oscillating movement of happy pulsing music that was both reassuring and in its own way, liberating. Reich, like Lang, was present at the performance and received an enthusiastic ovation. And even if everyone had not come to the performance planning on paying their respects to Salamunovich, by the end of the night, the unity of feeling and purpose was there. This was the Master Chorale he built: one that looks forward and engages today’s world.