The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's program at UCLA's Royce Hall on Sunday could easily have been mistaken for business as usual. There were two beloved Mozart concertos — the Clarinet Concerto in A major and Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. But Jeffrey Kahane, in his penultimate year as music director, offset routine with refreshing surprises.
In Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, the concert's centerpiece, soloist Joshua Ranz, LACO's principal clarinetist, played a basset clarinet. Longer and heavier than a standard A clarinet, the instrument required Ranz to wear a harness under his jacket, freeing all his fingers for the four extra low notes the basset offers.
In a pre-concert talk, Ranz said there's evidence that Mozart wrote the concerto for an extended range instrument, but because the basset is impractical and rare (there are about 50 left in the world) the piece is usually performed on a standard clarinet.
With Kahane leading the ensemble, Ranz gave a stunning rendition, allowing us to hear the score with fresh ears. The basset clarinet offered a darker, more richly hued take on the work, making Kahane's perfectly paced account even more beautiful.
Similarly, there was nothing routine about Gernot Wolfgang's Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds — "The D.A.R.K. Knights," which opened the concert. A LACO commission, "The D.A.R.K. Knights" refers to the first initials of the score's featured soloists, David Shostac, flute; Allan Vogel, oboe; Kenneth Munday, bassoon; and Richard Todd, who retired last May after 35 years as LACO's principal horn. The quartet made a small but potent "round table."
Wolfgang, who is also a jazz guitarist, often allows players some improvisatory freedom, and there were a few jazzy flourishes in the score's lively, percussive outer movements. Four lyrical mini-concertos at the heart of the piece proved most captivating, with each of the four soloists displaying a uniquely moody and mysterious sound world. Throughout, Kahane and the orchestra were alert and agile, concluding with a striking string glissando.
Watching Shostac and Vogel, LACO's principal flute and oboe, take their bows made for an especially poignant moment. After 41 and 44 years of service, respectively, this is their last season with the orchestra.
After intermission, Kahane conducted Mozart's D-minor concerto from the keyboard, and even this much-played piece surprised. The pianist composed his own cadenza for the first movement, using Beethoven's famous one in the finale. Conveying an almost Chopinesque improvisatory feel, Kahane's cadenza also quoted more idiomatically from Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
Though the lidless piano faced into the orchestra, Kahane ensured balances between the piano line and orchestral fabric were always clear. As one of the preeminent Mozarteans of his generation, he knows how to conduct from the keyboard.
Still, amid all his fluent passagework, there were awkward moments during transitions when Kahane's rush to stand and wave his hands short-changed a few chords.
The orchestra, revealing dark undercurrents in the first movement, found a contrasting, playful urgency in the finale. They handled the lovely central Romance with serene restraint.
Kahane, returning with another surprise, gave a very odd encore. Not more Mozart or a Beethoven bagatelle. Instead, Kahane performed his own improvised variations on "America the Beautiful."
Given the coarsening of recent public debate, one had to wonder if Kahane's unexpected choice, rendered in nostalgic pastel colors, was meant as an appeal to our own better natures in this morally confused time.