Review

L.A. Chamber Orchestra's impressive guest conductor leads homage to Tim Burton, 'A Freak in Burbank'

Facing the imminent departure of music director Jeffrey Kahane, who steps down in 2017 after his 20th season, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has hosted a string of superb guest conductors including Matthias Pintscher, Karina Canellakis and Peter Oundjian, giving the search committee plenty to think about.

Now LACO can add Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard to that list of prospective music directors. Dausgaard, 53, is chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony and Swedish Chamber orchestras, and as principal guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony, he recently released a riveting recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.

On Sunday night at Royce Hall, Dausgaard made an impressive debut with the ensemble in a program that added two engaging pieces to LACO’s considerable repertoire: Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer’s “A Freak in Burbank,” which had its West Coast premiere, and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ “Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra” (Opp. 87 & 89), performed by the imaginative Norwegian violinist and composer Henning Kraggerud.

If not for Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on the second half of the program, this would have been an all-Scandinavian affair.

Dausgaard proved an involved and animated presence in Schnelzer’s 17-minute “A Freak in Burbank,” a kind of spooky musical portrait of restless adolescence inspired by the films of Tim Burton, who was born in Burbank. Schnelzer has said he isn’t sure if Burton has ever heard his 2008 score. It’s possible, given that there’s a YouTube video of Dausgaard conducting a similarly atmospheric rendition at the BBC Proms with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in 2010.

A suitably unsettling score for Halloween eve, “Freak” brimmed with sinister, hyperactive energy on Sunday. Dausgaard kept a firm but flexible grip on the work’s abrupt figures for strings and woodwinds, allowing the orchestra to seamlessly navigate its arresting, disruptive metrical shifts.  

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In Sibelius’ “Humoresques,” a delightful Scandinavian rarity, the 43-year-old Kraggerud conveyed both musicality and unassuming virtuosity, from the mazurka-like opening piece and double-stopped melodies of the second to the more lyrical fourth and introspective sixth. Throughout, Dausgaard and the ensemble were as one with the soloist.

 

After intermission, Dausgaard led the orchestra in a fleet account of “Eroica,” taking the outer movements and Scherzo at a fast clip and finding repose and dignity in the Funeral March. Conducting without a score, Dausgaard and the ensemble delivered enough propulsive dramatic intensity and warm lyricism to brush the cobwebs off this concert hall staple. Several excellent solos included those by Claire Brazeau, the orchestra's new principal oboist; Beethoven’s “Heroic” horn calls were memorably supplied by Jenny Kim, Kristy McArthur Morrell and Amy Sanchez.

The concert opened with a conductorless account of the Larghetto from Elgar's “Serenade for Strings” in touching tribute to the memory of LACO's founding music director, Neville Marriner, who died in October at age 92.

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