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Critic's Notebook: How the World Series and our orchestras became a soundtrack for the city

Critic's Notebook: How the World Series and our orchestras became a soundtrack for the city
Thomas Dausgaard conducts Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto with soloist Anthony McGill and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. (Mike Mancillas / Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic may appear incapable of not making waves, even when the institution tries to have a week off from the orchestral news cycle. But no matter how much the L.A. Phil may lord over neighboring orchestras, it is not the only symphonic show in town.

Between Friday and Sunday, I was able to catch three local ensembles as well as the L.A. Phil. That may not make it exactly an orchestra equinox, but let it be noted that however much the sports world wants to crow about a unique five-event Sunday, there are few days a year that are not equinox-plus when it comes to major arts offerings from our theaters, museums and galleries.

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My weekend began with the Pacific Symphony, which kind of kills the equinox boast. I am sorry to say this important Orange County orchestra is beginning to no longer count as local for Angelenos. The Friday rush-hour drive on the 405 was practically three hours. The good news was that it and the hour drive back both could be occupied by listening to the Wagnerian-length third World Series game and be home in plenty of time see Max Muncy’s 18th inning homer on TV.

With World Series games in competition with the weekend’s concerts, it is also worth mentioning that surveys have shown what everybody already knew: baseball is the favored sport of American classical music fans. So it was a nice coincidence that the Pacific Symphony devoted its programs in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall to another American institution. This was music director Carl St.Clair’s contribution to the Leonard Bernstein centennial festivities. St.Clair was a Bernstein protégé.

Friday, however, happened to be one of those less formal nights orchestras sometimes offer, with less music and more chitchat, no intermission and post-concert festivities. That meant I missed hearing Augustin Hadelich play Bernstein’s “Serenade,” but the full program will be broadcast on KUSC on Feb. 10.

What I did hear was terrific. The jazzy “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” featuring principal clarinetist Joseph Morris was almost too hot to handle. “Chichester Psalms,” with the Pacific Chorale and boy soprano Angel Garcia, was startlingly bright. Soprano Celena Shafer sang “Glitter and Be Gay” brilliantly, though overacted. The performances were such that Bernstein, along with baseball, became a theme of the weekend, since all the other programs had works he was known for conducting.

At the L.A. Phil, guest conductor Daniel Harding went on the DL early in the week with a shoulder injury and the concert was turned over to the orchestra’s young Chilean assistant conductor, Paolo Bortolameolli. The ambitious original program that would have included the West Coast premiere of a major work by Olga Neuwirth, “Masaot/Clocks Without Hands” and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was replaced with Saint-Saëns’ colorfully easygoing “Egyptian,” dashingly played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Beethoven’s ubiquitous Fifth Symphony. Perhaps with the World Series in town the orchestra felt it needed something “sellable.”

The one original work retained was the U.S. premiere of Oliver Knussen’s last orchestral score, “O Hototogisu!” The short fragment for soprano, flute and chamber ensemble is an unintended farewell by the beloved British composer and conductor who died suddenly last summer and who had had a long relationship with the L.A. Phil (which commissioned a cello concerto that was left unfinished).

Written during a trip to Tokyo last year where Knussen conducted an unforgettable Toru Takemitsu memorial, the score is haunted by Noh and Kabuki. One line of text, “A call resonates through the clear mountain air,” pretty much says it all. Principal flutist Denis Bouriakov began the resonating by playing into an open piano. Soprano Kiera Duffy conveyed the ethereal beauty of the Japanese poetry, set in English translation. Knussen absented the world with eight minutes of perfection.

A hototogisu is a cuckoo found in Japanese haiku, and another line Knussen used is ”even the birds pay attention.” Even the birds had to pay attention to Bortolameolli’s Beethoven Fifth. By intermission, reports were that the Dodgers had blown their lead. Some good news was wanted, and this crisp, dynamic performance provided it.

P.D.Q. Bach has a famously hilarious skit in which he describes the first movement of the Fifth as though a sports announcer in the broadcast booth. Calls resound through the air, and the symphony sounds newly suspenseful. In his own way Bortolameolli was a Vin Scully. Every moment of the action was alive. A great career awaits the young conductor.

Not everyone, though, wants a conductor.

Sunday afternoon, Kaleidoscope, the conductor-free orchestra of young L.A. musicians, offered the first program of its fifth season. The players make all the choices together, regularly change positions so that there is no hierarchy and essentially espouse democracy with each piece. The same goes for its attitude toward the audience — admission is pay what you can.

Living composers are always included in the programs, and this season the emphasis is on women. Thus Hannah Lash’s glowingly somber “”Music for Loss” opened the Sunday afternoon program at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica. Far less imaginative was the first U.S. performance of Joseph Tamarin’s 1987 concerto for the mandolin-like Russian folk instrument the dorma. Rather than democracy, the Russian composer sounded as though he were staying the Soviet mandate for upbeat, conventional art. But the soloist Ekaterina Skliar was excellent.

Ironically, orchestral democracy can also result in conformity in the need for all the players to get along. There was some of that in Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” but there was also some benefit of not having a conductor, which is the joy factor. In Bernstein’s 1960 recording of the suite, for instance, a conductor’s gusto is the overriding feature. Here it was glorious mob rule, enthusiasm on all sides, the thrill contagious.

That evening at UCLA, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra turned to three Baltic Sea countries and nearby Norway. As I walked up Westwood Boulevard to Royce Hall, every restaurant and bar with a screen had the World Series on. This may have seemed like an omen for LACO, which was taking on a concerto and symphony more common for a full orchestra.

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The Seattle Symphony’s designate music director, Thomas Dausgaard, was guest conductor. Also from the big-orchestra world, New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill was soloist in Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto. He is a wonderfully fluent player who makes everything look easy and sound natural. But perhaps thrown by Royce’s dry acoustics, he was oddly swamped by the chamber band. McGill brought much nuance but little of the drama found in the classic recording of the magnificently offbeat concerto made by the clarinetist’s New York Philharmonic predecessor, Stanley Drucker, and Bernstein.

By the end of intermission, it was clear the World Series was about over, but the concert was not. For the evening’s other major work, Sibelius’ Third Symphony, Dausgaard hit a home run with a boldly articulated, energetic, account full of arresting detail. This was a winner.

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