Music review: Three ‘conductors’ save the day for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

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An orchestra is best measured when a tree is down.

When felled mid-concert with a neck sprain as he began his last program of the season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel was relieved by associate conductor Lionel Bringuier. The rising young French star dashed home at intermission to get his concert clothes and return in time to conduct his first ever performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique.” The orchestra played with verve, pathos and clarity of purpose.

The situation was not quite that dramatic but ultimately more difficult last weekend when the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra‘s music director, Jeffrey Kahane, was forced to cancel his last program of the season because his mother was gravely ill.

A single replacement for Kahane was hardly possible with a week’s notice (if at all) for the original program – a world premiere commissioned for the occasion, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto conducted from the keyboard and Bizet’s Symphony in C. But with luck, goodwill and no small amount of pluck, LACO was able to pull the whole thing off.

George Tsontakis led his new piece, “Laconika,” himself and proved to be a more than competent conductor. A young pianist, Shai Wosner,squeezed the Beethoven concerto into his schedule, making his debut with the orchestra conducting a concerto few do from the keyboard and, again, with skill.


But perhaps the most touching part of the evening, Sunday in UCLA’s Royce Hall, was the Bizet. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer led it from her seat in the orchestra. The leading was less conducting than coordinating. The performance was alert, lively and sparkled. The playing was beautiful and collegial. The unmistakable mood was: This one is for you Jeff. And, perhaps, Alan (the concert was dedicated to the memory of music critic Alan Rich, who died last month).

Tsontakis’ “Laconika” was the ninth in LACO’s annual Sound Investment series. The commissions are financed by contributions from audience members who are then invited to rehearsals and discussions with the composer. Tsontakis’ title is a pun on LACO’s name, the composer explained to the audience before he led the premiere, as well as a nod to the native New Yorker’s Greek heritage.

The punning didn’t stop there. The title led Tsontakis to write something more laconic, or Spartan, than the large movements he usually favors. Consequently he divided a 15-minute score into five short, pop-song size, pieces. The second and fourth of those movements are “Lacomotion” and “Laconicrimosa.” They are surrounded by “Alarming,” “Mercurial” and “Twilight.”

Tsontakis is a disarming composer. He is direct in his use of tonality and straightforward gestures. There is little new or especially remarkable in what he does. His ideas are not original. But somehow he manages to always sound fresh and authentic.

“Laconika” is no exception. Glancing at the score, my eye picked out banal melodic figures and clichés. But my ear heard something different. From the very start, the music has an extraordinary catchiness. Tsontakis writes in a narrative fashion, one thing follows the next and leads somewhere, and he uses a language most concertgoers understand, but there is always a turn of phrase, an inflection that catches a listener unaware.

The bits and pieces that begin “Alarming” are alarmingly simple – a bouncy figure in percussion and winds and two trumpets echoing each other with a jaunty sliding bird call. “Lacomotion” is guided by a simple swooping line in the strings as enjoyable as riding a slide in a playground. Mendelssohn meets sock-it-to-you rhythms in “Mercurial.”

The composer said that he wrote “Laconicrimosa” while his mother was ill. She recovered, but the movement, which turns a quote from Mozart’s Requiem on its side, proved disturbingly apt Sunday – it served as tribute to Kahane’s mother, who died last week, and to Rich, a champion of new music and Mozart.

“Laconika” ends where it begins.“Twilight” trails the bouncy wind figure from “Alarming” into a nothingness. that feels like somethingness. Many neo-Romantic American composers these days sound agreeably empty. Tsontakis has tricks up his sleeve not always easy to pinpoint that make him substantial. The Beatles were like that as well.
Filling in for Kahane in the Beethoven Concerto, Wosner was also, in his way, agreeably substantial. He was strong both as leader and player. He articulated phrases cleanly; he conveyed the music’s essential drama. He could not do what Kahane can, which is to create a true engagement between solo piano and orchestra that allows the orchestra its own freedom. But who else can?

In Bizet’s symphony, the the orchestra may have chosen to be slightly on the cautious side for the sake of maintaining excellent ensemble. Still, this symphony, light and appealing, is made for joy. And that is exactly how it came across.

-- Mark Swed