Music review: Julian Kuerti conducts L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s season opener

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The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra began its 42nd season Saturday at the Alex Theater without its music director, Jeffrey Kahane. Sidelined by mononucleosis and reportedly told by doctors not to rehearse or perform until he’s fully recovered, Kahane selected a first-rate conductor to step in for him.

Julian Kuerti, son of the distinguished pianist Anton Kuerti, is a 33-year-old Canadian who completed his tenure last month as assistant conductor to James Levine at the Boston Symphony. In a program inspired by the theme of enchantment, Kuerti confidently led Kahane’s band in works representing a broad stylistic range, from Haydn to Pierre Jalbert. Moreover, he and the orchestra proved superb collaborators for the evening’s star soloist, violinist Leila Josefowicz.


In the concert’s centerpiece, Josefowicz, also Canadian-born, gave an extraordinary performance of Prokofiev’s lyrical and rugged Violin Concerto No. 1. The great violinist Joseph Szigeti once noted that the concerto mixed “fairy-tale naiveté and daring savagery.” Josefowicz caught both qualities in this ethereal and gripping account. Throughout, Kuerti and orchestra remained sensitively tied to her warm-toned playing, making the melodically luxurious finale especially memorable.

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s Overture, Scherzo and Nocturne from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Kuerti, who was a violin soloist himself before he took up conducting, magically conveyed the composer’s fanciful conception. The jaunty Scherzo marvelously contrasted with a Nocturne appropriately slumbering (in the play, Oberon has ordered Puck to restore order while everyone sleeps) but never soporific.

After intermission came Jalbert’s “Les espaces infinis” (“The Infinite Spaces”), composed in 2001. Jalbert, an American who grew up in Vermont, was the orchestra’s composer-in-residence from 2002-05. His composition, illuminated here by concertmaster Margaret Batjer’s sweet tone, usually lasts 11 minutes. Kuerti’s interpretation clocked in at closer to nine, creating a more urgent effect. The music seems to be ever striving and searching. It’s Jalbert’s version of Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question.” It is tonal, only slightly dissonant, and in Kuerti’s rendering beautifully balanced with an exquisite feeling for orchestral color.

Kuerti’s account of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 proved structurally sturdy and clear, but slightly on the heavy side. More buoyancy would have been welcome in the finale, more charm in the rustic trio of the Menuetto. Still, the classical rigor of Kuerti’s analytical approach was bracing.

The program repeats Sunday at 7 p.m. in Royce Hall on UCLA’s campus.

-- Rick Schultz