Music review: Michael Stern makes impressive Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra debut

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The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s program at the Alex Theatre on Saturday night was called “Spotlight on LACO,” a family affair. Concertos by Copland and Schumann featured the ensemble’s principal players. But music director Jeffrey Kahane, sidelined by mononucleosis and infectious hepatitis, was replaced by Michael Stern, and the spot was redirected.

Born in 1959 and in his sixth season as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, Stern is little known in Los Angeles. As a student, he participated in Leonard Bernstein’s Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute in the early ‘80s and more recently conducted the student Colburn Orchestra. For what it’s worth (quite a bit, in fact), he is Isaac Stern’s son. He gets around: He has had chief-conductor and principal and permanent guest-conductor gigs in Germany and France; he founded the IRIS Orchestra in Germantown, Tenn.

More importantly, Stern gets around musically. Unlike any local maestros, he has championed California’s first great composer, Henry Cowell. Had Saturday’s clarinet concerto been L.A. composer Stephen Hartke’s rather than Copland’s, that would have been fine; Stern has recorded it. His recent recording of oboe concertos by the neglected Italian modernist Bruno Maderna is worth rushing out to buy if you can find it.

So it came as little surprise that Stern happened to know all the music on Kahane’s varied program, including Osvaldo Golijov’s tango-inspired “Last Round”; Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade”; and “Mozart’s Hymn,” by Daniel Kellogg, a young composer who teaches at the University of Colorado. Stern even has a Kellogg commission for his Kansas City band in the works. Stern brings the young Zubin Mehta to mind. He has a dynamic stick technique that commands rather than coaxes. Attacks are sharp and aggressive. Rhythms are clean and propulsive. He knows his way to a climax.


Kellogg’s nine-minute Mozart mix for strings (the violins and violas played standing) is a rapturous -- maybe a little too rapturous -- stringing of tremulous high-string prettiness, sweet harmonies and gossamer textures like Christmas lights around Mozart’s transcendent “Ave Verum Corpus.” The ending was sentimental. This is music with a pretty face, and that should have been enough.

The concert moved backward in history. “Mozart’s Hymn” dates from 2006. Golijov’s “Last Round,” for two string quartets and bass, was written a decade earlier. There is a tango fight and more rapture but also more pathos and less refined sugar. Stern took a tough, tango-means-business-in-Buenos-Aires-back-alleys approach, and it was gripping.

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with LACO principal clarinetist Joshua Ranz as the edgy, exciting soloist, was also unusually hard-edged for a work tailored to Benny Goodman. A slow pastoral beginning, strings and harp backing maybe the mellowest clarinet melody since Mozart, leads to swing.

Perhaps Stern merely followed Ranz’s lead, turning the concerto into so sprightly a virtuoso vehicle (Goodman was more casual). But Stern’s father, after recording Copland’s equally restrained Violin Sonata with the composer as pianist, tried unsuccessfully to talk Copland into writing a livelier concerto for violin -– something maybe closer to Saturday’s approach to the Clarinet Concerto.

In the second half, Wolf’s short, insignificant serenade was prelude to Schumann’s long, too significant Cello Concerto with Andrew Shulman as soloist. Shulman joined LACO after an unhappy trial year as principal cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where there was said to have been personality problems between him and the cello section.

A big ego, however, is handy for this concerto, a late work that shows signs of Schumann’s decline. The performance was technically and musically capable, but I sensed little chemistry between soloist and conductor; the performance sagged as performances of the concerto often do.

This was probably a job for Kahane. But there is also a job for Stern hereabouts. He is someone we should be seeing more of.

-- Mark Swed