Grim and depressing, Benjamin Britten's "Lachrymae" for viola and strings comes by its character honestly, as do comparable and contemporaneous works by Bartok. One must admire its spartan beauties and unrelenting downbeat demeanor.
At its most recent local revival, Friday night, one of the qualities that made the oft-neglected piece enjoyable, besides a sterling account from soloist Roland Kato and strong assistance from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, was the context into which conductor Jeffrey Kahane had placed it: For prelude, he asked soprano Virginia Sublett and lutenist John Schneiderman to perform the two melancholy songs by John Dowland that are quoted in "Lachrymae." And, after the piece itself, the music director programmed a work that is emotionally its polar opposite, Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto.
In listener-involvement and performer-expertise, Kahane's ideas bore fruit; one came away from this concert at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater truly touched. Sublett and Schneiderman gave pristine readings. Kato, Kahane and the orchestra unraveled Britten's intricacies eloquently.
The happy peak to this first half was Gary Gray's effortless, elegant and energetic playing of the thoughtful, joy-filled Clarinet Concerto, playing seconded idiomatically by the LACO instrumentalists. By way of encore, clarinetist Gray and pianist Kahane offered Gershwin's Three Preludes.
The post-intermission revealed a game, if sometimes shaky, performance of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony in which the ensemble seemed constantly on the edge of mishap. The total emerged respectable but unengaged. Kahane looked to be doing everything right, but one felt he had left his heart back in the first half.