Kevin Puts’ new Piano Concerto, which the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra commissioned and performed Sunday evening at UCLA's Royce Hall, puts on a good show. A young American composer with an ear for glittery textures, Puts did what he could to please an audience. And he did what he could to make things impossible for Jeffrey Kahane, the orchestra's music director, who conducted from the keyboard.
Titled "Night," the concerto is in three connected movements during which busy day leads to an evening of meditative self-reflection and then the fanciful midnight hour. Out of the utopia of the night, as the composer, 36, described it during a pre-concert discussion, animals start scurrying.
A concerto intended to be conducted by the soloist calls for modesty. "Night" begins innocently, with a pulse in the keyboard and lovely figuration. But before long, the pianist needs more hands than nature provides. The solo writing is virtuosic. Kahane lunged for the keys and lunged at the orchestra to give cues. Percussion lent a helping hand, clanking away at the pulse now and then. The concertmaster, Margaret Batjer, conducted when she could as well.
There are very nice things in "Night." Each movement starts out well, with the piano defying the pulse in interesting fashion. The middle one begins as a dreamy nocturne, a fantasy around off-center descending scales, each note treated by Kahane as a small pearl. The piano writing glistens. But each movement becomes increasingly derivative as it progresses.
In the busy passages of "Dies Irae," the opening, Prokofiev never seems far away, and Rachmaninoff comes to the rescue in a swelling climax. For the syncopated finale, called "Midnight Toccata," John Adams' "Grand Pianola Music" showed the way.
Kahane is the main selling point for the concerto. A champion of Puts, particularly in Denver, where he is music director of the Colorado Symphony, Kahane exhibited the kind of good cheer Sunday that no audience can resist.
The concert began with Handel's Concerto Grosso in F from the Opus 6 set, conducted by Batjer, and ended with a brilliant reading of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. Things are looking up for LACO. Earlier this year, the orchestra made its first European tour in 30 years. It concluded its 11th season under Kahane on Sunday with playing on a uniformly high level.
Beethoven's descriptive ideas for the "Pastoral" were not clever -- a day in the woods, a babbling brook, prancing peasants, a thunderstorm and the clearing of the clouds. Nearly as hyperactive here as he was in the concert, Kahane emphasized visceral playing and bright colors. As had been the case all evening, the orchestra seemed to have no agenda other than to provide immediate pleasure, and the "Pastoral" burst with life. But Beethoven always had something up his sleeve, and so did Kahane.
Perhaps because he's a pianist too, Kahane the conductor has a special way with Beethoven. He articulates very clearly. He doesn't exaggerate. He relies on a beautiful tone to draw the ear. Underneath, he creates a flow that subtly prepares a listener for spiritual revelations to come.
That was the case with this "Pastoral." The last movement emerges as a glowing hymn to nature, which Kahane illuminated with such warmth that the glow lingered as an afterglow. Puts' utopian night is made of inner thoughts that last as long as the music. Beethoven's utopian day encompasses the Earth and felt eternal.