It would be hard to find a program grimmer than the one Jaime Martín led last April, his first official concert after signing on to lead the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “Voy a Dormir” — Bryce Dessner’s adaptation of Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni’s work — was searching and poignant. It was also the poet’s last work before she drowned herself. The night’s other piece, Mozart’s “Requiem,” is a crowd-pleaser, but it was commissioned to mark the death of a count’s young wife.
“It was funny to have a program about death right before we start a new life as an orchestra,” Martín, who did not select the pieces, said a few months later.
He admitted to being a bit daunted by this maiden voyage: Would the players trust him? Would this marriage work? But his conducting was confident enough to provoke strong reviews and rapturous applause.
Martín, 54, is hoping to pull off a similar trick leading LACO, which spent two decades under the widely admired Jeffrey Kahane. A Spaniard living in London with ties to several European groups, Martín is personally forceful — funny, given to engaging tangents and built like a bull. He’s also an optimist by temperament. Martín brings to LACO an enthusiasm and idealism about music.
“I think there is less anxiety,” he said, sitting in jeans and a black T-shirt in the group’s downtown offices, reflecting on the state of classical music these days. Back when he was a young musician, “People were worried about the health of classical music.” Hand-wringing, he recalled, about the “graying” of the audience was typically followed by pleas to attract younger audiences. But Martín, who has a touch of gray himself, said people arrive at classical music at different stages of their lives. He thinks of his sons, both around 20. “They want to be dancing to pop music and drinking gin and tonics,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean in a few years it won’t be for them.”
It took Martín little time to fall hard for classical music. When he was 9, his father took him to a concert of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. “And that was it.”
As a student, he became aware of the musical energy in California, starting with a childhood recording of Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
“Los Angeles for me was not only a city of palm trees and Muscle Beach,” he said. “It was also the city of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mehta, Salonen ...”
He heard about the L.A. Chamber Orchestra through his years as principle flute with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the prestigious English chamber orchestra whose founder, Neville Marriner, was founding music director of the L.A. group.
Before starting to conduct seriously, Martín worked with some of the world’s finest exemplars — Abbado, Solti, Harnoncourt, Giulini. He learned from all of them over the years, describing himself as “a cocktail of influences.”
“I was always fascinated by how the orchestra could sound different with different conductors,” he said. Martín himself, if he stays long enough, will change the sound of LACO. (He’s signed for three seasons.) The group’s concertmaster, Margaret Batjer, called him “an incredibly generous musician” who demands the best from the group. She expects a renewed emphasis on the woodwinds and his coaxing of a “beautiful, rich, warm tone” from the strings.
Andrew Norman, the celebrated Angeleno who recently completed a stint as LACO composer-in-residence, hears in Martín’s conducting a flute player’s attention to line and phrasing, different from pianist Kahane’s focus on harmony. Martín’s extroverted, physical style, Norman said, draws committed playing from the musicians.
“It’s instantly communicative, not just to the musicians but to the audience,” he said. “It’s a physical picture of the music.”
During his visit last spring, Martín seemed especially excited about meeting Norman as well as Ellen Reid, the recent Pulitzer winner and LACO’s next composer-in-residence, and Mexican composer Juan Pablo Contreras.
“What has surprised me about Los Angeles is the level of the new music, and the composers,” Martín said.
Norman said he thinks Martín likes music “that has a spark of expressiveness, a clarity. Some conductors, if they have backgrounds in composition, often have an abstract approach to notes and pitches. Jaime is much more visceral.”
Martín seems to want to steer a middle course, emphasizing contemporary music without rejecting the canon, seeking out Southland culture while also bringing a European sensibility (and players) to LACO. His first season begins Sept. 28 with a concert featuring Anne Sofie von Otter and music by Norman, Berlioz and Beethoven.
Whether Martín fits with LACO as firmly as Kahane did will take time to tell, with a host of complicated factors. Some of it is simple, though. “I think trust is as important in music as it is in any relationship,” he said. “I think it should be the first ingredient.”
“McGegan & Denk”: Rameau, Mozart and Schubert with Nicholas McGegan conductor, Jeremy Denk piano. 8 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Also 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at Royce Hall, UCLA, 10745 Dickson Court, L.A. $28-$130.
“Pulcinella & Prokofiev”: Ravel, Mazzoli, Stravinsky and Prokofiev with Jaime Martín conductor, David Grossman double bass, 8 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Also 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Royce Hall, UCLA, 10745 Dickson Court, L.A. $28-$130.
Info: (213) 622-7001, www.laco.org
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