The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has a new logo, a new and boisterous Spanish music director, some fresh and young faces in the audience, an aura of excitement about the direction of the institution — and a dark cloud overhead.
Sunday night at Royce Hall, Jaime Martín’s first program in his new post was dynamite. He took no half measures. He had the orchestra members stand (with the obvious exception of the cellos) for the premiere of Andrew Norman’s jump-for-joy welcoming “Begin,” a LACO commission with the quality of Stravinsky for a new age. The orchestra also stood for a riotously physical, bull-in-the-china-shop-exhilarating performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that also could be mistaken at times for Stravinsky for a new age.
In between, the orchestra sat, lest it get between the Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and her hauntingly exquisite expression in Berlioz’s song cycle “Les nuits d’été.” “When the new season comes,” these songs for a summer’s night began appropriately enough, it was time to gather lily of the valley.
Was it that time? It seemed so Sunday, but with questions. Everything about this concert bespoke a promise for LACO. Martín may have seemed a curious choice at first. The longtime principal flutist of the British chamber orchestra Academy of St Martin in the Fields was a recent convert to conducting and thus far lesser known in the U.S. Martín was, after all, picked over much more obvious candidates such as Karina Canellakis and Matthias Pintscher.
Martín’s great selling point was his oomph. He conducts as though he is dancing with the players. Not dancing on the podium but reaching out to the musicians as partners and even encouraging them to take the lead. Sometimes it’s a mass stomp. Visceral is how he is described over and over again. It’s infectious music making. He seems to be having a blast. The musicians seem to be having a blast. The audience is invited to the party.
There is plenty of adventure in the coming season. “Begin” was Norman’s farewell piece as LACO composer-in-residence, a post now going to Ellen Reid, another Angeleno composer grabbing headlines. Next week the orchestra hosts what it calls a Session, which will feature cutting-edge new music from Christopher Rountree and his new music band Wild Up in collaboration with the avant-garde theater troupe Four Larks at the Pico Union Project downtown.
Outreach seems to be working. LACO’s Royce Hall concerts have not been magnets for students. But this time clusters of young people were taking selfies in front of Royce, finding their seats with the eagerness of attending a pop concert and marvelously whooping it up at the end.
All of this has the fingerprints of Scott Harrison, who appointed Martín and had been brought in to modernize LACO exactly in this way. But he suddenly stepped down last spring, the press release said to spend more time as a board member of BLUME Haiti, an inspiring orchestral and leadership training program. Harrison now is listed as a senior advisor to LACO, while board members are running the orchestra until a new executive director is named.
No one is talking, and the lack of transparency is inevitably leading to speculation that LACO has gotten cold feet or at least something went amiss just when momentum was building. You also could say that transparency, musically speaking, isn’t exactly Martín’s thing either. He goes in for a big, full sound that knocks your socks off and then might start knocking other things around too. As for momentum, though, no problem there.
Norman’s eight-minute “Begin” did begin with transparency. A ping of the note D here and toot or bowed D there. The Ds piled up. The rhythm built to a beat, playing off Beethoven’s Seventh, a revolutionary symphony of rhythm. Dappled orchestral colors dazzled and “Begin” began to take off.
It got bouncy, then it moved into big, broad scales in different sections, and finally the whole orchestra was rowdily banging out the rhythm. “Begin” began as one kind of wow music and ended as another kind. Meanwhile, Martín, forgoing a baton, was all wow all the time. His hands as fists opening when the textures expanded, he looked like he was not so much conducting but grasping the score. We’re sure to be hearing “Begin” again. And again.
The clouds then descended with Berlioz’s song cycle. The lovers’ gathering of lily turns dark with death and lament, the specter of a rose as a tomb stuck to a lover’s breast, the cemetery on a moonlit night. Finally a vision of beauty on a far-off shore appeared.
Von Otter is 64. A quarter-century ago she made a reserved yet radiant recording of the songs with James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic. Her voice has inevitably hardened. Simultaneously for a singer of her insight, her interpretation has inevitably deepened. She’s still reserved, and she knows the pockets in her voice where radiance doesn’t disappear. Martín served her, in awe.
The Beethoven symphony started out heavy and slow. The orchestra sounded twice its size. Martín told the audience he was conducting with Neville Marriner’s baton, given to him by the conductor’s widow shortly after his death. Marriner was the founding conductor of Academy of St Martin in the Fields and LACO. It was also Marriner who encourged his St Martin in the Fields flutist to conduct in the first place. Martín told the audience he had been saving the baton for this performance.
The heaviness of the first two movements, the second near funereal, gave the impression of a great weight on Martín’s shoulders, that of Marriner’s shadow. Then it began to lift in the buoyant, yet still weighty, scherzo followed by the Finale as I’ve never heard it before.
Martín turned LACO into a Lamborghini. The tempo became ridiculously fast. Brass and winds beat out syncopations as though every left turn were a right turn. To mix metaphors, the bull finished with the china shop and hit the highway for more wow.
Under Martín, LACO is off on a wild and maybe wonderful ride. At the moment it’s a self-driving Lambo.
Who knows? Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to keep the adults out of the room for a while.