What does ‘crazed virtuosity’ sound like? Jennifer Koh delivers her answer with L.A. Chamber Orchestra

Soloist Jennifer Koh performs Gyorgy Ligeti's Violin Concerto at the Soraya in Northridge on Friday night — and she'll try to repeat the feat Saturday and Sunday at different venues.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Before she began Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto at the Soraya in Northridge on Friday night, soloist Jennifer Koh pounded the music stand with her fist. The stand wasn’t positioned correctly, and Koh got physical.

But Koh got even more physical during her stunning rendition of Ligeti’s 1992 masterpiece with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by guest conductor David Danzmayr.

By the time she tore her way through Ligeti’s densely textured and polyrhythmic five-movement work, which features an extravagantly complex cadenza in the finale, Koh’s violin bow seemed to have little horsehair left. Throughout, she displayed commanding strength and stamina, meeting Ligeti’s indication in the score to play with “crazed virtuosity.”


The concert represented LACO’s first regular orchestral series presentation at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts. Usually, LACO performs at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Indeed, the ensemble’s program of Korngold, Ligeti and Beethoven will be repeated Saturday night at the Alex and Sunday evening at Royce.

The Soraya has depended on touring ensembles like the Mariinsky Orchestra, but LACO presents new possibilities. Thor Steingraber, the venue’s executive director, called the concert “a momentous occasion.” Steingraber and LACO Executive Director Scott Harrison agreed that it was “a live pilot” test of locals’ reaction to, as Harrison put it, “an internationally acclaimed orchestra in their own backyard.”

Although lightly attended, the Soraya concert proved memorable and, at times, thrilling. Koh, who made an unforgettable impression performing in a wig and layers of makeup as the famous physicist in L.A. Opera’s 2013 revival of Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” handled the extreme hand and finger positions demanded by Ligeti’s score with authority and rhythmic security.

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Ligeti said his five-movement concerto was neither tonal nor atonal. In-tune and out-of-tune passages often work like jazz improvisations. There are no wrong notes, only opportunities to create wonderfully strange sonorities. Woodwind players double on ocarinas, creating odd textures and colors along with Koh’s sometimes ferocious, sometimes touchingly lyrical playing.

The concerto features a solemn chorale and bits of folk song revenants, occasionally shattered by high-pitched woodwinds or percussive explosions of orchestral sound.

Austrian conductor Danzmayr, 38, who is music director of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra in Croatia, comes to Los Angeles with some solid contemporary music credentials, including working with Pierre Boulez. He held Ligeti’s relentlessly challenging work together admirably, though the performance felt like a high-level run-through, with intensity occasionally giving way to what felt like mere assault. A fine line separates the two in Ligeti, whose sound can get under your skin.

Danzmayr and the ensemble will find a more persuasively organic feel in the composer’s ingeniously constructed, albeit odd, concerto — a seemingly wild clash of order and disorder — over the weekend.

After intermission, Danzmayr and the orchestra gave a leisurely, nicely detailed account of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral.” The bird calls at the close of the second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” featuring Claire Brazeau’s oboe, Ben Smolen’s flute and Joshua Ranz’s and Chris Stoutenborough’s clarinets in unison never fail to enchant. But Beethoven’s famous fourth movement thunderstorm sounded quaintly pictorial with Ligeti’s emotionally bracing concerto still resonating in the mind.

The curtain-raiser was Danzmayr’s light-footed account of “Straussiana,” Korngold’s 1953 homage to Johann Strauss. It was the great film composer’s last orchestral piece, a lovely and poignant look back on happier times before the Second World War turned his life upside down.

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L.A. Chamber Orchestra with Jennifer Koh

Where: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Alex Theatre, Glendale. 7 p.m. Sunday at Royce Hall, UCLA.

Tickets: $28-$130