Concerts don’t often feel like a family gathering, but following the recent death of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violinist Katia Popov, LACO created that very setting for its 50th-anniversary season finale Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall.
Popov, who joined the ensemble in 1990 and gave her final performance with LACO at its April gala, lost a lengthy battle with cancer on Friday. At the concert Sunday, fellow violinist Connie Kupka delivered touching opening remarks, a somber but paradoxical affirmation of music not just as an escape but as an enriching, unflinching representation of life itself. From the mournful mood a memorable celebration was born.
Grant Gershon, resident conductor for Los Angeles Opera, substituted on short notice for conductor Sameer Patel and led LACO in an exuberant rendition of Derrick Spiva Jr.'s rhythmically complex "From Here a Path." The work, which had received its premiere the night before in Glendale, was the second part of his "Prisms, Cycles, Leaps." (LACO premiered the first part in 2015.)
Brilliantly reveling in Spiva's irrepressible dance rhythms inspired by the shifting meters of Ghanaian drumming, Gershon also highlighted Spiva's use of flute and piccolo, with Sandy Hughes and Diana Morgan alternately performing on each instrument. Together, they suggested celebrants in dialogue with an orchestral congregation, which included principal percussionist Wade Culbreath's rousing hand clapping.
In remarks to the audience, Spiva said that the mourning ritual in West Africa was similar to what we were experiencing that night, albeit in microcosm: a remembrance, and then life-giving music.
"Music becomes hope, medicine for us to push through the difficult times," Spiva said.
In Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, Joshua Roman, 34, a former LACO resident composer, replaced Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist. (Kanneh-Mason, 19, had been summoned to England for the royal wedding and was rescheduled with LACO for the 2019-20 season.)
With Gershon leading the orchestra, Shostakovich's somber, edgy concerto found an ideal interpreter in Roman, whose big, full-bodied tone captured the turbulent anxiety in the score with bracing authority. Roman also found room for moving eloquence, especially in the elegiac Moderato with its melancholy theme, shared with LACO principal Michael Thornton's evocative French horn.
Roman dispatched the third movement Cadenza with breathtaking clarity and natural phrasing. Just as gripping was Gershon's perfect pacing and finely balanced reading, which included close attention to inner details, such as the first movement's heartbreaking high notes from the woodwinds.
The concert, designed to spotlight the orchestra's versatility, opened with a lively account of Vivaldi's Concerto Grosso in D Minor (Op. 3, No. 11), led by concertmaster Margaret Batjer. The ensemble first performed the piece with Neville Marriner in 1969.
After intermission, the orchestra again displayed its virtuosity in Mozart's Symphony No. 39. Conductorless, the LACO musicians dashed through the composer's generally sunny score. The overdriven rendition didn't pause for much detail and nuance, foregoing Mozart's ingenious, darker woodwind colorations in favor of determined ebullience.