The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's concert with violinist Joshua Bell on Saturday night at the Alex Theatre in Glendale started the first season in 20 years without Jeffrey Kahane as music director, and the search is still on for his successor.
Prospective candidates like Peter Oundjian, Karina Canellakis and Thomas Dausgaard are coming back for a second look later this season, but for the opening concert, another possible contender came forth. He was Jaime Martín, 52, a Spaniard who has lived in London for the last quarter-century and is the artistic director of the symphony orchestra in Gävle, a Swedish city about the size of Santa Barbara.
Formerly a first-call flutist in London, Martín has been conducting only for five years, but he has been gaining traction quickly in Europe. On Saturday, he didn't seem to be as concerned with ensemble precision as he was with getting the curvature of a phrase shaped as gracefully as possible, using his left hand expressively. He also oozed accented charm as he told the audience about the Brahms Serenade No. 1, which doesn't get played as often as it perhaps should.
But first, after a rattling rendition of Mozart's Overture to "The Abduction From the Seraglio," came LACO's nod to the Leonard Bernstein centennial being celebrated around the world (including at the L.A. Master Chorale concert the previous weekend).
The LACO program included Bernstein's marvelous Serenade (1954), which is actually a de facto violin concerto. Bernstein may have devised an elaborate program for the Serenade as a depiction of Plato's Symposium on love, but it is really another example of how resourceful a recycler he was. A good deal of the material for the first, second and fifth movements came from Five Anniversaries (1949-51), a set of short piano pieces dedicated to dear friends of his, sometimes inserted nearly verbatim into the Serenade. I think Bernstein's use of these musical portraits are personal statements of love that are more interesting to us than the Platonic references.
Bell made a good, characterful Sony recording of the Serenade with David Zinman and the Philharmonia of London in 2001, one of the better versions issued since Bernstein's death. At the Alex, though, some precious mannerisms crept into his interpretation, disrupting the line, and neither Bell nor Martín could quite get the jazzy swagger of the finale as well as Bell did in 2001. Yet Bell was at his formidable best in the tiny bustling scherzo, hitting the notes in an often barely audible whisper, and cutting loose in the finale's rambunctious coda.
It was in the Brahms Serenade that Martín showed what he could really do — producing a flowing, swaying rhythm in the first scherzo and rugged power in the Beethovenian scherzo, coaxing lovely phrasing from the winds in the fourth movement, sometimes letting the baton dangle from his left hand (a throwback to Bernstein) as he shaped the music with his right. And the orchestra's playing grew sharper and more responsive the further it went into the piece.
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