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Rhythmically complex world premiere leads off LACO's new season

Rhythmically complex world premiere leads off LACO's new season
Jeffrey Kahane, shown conducting a Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert last fall, led the ensemble in its season opening concert of Derrick Spiva, Beethoven and Schubert on Saturday night. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

There is no September break in the classical concert season in Los Angeles anymore, no space for music lovers to recharge.

Two days after the Los Angeles Philharmonic vacated the Hollywood Bowl, LA Opera got going. One week later, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's season started at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Saturday night. The beat goes on.

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If memory serves, Jeffrey Kahane and LACO followed the pattern of last year's season-opener -- opening with a world premiere inspired by foreign lands and cultures and closing with standard-issue Beethoven. And once again, the new piece was something to savor.

Derrick Spiva, 32, who seems comfortable crossing back and forth between Western and non-Western music systems, came up with a stimulating fusion called "Prisms, Cycles, Leaps" that tried to adapt complex Ghanaian drumming and North Indian Hindustani and Balkan melodic lines for a Western orchestra.

At the pre-concert lecture, a team of five percussionists from the Zadonu African Music and Dance Company gave early birds an exciting, head-bobbing demonstration of some of the polyrhythms.

Looking at the score, with several different rhythmic patterns trying to co-exist on any given page, it must have been a challenge for even the expert LACO players; indeed, Spiva said that he had to re-notate some passages to make them easier to read.

The piece also has a doozy of a coda in which the instruments either slide upward from the bottom of their ranges to the top or repeat notes as fast as possible for exactly 14 seconds.

In hearing "Prisms," I thought of Steve Reich -- whose early music also draws upon Ghanaian drumming -- with its recycling cells and overlapping rhythms, and of Alan Hovhaness' controlled chance methods in which players repeat patterns freely. Sometimes all of those clashing rhythms seemed to cancel each other out when heard in orchestral form. Yet most crucially, Spiva's piece was enormous fun to listen to.

The other attention-grabbing aspect of the concert was the West Coast debut of Michael Barenboim, 29, who happens to be the concertmaster of his father Daniel Barenboim's political boundary-smashing West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

He played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with a very serious expression on his face, sporting a thin tone quality (in the dry Alex acoustics, at least) offset by a good sense of the line, becoming more subdued in manner the further he went.

Barenboim's own weighty cadenzas -- works-in-progress, he has said -- turned out to be the most memorable feature of the performance, loaded with multi-stopped chords and trills. He added the Largo from J.S. Bach's Sonata No. 3 as an encore.

In between these bookends, Kahane gave an impassioned introductory speech about Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" -- and if words could inspire a performance, these might have, for the first movement had throbbing, ominous mystery and beautiful playing at bracingly fast tempos.

The LACO is in prime mid-season form already.

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