Musicians usually let the music do the talking, but during the first half of the concert Sunday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Jeffrey Kahane, in his 20th and final season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, took a copy of the Constitution from his coat pocket and quoted from the 1st Amendment.
Coming a day after the women’s marches in the nation’s capital, in Los Angeles and beyond, Kahane’s gesture — judging by the audience’s applause — was well-timed. The same could be said for his two-week “Lift Every Voice” series of concerts and events, which began Jan. 14 by celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with L.A.-based choruses and choirs singing hymns and spirituals at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.
“Lift Every Voice” was inspired by two German Jewish émigrés, composer Kurt Weill and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who defied injustice and oppression. The series reached its midpoint Sunday with a daylong symposium at UCLA followed by the Royce Hall concert featuring works by Weill and the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s violin concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent” with soloist Daniel Hope, also an outspoken political activist.
Kahane noted the size of the Washington demonstration and added, “We must not, cannot and will not remain silent.”
After a standing ovation, Kahane and the ensemble gave a riveting account of Adolphe’s concerto, a dramatic musical portrait inspired by the life of Prinz. The first movement conveyed a visceral sense of the unease and terror of living in Berlin during the Nazi era. Hope’s violin, representing Prinz, at times struggled to be heard but stayed strong.
The concerto’s second movement evoked the America of the civil rights era. Initially reminiscent of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ pastoral “The Lark Ascending,” the music soon enough shifted to turbulent jazz-like riffs from the brasses, conveying the return of injustice and the urgent need for individuals to speak up.
Hope’s rich, sometimes grainy violin sonority became an eloquently imploring voice of reason, celebrating the significance of even a single voice. No wonder the score became the seed of Kahane’s “Lift Every Voice” project some two years ago.
Kahane and the ensemble opened the concert with the U.S. premiere of Weill’s “Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra,” also featuring Hope as soloist. The six songs, seamlessly arranged by Paul Bateman and performed without a break, included “Havana Song” from “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” “My Ship” from “Lady in the Dark” and “Mack the Knife” from “The Threepenny Opera.”
Combining the cabaret lightness and big-band excitement of these delightful song arrangements with just the right amount of schmaltz, Kahane and company certainly put listeners in a good mood. That may be partly why Kahane’s political remarks fared so well. But the comments also came from a personal place: His mother shared Weill’s and Prinz’s story, fleeing tyranny and becoming a politically engaged American. It took a music director who has forged a deep connection to his audience over the years to inspire the way Kahane did on Sunday night.
After intermission, soprano Storm Large also inspired, embodying the two Annas in “The Seven Deadly Sins” by Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Known for her work with Pink Martini and other bands, Large dazzled a late-night crowd with this piece at the Ojai Music Festival in 2014. While other singers capture the country innocence, few can also put across the split-personality character’s urban decadence as convincingly as Large. Props were minimal. The vocal quartet Hudson Shad acted as a Greek chorus.
In keeping with the night’s aura of defiance, Large took a pink knitted cat-eared hat out of her handbag, briefly donning it during the “Wrath” section of “Seven Deadly Sins.” She returned for an encore, her own composition “Stand Up for Me,” a stirring anthem to love, accompanied with passion and some misty eyes by Kahane and the ensemble.
Next up is the series’ grand finale, two performances at Royce Hall on Saturday and Sunday of Weill’s last work for the stage, “Lost in the Stars."
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