Before conducting the Colburn Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night, across the street from the newly renamed Colburn Way (one block of 2nd Street), the renowned British conductor Neville Marriner was handed the Richard D. Colburn Award in a small ceremony on stage. Marriner was the first music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which Richard D. Colburn, Los Angeles' legendary music benefactor, helped bankroll.
The concert was presented by the Colburn School in honor of the centenary of its founder, who died at 92 in 2004. With impeccable British understatement, Marriner, in accepting the award, praised the school — which trains musicians of all ages and also houses one of the nation's leading conservatories — for being "a remarkable memorial to an unusual personality."
Marriner himself provided the perfect memorial to Colburn with an aptly expressive but never overstated performance of Elgar's "Enigma Variations." The piece colorfully commemorates 11 unusual personalities with frightfully apt musical descriptions of little character quirks.
Colburn was just such a character. He had strong, cranky opinions, and nearly every conversation I had with him ended in a droll, absurd argument. He married often. He was insanely generous, especially when it came to music education. Los Angeles would have less of a music scene, and the world far fewer musicians, were it not for Colburn.
Before Elgar's "Enigma," the Colburn Orchestra's music director, Yehuda Gilad, led Rossini's "William Tell" Overture and Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. Mayumi Kanagawa, a 17-year-old student at the Crossroads School and an academy student at Colburn, was the confident, impressive soloist making her Disney Hall debut. She demonstrated a magnificent full tone, a startling sense of long lyrical lines and a rhythmic fearlessness in the fast Finale. She could go far.
But Gilad emphasized correctness over any real interpretation. Rossini remained four-square, and Barber, literal. Balances were not always well-gauged for Disney's forward acoustics. Some children seated behind the orchestra bounced when the "Lone Ranger" theme came in, and that was a good sign. But a real rhythmic spark, which I had also found missing when this orchestra attempted Stravinsky early in the season, wasn't there. Could it be that these conservatory students still require much musical hand-holding?
Not when Marriner, who turned 88 a week earlier and who seemed the youngest and liveliest musician on the stage, took over for the "Enigma." Here the Colburn Orchestra came to gratifying life.
It might have been tempting on a sentimental occasion to sentimentalize or otherwise overdo Elgar's vividly nostalgic evocation of a London society. But Elgar, from evidence of his 1926 recording, went in for no nonsense. The famous "Nimrod" variation was not yet a tear-jerker, although Elgar did make a do of it in his performance.
Marriner, like Elgar, kept tempos brisk. He relished but didn't savor affectionate instrumental details. And the orchestra jumped to the challenge.
Gilad is a noted clarinet pedagogue, and that may account for just how good the winds sounded. Colburn was a string man — he owned and lent celebrated violins and was an amateur violist. I don't think he would have been disappointed by the suave and frisky string playing. A strong-willed timpanist was a plus. Principal cellist Estelle Choi's solo in the B.G.N. variation (a depiction of a cellist) was rapt.
Colburn would, of course, have been gratified by the way the concert opened with a string orchestra of young children in the Colburn Suzuki program. In three kiddie-arranged works, tiny violinists, violists and cellists won hearts.
But this might be the place to mention that along with hearts, minds are necessary in music. On a recent trip to Caracas I was struck by how Venezuela children learn and proudly take to real music. The UCLA elementary school taught kids far more modern music than anything heard at Disney on Sunday as far back as the 1930s.
And what about a new piece to honor Richard Colburn's legacy? He wasn't a particular fan of new music, but he nonetheless signed checks to a progressive CalArts and a venturesome Los Angeles Philharmonic. The Colburn School has no composition program, and without composers no way to connect students with the creative impulses of their own time. For that, they have to leave school and walk up Colburn Way to Disney.