The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, a collection of professional studio musicians, keeps it fresh this season by including new, young voices in its classical and cross-genre repertoire.
In last Saturday night’s show at the Alex Theatre, a superb piece by 28-year-old composer Nico Muhly was featured, as well as a brand-new mandolin concerto composed and performed by the astounding Chris Thile, also 28.
Upon hearing Muhly’s “By All Means,” a piece commissioned by the Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music, it was easy to see why Muhly is often called upon to compose film soundtracks (most notably for the Oscar-nominated “The Reader”). Its quirky textures, sudden outbursts, rich backgrounds and playful string plucks all worked together to create an interesting cohesive story, but one where each of the characters has a chance to speak.
One of the orchestra’s goals is to merge other artistic endeavors with chamber music. So I felt no guilt as imagery from literature, art and film floated through my mind, particularly during Aaron Copland’s music so beautifully conducted by Jeffrey Kahane.
During “Appalachian Spring,” I heard the words of Willa Cather, saw the paintings of Winslow Homer and pictured scenes from “Oklahoma!” The Copland piece ended with a resoluteness that reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara ripping a radish from the ground and vowing never to be hungry again. It was quintessentially American.
After intermission, Copland’s work continued with “Music for the Theatre.” Reminiscent of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and other jazz standards, this piece allowed musicians to play in styles at times bouncy, then velvety, then tender. During the final pull of a bow, it was heartbreaking as the sound faded ever so slowly into silence. The good acoustics and intimacy of the Alex Theatre were nice perks too.
Finally, Thile (rhymes with “really”) took the stage. In his capable hands, the mandolin rose from humbleness to high art. Thile mesmerized with his virtuosity. His quick fingering astonishes, but it’s his creativity and sensitivity that linger.
Thile performed this, his first orchestral concerto, with confidence and glee. The piece has a whimsical title (“Ad Astra per Alas Porci” or “To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig”), but the tone of it is rather tense and incongruent. Thile used the orchestra as a sort of calm background canvas on which to paint freestyle artwork. It was intriguing, and Thile’s oft-improvised solos were mind-blowing, but it was not exactly pleasing.
Thile reemerged for two wonderful encore solo performances, cementing his reputation for versatility. His rendition of Bach’s “Partita” was phenomenal, the mandolin sounding much like a clavichord from Bach’s time. He also treated us to an original bluegrass song, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which, naturally, made his mandolin sing.
The orchestra’s officials would be wise to continue its tradition of incorporating fresh, young cross-over talent. The evening was more than seeing live classical music. It was an exercise in artistry, vitality and imagination.
About the writer LISA DUPUY reviews live theater and entertainment in the Glendale/Burbank area. She lives in La Crescenta.