Ray Chen and the LA Philharmonic Reinvigorate the Traditional

Photograph taken by Farah Sosa ​at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

The LA Phil’s February 4th program could best be described as (un)traditional. The selections take traditional source material and reimagine them through a lens of variation and innovation.

The conductor for the evening, Matthias Pintscher, who is also a well-known composer and music director of Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC), has long been a supporter of new and emerging music, so it is no surprise that the performance opens with a piece composed in 2014 by Olga Neuwirth, called “Masaot/Clocks Without Hands.” The piece exposes the arbitrariness of measured time through multiple overlaid metronome-like beats that disappear and reappear, made even more confusing by the seeming invisibility of wood blocks that construe the clicks. The rolodex of time signatures and primordial, swirling mass of strings engender an engulfing sense of disorientation and the seeming inability to mechanistically mark time. Weaved between the dramatic swells and crashes and air of disquietude are musical snapshots of Neuwirth’s grandfather’s multiethnic refugee life, traditional tunes stitched into a modern sonic quilt.

In comparison to the opening piece, Mendelssohn’s immensely popular “Violin Concerto in E Minor” seems as conventional as it gets. However, at the time of its composition, it pioneered several musical choices that are now commonly accepted, such as the almost immediate entrance of the soloist, the placement of the cadenza in the middle of the first movement instead of at the end, and the way all three movements are played without a break in between.

The star of the evening, Taiwanese Australian violinist Ray Chen is also a pioneer in his own right, using his platform on social media to make classical music more relevant and engaging, especially to younger audiences, through videos that are equal parts goofy and stunningly virtuosic. In a collaboration video with TwoSet Violin, Chen is woken up unceremoniously and is asked to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in the middle of the night, disheveled and groggy, but he does so nearly perfectly, to the half-awake shock of TwoSet. (Though, the Mendelssohn is such a staple in the violin repertoire that many a violinist has joked that they can play it in their sleep.) Unfiltered content like this flies in the face of performative professionalism in the classical world and is a refreshing offstage showcase of Chen’s airtight practice regimen.

When Chen performed the “Violin Concerto in E Minor” with the LA Philharmonic (not in pajamas, thankfully), he did so with great lucidity and musicianship. In Chen’s hands, the opening is particularly tantalizing, and as a result, the arrival at the first set of runs is that much more satisfying. There is a forward momentum about his playing, the tight vibrato and sustained notes weaving a taut, directed thread that Mendelssohn encourages with the continuous transition between movements. The intensity of this momentum was dialed down but not done away with in the lyrical passages, transforming into more of an intention than a resolute conviction. In the second movement, Chen filled every note with adoration, but at times, the phrasing of each individual note superseded that of the longer sentences and evoked the feeling of being tugged along an undulating surface. The sprightly third movement allowed Chen’s playfulness to shine through, taking the audience on a joyride to the grand finish.

To acknowledge the audience’s enthusiastic reception, Chen returned onstage for an encore, but not before putting on his thickest Aussie accent, giving a shoutout to his fellow Australians in the audience and introducing the rather tragic backstory of the iconic song “Waltzing Matilda.” Chen is a masterful storyteller, captivating both as a speaker and a violinist, and his rendition captured the emotional poignancy of the story through variations on the theme of the folk song. Many classical greats are referenced in this rendition; one of the variations is reminiscent of Bach’s solo violin works, another one has Mozartian sensibilities, and yet another is most definitely based on Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro. It would have been easy to render it a kitschy parody of classical styles, but it had almost the opposite effect. In contrast to the stateliness of the classically-inspired variations, the original variation sticks out like a country bumpkin at a fine ball. In a way, it represents Chen’s style: eloquent with a refreshing splash of playfulness.

Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ “Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor” completed a program that explores traditionality and innovation. Despite being best known for trailblazing 12-tone composition, he composed a fair amount of tonal works and was grounded in Classical and even Baroque forms. He also very much admired Brahms, whom many see as a paragon of tradition. While Brahms did focus his sights on making “pure” music that drew on the legacy of the Classical era, Schoenberg argued that Brahms was an innovator in his own right in his lectures, “Brahms the Progressive.”

Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’ “Piano Quartet No. 1” in 1937 was a request from then-LA Philharmonic Music Director Otto Klemperer, and his intentions in scoring the piece were to resolve the balance issues created by overbearing pianists in the original version and to remain faithful to Brahms’ style. This was accomplished so convincingly that Klemperer lauded the piece, and even Schoenberg half-jokingly referred to the arrangement as “Brahms’ 5th Symphony.” The arrangement embraces its symphonic proportions right up until the end of the last movement, where a passage featuring a string trio allows the intimacy of a chamber performance to emerge for a brief moment. In the first movement, the strings and the winds passed the thematic variations back and forth in a dialogue that would get heated but never antagonistic. The second oscillated between furtive minor passages and reassuring major ones that led into a more jovial animato section. The theme of the fourth movement, Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto, could fit right into Brahms’ collection of Hungarian Dances. Schoenberg’s modern touch is especially noticeable at the prominent xylophone parts, but it does not stop the rousing finale from evoking the excitement of heading home, that extra dose of adrenaline surging from the orchestra as Pintscher loosened the reins just a tad. Who said tradition had to be boring?

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