Photo Credit: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performs at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on April 1, 2023. (Brian Feinzimer / Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra)
The program for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s (LACO) concerts in the first weekend of April highlights pieces from four Jewish composers. While these pieces span across multiple periods of classical music, they all represented a sort of turning point musically, socially, or personally.
The performance was held at Alex Theatre, an eye-catching Art Deco building with Greek and Egyptian influences. Originally built for vaudeville shows and silent movies, the venue is now a hub for classic films, dance performances, and concerts of all genres, but especially of the classical music variety. The two-story design of the theater means that your listening (and viewing) experience will be quite different depending on your choice of seating. Sit too close to the front and you’ll be able to hear individual string players, but you won’t be able to see the brass and winds. Further back, under the balcony, the sound is better blended, though you lose a bit of the full sonic impact. It’s no Disney Concert Hall, but the historic venue still draws world-class musicians and allows for more intimate performances.
Arnold Schoenberg, best known for pioneering the 12-tone harmony which solidified modern music’s departure from tonal centers, was also a very close friend of George Gershwin, another pioneering composer, but with a very different style. The pair would often play tennis together at Gershwin’s Hollywood mansion, and while their musical styles were drastically different, Gershwin admired Schoenberg and tried (unsuccessfully) to take lessons from him. Schoenberg also held Gershwin in the highest regard, and, despite their friendship only lasting for a year before Gershwin’s death, Schoenberg gave an effusive speech for the younger composer’s memorial broadcast. “Music, to [Gershwin], was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel and music was the feeling he expressed.” Jaime Martin, music director of the LACO and conductor for the evening, shared that this program was partly inspired by the unlikely friendship between the two composers. He also likened the expressiveness of the second Chamber Symphony to Mahler’s Adagietto, also included later in the program.
Martin led the orchestra in a lush yet tender reading of the Adagio from the second Chamber Symphony, bringing out the rich harmonies that wrap around the dotted eighth-note motif. In the more agitated second (and final) movement, thematic material was ping-ponged rapidly across different sections of the orchestra, and while there were often long melodic lines, the rhythmic intricacies, syncopated attacks, and frequent time changes gave the movement a sense of disorientation.
The highlight of the evening was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which featured acclaimed South Korean pianist Hyejin Kim and the original jazz band instrumentation. Gershwin is a unique figure in classical music, his jazz sensibilities and knack for creating catchy tunes colliding with the symphonic tradition to produce some of the most recognizable and oft-performed works in the classical repertoire. Yet, for much of his career, he was dismissed as “just a Broadway composer,” fit for producing show tunes but not serious symphonic works. Rhapsody in Blue was premiered in New York in 1924 as part of a program called “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which was meant to legitimize jazz to predominantly white classical music patrons. But there were also aspects of the piece that defied norms for classical pieces. For one, the original jazz band orchestration had an unconventional instrumentation (including a banjo), and instead of following a traditional symphonic form where themes undergo extensive development, the piece cycles through five main themes with limited development and inter-thematic connective tissue.
Hyejin performed with fluidity and poise, yet her playing also exuded playful exuberance. The freedom of her playing gave the melodic lines an improvisatory feeling. Contrary to the strictly in-time nature of jazz, Hyejin’s tasteful applications of rubato (freedom of tempo) and her melodically-driven phrasing drew heavily from classical norms. When the orchestra was playing on full blast, the piano receded into the bombast, but in the multiple cadenzas, Hyejin’s refined virtuosity was on full display.
It’s rare to see a single, orphaned movement of a symphony on the professional orchestral programs, but Martin prepended the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony onto Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”) as if it were the zeroth movement. The delicate, songlike Adagietto transitioned smoothly into the quiet, hymnal opening of the Mendelssohn symphony, which was written to commemorate the establishment of the Protestant faith. Martin led the orchestra in a riveting rendition of the symphony. In the first movement, the quotations from the “Dresden Amen,” an ascending, liturgical motif widely sung at mass during the late 18th century, were treated with the utmost reverence. In the stormier, almost Beethovenian development section, the strings played the fast, 16th-note passages with an intensity that kept listeners on the edge of their seats. The Allegro Vivace was at once stately and buoyant, while the third movement had an air of despair, every note sustained to the very end. The vigorous last movement, built around another popular hymn, flowed with invigorating momentum and tight phrasing, ending with an extended, over-the-top cadence.
In Martin’s capable hands (or rather, baton), the LACO and soloist Hyejin Kim found coherence and clarity in a unique program featuring all-Jewish composers.