By Rodney Punt
LOS ANGELES – Record high temperatures ushered in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s new season at UCLA’s Royce Hall, a serendipitous synching with the evocative climate zones of Prisms, Cycles, Leaps by composer Derrick Spiva, in a world premiere opener performance on Sept. 20. The event coincided exactly with the digital release of the same work, on the Orenda label, by a group called Bridge To Everywhere.
The L.A.–based Spiva, who trained at UCLA and Cal Arts, is enjoying a weeklong residency with LACO through New Music USA’s “Music Alive” grant program. His Prisms, Cycles, Leaps embraces the modernist techniques of his teachers (a who’s who of local talent), but its character is derived from Spiva’s incorporation of diverse elements of folk music traditions from West Africa, India, Persia, and the Balkans.
The 14-minute work left a beguiling impression of exotic colors and rhythms that included hand clapping in the percussion section and, across the stage, from two violinists. A throbbing pulse, de rigueur these days, fused together the bevy of irregular meters and the sometimes over-spiced aural mélange. After the boisterous first section, suggesting an African take on Copland’s El Salon México, the mood slackened in the second, with LACO’s sinewy double reeds evoking a kind of Hindustani hypnosis. The final section briefly refreshed the intensity before introducing a chorale-like tune that concluded with a walk down a major scale and a brass riff that evaporated with an eerily ascending whisper of the strings.
The essence of eclectic, Spiva’s Prisms, Cycles, Leaps seemed not so much a stand-alone piece as an atmospheric mood-setter for more to come. In fact it serves that purpose (listen at above right) in the album of works by Spiva that Orenda has just released.
The evening’s other anticipated event was the local debut of violinist Michael Barenboim in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The Paris-born, Berlin-raised Barenboim, who turns 30 this year, is active mainly in Europe as a soloist in the standard repertoire and in twentieth–century works. He is currently concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by his father, Daniel Barenboim.
Barenboim fils possesses a bright if slender tone, excellent pitch, and fluent fingering. But on this outing his vision of the Beethoven and the collective views of LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane and his orchestral charges inhabited different interpretive worlds. While the orchestra imbued the long first movement with its noble due, the second with appropriate lyrical bliss, and the third with bonhomie, Barenboim performed every movement with comparable sweetness. He employed his own cadenzas in the first and third movements; as musical architecture they were well constructed. Overall, however, the violinist’s interpretation was slick but bland. As an encore, he gave a fine turn in the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor.
Left to their own devices, the orchestra performed — for the first time under Kahane’s baton and only the second time in the orchestra’s half century of existence — Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Sandwiched between the two upbeat works, it seemed the least newsworthy entry of the evening, yet in performance it proved revelatory in every way.
Kahane had introduced the work as that rare symphony cast in the key B minor. He compared it to the composer’s similarly keyed “Der Doppelgänger,” a bleak song where a lonely protagonist sees only his own reflection on his lover’s windowpane. The implication in the Romantic era was that he was facing his own death. Kahane noted that Tchaikovsky had employed the same key in his Pathétique Symphony. (It was at the time of this symphony that Schubert contracted syphilis. In an odd parallel, Tchaikovsky was to die only days after the premiere of his work seven decades later. The rare symphonic use of B minor in Schubert’s day, before valves came into use for the brass, was due to notes in that key being difficult to produce.)
With fairly brisk tempos, Kahane and the orchestra’s virtuoso members shaped their phrases and solos with telling nuance, striking drama, and cathartic grace. The woodwinds, to whom Schubert gave some of his most melting and tragic melodies, surpassed themselves in beautiful execution. The orchestra’s overall sonic radiance and the many fine solos glowed in Royce Hall’s superb acoustics. It was a performance for the ages.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.