At every fresh exposure, the music of W.T. McKinley sounds more and more important. The latest new work by the prolific American musician, his Second Viola Concerto, heard in its world premiere performance Saturday night by Sol Greitzer and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, reconfirmed that impression.
Unlike McKinley's recent "Nocturnes," heard just two weeks ago, the new 37-minute concerto is not easy to like, not accessible, not good-humored. On the contrary, it is often belligerent, grim, pessimistic, emotionally downcast, and speaks an abrasive musical idiom the composer identifies, almost ironically, as "neo-tonal." Yet it has substance, it engages and moves the listener, and it invites rehearing.
As conducted intensely by Jorge Mester, and played effortlessly by Greitzer (a former principal of the New York Philharmonic) and the chamber orchestra, it deserved the rapt attention it received from the LACO audience.
The rest of Mester's balanced program offered Ravel's " Tombeau de Couperin" and Beethoven's Fourth Symphony in sometimes immaculate, too-often ragged, performances. Scrappiness afflicted the opening movements of both works, overplaying characterized most of the instrumental contributions, and the ensemble's usually wide palette of dynamics seldom materialized.
Nevertheless, there were moments: the Minuet of the Ravel suite, shimmering and opulent; the slow movement of Beethoven's Fourth, a shade pushed in speed, but transparent of sound and clarified in structure. An orchestra in transition: Win a few, lose a few.