"No conductor?" our neighbor whispered to his companion at the opening buzz of the overture to "Le Nozze di Figaro."
Right. No conductor--in the accepted sense--to guide the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra through its season opener on Friday in the Wiltern Theatre.
Rather, there was Iona Brown, a sit-down, violin-playing director , handling things rather as they were handled in Mozart's day. And, indeed, it was to that composer's music that the program was devoted.
To propel this "Figaro" overture, Brown, in the concertmaster's chair, made do with an occasional nod or a wave of the bow. Nothing more was needed. The vitality and generally keen balances that emerged had presumably been achieved in rehearsal.
There was even more to admire in the orchestra's contribution to the Concerto in A, K. 488, with Czech pianist Ivan Moravec as soloist.
This wonderfully mellow and deep work has flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon forming a concertante group with the piano, a balancing act flawlessly executed here, the instruments dovetailing with exquisite naturalness.
But Moravec's overall contribution proved problematic--not because of his Romantic proclivities (he is one of our great Chopin interpreters), but for his insistence on totally suppressing them. The result was neither Classical, nor Romantic--nor in any way personal--Mozart but, rather, faceless, small-scale Mozart, at odds with the strong, faceted work of the orchestra.
Brown, to this point unobtrusively seated among her fellows and, like them, dressed in black, re-emerged a star after the intermission. She swept on stage, dazzling in a white-sequined Power Gown, to assume a standing position in front of her charges for the "Haffner" Serenade, K. 250.
During full-ensemble portions, Brown, playing along with and minimally cuing the orchestra, stood with her back to the audience. For the brilliant violin solos, in which the work abounds, and which she projected with incisive tone and grand stylistic flair, she faced the by-now captivated audience.
It was, in all, a tautly jubilant and flawlessly executed performance of a work that nonetheless remains a rare instance of Mozart not knowing when to stop.
Friday's audience exercised its editorial powers with an ovation after Brown's sparkling solo in the Rondo. For them, it was the end. For the composer, it was only midpoint.
Withal, this "Haffner" provided some of the most stylish and vivacious Mozart this city has heard in years. And a most auspicious beginning to Brown's reign as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.