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Weekend Reviews | Music

Kahane's First Night Accents the Challenges

September 22, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The history of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which began a new season Friday night with a new music director, Jeffrey Kahane, is a chronicle of marginalization. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

When formed 28 years ago, LACO suggested a useful alternative to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It performed at the Music Center (in the Mark Taper Forum) the music the larger orchestra didn't perform very well or at all--crisp and intimate Mozart and Haydn, Handel and Bach. Nor could its spirited British conductor, Neville Marriner, have been more different from the Philharmonic's Zubin Mehta and his passion for inflated Romanticism.

Later, under Gerard Schwarz and with a move to Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, LACO came to seem less an alternative to the big band downtown than a full-fledged orchestra in its own right, often playing the same repertory as the Philharmonic but playing it differently and making a point of reviving a neglected slice of early 20th century American music.

Those were the good margins. Other good margins were spaces, all the other spaces, around the area that LACO seemed to pop up in. But two uninspired music directors (Iona Brown and Christof Perick, good conductors both, but without the imagination or charisma of Marriner or Schwarz), a troubled local economy and the closing of Ambassador have meant a decade of increasing irrelevance for the orchestra.

LACO now gives its concerts at UCLA's uninviting Veterans Wadsworth Theater and the more appealing Alex Theatre in Glendale, and though it still attracts a loyal following, the orchestra is less newsworthy in repertoire or performers than it had been. And, frankly, is it no longer the invariably superb ensemble it had once been.

Friday night's opener certainly demonstrated that Kahane, 41 and a native Angeleno, has his work cut out for himself. And he is an accomplished pianist and an affable conductor who just may be the musician the orchestra needs.

But no new music director should have to suffer such a first night. So marginal is the orchestra that it doesn't even have the clout to get its regular Friday venue, the Wadsworth, grim as it is, out of the hands of Tap Dogs for a single night. So opening night was shunted to Bel Air Presbyterian Church, high on Mulholland Drive.

The view is a beauty, but the church has poor access. Westsiders often complain about attending concerts downtown, but it took this writer twice the time (a full hour) to drive a couple of Westside miles than it normally does to get to the Music Center downtown, five times farther. So bad was the congestion trying to get into the church that many missed the first piece.

Worse, much worse, is the acoustic. The church is barn-like, with vaulting ceiling and much glass, and the sound, especially from seats in back, was unacceptably deficient in high frequencies and boomy in the bass. It is reminiscent of the result of a loudspeaker with a blown tweeter, and one looked with longing at an unused array of speakers the church has installed apparently to correct just such natural deficiencies.

Consequently, I hesitate to make any but the most general comments about playing that was either distorted by the venue or barely audible. The program included Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, which Kahane conducted from the keyboard, and Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. It opened with the world premiere of "Laconic Variations" by Kenneth Frazelle, who is LACO's new composer in residence.

Frazelle's piece, from its punning title to its clever interweaving of the "Eroica" theme, tries hard to please with the help of Bernstein, Copland and jovial jazz. The composer is not without an edge--he wrote the score for choreographer Bill T. Jones' controversial "See/Hear"--but this was an occasion only for compositional glad-handing.

Kahane is a confident, buoyant and genuinely ingratiating Mozartean. The concerto flowed, but the church swallowed the details. There were passages in the first movement in which Kahane's right hand was seen moving but only a tubby bass line was heard. The winds, one of the usual glories of this orchestra, compensated by overblowing, and one did hear that. Kahane made a nice cadenza for the first movement, virtuosic and Chopin-esque.

A larger band was on hand for the Beethoven after intermission, and it made a slightly bigger impression but still sounded distant. Kahane's conducting was fleet and eager but not so fast or provocative as the way the Baroque boys do Beethoven now. And though a perfectly acceptable reading, the performance did little to distinguish itself from the kind one might hear from any of the full-size orchestras (which themselves often pare down for early Beethoven).

But this is the start of a new era, so let's hope Kahane likes a challenge.

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