Not every aspect of the history of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is remarkable, but one thing sticks ever in the memory: the inventive programming usually achieved by two of the orchestra's previous music directors, Gerard Schwarz and Iona Brown.
Felicitously, LACO's current leader, Jeffrey Kahane, follows this tradition, the latest example being the orchestra's March program, an agenda offering important music by Lutoslawski, Part, Britten and Mozart. Heard Friday night in Royce Hall at UCLA, it had seriousness, balance and musical variety in abundance. And it had Kahane's bright overview and detailed probing to make it work.
The orchestra does not always play as boldly and with as much confidence as it did Friday; this performance proved both brilliant and ear-opening, at least in the first half.
Seung-Un Ha's pleasing playing of Mozart's great Piano Concerto in C, K. 503, occupied the second half neatly but without new insights, inspired pianism or notable individuality from the soloist. Still, the piece is always worth hearing, and this performance posed no hardship on the listener.
What thrilled on this occasion was the complementary virtues in Lutoslawski's Dance Preludes--in which clarinetist Gary Gray was the characterful soloist--Aro Part's cathartic "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" and Britten's own tribute to his teacher, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge," which Kahane called the composer's "first masterpiece."
The three works fit each other tightly. Gray excelled in the jaunty solo part of the Dance Preludes, which alternate between lightheartedness and contemplation. The "Cantus" resonated in every way and showed the orchestra's strings resourceful in the extreme.
Climactic in any context, Britten's many-faceted Variations have seldom sounded as triumphant (Kahane's word) as on this occasion, when every part of the musical journey reached an inexorable conclusion on the final cadence.