What's a present-day composer to do when asked to write a piece for a program that also contains first-class works by Mozart, Schubert and Wagner? You can't compete with them; that's a no-win proposition. One thing you can do, though, is complement them -- and that is what Joel McNeely's new "Two Portraits" for violin and strings gracefully managed to do for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's program at the Alex Theatre on Saturday night.
Although McNeely usually makes his living toiling for the studios of Hollywood, these two short movements seem to take their cues mainly from 20th century English music -- especially Vaughan Williams in the tuneful, pastoral-flavored first movement. Since McNeely is married to LACO's concertmaster, Margaret Batjer, it's only natural that the piece extensively features and flatters her formidable technique, with streaks of animated passion at times.
"Two Portraits" turned out to be a pleasant intermezzo between a lean, athletically driven performance of Mozart's Divertimento in D, K. 136 and an out-and-out masterwork also written for a composer's companion, Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll." The Wagner received a terrific performance, perfectly and lovingly paced by Batjer from the concertmaster's chair, with LACO's sterling veteran wind soloists chattering and commenting with uncommon eloquence.