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.
Extending more links into the 19th century, Batjer and 16 LACO string players capped the evening with Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet as arranged for string orchestra by none other than Gustav Mahler. While Mahler's blown-up textures make Schubert's quartet sound tougher and meatier, this performance tended to underplay the sharp thrusts; it could have used more heat.
Ultimately, the whole affair came off well, despite a pair of mini-fiascos that caused confusion. No one bothered to announce that the order of the first two pieces had been reversed, so it's possible that some thought they were hearing McNeely when they were really hearing Mozart. Also, the printed program mistakenly called for an intermission before the Wagner rather than after; as a result, nearly half the audience had fled the hall when the musicians sat down to play. Such are the hazards of printing an entire season of program notes in advance.