THIS weekend marks the beginning of a new season for a venerable Southland music institution. On Saturday night, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was booked to play its first program of fall 2005 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. Tonight, it is set to offer the second in Royce Hall.
If you're looking for the group's highest profile, however, you'll find it in neither venue. Rather, it towers above the Harbor Freeway at 7th Street: Kent Twitchell's 80-foot mural of a dozen musicians.
Now 36, the orchestra routinely referred to as LACO doesn't have the budget to pepper the city with banners or flood news outlets with advertising. Yet despite its modest public image, in musical accomplishment it regards itself as second to none. Indeed, after decades of up-and-down fortunes, wounds selfinflicted and not, it might most appropriately be dubbed "the little orchestra that could."
"There are three world-class organizations in the musical life of Los Angeles," says Jeffrey Kahane, the group's music director and a well-regarded pianist. "The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. And each of them occupies a critical and special place in the cultural life of the city.
"There's no question that we're smaller in terms of budget and organization. But in terms of artistic import and the sense of excellence that we bring and try to uphold, we think of ourselves as being not in the shadow of anything."
This weekend's programming is typical of what LACO audiences have come to expect: a mix of Baroque, classical, Romantic and contemporary repertory. Like many orchestras, the group also plans to pay major attention to the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. Over the new season and the next, Kahane will play all 23 of the composer's original piano concertos.
In 2005-06, the orchestra is also introducing a rising young star, violinist Daniel Hope; bringing back another young star, cellist Alisa Weilerstein; and premiering a work by a composer in residence, Uri Caine.
Carving out its place
LACO was born in a time of optimism. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had opened in 1964 as the sparkling new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A charismatic conductor from India, Zubin Mehta, was on the podium.
At the same time, a handful of music lovers -- Joseph F. Troy and James Arkatov, with financial support from Richard D. Colburn, Joan Palevsky, Buddy Sperry and a few others -- felt the city should also have a small orchestra to play repertoire specifically intended for an ensemble no bigger than 45 players.
Visiting groups of that size had come and gone regularly. Henri Temianka had his California Chamber Symphony -- launched in 1960 -- but its concerts, which he conducted for 25 years, were at UCLA. There were two other theaters at the Los Angeles Music Center, both completed in 1967 and seemingly begging for music.
Hollywood film studios provided a pool of dazzling, conservatory-trained musicians to draw from. So in 1969, the newly formed Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra ventured its inaugural season at the Mark Taper Forum on Monday nights, when the theater was otherwise dark.
The first program -- one of four in a trial-balloon series -- consisted of works by Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart and 20th century French composer Albert Roussel, signaling from the beginning that modern music would share the LACO stage with older repertory.
On the podium stood a magician: Neville Marriner, the distinguished British conductor who in 1958 had founded the London-based chamber ensemble the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and made it world-famous. Everything looked golden. People had to be turned away.
"I am astonished by the way these men play," Marriner said after the inaugural event. "We have the makings of a first-class ensemble already."
Still, board members knew that launching the orchestra was a risk.
"These start-ups are very, very difficult," recalls board chairman emeritus Ronald S. Rosen. "You plunk down an orchestra in a community that is devoted to the Philharmonic and that may or may not be ready for it."
To succeed, LACO had to have a different face. "It couldn't be a small Philharmonic," says Rosen. "It had to play a different repertoire, with smaller resources, and offer something different, maybe even unique. That was the purpose of getting Neville Marriner."
The Taper remained home until it was remodeled around 1978 (and the orchestra was kicked out). The group had failed to become a resident ensemble of the Music Center, and that failure would turn out to be a vulnerability. But by the second season, LACO was already extending its reach, playing in other venues downtown and around the city. It also served across the plaza, in expanded form, as the orchestra for Music Center Opera, the forerunner to Los Angeles Opera.