The easing of pandemic privations on live musical activity brings added emotional layers to concert experiences, as witnessed at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall on March 19. LACO first returned to the Royce last fall, in a Mozart/Beethoven evening led by Music Director Jaime Martín and featuring former director Jeffrey Kahane as piano soloist.
If Saturday’s program at hand, a mild-mannered pleasantry plate of Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, lacked much challenge to the senses, the reunion factor of hearing this formidable ensemble in its complementary old stomping grounds was heartening.
So, too, was the doubled-up satisfaction of hearing the assured, firm-but-fluid work of guest conductor Roderick Cox and young violinist sensation Randall Goosby ennobling the crowd-pleasing bonbon of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. In terms of programming logic, the alternating currents of early Romantic Mendelssohn and radical Romantic Wagner in the first half was, in a sense, mediated by the genial bath of Brahms’s Serenade No. 2 in A, for a chamber orchestra.
On this evening, the best came first, with Wagner’s glorious curio Siegfried Idyll. The composer’s gift to his second wife, Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried premiered on Christmas Day, 1870, and remains one of Wagner’s mostly achingly lyrical and compact (by his standards) orchestral gems.
With this superb chamber orchestra, Cox coaxed a sound which felt at once lush, lean, and focused. A persuasively expressive line was kept in check, while the ensemble also captured the innately sweeping atmospheric character of the piece. Shades of triumphal spirit rose up out of the thicket, with sobering tones and tension points lending residual gravitas to the sweetness, through to the sustained final chord. It’s as if the composer wanted to suspend time itself, to relish a yearning moment, and the Cox-guided LACO followed suit in its rendering.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is a handsome warhorse, taken for a brisk, confident ride here. In Saturday’s LACO debut, delayed for a season by the pandemic, Goosby acquitted himself masterfully, and with admirable subtlety. He has a ready, lived-in command of his instrument and brought an infectious, deeply-felt emotional commitment to the score. In his impressive cadenza turn, Goosby brought on fireworks of the most graceful sort, avoiding excessive hubris. He deftly embraced the tender theme of the Andante and sprang duly to action in the whimsical kinetics of the famed if over-familiar finale.
The Brahms Serenade arrived as a post-intermission showcase for the orchestra itself. Written as one of Brahms’s preliminary orchestral efforts while working up to his first symphony, and dedicated to would-be love Clara Schumann, the second Serenade’s charms derive partly from the minimal scoring, and a presiding blithe spirit uncharacteristic of the later Brahms bombast. Goosby and the orchestra gave the music its proper balance and poise.
All in all, Saturday’s concert found LACO living up to its lofty reputation as one of the finer chamber orchestras anywhere. Contextually, they made another welcome and majestic return to the Royce, moving ever closer to the objective of musical life in the “old-normal” sense.