LA Chamber Orchestra — Four Seasons + Mendelssohn, October 17, 2009 at Alex Theater in Glendale, CA

Lovely work!

A few quick impressions:

The pre-concert chat with the chitarra and theorbo players (John Schneiderman and Richard Savino) was quite interesting, but too short. Both men talked a bit about their instruments, which are not typically found in modern performances of Baroque music. With the Baroque revival and an increasing interest in period instruments and performance though, they are being seen and heard more and more frequently.

Technical bits: the chitarra is a five-string guitar, without the lowest string of the typical modern six-string guitars. The body is also much smaller, with a beautiful inlay of some sort over the hole in the top plate. (I don’t know the techie terms for guitar bits, I’m afraid.) The theorbo is a modified lute back during the days of gut strings. As a result of that materials limitation, if you wanted very low bass strings without wire-wrapping or steel, your only recourse was to make the neck on the instrument six feet long.

Savino mentioned something that I found interesting, though — that the technique and approach for both instruments was only “rediscovered” about twenty or so years ago. That struck me since, coming from a more operatic perspective, I’d always associated the Baroque revival with Baroque opera and the avalanche of countertenors we’re seeing now. Savino’s comment indicated to me that the revival is a lot larger than that. I asked both men what the revival looked like from their perspective, which Savino in particular answered … somewhat. In all fairness, it’s a big question. I do wish I’d been able to take both of them aside over wine or beer and some light snacks and talk with them for longer, though.

Savino’s chief response was that it meant that he and Schneiderman had a lot more repertory to choose from. Both men evidently began as guitarists outside of classical — Savino in rock and Schneiderman in bluegrass — and the new revival vastly increased the scope of what they could find to play. I wish I’d been able to talk with them about their own individual paths to Baroque; if they began in rock and bluegrass, I would guess that they each started out with a modern acoustic six-string or a Les Paul in their laps. But, when did each of them pick up a chitarra or a theorbo, and why? (Ultimately, I suppose the question is what caused the Baroque revival?)

Oh, well. That’s the frustrating thing about these little lectures. You never get quite enough information to satisfy your interest. Following was a great little pre-concert consisting of the most spritely Scarlatti keyboard piece played on a combination harpsichord/organ (a wonderfully “spooky” instrument, must be the Addams Family connection) by Patricia Mabee, and Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata in Em, with Mabee on the hybrid keyboard, and the principal bassoon Kenneth Munday, cellist Giovanna Clayton, principal flute David Shostac, and both men previously mentioned on chitarra and theorbo. Both pieces were just fantastic. I just love that self-conscious quality of Baroque music, just the joy in virtuosity and ornament for the sake of it. There’s something so innocently showy about it. Like Peter Pan crowing, “Oh, the cleverness of me!”

The concert itself was absolutely wonderful. I remember making a comment about this after seeing the Australian Chamber Orchestra with Andreas Scholl in Santa Barbara about how the revival has meant that people are no longer treating these Baroque pieces as clockworks but are instead attacking them with much more personality and excitement. This concert was a great example of that. The players were seated, with some tuxes in evidence, and a lovely taffeta gown on the concertmaster, Margaret Batjer.

But that was pretty much all the formality we were going to see, and it was kind of charming contrasted with the verve that they showed in their attack. The music was the box-office friendly Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, and what I call The Mendelssohn Thing — the bouncy, bright Symph #4 in A Major that every person alive knows even if they don’t realize it.

Each “season” in the Four was prefaced by a reading of the sonnets that are associated with them, presumed to be written by Vivaldi but no one is really sure. Initial impressions:

“Spring” was more legato than I’m used to hearing it, without the dressage-like prance in each note snipped apart from the other. I like both ways; it was a nice way to approach the music, and the more angular sound of the chitarra and the theorbo as plucked instruments added just the right amount of “choppiness” to the music to keep it from sounding too smoothed-out. Adding in new instruments apparently allows for much more creativity in the whole approach to the music, which is a great argument for more innovation in performances, even of the old war-horse Classical Top 40. After all, Mozart never played any of his his dozen-and-a-half variations on a theme on anything like a modern piano, either.

“Summer” was amazing, and prodded the audience into breaking the “no-clapping-until-they’re-through” rule (a rule that annoys me personally; if something is particularly great, I want to clap!). The entire audience was so blown away by their approach that claps and shouts followed this movement. The music itself is a very stark reminder that, in Italy, summer isn’t quite the idyll that we like to think. It’s blasted hot there, and can be stormy. Much like my own memories of summer on the east coast, the people in that area, especially before the coming of air conditioning, must have found fall a wonderful relief from the oppressive heat of high summer.

Which it was here as well, after we’d finished expressing our appreciation for the incredibly energetic second movement. The standard hounds-and-huntsmen strains began, followed by the easier, slower second part, and the more cheerful third — beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Then, “Winter,” with its frigid, sparkling coolness and what I think of as dripping icicles. They seized the music from the start and didn’t let go until they’d gotten everything they could out of it. Just wonderful, and such an improvement over the stuffiness of Baroque music during most of the last century.

The Mendelssohn Thing was, of course, just as good. During the intermission, I let myself read the program a bit as the lights came up, and when my eyes rose again, there were suddenly three times the chairs on stage. I laughed at myself; of course there were. The chitarra and theorbo were gone (sadly), but suddenly everyone else was there — the woodwinds, two trumpets, two horns, and two nice fat kettle drums. (I wonder how they’re tuned?) The cellos, basses, and violas doubled in number, and the march of the violins began.

Interestingly, except for the overwhelmingly female violins (typical), the orchestra was extremely balanced in gender, with a slight preponderance of men. One each of bass, horn, clarinet, oboe, and flute. Both bassoons and trumpets were men, and the timpani was a man as well. Four cellos and four violas, two each. Very pleasant, and it makes the nearly-all-male European orchestras like Vienna look very foolish for shutting out half of their potential talent pool.

Other random impressions:

Every single instrument was heard and needed. Sometimes there can be instruments in stage that seem superfluous, which is a shame considering that there is a person attached in all cases who is trying as hard as they can to be very, very good. But every single thing was used, heard, and balanced. Kudos to Batjer.

The bass violins were glorious. Sometimes they can get lost, but not here. Going off on a tangent, I can never lose the feeling of amazement I get every time I see a bass violin. They’ve existed forever, and I’ve seen them millions of times … but there is still a part of me that is blown away by the fact that such things exist. Like tornados, if you’d never seen one before in your life and I tried to describe them to you, you’d call me a liar. “No no seriously, it’s like a violin, see … except it’s taller than you.” On some level, that’s about equivalent to, “It’s this form of weather that descends out of the sky like a hose, spins 300 miles an hour, and eats your house.” Like the sneetch-necked theorbo, they should win some sort of prize for Most Improbable Musical Instrument.

I think one of the violists plays in a quartet in an Italian restaurant nearby on late Sunday mornings. To judge from the program, it may be the principal Roland Kato. (Update: After reading a comment left on the orchestra’s Facebook page by Kato, I’m mistaken. I have no idea who on Earth I’m thinking of!)

The lighting on stage was fairly conventional, with a strange sort of watery-blue shimmer on the back wall. It would have been lovely had they used that a bit, perhaps changing the gels on the lights from pale blue for Spring to deep blue or beige for Summer, then fiery red and orange for Autumn and white for Winter.

Speaking of color, the colors of the instruments were wonderful, with the violins more honey colored, the violas a bit darker, two of the cellos somewhat the color of Irish coffee, and both basses such a delicious, deep cherry-chocolate shade that I wanted to bite them to see if they tasted like they looked. If they had, they would have been Black Forest cake soaked in sherry. Marvelous things. (Here is a picture from the orchestra’s Flickr page. Don’t you just want to bite into those things?)

All in all, a great night — and a convenient one for me as the theater was close enough that I didn’t even have to get on a freeway. (That’s a big thing in southern California.) If you get a chance to see them, take it. Their website is www.LACO.org.

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