By Marc Porter Zasada
Executive Editor, L.A. Opening Nights
It’s always worth running out to hear a new work by a young composer who everyone agrees has a chance to become important. One hopes to have one’s ears opened to something entirely new. This year, L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s “Sound Investments” group commissioned a concerto from Timothy Andres, an accomplished pianist, who at age 27 has already been getting some attention for his compositions, and has an album of original work out with Nonsuch (Shy and Mighty, 2010). In 2009 his chamber orchestra piece for the Green Umbrella series at the L.A. Phil was conducted by none other than John Adams.
Something important did happen at the concert I caught March 25, but it didn’t happen until the second half of the program, and the composer was named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The new work premiered by Andres, entitled “Old Keys,” was scored in the traditional three movements, and performed by Andres himself.
Unfortunately, “Old Keys” proved true to its title: a hodgepodge of 20th century anxiety music rather predictably in the mode of Ives, Walton, etc. Tonal, but unresolved. Driving, complex, repeated figures in a mix of styles and references, with minimal chordal progression. It includes complex, often dense rhythms and orchestrations that suggest, but do not achieve a through-line, and it ends, as usual in this idiom, without warning.
The trouble with this kind of music is not that we don’t understand it, but that we understand it too well.
It would be interesting to hear Andres pick out one of the styles in the piece and fully develop it into a coherent whole—as he has done more effectively in a few of his previous compositions. Some of the better bits, for example, reminded one of tense chase scenes in Hollywood movies (where perhaps the best modern classical music is being composed). There was an enjoyably large, cathedral-like section with bells and chimes—something worth pursuing there.
You can read more about his compositional effort on his blog. One quote: “It’s rather difficult to give a play-by-play of a piece which quite purposefully lacks clear points of articulation.”
Applause was polite.
“Old Keys” was not unpleasant, but then came the “recomposition” of Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Concerto No. 26, which Andres premiered in 2010. LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane prepared us by mentioning that he had never liked the Coronation Concerto in the first place, and that much of the piece as it is played today wasn’t composed by Mozart (at least the left hand part) as it was completed after Mozart’s death. Andres took the mic to assure the audience that “I’m not trying to give Mozart the big middle finger.” In his blog, Andres writes:
“….Mozart notated only a few sections of the left-hand part (intending to improvise it in performance) which I decided to replace entirely, in addition to writing new cadenzas. I approached the piece not from a scholarly or editorial perspective, but more as a sprawling playground for pianistic invention and virtuosity, taking cues from the composer-pianist tradition Mozart helped to crystallize…. The left hand gets an extended catalogue of gestures ….It uses imitation, counter-melodies, and canonic interplay to participate in the musical drama of the right hand (sometimes even leaping above it in register). Harmonically, new chords both thicken and undermine the existing progressions, adding allusions to music after Mozart’s time…the result is an almost entirely new-sounding piece, which I hope will be an antidote to the studied blandness of most existing completions.”
In practice, this means that the orchestra largely sticks to the traditional score, while Andres teases us by beginning many of the phrases in the manner of Mozart…then going off on riffs with highly-dramatic flourishes and dense, complex improvisations, mostly in the left hand, that generally end with loud bangs. From time to time he departed into solo passages entirely in his own style–and these were the most affecting. After this, the orchestra would slide back in with more of the Master.
Because the improvisations lack a consistent and identifiable purpose, and because they are almost all in an unsubtle forte, they tend merely to interrupt rather than amplify. Because it does not seem to progress from point A to point B, the piece grows tedious. “Coronation” may not be Mozart’s best, but it turns out that noodling around with clashing harmonies in the left hand does not improve it.
One more word about forte. As mentioned, Andres is a skilled pianist, who is building a reputation as a performer with important orchestras—but when he played his own work March 25, he seemed to abandon anything resembling subtlety or dynamics—choosing to press the pedal and, well…bang. When working anywhere close to Mozart, this does not play very well.
After the “Mozart/Andres” piece, the pianist performed as an encore, a short and intriguing transcription of Mahler’s “Des Antionius Von Paduas Fischpredigt” (Saint Antonio’s Sermon to the Fishes) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn—proving that his piano skills can be both potent and engrossing.
This led to the interval, to Wolfgang himself, and a happy ending to the evening.
In the second half, music director Jeffrey Kahane and the LA Chamber Orchestra gave a muscular, even romantic rendering of the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor—surely one of the most familiar works in the canon.
No. 40 is so familiar, that when it comes on the radio, your serious classical buff is likely to stop really paying attention—but after the beating Mozart took from Mr. Andres in the first part of the program, No. 40 entered Royce Hall like a new-found revelation, a precious gift, a too-rarely appreciated miracle.
Along with a controlled, but forcefully driven interpretation, Kahane focused his attention on the inner parts—woodwinds, cellos, and violas, while allowing the superb skills and musical sense of concertmaster Margaret Batjer to carry the melody in the violins. It’s always a pleasure to hear Mozart rendered with a smaller orchestra, and as always, a great pleasure to experience Kahane’s confident Mozart style.
The next performance of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is an intriguing and family-oriented event called “Fool for the Dance” on April 1—and includes a re-creation of Baroque court dances of the 18th-century, based on later works by French and Italian composers Maurice Ravel and Ottorino Respighi. We’re rating it “Highly Recommended.”