Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Nigel Armstrong violin
Reviewed by Steven Woodruff
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is having yet another season of adventuresome programming. Saturday’s concert at the Alex Theatre offered an equal measure of music for those hooked on smart, lean versions of the standard repertory alongside new or seldom-heard music. LACO is very good at this sort of thing and the mozart (mostly) concert (also presented at Royce Hall) proved just how good, with a symphony and a violin concerto by Mozart matched with Walton’s Sonata for Strings and John Corigliano’s Stomp for solo violin.
Mr. Armstrong is something of celebrity violinist following his performances at the most recent Tchaikovsky Competition where he and his fellow competitors played Stomp. The work was commissioned for the competition. It is a clever addition to the repertory for solo violin with its unique blend percussion a pied, bluesy idioms, jazz and hybrid mountain sound. The piece references both the work of Mark O’Connor and the improvising style of David Grissman’s dawg music. It seemed music that was perfectly suited to a young career on the rise and as bridge between the music of Mozart and Walton, this was clearly a well-chosen moment to let it fly.
Opening the program was Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 (A major). Spare but focused playing prevailed in all four movements. Particularly effective was the detailed treatment of the Menuetto, where the dotted rhythms in the string section and the quirky fanfare-like cadential patterns in the horns made the most of the symphony’s minimal orchestration for the winds. The horn and oboe pairing was elegant again in the duos of the Andante. The Andante also has brief moments where slow motion quotes from material used later in the Sinfonia concertante show us Mozart’s clever recycling of musical ideas. The final Allegro con spirito was remarkable for the fantastic ensemble playing in the ascending off-string scale passages that introduce the central theme. Those moments were edgy and virtuosic with each repetition.
Mr. Armstrong plays with a quiet, sweet sound which gave his version of the G major concerto a genuine classical demeanor. He also steered clear of fussy interpreting though at times, his phrase endings diminished to near inaudibility. The cadenzas, by Robert Levin, seemed thin. They frequently avoided chorded accompaniment in favor of single note lines and grew more eccentric with each movement. For the final statement of the rondo theme in the 4th movement, Mr. Armstrong stepped back and joined the orchestra. Following the generous applause he returned, minus the tuxedo jacket, to play Stomp.
The Walton Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1947) recast here in its orchestrated form as Sonata for Strings (1971) has some serendipitous history connected with Los Angeles. It received the American premiere here by Neville Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber orchestra in 1973. The quartet itself was first recorded here in Los Angeles in 1951 by the legendary Hollywood String Quartet. The orchestration is exceptional for the way in which it balances the frequent spare and exposed playing of the original quartet with the full orchestral sound. The work moves easily between both sonorities, making a particularly effective amalgam that references the string symphonies and string serenades of earlier eras. The work, comprised mostly of fleet movements was played with exceptional rhythmic vitality and clarity in this performance. The lengthy 3rd movement Lento, where an intense wandering quality almost defies a sense of a time signature, was also effectively rendered with sustained, emotional playing. Andrew Shulman, LACO’s principal cellist, conducted all three pieces on the program. He made the old feel vibrant and the new, appropriately forward looking.
You can get a glimpse of Mr. Armstrong and his performance of Stomp at the most recent Tchaikovsky Competition via the following link. He is obviously a performer who is having a great time playing the fiddle.
January 31, 2012