A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Jeffrey Kahane and Allan Vogel were brilliant in their performances with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) as the 2011 Westside Connections season closed with chamber music and discussion on Thursday, April 28, at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center Eli and Edythe Broad Stage.

LACO Concertmaster Margaret Batjer directs this unique series that features neuroscientists and musicians together exploring music and the mind.  Dr. Hunt Batjer, professor and chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, was the guest speaker.  As the author of over 300 journal publications as well as five books and two major textbooks on clinical neurosurgery, his thoughts were truly insightful as he spoke about music, both through his personal experience and as a clinical neuroscientist.  Dr. Batjer was an effective communicator able to portray the scientific literature in a clear and understandable non-medical vernacular for the audience.

Modern neuroscience and its imaging techniques have given us an explosion of information from the new ways we have of viewing the functioning of the brain.  The new science sometimes blurs our traditional concept of mind and body.  Dr. Batjer described how our brains process music and sound and even why two people hearing the same piece of music might have different emotional responses.  He cited laboratory experiments in which the experience of pleasure from music was manipulated by systematically controlling the release of certain neurotransmitters from nuclei of the brain that are associated with pleasure and affect.  (I’ll have dopamine with my Mozart, please.)

The musical portion of the program opened with Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370.  LACO principal oboist Allan Vogel evoked a range of emotions largely because of his sheer mastery of the instrument and his affective connection to the expression in the sound.  The highest register was pure and clear, and the pitches were shaped and intoned perfectly.  The flourishes and arpeggios were at times lightning fast, and yet each note attacked and sounded uniquely.  His coordination and artistry were amazing and made the performance a “wow!” experience for me.

LACO Music Director and pianist Jeffrey Kahane took the stage for Brahms’ affective Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. This Brahms quintet was certainly a good choice to underscore the connection of music with emotion, but that emotion would be difficult to express without technical expertise.  The subject of skill also came up in Dr. Batjer’s comments, and he cited the “10,000 hour” rule in the development of expertise.  Perhaps Kahane was so spectacular in his Brahms not only because of his innate sensitivity and coordination, but because he has performed the piece more than 200 times!  As I attended to Kahane in performance, I realized that he constantly looked to individual ensemble members for his cues and timed himself and the group with a perfect synchrony.  He “knew,” in a whole-body sense, where the keys were and how and when to use them.  He was flying, and it was a joy to witness his playing.

After the performance, the audience was invited to ask questions. It came out in the discussion that the association of minor keys with sadness is a relatively modern attribution learned very early in one’s development. In response to a question about the roles of the left and right hand in piano technique, Kahane said that he thinks of it not so much as left and right hands, but rather coordinating the 10 fingers to produce two, three, or even four or more streams of sound.  The audience was enthralled not only by the music, but by the discussion of it as well.

Finally, a few words about the Broad Stage are in order.  Its adaptive acoustics and basic design make it a premier performance space not just on the Westside, but in the greater Los Angeles community.  The similarity of the Broad Stage design to the interior of Walt Disney Concert Hall is unmistakable, with its dramatic sweeping curved contours and lofty atrium tuned to reverberate ideally for chamber music.  The Broad Stage is an acoustical gem among smaller venues and a marvel of modern acoustical design.

Bravo to LACO and to Batjer’s Westside Connections!  The combination of interdisciplinary perspectives from science, philosophy and the arts presented with inspirational compositions and virtuoso performances made for a truly wonderful event and a unique contribution to our Los Angeles chamber music culture.

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA