A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

One characteristic that makes a city great is if it can boast two world-class symphony orchestras. Los Angeles, like other great cities, boasts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Both have storied histories and have boasted world-renowned conductors. Unlike the LA Phil, however, LACO does not have their own concert hall. Instead, they play at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. This gives audience members three different venues at which to hear this gem of an orchestra.

On Sunday evening, LACO presented their season finale at Royce Hall, and it was a doozy. The concert featured two warhorses—the Concerto in A Minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102 by Brahms, featuring LACO Principal Violinist Margaret Batjer and Principal Cellist Andrew Shulman, and the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 by Beethoven. The concert also featured the world premiere of Floodplain by LACO Composer-in-Residence Ellen Reid.

LACO’s principal conductor, Jaime Martín, was recovering from a bout with COVID-19, and so British conductor Stefan Asbury was able to fly across the pond and the continental United States at the last minute to substitute.

The concert began with Ellen Reid’s Floodplain, which, unlike other contemporary pieces with evocative titles, actually did evoke its namesake. As Reid, who was introduced at the beginning of the concert briefly explained, the piece is meant to convey the lushness of a floodplain with the inherent danger therein; and it certainly achieved that goal. Floodplain mixed beautiful melodies with sharp rhythmic motifs and just enough dissonance to hold the listeners’ attention. The orchestra did Reid’s composition justice, and at the conclusion the audience expressed its appreciation to her when she took the stage for a bow.

The second half concluded with the Brahms double concerto, his last work for orchestra. For this performance, Batjer and Shulman did the honors, and they were not only superb as soloists, but their years of playing together in LACO showed in their almost-perfect synchrony. It was clear that they had fun as well. At one time, when Shulman was turning the pages of his score, he dropped his bow, and without missing a beat (no pun intended), Asbury bent down, picked it up and handed it back to Schulman. Asbury nicely balanced the orchestra and soloists to ably render this late Romantic masterpiece.

The concert concluded with a gripping performance of a riveting symphony, the Beethoven Symphony No. 5. Asbury played the first three movements at a pretty fast clip, which only enhanced the propelling nature of the work to the Allegro finale. No matter how many times one hears this symphony, it’s always uplifting; and in a world with so much tragedy and sadness, a few minutes of joy is a rare thing indeed. The musicians must have felt this too, as they played with a joie de vivre that was contagious and brought the audience in Royce Hall to their feet at the last C Major chord.

Kudos to Asbury who, on very short notice, made a long flight to take over from the ailing Martín, who is reported to be well now. Asbury made it look like he had spent days rehearsing with the orchestra. After each piece, he applauded the LACO musicians and with good reason: they played spectacularly — which is why LA has not one, but two great orchestras.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

Learn more about LACO at https://www.laco.org.

Photo credit: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performs at The Ambassador in Pasadena on May 14, 2022. / Brian Feinzimer for LACO