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Colburn Orchestra, the 2nd Most Important in Los Angeles

The performance at the Valley Performing Arts Center was a gift to music lovers.

I love student orchestras. Even not-so-hot student orchestras. There is no substitute for non-jaded ears and hearts. Less-than-impeccable performances that come from love and exuberance often please these ears much more than “great performances” by “great players” and “great conductors.”

Which is hardly to say that the Colburn Orchestra, from the Colburn Conservatory of Music next to Disney Hall downtown, and its conductor, Yehuda Gilad, are not great. They most decidedly are. So to hear a student orchestra that also happens to be boffo, well, that’s windfall profit. Combine that with... non-jaded ears and hearts... and I’m not sure it’s a beatable combo. Take that, (beloved) L.A. Phil.

Is this the second most important orchestra in L.A.? No argument here. Well, one thing is certain: it’s cheaper!

In fact, the performance Sunday afternoon at the Valley Performing Arts Center was so cheap, it was free. It was a gift, from VPAC and Colburn to music lovers. Really. A gift. VPAC invited the Colburn Orchestra to try out the blond-wood rippling interior of its acoustically fine hall, and it accepted. The (comped) full house was the beneficiary.

Well, ‘tis the season.

“Thanks for coming out and allowing us to show you our shtick,” conductor Gilad told the audience at the concert’s end, to much laughter.

Some shtick! There was the expected exuberance and heart, of course, but so much more. It is simply hard to believe that an orchestra of “kids,” which must have a fair amount of turnover from matriculation, can coalesce with this much maturity, restraint, articulation, nuance, control. (Credit must go to Gilad, music director since 2003 who grew the orchestra from a small string ensemble.) It is not hyperbole to say that the playing during Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was perfectly competitive with the world’s better orchestras, the string sound fluid, warm, lush, pliant, of one mind. Woodwinds twinkled and lilted with discipline and lyricism (special bow for bassoonist Andrew Brady was warranted.) All told, this was estimable Beethoven, not mere amateur excellence. Gilad has worked wonders.

Violinist in the concerto was the remarkable Hugh Palmer, who looked about 16 (sorry, Hugh), but played well beyond his years, whatever they are. He endearingly winced once or twice at some missed note or passing metric or tonal imperfection, but these things were of zero consequence in the face of what was a poised, solid rendering of the concerto. You know, you expect young soloists to be technical prodigies -- it’s become a starting point, a cliché, in an era of seemingly endless Lang Langs. Palmer’s technique was a given; what impressed was his comprehension of musical line, overall journey, tonal poetry. There was gold in them-thar trills. His shimmering control in the upper register was gorgeous, his assaying of the cadenzas assured, even thrilling, without a trace of shallow Lang Lang-ian showboat-ism. (Thank you.)

If the Beethoven was impressive for rounded contours, ensemble playing, warmth, the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 was, pardon the expression, a symphony in extroversion. Not extroversion for its own sake -- Gilad would hardly allow such a thing -- but this young (34) “Finlandia”-period Sibelius, with his outright heroic motifs and ecstatic romanticism, was a good match for the young hearts and minds of the orchestra. A more compelling, memorable concert performance of the first movement does not come to mind. I especially liked the way Gilad introduced the strings so dramatically at the end of the legendarily brooding opening clarinet solo/timpani roll, as opposed to sort of ethereally slipping them into the proceedings. They startled -- as did Wai Wah Ivan Wan’s wonderful, Richter Scale-rattling blows on the timpani -- and for that matter, so did the whole work. Of particular note was the brass section, all-important in Sibelius, which, frankly, sounded just as fine as the L.A. Phil’s section on this afternoon. The second movement andante’s piquant, aching beauty, the nearly human voice-like flutes perhaps suggesting icy fjord winds -- this was all revealed enthusiastically, if not lovingly; the wild-man third movement scherzo, with its thunderous timpani, was couched, taut, explosive -- no easy performance trick; the fourth movement “fantasia,” which always seems like a battle that is never quite resolved, with its anger, mood-swings, thrashing, and ultimate resignation (a kind of de facto primer of the composer’s psychology?), was executed with aplomb, forcefulness, grandeur (they might want to tighten up that ending a bit.)

The concert began with a little fanfare by Paul Dukas, scored for three trombones, tuba, four French horns, from the ballet, La Peri. Dispatched adroitly and with punch, it served to prick up the ears of the audience for the grand things that followed.

Some shtick!

Notes: The Colburn Orchestra performs Feb. 2 at 7:30 at Ambassador Auditorium, with a program that includes Prokofiev, Schumann, Zwilich, and Richard Strauss. The L.A. Phil is doing an all-Rachmaninov program the same night. I’d opt for the Colburn concert... Request to VPAC: please bring back program notes on the music.

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