In LA, Kaleidoscope Orch Asks, ‘Who Needs a Conductor’?

By Timothy Mangan, Musical America, April 3, 2019.

The Los Angeles-based Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, now in its fifth season, is a good group, an interesting group and an entertaining group. The ensemble works without a conductor, and mostly benefits from that decision. A Sunday afternoon performance (March 31) in the accommodating sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica went well beyond the standard repertoire for chamber orchestra and seemed something like a feat in doing so.

Kaleidoscope is a kind of collective of musicians, coming together in various-sized ensembles depending on the task at hand. By its own account, most of its work is done at schools, hospitals and homeless shelters, bringing “music to people who can’t come out on their own.” Most of its concerts for the public are offered on a pay what you can basis, as was Sunday’s. Even more, with its Young Composers Program (for elementary students) and annual call for scores (from adults), Kaleidoscope makes the music of living composers central to its mission.

An eye-opener on this program was Debussy’s La Mer, certainly not a work usually considered possible to perform without a conductor. As the performance unwound, with more than 60 musicians spread widely across the chancel, all standing save the cellos, basses and tuba, one naturally watched how it was done: Lots of eye contact between the players, cueing with nods of the head and necks of bows, a general swaying among all. In La Mer, the bassoons appeared to have the task of conveying the beat to the brasses behind them, and bobbed considerably.

The results proved impressive. The listener-in-the-know might have noticed that some tempo changes took a split second to settle in, that some of the corners weren’t turned as sharply as they would have been had a (good) conductor been in charge, that here and there a passage betrayed a slight dishevelment. But generally, La Mer was tidily dispatched, and with an immediacy to the ear and involvement of the players that was palpable. With the musicians actively listening to each other and reacting to each other, there was a sense, too, that a conductor was out of the way, and we had direct access to the music itself. The group interpretation had a certain organic quality to it, an almost conversational flow, which led to sizzling climaxes in the first and third movements.

Before that, the orchestra was joined by the young Italian multi prize-winning violinist Andrea Obiso for a performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. This is also a piece you wouldn’t expect to be performed sans baton, but at least there’s a central focus on the soloist, who, in this case, though not overtly cuing much, generally moved freely and joyfully to the music (providing a visual beat) and plenty of eye contact.

His was an impressive performance, technically commanding and musically involved. His lyricism was aptly sweet, yet retained a firmness that saved it from schmaltz. His fortes were leanly muscular without ever ruining the rich tone of his Guarneri violin. The drive and commitment of his playing was never absent. Only the second movement, a scherzo marked Vivacissimo, suffered slightly for lack of a conductor, the accompanying musicians not invariably negotiating the rhythmical obstacle course with ease.

Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin served as Obiso’s encore, in an immaculate and blistering account.

Two works for string orchestra opened the concert. The world premiere of Michael Gilbertson’s Mother Chords was one of them. This was actually a new version, made for Kaleidoscope, of the first movement of his String Quartet, which earned the composer a spot as finalist in last year’s Pulitzers. The piece was written in reaction to the 2016 election, after which, the composer says, he “felt a need to write something comforting.” It begins with a rhythm and chord progression, played in harmonics, similar to the pulsing motif which launches Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2, which indeed inspired it.

This opening gambit is rarely absent from the 11 minute proceedings, the composer putting it through changes, pulling it this way and that, bending it, and setting it off with strategic rests. A melody is introduced, unfolding over a span of the shorter rhythmic unit. Timbres are explored high and low, with the composer adding extra layers to this version. It makes a fine addition to the string orchestra repertoire.

An arrangement by Marianne Richert Pfau of Hildegard of Bingen’s “De Innocentibus. Rex Noster” was also heard, also immediately attractive. The chant is given to four different solo cellists in turn, supported simply by a plush cushion of sustained harmonies. It sounded like Arvo Pärt without the angst. A nice way to get started.

photo: courtesy of Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra