Review: Simone Porter Plays Mendelssohn with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

December 17, 2015, 10:18 AM · The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra delivered an evening of energetic and well-styled playing on a rainy Sunday night at UCLA's Royce Hall, with guest conductor Peter Oundjian and violinist Simone Porter, called in at the last minute to sub for flu-stricken Stefan Jackiw.

Porter, 19, played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with great energy and poise. Porter, who earlier this year received an Avery Fischer Career Grant and debuted with the LA Phil, is a current student of Robert Lipsett at the Colburn School.

Simone Porter
Simone Porter.

A regal stage presence in gold, Porter took the first movement at an unhurried pace, playing with accuracy and, at first, some caution. Her individual voice seemed to strengthen as the concerto unfolded, as did her connection with the orchestra. If Mendelssohn can lean either Romantic or Classical, her interpretation was on the Romantic side. The last movement suited her especially well, and she seemed thoroughly at home with its flourishes and fast spiccato. Her enthusiasm pulled her ahead of the orchestra a few times, but not for long. The exciting ending inspired an immediate standing ovation in the audience.

For the shoulder-rest geeks in this audience: I began to wonder, after she had to wipe off her shoulder a few times, if she was using a shoulder rest. She was, but just barely, it was a little round sponge attached to the back of the violin.

As much our beloved Mendelssohn Violin Concerto seems like a fairly common choice in concert, the audience seemed to hear it with fresh ears. Afterwards I overheard several groups of audience members talking excitedly about how they'd forgotten what a great piece that was, and how much they'd like to dig out some old recordings and listen again. Nice!

As for the rest of the concert, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played with a satisfying mix of spirit and discipline under the direction of guest conductor Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, who was making his debut performance with the group. They showcased a good variety of orchestral colors, using Bartók's unique palette from in his 1939 "Divertimento for Strings." The piece started with rhythmic drive and direction; then by contrast, the second movement began like barely rippling water -- still and stuck. A great menace seemed to progress through that movement before the third movement erupted in something like part-country dance, part-bee swarm.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 is of course much more traditional than Bartók, and compared to other Beethoven Symphonies, less-played. Speaking before the concert, Oundjian quoted Berlioz about the symphony's second movement: that it seems so beautiful and poetic that it must have come straight from the angels. Indeed, that movement captures something composers rarely achieve: sun-dappled optimism, expressed with beauty and elegance. Beautiful music gravitates toward sadness; happy music tends toward frivolity -- true optimism in music is the product of a master.

As for LACO under Oundjian, I found myself thinking, this is why we go to live concerts: for all the human energy onstage and off, which could never be captured in a pair of earbuds or even a good set of speakers. This Beethoven was at times tidy and Classical, and at times juicy and energetic. A highlight was the quirky and offbeat third movement, where Oundjian seemed the perfect coordinator of rhythmic activities: spare in his movements, yet thoroughly detailed.

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