By Truman C. Wang
Photo credit: Classical Voice
Unusual among amateur orchestras, the three-year-young Vicente Chamber Orchestra operates on a unique business model. Its musicians are lawyers, doctors, tech executives, etc. – serious dilettantes who dream of playing in an orchestra, and who have the deep pocket to hire coaches from the ranks of the LA Phil, as well as engage the three international soloists playing in tonight’s all-Beethoven concert (October 5).
Clearly, judging from the low audience turnout, this fiscally-sound ensemble is not playing for paychecks. And before you make snarky comments like “all that glitter is not gold”, let me assure you that these amateur musicians gave a perfectly respectable performance and were nothing to sneer at. (If you know the Van Cliburn Amateur Competition or the amateur conductor/businessman Gilbert Kaplan, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.)
The all-Beethoven program opened with a compelling Coriolan Overture, full of heroic drive and tragic pathos – a promising start.
The Triple Concerto is a haunting work with a prominent part for the cello; it is one we can hear only very seldom in a major concert hall, let alone on a regional stage with an amateur orchestra. And it does demand first-class players who can play well as a chamber ensemble and also as soloists of great skill. The cellist, in particular, has to spend a lot of his time in the highest reaches—Beethoven's answer to the problem of keeping him audible; and he must sing out with fine tone and as if intonation up there were no problem whatever.
The three soloists on this occasion were all exemplary and backed by an excellent accompaniment from the VCO and conductor Zain Khan (himself a tech CEO and graduate of USC’s Thornton School of Music). I particularly enjoyed the clear staccato of the orchestral second violins soon after the work's start and the way pianist Wendy Chen emphasized the lower notes in the left hand, so that the changes were clear. Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, performing on the famed Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù (1741), commanded a wide expressive range and a sumptuous, silken tone. However, it was cellist Julian Schwarz who had the most challenging, high-flying passages throughout the concerto, and he played them all with impeccable intonation and artistry. All three soloists jostled with one another playfully in the exuberant closing Rondo alla Polacca.
After the intermission, Beethoven Symphony No. 4 unfolded in a congenial vein, with good tempo and crisp articulation. The orchestral playing was clean and cogent; the conducting highly charged yet precise. In the first movement, maestro Khan kept the slow introduction transparent and the bass-line clear, leading to a joyfully uplifting Allegro. The textural clarity extended to the fast-lane fourth movement finale, where the bubbly clarinet that busies around the second subject could clearly be heard.
A word about the venue – the Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College. It’s too small for the VCO’s 51 musicians, leaving the instruments with little room to breathe and resonate their warmth. Adding the three soloists did not improve things: the cello lacked body; the piano sounded tinny; only the violin gave pleasure – for its $16 million price tag, it has to sound good in any room.
The audience, many of whom also ‘amateur’ concertgoers themselves, could benefit from coaching on when to applaud and when not to use their smart devices. Audience education is sorely lacking all across America in small and big venues. This is not a matter of snobbish elitism, but basic etiquette that all hard-working performing artists, and seasoned concertgoers alike, would appreciate.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.