Saturday night’s premiere concert of Orchestra Nova LA – formerly known for 70 years as the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra – was poignant, feisty, sexy, and a revelatory showstopper. It is no wonder this award-winning community orchestra continues to flourish under the baton of Maestro Ivan Shulman and through its able board led by President Myles Lee.
As befitting a Veterans Day concert at Culver City’s Veterans Memorial, the heartfelt acknowledgement of vets in the audience was followed by spirited and soulful renditions of the national anthem and “America the Beautiful”. The honoring of veterans continued with the California premiere of Adrienne Albert’s Homeward Bound. Ms. Albert stated that this work, first begun in 2018 and re-orchestrated for Nova LA, was written to “honor the young men and women who have fought so valiantly in the name of our country – from the Civil War to today’s senseless wars.” Musically, the composition is also an homage to Americana composers and compositions. It includes hints of Copland’s Rodeo and Billy the Kid, the familiarity of movie music for westerns and war films, and nods to Charles Ives’ use of folk songs with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Ms. Albert’s work also has a sweet panache all its own, ably performed by the 80-member orchestra. For Ms. Albert, this concert was especially moving and joyful as she expressed gratitude both for the skill of the musicians and the “good acoustics” of the venue.
Latin energy was also featured on the program. Four ballet pieces by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla – including his Flamenco-inspired “Danza Ritual del Fuego” from El Amor Brujo – were approached with flair and lyricism by Maestro Shulman, the musicians, and the castanets-wielding percussionist. Ravel’s sultry Bolero – a masterpiece of understated and hypnotic sexiness until the final crashing chords of the crescendo — was attacked with enthusiasm and skill. These compositions are so powerful, and it was such a privilege to hear them live, that I (as a retired dancer) was inspired to immediately rewatch Siudy Garrido’s spellbinding and virtuosic flamenco dance version of El Amor Brujo (2015) and Torvill and Dean’s legendary ice dance performance of Bolero that won the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal and changed ice dancing forever – both of these dances being significant testaments to the potency of de Falla and Ravel.
The undisputed revelation and showstopper of the evening, though, was Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor and the orchestral debut of 15-year-old violin prodigy, Karolina Protsenko. Ms. Protsenko, a high school freshman and student at the Colburn music school in downtown Los Angeles, is known to millions of social media followers world-wide and has been playing publicly since before the age of ten. While much of her public focus is on contemporary music, her father noted that they believed “this was a great and important experience” for her to play classical and with orchestra. This concerto is among the easier to learn for a young violinist and for the symphony, but it is also among the most difficult to play well: E minor can be an unforgiving key for violin, and the three movements are technically demanding, are often fast and furious, alternate between attack and lyricism, and together are almost 30 minutes long. No small feat for any professional violinist or symphony, let alone a youngster and a community ensemble. Ms. Protsenko and Nova LA, though, were more than up to the challenge. From the moment Ms. Protsenko drew her first note, we knew something extraordinary was about to happen. She played with verve and passion, visibly transported and swaying to the music as she played, and was both commanding and commanded by Mendelssohn’s sprightly melodies and deep resonances. With her ever-watchful eye on Maestro Shulman and occasional flashes of humor to the audience, this was a worthy debut for Ms. Protsenko and it is to be hoped that she continues to hone her already-mature classical chops.
The orchestra also rose to the bar set by Ms. Protsenko, playing with finesse and deep focus as they were led though the movements by the sensitivity and fire of Maestro Shulman’s baton. Ms. Protsenko commented afterwards that, during rehearsals, she had turned to the Maestro and asked if the orchestra could play the allegros even a little faster. “It happened twice,” she confessed with a good-natured giggle and in complete camaraderie with her fellow musicians. “And, yes, they did.” Later, Board President Lee noted that the musicians’ ever-increasing “enthusiasm and skill have allowed us to play pieces we never would have considered a few years ago.”
Which brings us back to the motives for the new name and image of this decades-old orchestra. There were a few reasons, as explained by Mr. Lee. The orchestra has long since expanded its membership beyond the old requirement of being medical doctors, and includes musicians from all walks of life ranging from college students to grandparents. Maestro Shulman, along with the board, have been deeply committed to highlighting composers, compositions, and musicians that are new, obscure, or lesser known – a boon to the music world and a huge service to the community at large. It was time for this group — 2020’s Best Community Orchestra (American Prize) with Maestro Shulman awarded Honorable Mention in Conducting, and a participant in the new statewide California Festival this month that showcases new works – to level up its profile and fundraising abilities with a fresh new name befitting the fresh and refreshing image of this local Los Angeles treasure.
Fiona Nagle, PhD, is a retired professional ballet dancer from the West Side of Los Angeles. She is a freelance arts journalist and also represents world-class classical and niche musicians and dancers. www.SustainableVisionsCoaching.com / www.CadenzaArtists.com.