LA Chamber Orchestra celebrates 40th anniversary

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For the last century in classical music, the dominant force has been the large symphony orchestra of about one hundred musicians. Smaller chamber orchestras have worked hard to carve out audiences in the shadow of their larger, more flashy siblings. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has done just that for four decades. The orchestra opens its season and celebrates its 40th anniversary Saturday night. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Musician Allan Vogel has 35 years of oboe playing under his belt with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. Thousands of people have heard his solos. But possibly millions more know his face.

Just off the Harbor Freeway, north of the Staples Center in downtown L.A., is the Southland's most visible monument to classical music. It's an eight-story tall, 15-year-old mural of Vogel, in tux and tails, flanked by 10 fellow L.A. Chamber Orchestra musicians. Vogel says driving that stretch of road still makes him nervous.

Allan Vogel: When I'm down there I sort of don't look at myself. I don't want to get in an accident, the headline will read, "Oboist Killed Near His Own Picture!" (laughs)

Guzman-Lopez: Vogel, the mural, and the ensemble have been regional and international ambassadors for classical music. About 25,000 people, not counting European audiences, attended performances last year.

The chamber orchestra calls almost a dozen Southland venues home, including Glendale's Alex Theater and the Madrid Theater in Canoga Park. In 1968, its founders organized the L.A. Chamber Orchestra to capitalize on the large number of classical musicians working for Hollywood and teaching part-time.

[Oboe playing]

Guzman-Lopez: Not much has changed. 24-year-old oboist Jenny Johnson, one of Allan Vogel's students, runs through a section of Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella at Vogel's studio in the Colburn conservatory of music.

[Oboe playing finishes]
Vogel: Good, very good. Just make sure you're really round on the low D.

Guzman-Lopez: What has changed is the path to professional music careers. Vogel didn't audition. Two influential ears caught his woodwind notes, and he was in. His student, Johnson, has auditioned a lot. She says she wants to be a pro like her teacher, but it's going to be tough.

Jenny Johnson: What worries me is the lack of jobs available and the amount of people that appreciate what we do. I mean, there are people that appreciate us, but that is not as large of a population as it used to be.

Guzman-Lopez: Classical music promoters in L.A. are working on that. For now, Johnson's putting in time in orchestral farm teams. In the last couple of years she's played part-time for the Colorado Symphony and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. The major leagues are likely years away. Oboist Allan Vogel's had the same neighbors in the chamber orchestra for a dozen years, and more.

[Orchestra plays]

Guzman-Lopez: Founding conductor Neville Marriner leads a recent rehearsal at downtown L.A.'s Zipper Hall. He's in town for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's anniversary gala. Notable soloists will play for the orchestra this year, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The musicians are scheduled to perform three times in a just-finished concert hall at Santa Monica College.

[Orchestra plays]

Guzman-Lopez: Marriner, an international conducting and recording legend, says the L.A. Philharmonic and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra behind it have made Los Angeles a very sophisticated classical music town.

Neville Marriner: So that working in Los Angeles was not just coming to play for the cinema or something like that. It was a musical situation that any respectable musician would love to belong to.

Guzman-Lopez: Marriner leads the L.A. Chamber Orchestra tomorrow night at Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium, in a program of Schumman/Chihara, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Kodaly.