Jennifer Koh and Ensemble LPR helped celebrate the five-year anniversary of (Le) Poisson Rouge Friday night, with a lively program of works by John Zorn, Charles Wuorinen and Ludwig van Beethoven. The club-like atmosphere of LPR was in full swing before the show began, waiters ferrying salads and glasses of wine as percussionists adjusted their instruments on stage under colored blooms of light.

Jennifer Koh © Juergen Frank
Jennifer Koh
© Juergen Frank

First on the program was John Zorn’s Passagen, written in 2011 for solo violin. Zorn’s trademark primal scream was clearly visible in the background of his phrasework, and nowhere was this more true than in the opening bars. In the details of the performance Koh demonstrated unmitigated mastery of her instrument, particularly the moments of simultaneous tremolo and left-hand pizzicato. Unfortunately the microphones used on the violin had the effect of de-emphasizing some of the dramatic effects Koh achieved, especially damped pizzicato punctuations that were almost completely lost. As the performance progressed, however, Koh was able to project a depth of phrasing that compensated for any shortfall in the acoustic design.

The second piece on the program was Charles Wuorinen’s 2006 Spin 5, a concerto for violin and chamber ensemble written expressly for Jennifer Koh. Led by Tito Muñoz and with the composer in attendance, Ensemble LPR’s verve and sensitivity left little to be desired. The energy of the music came in no small part from the choice of instrumentation, which was a particularly winds-heavy take on a symphony orchestra. Again, the dining-room atmosphere afforded a few distractions, with finely-wrought orchestration and performance occasionally buried under the abrupt wash of the bar’s soda gun. In the second movement, the performance came down to the lyrical rendering of jagged lines, and that tension did good work in sustaining the performance through to the end. In both movements, but more so in the first, the gestures of orchestration and the melodic lines were actually quite standard in terms of lyrical evocation; only the pitch content, and at times the articulations, were “avant-garde” in a recognizable way.

Finally, a stirring if unorthodox rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 rounded out the evening. The more standard distribution of instruments (ie. a more string-heavy sound) compared to the Wuorinen worked to the benefit of both pieces; by virtue of this sequential sleight of hand, the contrast in ensemble sounds made Beethoven’s chestnut sound fresh and invigorating after the intellectually rigorous Spin 5. As the music proceeded, the congenital dryness of the performing space and the reduced section sizes gave the impression of a miniature, a concise sketch that knows its limits and works within them.

As the audience settled into the rhythm of the symphonic form, it was hard not to see the apparatus of high culture at work. The usually club-like lighting was replaced by sharp white on the concert stage, with the audience in darkness. Perhaps it was because the dining and drinking had died down, but also there was much less intrusion by industry noise. The particularity of performing a work like this in a space like LPR appears in stark relief when a server can crack open your can of PBR at the recap in Beethoven’s first movement.

The young Tito Muñoz deserves a further mention as the inaugural Music Director of LPR’s in-house orchestra. Only formed in November of last year, Ensemble LPR represented itself well Friday night, displaying a well-rehearsed sound and an ease of execution that bespoke the talents of Mr Muñoz as a leader as well as an artist. Even given the breadth of experience he has already achieved, we can expect even more great things from this conductor after his 30th birthday than before.