Andrew Norman’s star has been on the rise recently, and last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, curious listeners got a taste of what all the fuss is about. The LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, opened their program with the first movement of Play, a work he wrote for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2013. (The Phil will be playing the complete work in their next season.) While the movement’s designation as “Level One” may seem whimsical, the music is anything but. Without preamble, it plunges into a skittish, disjointed soundscape, an inhuman maelstrom of digital glitch and grain. There are no electronic instruments in the orchestra, but there might as well have been: the Norman is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to making live players sound like MIDI simulations.
Mixed in with the frenetic tumult are several slower interludes, but even here tenderness is not forthcoming. These interludes feel like examinations of the seams of something that has been pulled apart, as though Norman has stripped away all the flashy graphics of a big-budget video game sensation to show us not the human beings who poured their hearts into making it but the dry code they had written instead. Nevertheless, towards the end something human does seem to be trying to emerge. Several times an aching, arcing line rises up from the depths of the orchestra, a warm gesture that struggles at every moment to retain its integrity in the face of the digital wash, a feeble signal repeatedly lost to onslaughts of noise. Towards the end there is a brief moment of triumph when the woodwinds and brass burst into a Higdon-esque fanfaric dance, but the percussion — who, as per Norman’s program note, have been “playing” the orchestra in much the same way that the conductor “plays” the percussionists and the score “plays” the conductor — join forces in a coordinated attack, forcing the dance higher and higher until it disintegrates into a panicked mess, leaving only a few blips and bloops to bring the piece to a grim, heartless close.
Exhaustion reigns at the start of the next piece on the program, Alberto Ginastera’s first piano concerto. (Sergio Tiempo covered the ferociously demanding solo part from memory with admirable panache.) The first movement is essentially an accompanied cadenza for the soloist, and it shifts easily and casually between heavy, groaning interludes that barely move and whirlwind outbursts of helter-skelter activity. Although resolutely 12-tone in conception, there are repeated hints of late Romanticism peeking out from just below the musical surface. They never fully blossom — a harsh dissonance always drives them away — but their lurking presence adds an air of almost familiarity to an otherwise astringent score.
Rustled whispers dominate the second movement, which picks up in tempo but drops in volume to the very edge of audibility. Ginastera called the movement a “hallucinatory scherzo”, but given the way twists and winks out of sight, it’s more a mirage than a hallucination, the shimmer of air over asphalt on a scorching summer’s day. Disney Hall has the unfortunate effect of amplifying noise from the audience, and while that’s often inconsequential, here there were times where the music on stage was considerably quieter than the ambient volume of the house, causing several of the quieter flutterings to disappear completely, ghosts imagined instead of observed.
In the expansive third movement, calm reigns supreme. An opening viola solo leads to an impassioned outburst, but the subsequent music is sparse and quiet, a pointillistic wash of scattered tones. It is almost as if Ginastera has pulled apart a single one of Norman’s twitchy pixels and found an entire world to explore inside, stretching a single moment out towards eternity.
Coming directly on the heels of this gaunt meditation, the finale bursts forth with explosive vigor, a blistering, relentless toccata that calls to mind the thunderous scherzo of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. The program notes quote Ginastera’s claim that “[t]here are no more folk melodic or rhythmic cells” in the music of his piano concerto, but the music of the finale has more than a few echoes of his earlier nationalistic ballets. Many of its practitioners might push back against this claim, but serial music is confined to a narrow emotional range. Its powers of joy and catharsis are limited, and when it tries to overstep those bounds, it often falls flat. Ginastera recognizes how tightly he is hemmed in by the musical language he is using, and doesn’t try to burst out of this box. Instead, he explores every inch of it and insists, resolutely and unapologetically, that even in these tight confines, there is still room to celebrate, to dance.
After the modernist onslaught of the first half, the second was a bit of a let-down. This half opened with John Williams’s Soundings (initially slated to start the program, but switched with Play at the last minute), a piece written to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in 2003. I wanted to like it. Many in the classical community have an anti-populist bias that all film composers are inherently hacks, and I often find myself defending people like Williams, because I do think that much of his work is legitimately great. Unfortunately, Soundings isn’t. It feels half-baked, as though Williams couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the piece to be. At twelve minutes in length, it’s a little too long to be a simple celebration, but a little too short to fully grapple with all the material that Williams has in play. Especially with the Ginastera so fresh in our ears, the dissonances sounded wan and half-hearted, wrapped in cloying softness to avoid offending those with more conservative tastes. Had it opened the concert as originally planned, it might have held up better, but slotted in where it was it wound up falling rather flat. (If Soundings is ammunition for those dead set against film music, the encore was a strong rejoinder: A searing rendition of the “Love Theme” from Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, an agonizing mix of loss and desire. I can’t help but wish that that had opened the second half instead.)
Still, Soundings did provide a nice transition from the caustic world of Ginastera to the diatonic evenness of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I confess that I still prefer the lightness and transparency of the original chamber version, but there’s something to be said for the power that the full orchestra can bring to the brasher moments of the score. There were a few moments where the ensemble seemed on the verge of losing cohesion — despite its outwards simplicity, it’s a surprisingly tricky piece to put together — but on the whole the Phil gave a rousing account of an iconic work in the canon of American concert music.