On Friday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed music by two of the most prominent American composers of late twentieth-century classical music: John Adams and Philip Glass. The evening sported a short-ish program with a single work by each composer, first Adams’ Grand Pianola Music followed by the world premiere of Glass’ Symphony No.12, “Lodger,” which borrows its lyrics from David Bowie and Brian Eno and functions more as an orchestral song cycle than a traditional symphonic work. The weight of names on the program created an obvious buzz in the concert hall, but artistically the performances fell short of the quality that the LA Phil has established as a (perhaps unrealistic) new norm with this centennial season.
The performances were not especially poor, though they did suffer some messy moments—particularly in regards to rhythmic and balance issues. The musicians of the LA Phil sounded, predictably, good, but the overall vision was unclear and felt somewhat stale compared to their typical programming. For the works themselves, Grand Pianola Music might be a stronger piece were it ended after the slow second movement, and Glass’ new work seemed to lack the gradations of detail that usually propel repetitive minimalist textures. Of course, both had compelling moments that epitomized the style and orchestration of these composers’ respective generations. And more generally, a short orchestral concert comprised completely of living composers should be reason enough to celebrate; at many large institutions, this would be a headlining program (and a major achievement). The Los Angeles Philharmonic, however, has sent a precedent that is becoming increasingly clear: local, young, and forward-looking programs that build excitement and interest in orchestral music in the twenty-first century. Of course, this is the same orchestra creating buzz with recent performances of Brahms, and who excelled on ambitious, imported modernist programs under Susanna Mälkki. So why did this program—at least in the opinion of this listener—fail? Law of averaging. The names were big, but Adams’ musical direction was very weak. The performers were good, but the program lacked variety. Perhaps more than anything, the idea of “casual Friday” is enticing, but this evening asked too much of an audience by placing two (nearly) post-minimalist pieces, each lasting thirty to forty-five minutes, on either end of an awkwardly-placed and awkwardly-lengthed intermission. This failure, though is excellent news. To me, it indicates that as an institution, the LA Phil has tapped into something with their artistic programming that goes far beyond simply plopping historically important names onto a marquis. They have their collective finger on the pulse of how to achieve truly relevant programming; smart, ambitious, and risky music, with a touch of production magic to instill the audience with a sense of witnessing a beginning rather than touring the museum. This program’s shortcomings, to me, served as a reminder of this incredible standard that has been developed here in Los Angeles