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Posts by Brandon Rolle

LA Phil at 100: A birthday concert remembers institution’s history.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s very first performance, Walt Disney Concert Hall hosted (among other events) a Centennial Birthday Celebration Concert this past week.

The concert was foremost a celebration of the philharmonic’s past, bringing together conductors emeriti Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen to join Gustavo Dudamel, with short promotional videos linking each maestro’s turn at the podium. A last-minute program change pushed Salonen to the opening of the concert, with an excellent performance of Lutosławski’s 4th Symphony–a piece commissioned by the Phil under Salonen’s direction and premiered with the orchestra under Lutosławki’s own baton in 1993. The 4th symphony is one of the LA Phil’s great contributions to the orchestral repertoire; the work understands how to make the orchestra resonate, while also exploring new territory both for the musicians and conductor. In that way, its success reminds me of the relationship that the LA Phil’s has built with Andrew Norman over the past few years.

Mehta followed Salonen, first with Wagner’s Overture from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and then with a somewhat unconvincing performance of Ravel’s La valse. Still, the audience of this particular event seemed more interested in Mehta’s mere presence than Ravel’s intricate layerings. Further, had these works opened the concert (and so preceded the Lutosławski) as planned, the flow would likely have been less awkward.

Current music director Gustavo Dudamel led the final set, starting with Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, which had some excellent moments, including a stunning lullaby, and featured several of the ensemble’s talented soloists. Dudamel was then joined by Mehta and Salonen for the premiere of a new commission by Daníel Bjarnason: From Space I Saw Earth. The piece, which uses all three conductors by splitting the ensemble into groups, is interesting in concept, exploring timelines and the compression and stretching of material (the piece was inspired by space exploration and the moon landing). In practice, though, while the choreography between the three conductors was interesting to watch, I’m not convinced that the three fully bought into the piece. As a result, there were interesting smears of texture, but the performance never quite achieved the level of detail or balance needed to give the audience much-needed landmarks to grab onto.

That being said, for what it was–a celebration with some music–the event was quite successful. It would have been hard to look around at all the talent, history, investment, and direction of the LA Phil without a heartfelt recognition of their significance to local and national arts community. At the same time, I could not ignore a thought which has become familiar this season: while there is certainly value to remembering its history and making bold marquis statements with famous names, works, and soloists, ultimately it is innovation that serves as the life-blood of the LA Phil, and which makes it relevant and important today.

LA Phil at 100: Looking Backward & Looking Forward

Thursday evening is the LA Phil’s Centennial Birthday Concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Recovering from a whirlwind previous season that saw volumes of new works, artists and commissions, this birthday concert looks to distill the Philharmonic’s past, present, and future into a tidy package. By bringing together conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Zubin Mehta, and Dudamel, the program highlights Los Angeles history from Stravinsky to Lutosławski, culminating with a bold glance into the future in the premiere of a newly-commissioned work by Daníel Bjarnason.

Bjarnason’s From Space I Saw Earth comes highly-anticipated, and rightfully so: the Icelandic composer has produced outstanding work in his residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, as well as in his collaborations with the LA Phil itself. But this new work pushes even those bounds, with all three of the towering conductors of the evening performing simultaneously on the new piece—a logistical undertaking rare in its conception, and made even more rare by the caliber of musicians involved. The idea is bold and beautiful, local and global, nostalgic and forward-looking, in a way that lends a sense of “ah, there she is” to the LA Phil that we know and love.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly to Bjarnason about the commission for From Space I Saw Earth, which is inspired (as many of his works are) by science and space. He says the piece plays on perspectives, the same musical material being stretched and compressed into parallel timelines which intersect and diverge over the course of the piece–me makes the analogy of how fermatas bring the breath back together in chorales, before they depart again. This effect is an interest reflected in much of his music, so the idea for multiple conductors presented a way to achieve it quite organically, albeit magnified by the considerable amount of freedom Bjarnason offers each conductor in how they move through the material. With this whole complex routine contained to the stage, the natural choreography of the performance, Bjarnason says, reinforces and dramatizes the effect of these independent sections diverging and converging.

The new work’s role in the program as a whole is well thought out. The freedom and resulting cumulative effect pairs well with the ad libitum sections granted to the conductor in the Lutosławski’s symphony (commissioned and premiered by the Phil in 1993 under the composer’s baton), which alternates smeared orchestral textures with tightly-coordinated passages. And, compared to the narrative drive of Stravinsky’s Firebird, I anticipate that Bjarnason’s rich sense of space and knack for detailed, bubbling orchestrations may wrap up the night with an opulent sonic blanket. Before any notes are even played, this concert already promises to be a fitting celebration of 100 years, to the day, since this philharmonic sprang to life, and a statement that it plans to lead us into the next 100.

LACO Season Opener: Martín makes new work feel like a classic, and a classic feel brand new.

Saturday’s opening concert inagurated a new era at Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra—one not only marked by a new conductor in Jaime Martín, but also a season that feels almost startlingly fresh in everything from its commissioning projects to its slick new logo and updated website.

LACO Director Jaime Martín with Andrew Norman PC: Michelle Shiers Photography

The season opened with the first installment of an Andrew Norman commission, aptly titled Begin. Norman’s writing was, expectedly, sensitive and immensely creative, with hocketing lines across the orchestra dissolving into a timbral stew before swirling and bubbling up into moments of coalescence. Norman’s particular brand of magic is creating a sense of impossible inevitability from even the most exploratory ideas, and Begin was no exception, arriving at intense, coordinated thrusts of sound that seem somehow simultaneously unimaginable and unavoidable. Like with his recent Sustain, in Begin Norman shows incredible maturity and restraint, always leaving a hint of his material devolving back into chaos. The orchestration was especially effective in articulating the drama of the piece, with quiet moments smeared thinly across the stage while tutti gestures are brought forward with thick, rich resonance; a conversational approach which helped reinforced the spirit of a concerto for chamber orchestra.

LACO director Jaime Marín with Anne Sofie von Otter PC: Michelle Shiers Photography

The performance by LACO was so lively and convincing that a newcomer might well have wondered what Berlioz and Beethoven were doing on the program of a new music ensemble. Anne Sofie von Otter was charming, but the Berlioz (and encores) that concluded the first half were effective, if unexceptional.  Martín managed the balance with von Otter’s soft mezzo-soprano voice quite well, lending the piece an easy nonchalance, and from a programming perspective, it was a sensible choice to follow the Norman (and seemed to resonate with many in the audience). Musically, though, it did not showcase the ensemble’s technical or musical potential, save a few of the cycle’s softest moments.

The performance of Beethoven Symphony No.7, on the other hand, was extraordinary. Martín brought his experience in the woodwinds section to his interpretation, bringing out Beethoven’s subtle lines and details as they move through the orchestra with incredible clarity. The work was precise and raucous, intimate and boisterous—all the dramatic contradictions that make Beethoven, well, Beethoven. And it was in this performance that Martín really showed the musical sensitivity that is his own magic, each adjustment he showed from the podium elicited a (somehow) more perfect music. From the minute details to the overarching form, LACO and Martín’s performance on the Beethoven was simply exquisite, and might be the best performance of it I have ever heard, live or recorded.

LACO conductor Jaime Martín PC: Michelle Shiers Photography

There are small things I could critique: the position of the second violin section really needs to be adjusted slightly to face the audience as they were much too quiet, and their sound, even when it cuts through, is muffled from being angled back towards the orchestra. The lack of young (or even middle-aged) audience members is also concerning, though LACO seems to be doing their part to reach out to younger audiences, and the Royce Hall performances certainly attract more young people to attend. But overall, what we learned from Saturday’s performance is that under Martín, LACO is an ensemble capable of making new works feel like established classics, and established classics feel brand new. Paired with an administration which is proving to have a nuanced understanding of the LA music scene and a real plan for the future, LACO is certainly the organization to watch this season.

Jaime Martín, flute virtuoso and conductor, takes the reins of LACO

LACO Music Director Jaime Martín PC: Ben Gibbs

LACO Welcomes Jaime!
Jaime Martín, Conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
September 28th, 8:00 pm at Glendale’s Alex Theater
September 29th, 7:00pm at Royce Hall

*See LACO.org for more information on open rehearsal, reception, and pre-concert festivities in honor of the opening of the season


On September 28th, flute virtuoso and conductor Jaime Martín will officially take the baton as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO is one of the institutions at the heart of the Los Angeles music scene, balancing excellent traditional programming with the commissioning of new works and a wildly adventurous SESSION series. The commencement of Martín’s role is, on the surface, a sensible import of the European tradition for an ensemble which shines in that repertoire—and certainly, this season does not shy away from tried-and-true major works, nor from utilizing Martín’s relationships with world-class soloists like Anne Sofie von Otter and Christian Tetzlaff. But there is more to this appointment than simply a conductor with deep ties to the global classical music scene: Martín is a sensitive and curious leader, whose passion for collaboration is already coming into focus for LACO. And in a moment when Los Angeles has an abundance of musical talent, creativity and energy, this combination might make Martín just the person to harness west-coast excitement into world-class refinement.

In anticipation of LACO’s opening concerts on September 28th and 29th, I was able to sit down with Martín to talk about his appointment as Music Director. He is charismatic and energetic, and he speaks about the ensemble and Los Angeles with a genuine spark in his eyes. Over the course of our conversation, the importance of relationships, trust, and freedom in his music-making emerged as clear through-lines. Looking at the programs and music of this coming season,  you get the sense that these are not just ideals, but foundational to the way he engages with and creates music.

With his background as a performer, it is natural that Martín treats his role at the podium with a deep sense of trust for the musicians in front of him. One of the things he values most, he says, is “if the musicians tell me after the concert that they had the feeling of being free; that they feel I let them breathe with the music.” And with a chamber orchestra of LACO’s caliber, that freedom has created some wonderful moments, already, under Martín’s baton. “There are no passengers in an orchestra, everybody is driving in a way,” Martín explains–and this core belief is evident in his responsiveness while leading the musicians, as well as in his commitment to bring world-class soloists and commission works to celebrate the ensemble.

Martín conducting LACO
PC: Jamie Pham

Which brings us to another facet of Martín’s relationship-building: Composers. Besides an impressive lineup of soloists, the new works presented this season include the beginning of a prolonged collaboration with Andrew Norman, a commission and SESSION curation for Missy Mazzoli, and collaborations with Juan Pablo Contreras, Christopher Rountree, and Derrick Spiva Jr., among others. An emphasis on Los Angeles talent is clear, but the half-dozen commissions (one for each of the six concerts Martín will conduct this season) articulate an overall support for living composers that itself feels Angeleno at heart. Of course, placing new works alongside staples of the canon risks the forced, awkward juxtapositions that other orchestras have tried in recent years, where intermission is marked by donors leaving and students arriving. But somehow LACO’s 2019-2020 program feels genuine in putting forth new and established works with equal esteem.

This sense of genuineness comes in part from an emphasis on building longer-term relationships with composers like Norman, Reid and Mazzoli, who are already becoming widely accepted as worthy companions to the great masters of old. But the intent to find and support new masterworks is also a broader impulse on Martín’s part, who hates the word “routine,” and sees what is happening in Los Angeles right now as a unique opportunity to bring great new works forward:

I don’t think we need to find excuses to program. We have to make people excited and curious; I think that is the starting point. In the end, the ideal situation is when you create a relationship of trust with the audience. Then, that audience looks at the program in five years and maybe they don’t recognize any of the pieces, but they say “you know what, I’m going to go because if they’re performing that, it must be worth listening to—and maybe I’ll be surprised!” If we could achieve that, it would be fantastic. But you cannot demand that trust, you have to earn it.

Martín conducting LACO
PC: Jamie Pham

The opening concert of the season is a clear signal of Martín’s seriousness about earning this trust: Andrew Norman—a Los Angeles composer who probably knows LACO better than any other—will premiere the first part of a three-year collaboration with the orchestra, alongside Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été  (featuring renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter), and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Fusing old and new, local and global, this season at LACO is poised to pick up the baton left by the LA Phil’s astonishing centennial season, and in doing so, it may help define the livewire that is the Los Angeles music scene today.

LACO: New and Old, Contrasts and Through Lines

Kahane on Mozart, March 23 at the Alex Theater in Glendale

   

Saturday’s “Kahane on Mozart” program showcased all the nuance and detail that make the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra so enjoyable to watch. Bookended by Mozart (Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K.449 and the “Linz” Symphony No. 36), the program introduced two new pieces—a 2013 work for marimba and strings by Gabriella Smith, and the world premiere of James Newton Howard’s Concerto for Cello & Orchestra. In several ways, the program achieved an aesthetic balance by placing new and old works in opposition to each other, but it was the clever through lines that connected them which made the program so effective.

On the surface, the 230-some-odd years between the works delineated a clear line: Mozart’s careful, partitioned musical architecture highlighted thematic hierarchy and development on a grand scale, where the modern works foregrounded texture in single, shorter, and more seamless trajectories. The landmarks conveyed with cadences and tonal shifts in the Mozart were instead signified with radical changes of technique for the marimba and strings in the Smith and Newton Howard. More than anything, though the balancing and juxtaposition of contrasts which defined the classical form were responded to with a static and meditative emotional purity that evolved patiently in the modern pieces. Based on the works’ respective lengths and styles, the program rightfully navigated a musical journey that—while briefly exploring new pathways—ultimately departed and concluded at the heart of the tradition.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Mancillas
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed the world premiere of prolific Grammy®-, Emmy®- and Academy® Award-nominated composer James Newton Howard’s Concerto for Orchestra & Cello, a LACO commission, led by Conductor Laureate Jeffrey Kahane on Saturday, March 23, at the Alex Theatre, and Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Royce Hall. Newton Howard’s work, underwritten by and dedicated to Maurice Marciano, was written for and spotlights LACO Principal Cello Andrew Shulman.

But beneath the surface were a number of connecting fabrics between the works. The soloist-driven nature of piano, cello, and marimba concertos all provided a similar, direct point of attention for the audience. The back-and-forth and layering in Newton Howard’s cello concerto suggested an appreciation of Mozart’s own conversational approach to the concerto. Perhaps most striking was the contemplative, textural exploration suggested in the inner “Andantino” of Mozart’s piano concerto, which evolved into shimmering, cinematic backgrounds in the Newton Howard, and then again into the lively, buzzing undulations in Smith’s Riprap. Having arrived at Smith’s assertive, cohesive textures of orchestration, a return to Mozart with the “Linz” symphony provided a natural sense of conclusion, employing the chamber orchestra, now, as truly a single instrument while also returning to Mozart’s bold gestural language and clear sense of form.

The performances themselves were clean, detailed, and respectful of each work’s nuanced language. Kahane performed and conducted the Mozart concerto from the piano, and while it provided some challenges—there was a lack of clarity in the piano sound (due to its positioning) and some disagreement between Kahane and the orchestra on the tempo of the third movement—it also provided for a few stunning moments of interaction, including a particularly moving performance of the concerto’s slow, inner movement. Andrew Shulman provided a sensitive performance of Newton Howard’s cello concerto, and while his sound occasionally had to battle the orchestration, his deep, rich tone and expressiveness commanded attention throughout, right through the breathtaking, dying murmurs of the work’s ending. Finally, Gabriella Smith’s Riprap balanced a modern aesthetic sensibility with a deep understanding of performative gesture: the music had a sense of studio composition, crossfading repeating, minimalist swaths, but the drama of the performance techniques (for both the marimba and the strings) made the performance impossible to take your eyes off of. Percussionist Wade Culbreath was perfectly tuned-in to this balanced approach by Smith, providing a virtuosic, physical performance while reinforcing the work’s sense of imperceptibly emerging and submerging textures.

The Mozart symphony was what you would expect for LACO: Clean, tight, pushing and pulling in all the right places. But it was also strongly highlighted by its context; the contemporary works demonstrated how challenging it really is to organize and develop a large-scale musical work, to present clear and concise musical ideas, to marry style with substance. Each composer took their own approach, but concluding with Symphony No.36 was an apt reminder of just how difficult it is to sound easy. For their part, LACO continues to make it appear effortless.

SESSION pintscher: How LACO Produced the Best New Music Concert in Los Angeles

Matthias Pintscher, curator
PHOTO CREDIT: Timothy Norris

SESSION pintscher

LACO in collaboration with Four Larks

Feb 28th at Mack Sennett Studios, Silverlake

Usually, when I go see the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, I am prepared to be reminded why the traditional concert format works: Sit quietly, face forward, let the nuance of an excellent performance do the work. Their programs include some new pieces and commissions, sure, but the effectiveness of the experience typically resides in a solid understanding of curating time and attention through a rather traditional approach to programming. And there is nothing wrong with that—Los Angles is already saturated with series interested in re-shaping the concert experience, from the experimental and timbral WasteLAnd, to intimate Tuesdays at Monkspace, to genre-dissolving Equal Sound. Hell, the Los Angeles Philharmonic itself is producing some of the most interesting concert experiences of any orchestra in the country between Noon to Midnight, and Green Umbrella. So, a collaboration with the relentlessly creative Four Larks to be held in a studio in Silverlake with a program that would make even the most insufferable hipster blush beneath a mustache of craft beer? Not typically what you would associate with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

But then, there was nothing typical about LACO’s event Thursday night. I’ll be clear at the outset: This was the most effective musical event I have been to in Los Angeles. In truth, it is one of the most outstanding performances I have seen anywhere, to such an extent that had it taken place in Berlin I would have left disheartened by the seeming impossibility of replicating its impact here in Los Angeles. But it did happen here, at the Mack Sennett Studios in Silverlake, and every element of the performance, from the space itself, to the guides, visuals, and music, tapped into something quintessentially and organically Angelino.

Alex Frederick, percussion, performing Grisey’s Stèle
PC Timothy Norris

The direction and design of Four Larks immersed the audience in a detailed bohemian soiree. Floor mats and a perimeter of chairs focused inward towards the center of the room, with a gentle tropical soundscape and olden-hollywood “guides” whose choreographed interactions helped dissolve any sense of waiting. Instead, the pre-concert period generated a calm curiosity and receptiveness among the audience. Materializing out of the pregnant quietness, the percussive rumblings of Grisey’s Stèle shifted back and forth from opposing corners of the room, and just like that, without the fluster of last-minute coughs and unwrapping lozenges, the program began.

(L-R) Gloria Cheng, piano, and Andrew Shulman, cello, perform Matthias Pintscher’s Uriel
PC Timothy Norris
(L-R) Margaret Batjer (back of head visible), violin, Andrew Shulman, cello, and Erik Rynearson, viola, perform Matthias Pintscher’s Study II for Treatise on the Veil
PC Timothy Norris

Matthias Pintscher, who curated the evening, spoke briefly before the remainder of the program, suggesting that the through-line of the evening was a certain receptiveness of the works themselves to the audience. This was certainly true, each work in the program was set in the space like a detailed yet reflective surface, taking on the atmosphere of its specific staging, the personality of the performers, but also the mood and mindset of the listener. Pintscher’s own contributions to the evening were particularly stunning. His shimmering, delicate string trio, Study II for “Treatise on the Veil,” was performed below textural, geometric projections, and utilized extremes of technique and quietness that demanded an unremitting focus on the part of the performers. His Uriel, a touching and personal duo for cello and piano, was set against a wash of white walls and lights in another partitioned space with a more traditional block of seating.

Matthias Pintscher conducts Ravel’s Three Poemes de Stéphane Mallarmé, featuring Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano 
PC Timothy Norris

The Audience shifting their chairs 180 degrees, the rear partition became home to live video projections, unveiling text from Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé imprinted across the guides’ bodies as the music unfolded under the direction of Pintscher and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. Providing a sense of organic conclusion, audience returned once more to the opening space of the studio, this time the solo percussion for Xenakis’ Rebonds a set in the center of the room. As the most transparent in its development, Rebonds a was a fitting end to the evening’s general trajectory from the senses to the brain: from the more abstract atmospheres of Grisey and Berg, through the reflective intimacy of Pintscher, to Ravel’s evocative vocal settings, Xenakis’ work elicited the first true sense of anticipatory structure as the percussive elements stacked and hastened. Progressing in a linear way to increasingly virtuosic and bombastic gestures, it was the perfect final work and reflected that LACO’s knack for programming was at work in the background, once again.

Kenneth McGrath, percussion, concludes the SESSION program with Xenakis’ Rebonds a,
for solo percussion
PC Timothy Norris

There were far too many visual elements, outstanding musicians, and collaborators involved in making the evening so successful to mention each here. But in taking the lead on this event, LACO, Pintscher, and Four Larks should be congratulated for the incredible degree of artistry and cohesion they created in SESSION. This was an event I will not soon forget, and that will challenge even the most adventurous program of any series in Los Angeles this year.

LACO Impress with Oundjian and Biss

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra sounded as good as ever under conductor Peter Oundjian on Sunday evening in Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles. Opening with the world premiere of Sarah Gibson‘s warp & weft served as a reminder of what LACO does so well: careful and consistent programming that feels balanced, approachable, and keenly aware of what repertoire best showcases their style and sound. Gibson herself proved to be a fitting choice for the commission of a new work, tempering the curious vocabulary of modern music with a thoughtful, intentional sense of timing and form. That sense of linear clarity in the work brought out the best in the ensemble, encouraging a commitment by the ensemble to even the most exploratory moments.

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings had a strong performance, though it may have suffered for the same reasons the Gibson succeeded; its more open approach to time and its compressed musical language sometimes were lost in translation (an issue shared with the original quartet form of this work, and which partially inspired its re-orchestration). Similar to the handling of Pärt’s meditative song on Dausgaard’s program with LACO earlier this season, Andante for Strings was emphasized by its pairing with a bold and formally-defined closer–this time Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Together these two works of the second half strengthened each other and reiterated a savvy attention to programming.

Guest pianist Jonathan Biss joined in a nuanced performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major (K.453). Sensitive and operatic, this concerto reminded the audience how strange and exploratory Mozart can be while remaining utterly polished and grounded by a musical language that is always conversational, always shimmering. Biss’ playing was precise and clear, particularly during the moments of Mozart’s treacherous–if subtle–rhythmic deceptions. Some of the details in the piano were lost in Royce Hall, though the intention of contrasts was clear in Biss’ playing; he might have benefited from some ears in the hall during rehearsal. Overall, though, the performance was well-balanced with the orchestra, and rounded out a program with a little something for everyone.

Adams and Glass falls short at the Phil, which may be good news for Los Angeles.

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

Cage’s Fragmented Opera, Re-Gifted to West Coast

As part of the LA Phil’s FLUXUS festival the LA Phil New Music Group teamed up with The Industry to produce John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2—a late work by the American Experimentalist that submits Europe’s great operatic repertoire to a radical fracturing and re-compiling that divorces all aspects of the music, production, and lighting from one another (and even from itself in the case of the orchestra and singers). As independent voices, music, lights, and staging overlay one another in a new, atomized context, the audience is left “wandering through the forest of opera” as director Yuval Sharon put it in a promotional interview with music advisor Marc Lowenstein.

Europeras 1 & 2 were originally conceived by Cage as a sending-back of the robust opera repertoire imported to American opera houses from Europe–albeit after undergoing a particularly Cagean postmodern treatment. Now staged at Sony Pictures Studios some 30 years later, it was perhaps appropriate that this imagining of the work introduced a further degree of de- and re-construction in which the audience was privy to action taking place off-stage, to the sides and behind the stage. This was effective in helping to incorporate the sounds of production (e.g., ropes and pulleys, rolling props, actors entering and exiting the stage) into the sound world of the work, though the pre-recorded tape component would have better suited the production had it been panned across the stage (perhaps even through separate speakers on stage) rather than across the audience. As it stood, the recording felt too removed from the action of the production to be perceived by the audience as an incorporated part of the work. The taped excerpts aside, though, the sound was good and The Industry rightfully resisted the urge to micromanage the balance of particular combinations for more traditional aesthetic effects. It was a clean and measured performance that carried a calm, well-rehearsed sense about it. If there was something to criticize musically, the performers themselves might have been given license for a bit more of the “delight in noticing” that Sharon and Lowenstein mention in the taped interview; instead of the wonder of unexpected moments of collision and harmony between elements, the various components felt very separate and compartmentalized.

Admittedly, I understand the impulse to let the individual components speak for themselves without heavy-handed coordination. But I think the trap that a work like Europeras confronts is that the absurdity can  easily become admired for its disjunct comedy rather than for the beauty of its composite subtleties. It is no doubt that a work of this length and style will have moments that are funny, chaotic, disjointed. But other moments must be allowed to breathe, to embrace, to demonstrate that beauty and art arise naturally and without our intervention if we are open to experiencing them.

To quote Sharon once more, as he described this sentiment so eloquently: “Opening up to chance allows us to see that our perspective of things being as they are limits us to the potential of how things can be.” At moments I felt the production focused too heavily on the importance of chance itself as an anti-rhetoric or aesthetic, rather than as a tool for exploring and embracing new coincidences that resonate with us as humans. The moments that did revel in that admiration of how things can be, of suprise, of resisting ego, though, were powerful.

Mälkki Curates a Glance Across the Pond

At this Tuesday’s installment of the Green Umbrella series, Susanna Mälkki led the LA Phil New Music Group in a program of some of the freshest avant-garde voices from across the pond. Representing composers from Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Czech Republic, the works shared a certain foregrounding of detail and reservedness that resonated with the spirit of the mid-late century European avant-garde. And yet, each composer brought a distinct style and set of tricks to the night; the result was a well-curated program that was both challenging and rewarding.

The first two works of the evening defined the outer ends of the night’s spectrum. Francesco Filidei’s Lamento for organ offered a murky display of the sonic boundaries of the organ, from earth-rumbling lows to shimmering flourishes smeared by the hall’s natural reverberance. On the other hand were six (of the dozen) songs from Arnulf Herrmann’s chamber song cycle, The Call. Marc Lowenstein stepped in to conduct on the Herrmann, joined by baritone Sean Michael Plumb who was excellent, both in the quality of his voice and the artistic choices he made to convey the longing, fear, and paralysis of the text. Where the Filidei approached an abstract and observational piece of sound art, Herrmann’s work invoked a more traditional approach to both the overarching form and the vocal writing—an effective choice given the content and medium.

The remaining works lived somewhere between, distinguished less by difference of intention than by their subtle sonic magic tricks (partially responsible for the program conveying a strong sense of European rather than American avant-garde). Rounding out the first half was Lotta Wennäkoski’s Hele, an eccentric and energetic respite from the broodiness of the first two works. Wennäkoski utilized the slide whistle amid frantic and agile ensemble writing to sometimes atmospheric, sometimes cartoonish, but always surprising effect. In Miroslav Srnka’s Overheating, it was instead the sweeping percussion and the accordion sustaining through musical ebbs that charged the sound world of the ensemble with something extra. Both works demonstrated careful attention to orchestration and technique on the part of the composers, which the LA Phil New Music Group and Mälkki highlighted with clear, transparent performances.

The standout of the program was the final work, Yann Robin’s Übergang II. It too employed some tricks—not only in the use of the piano, percussion, and harp but also in the combinations of extended techniques used throughout the ensemble—but what enraptured the audience was the genuineness of its musical gestures and ideas; Robin’s writing felt less like an artifact of the potential sounds embodied within an instrumentation, and more an effort to musically approximate something more personal, emotionally complicated, and human. There was a lot of the composer in the work, so to speak, which is often absent in modern music (and perhaps why it can feel alienating to the audience), and the ensemble (too) seemed moved by this connection. The result was a performance equally poised, yet infused with a certain emotional weight that encouraged a bit more risk on the part of the ensemble. That risk combined with the score’s intelligent use of textures and careful timing of events to produce an outstanding performance that embodied so much of the tension embedded in the avant-garde; how (or if) to remember the past, how (or if) to proceed in a tradition.