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.
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.
A few months ago we heard the premiere of Daniel Bjarnason‘s Qui Tollis at the LA Phil’s Noon To Midnight festival (review here). Tomorrow, the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet brings the piece back to LA at the release concert for their album BEYOND. In the third of our series of exclusive videos, Daniel and the members of the quartet discuss the work.
Beyond that, Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions:
In the video about Qui Tollis, LAPQ member Nick Terry describes it as having a combination of serenity and brute power. I’d say that about a lot of your other work too, particularly Emergence, which also came out recently. Is that balance something you actively strive for, or does it happen almost on its own as a result of your voice and taste?
I would say it is something that is a part of my own voice, like you say, and having realized that I don’t really fight against it but am aware of it. Sometimes I want to emphasize that characteristic and sometimes not.
You mentioned looking to other percussion works for inspiration on this one. Are there any particular inspirations, or pieces you discovered while listening, that readers can also check out?
I would like to mention one piece in particular that I completely fell in love with which is The So Called Laws of Nature by David Lang.
What excited you most about working on this piece with LAPQ?
I felt that they were really willing to go the extra mile to bring the piece to life. Apart from being fantastic musicians they have a wonderfully curious and positive attitude. For example the idea of using electronic triggers was entirely theirs and I thought it worked great.
You’ve been doing a lot in LA lately. What attracts you to the scene here? What’s different about it from Reykjavik or the other places where you are most active?
I’ve had the great fortune of developing a relationship with the LA Phil and I continue to work with them regularly which is an absolute privilege and joy. I have also worked the Calder quartet which is LA based and have been in touch with many other wonderful musicians and artists in the city. I find that there is this energy and curiosity in LA and a general willingness to experiment that I find invigorating. In some ways it reminds me of Reykjavik in that there is a feeling of everything being possible. I think that is what is attracting so many artists to the city now.
Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.
First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.
Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.
Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.
But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.
Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.
Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.
Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.
Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.
Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.
This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.
The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.
A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.
On Sunday, March 4, the American Youth Symphony and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus will jointly premiere Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s The Isle is Full of Noises at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Bjarnason’s music is, if I do say so myself, damn amazing (scroll down to the video below for proof).
AYS just sent out a newsletter with an interview with Bjarnason about the new piece. They also very kindly gave me permission to reprint it here. Enjoy!
Did you play in a youth orchestra growing up or sing in a children’s chorus?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much experience with youth orchestras as a kid, since my main instrument was piano. However I managed to sneak into the school orchestra sometimes when they needed extra percussion. My main instrument on those occasions was the bass drum, and I consider the highlight of my percussion career playing Tchaikovsky 4 on the bass drum. Later, when I was studying conducting in Freiburg, Germany, I got to play a lot of piano and celeste in the university orchestra, which was great for me, both as conductor and as a composer. I have a great deal of experience with choir singing, and sang in a chorus both as a kid and as a teenager. There is a rich choir tradition in Iceland and many people who are not musicians sing in choirs.
Please tell us about some of your recent projects.
I recently released an album called Sólaris, which is a piece of music that I wrote with Ben Frost. We performed and recorded Sólaris with the Sinfonietta Cracovia from Krakow, Poland. It is a piece based on the original story of Stanislav Lem and the movie by Andrei Tarkovsky (some people might recognize the Hollywood remake by Soderbergh).
Is this your first premiere in the United States?
This is my first large scale premiere in the US. I believe my only other US premiere was when I played a small piano piece that I had written on John Schaefer’s radio show in New York City a couple of years ago.
What would you say about The Isle Is Full of Noises to the orchestra, to introduce them to your work, before the first read through?
I would talk about the words of Shakespeare, and tell them how when I was writing this I imagined the orchestra to be the Island on which The Tempest happens, this enchanted island that has many sounds and moods and atmospheres, from very gentle and beautiful to the most violent and raging.
What is the audience going to experience?
One of the things that I find wonderful about music is that everyone can experience it in their own way, and a piece of music can have many different meanings to many different people. I don’t want to say what is right or wrong and I don’t even believe there is such a thing. This is also the reason why I usually don’t write program notes.
Now, if you could invite anyone you like to this concert, who would you invite?
Shakespeare. And my grandfather.
What is next on your calendar? What other commissions are you working on?
I am working on a piece for the LA Phil that will be premiered in October, conducted by John Adams as part of the Green Umbrella series. Then there is a new chamber opera on the horizon, my first opera. But currently I am rehearsing La Bohème at the Icelandic Opera, which opens on March 16th.
For complete details, and to order tickets, to the March 4 concert, visit aysymphony.org/concert-calendar/current-season/march-4-2012.