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.
With this week’s kickoff of LA Fest and the LA Phil’s centennial season, the country’s most ambitious orchestra offered a program reflective of the past, as well as an ambitious glance into the future.
Sandwiched between two modern works, a casual and tight-knit performance of Beethoven’s triple concerto (Op. 56) featured Martin Chalifour on violin, Robert deMaine on Cello, and Joanne Pearce Martin on piano. The soloists conversed easily with a Dudamel-led orchestra, and what the performance may have lacked in theatrical sparkle it gained in a focus that highlighted its more intimate chamber elements. It was a fitting pairing with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations, which itself constituted a study of clever orchestrations navigated as only a conductor could, but which was particularly notable for the chamber groupings that evolved within the sizable aggregate forces of his instrumentation. Salonen’s work betrays a deep love for romantic orchestral music, but with a modernist vision that sometimes growls, sometimes shimmers in stunning, delicate, intimacy.
The second half was dedicated to the premiere of Andrew Norman’s Sustain, a monumental work of fresh, forward-looking ritual in the deconstruction of sound. While the sound world of Sustain gives a nod to the mid-century orchestra, the form throughout feels daringly original—not necessarily singular in its approach, but in Norman’s ability to immerse in the hypothetical and, more importantly, to trust in his own musical instincts once there. The result is a music that is nostalgic for a time unknown; a remembering from the future where some fiber of our concert experience remains, becomes sacrosanct, while others dissolve away in the solvent of time and relevance. What remains is something primal in its force and refined in its treatment, a reimagining of how our relationship to communal listening might evolve. I, for one, hope I am around to see that day; to reminisce of Sustain and what came after in a newly-antiquated, corrugated steel shipwreck on the corner of 1st and Grand.
As Pauchi Sasaki and Claire Chase meandered toward stage in darkness from the back of Walt Disney Concert Hall, handheld lights dimly illuminated their dresses. The sparse flickering revealed patchwork sonic robes, constructed of speaker arrays and emanating curious noises from the far reaches of the hall. Their spatial wandering journeyed patiently towards a flute and violin resting on opposite flanks, corralling our attention towards the stage—a bare landscape minimally ornamented by luminous geometries. Spiraling grains of light dance on the dramatic, escaping curves of the hall’s organ, which only adds to the immense sense of space. Like the staging, the sounds of Sasaki’s “Gama XV” emphasize texture and space, drawing the audience into the quiet details of disembodied speech and sound fragments. In this suspended sound world, time was marked only by the choreography, most of all a brief intersection on stage before scattering outward toward the wings. A few (rare) moments might have betrayed the modes of audio processing, but overall the atmosphere was maintained to stunning effect, culminating in a final, pulsing gesture of sound and visuals.
Admittedly, the marriage of sound, performance, and visual art left me a little saddened to see the stage invaded with chairs and music stands for the following work. This feeling dissolved quickly, though, as high-octane bass lines drove the shifting, minimalist tapestry of Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together.” Continuing in the theme of evolving textures, Rzewski sets the text of a prisoner letter from the Attica prison rebellion; in a sort of cyclic re-synthesis, new passages of text and music intersect with each pass. Dudamel led the LA Phil New Music Group in an effective performance, behind narrator Davóne Tines who enraptured the audience with the weighty tone and intelligent nuances in his voice. The second section, “Attica” offered a gentle, somber antidote to the first movement’s relentless and fragmented energy.
After an intermission to digest the mysteries of sound garments and a long ride in a fast machine, we return to Ted Hearne’s “Law of Mosaics.” Musical excerpts are divorced from their original context before being reimagined, layered, distorted and stretched by Hearne. The results are complicated transformations that yield a completely new sound world. But while “Law of Mosaics” clearly draws inspiration from the standard repertoire, in it’s DNA lies a formal cleverness and self-awareness akin to Johannes Kreidler—an aspect highlighted by the projecting of descriptive section titles during the performance. Written for string ensemble, Dudamel once again led a clear and controlled performance here, though the gritty interjections of the final section were allowed to relish in all their wildness for a dramatic conclusion.
I found all three pieces to be unusually memorable, and was left with a sense that the concert as a whole balanced being intimate and casual while ambitiously modern. The choice to break traditional performance practice with the very first piece helped the rest of the evening feel exploratory and inviting. Perhaps more than anything, the programming allowed us to explore, to feel, but then reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously; that great art can come from unexpected places and processes, even from breaking apart the very canon and conventions the classical concert hall so reveres.