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Momentous Times

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
01/18/2009 -  
Leos Janácek: Sinfonietta
Louis Andriessen: The Hague Hacking (World Premiere, LAPA commission)
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Katia & Marielle Labèque (piano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Marielle & Katia Labèque (© Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times)

For music in Los Angeles, these last few weeks have been momentous. This world premiere of a double piano concerto by Louis Andriessen, the Netherlands’ foremost living composer, was the last of three major new pieces commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The first world premiere, performed on January 9, was the Fourth Symphony, titled Los Angeles, by the popular Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The second was La Passion de Simone, a beautiful but challenging oratorio by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, commissioned in partnership with other presenters and receiving its West Coast premiere. Esa-Pekka Salonen collaborated with the soprano Dawn Upshaw and the director Peter Sellars, the same team that recently performed György Kurtág’s heart-rending Kafka Fragments, also at Disney Hall.

Across town, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma gave the West Coast premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul, a concerto written for the celebrity cellist. Meanwhile, in the gorgeous Council Chambers at City Hall, the Da Camera Society presented the Los Angeles debut of Fretwork, an extraordinary British Consort of Viols, in a celebratory program of all Purcell with mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson. Each of these performances was revelatory. But the Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen has been the highlight of the season, as they carve their place in history.

For Janacek’s Sinfonietta, half of the brass was placed up in the first row of the audience behind the stage, in the section called Orchestra View. I sat in that section, about ten feet from the horns. The balances from this perspective were little bizarre, but the performance left me breathless and shivering, with no doubt about the greatness of the ensemble and conductor. Salonen is not usually a dancer, but tonight his dance was devastating. Every part of the conductor’s body, every movement spoke to his immersion in the music. In this performance, Los Angeles and Salonen compared well with the Concertgebouw and Mariss Jansons. The eccentric melodies were absolutely taught. The shimmering rhythms were magical. I hope the recording, to be released on iTunes, matches my experience. But it is hard to imagine a more vivid live performance. This beloved piece manages to be both exotic and classical at the same time. It is accessible to the point of being irresistible but with a distinctly19th century military rigor; it was the perfect prelude to the world premiere of a new commission.

While Louis Andriessen’s The Hague Hacking is his first full concerto for solo instrument and orchestra, the piece is as irreverent as many of his other compositions. The LA Philharmonic press release explains: “The “hacking” (hakkûh) of the title is Dutch slang for the dance style of a techno-descended hardcore house music, high speed and heavy on the bass.” In his pre-concert interview, Andriessen confessed that a key melody was inspired by Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, but via The Cat Concerto in an early Tom and Jerry cartoon, in which the cat Tom performs the piano with an unseen orchestra.

Katia and Marielle Labèque played with one mind and were stunning as always, one in bright scarlet, the other in black mesh. The two pianos faced each other with the music stands removed and the sheet music lying flat inside the pianos, so the sisters could see each other without obstruction. The piece opened with sustained violins hovering below a few spare and spread out staccato notes on the pianos. Gunshots of percussion interject. Cymbals against brass set a strident tone. The staccato pianos, a little like Charles Ives, erupt into explosive off-center melody. The noises become song, with Marielle almost literally hurling herself at the keys. This starkly fascinating music was beautiful in its purity, a strikingly engaging contrast to the other new compositions as well as the rest of the program.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is Salonen’s signature with the LA Philharmonic, one of the pieces by which history will judge them. This performance was particularly moving, as it was his last as Music Director of the Philharmonic. At moments, his arms danced as if he were a member of the Joffrey Ballet dancing The Rite of Spring . At other moments, the conductor’s movements were as ragged as a caveman’s. He often slowed to a glacial pace but kept the tension in an unbroken line throughout the entire piece. His furious sweeping gestures exerted an incredible control of the tempo, drawing the orchestra down instantly into silence with a closed fist at the end of the first movement. The opening of the second movement was eerily ominous, again glacially slow up to the exquisite viola solo. The athleticism of the timpani was incredible, and Shawn Mouser's opening bassoon solo was superb. With unerring and unmistakable intention, the orchestra moved from pensive lethargy to finely chiseled fury, to the final conclusion of total exhaustion. As we were walking up the stairs to exit the hall amidst the excited murmuring of the audience, a woman asked me what I had written. I told her: these are historic moments; a performance like this makes me proud to be a human being.

It seems that every moment over these past few weeks at the LA Philharmonic has been historic. In a kind of highly intense nostalgia for something we are about to lose, Salonen simply walking on stage electrifies the audience. This was certainly the feeling the night of the premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Fourth Symphony, also an LA Philharmonic commission. Even before the opening Mozart overture, the applause for Salonen was infectious. The audience’s silence, waiting for the symphony to begin, was religious. With sweeping high violins and tiny bells sounding like stars against a dark sky, the symphony opened romantically. While the symphony certainly takes part in “mystical minimalism”, the composition has a greater sense of history and melody than I expected. The string sections moved the air like the wings of great flocks of birds. They used pizzicato as percussion, played against and alongside the actual percussion. Salonen’s movements were those of a sorcerer, weaving spirals into the atmosphere. Mussorgsky and Ralph Vaughan Williams were somewhere deep in the background, with a violin solo like a lark descending. The standing ovation lasted 15 minutes. I was not persuaded that it was great music, but the performance was riveting. Brahms First Piano Concerto, with Emmanuel Ax, came after the intermission, lyrical and captivating, but not underpinned by a great sense of architecture. The audience loved it as well.

Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone may turn out to be the most important of these commissions. Peter Sellar’s simple staging was effective, if not unimpeachable, well suited to the quiet magnificence of Dawn Upshaw’s performance. The addition of a dancer was never intrusive, if not completely necessary. But the recorded voice speaking might have been more effective performed live. Although bleak and perhaps repetitive or too long, the ravishing depth of Saariaho’s music can only grow on listeners over time.

The emotional response that Esa-Pekka Salonen provokes here in LA is only matched by the anticipation of Gustavo Dudamel. At the press conference to announce the new maestro’s first season as music director, Dudamel himself was almost speechless. For the first few minutes, he could only say that he was “Muy emocionado”. But then he was delighted to announce that his first concert would be Beethoven’s Ninth, performed for 17,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl, with tickets given away for free. He seemed to be thrilled by the idea that it might be some listeners’ first experience of live classical music. He said: “Access up to now has been so little. For me, coming from Venezuela, it is important to have a new audience, young kids…” There were several other key announcements: the composer John Adams has been appointed to the new position of Creative Chair of the LA Philharmonic. (Adams added: “In Caracas young people think that classical music is cool.”) The Inaugural Gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall, to be televised internationally, will feature the world premiere of Adams’ new piece City Noir (inspired by Los Angeles and commissioned by the Philharmonic) as well as Mahler’s First Symphony.

The season will also include two festivals, “West Coast: Left Coast,” directed by Adams, and “America and Americans”, directed by Dudamel, and the premieres of nine other newly commissioned works, as well as residencies by the Kronos Quartet and the composer Thomas Adès. In response to a question about the difficulty of today’s economy, President Deborah Borda replied: “Our long-range plans remain firm. We can make a difference! Now is the time for us to lead. We can honor our commitment to excellence and innovation.” At the end of the conference there was a palpable sense of optimism. The young conductor’s final words were: “Hope. Justice. Change… With music as our weapon, we will try to help the world to change.”

Thomas Aujero Small



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