Last Night in L.A.: 25 Years for the New Music Group
There hasn’t been much contemporary music in Los Angeles over the past month. (Does music over the holidays have to be so traditional? Isn’t there much festive contemporary music?) But we’re off to a decent start in January. The first Philharmonic concert in 2007 had the hot, bright, young (25!) conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, conducting a program of Kodaly, Rachmaninoff (the 3rd, with Bronfman), and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Dudamel got great reviews when he first appeared at Hollywood Bowl, and his reviews of these concerts were raves. The program was recorded and will be available next week on iTunes. Mark Swed pointed out that it will be quite interesting to compare two live-concert recordings of Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta”: the NY Phil recording under Maazel, and the LA Phil’s with Dudamel as guest conductor.
Last night’s “Green Umbrella” concert celebrated the 25th anniversary of the New Music Group of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Esa-Pekka Salonen started with a well-deserved tribute to our former executive director, Ernest Fleischman, who is still present for most, if not all, of the concerts in the series. The audience wasn’t large when Fleischman started things; our local audience wasn’t that much more adventurous than the group who would wait in the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until the contemporary work was finished before going into the auditorium to take their seats. (It took a lot of cajoling from Zubin Mehta to convince some of the season subscribers to accept having a work even remotely contemporary in the middle of a program.) With Disney Hall, and attractive pricing of tickets for contemporary music, the audience expanded by more than a thousand. It took a while, and two less-attractive venues, but new music in Disney Hall is a success.
For last night’s “Green Umbrella” new music concert at Disney, Salonen was back in town and served as composer as well as conductor. The program was put together last Fall after Dawn Upshaw had to cancel her residency as she recovers from cancer, and it was a decent program. The closing work was the premiere of Salonen’s “Catch and Release”, a work in three movements for the Stravinsky “soldat” ensemble: violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion. But Salonen has a markedly different musical sensibility, and Stravinsky’s dry sound and lean line was replaced by much more movement and activity; giving the percussionist a vibraphone as well as his other instruments worked to add a lot of warmth and softness to the sound, particularly in the reflective middle movement. This was not my favorite piece by Salonen, but it had sparkle and drive.
The concert began with Lutoslawski‘s “Chain I” (1983) for 14 musicians (two violins, 12 other instruments, including harpsichord). This work is one of the composers less dense “chains”, with only two strands, according to the program; each link leads to another in that strand, separate from the evolution in the other strand. Near the end of the work Lutoslawski used some of the techniques he adapted from Cage and has the instruments independently performing, ad lib, in a set of complex songs. This was my favorite work of the evning.
Next was Franco Donatoni’s “Hot” (1989) for saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass, percussion, a work that’s “cool” not “hot”. My reaction through much of the work was that I was hearing a previously-unheard number by Ornette Coleman or the Modern Jazz Quartet, a work in which the musicians were engaged in introspective examination of how far the boundaries of melody or rhythm or scale could be expanded within jazz. At times, though, the sound would revert back to that of a classical musician dealing with more popular forms. Donatoni came awfully close to jazz. Not coincidentally, Donatoni was one of Salonen’s respected instructors.
After intermission the Steven Stucky string quartet “Nell’ombra nella luce” (2000) was performed. This was first played at a chamber concert in November, the concert that was part of the Thomas Ades residency this season. Stucky uses traditional means to explore what a quartet after Shostakovich might sound like. There is none of the Shostakovich anguish, but the language is the same. Alan Rich’s review of the November concert didn’t praise the work, and I can understand his criticism. It felt to me that the musical ideas hadn’t fully engaged Stucky, but it was a good performance of a pleasing work.