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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.

Comments

Comment from Henry Holland
Time: January 11, 2007, 2:47 pm

I went to the Thursday Gustavo Dudamel Kodaly/Rachmaninov/Bartok concert, seats behind the stage by the organ.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hadn’t heard the Kodaly piece in years, I’d forgotten what a fun piece it is. Bronfman sailed through the Rachmaninov, no problems technically, but he seemed to sort of skate over the music. Plus, from where I was sitting, the piano kind of got swamped, balance-wise because the lid was up. The Bartok is one of my favorite pieces of music and it was a thrilling version. Mr. Dudamel was able to do something that Mr. Salonen is not always able to: have the horns, trumpets and trombones play in tune consistently. How nice that is.

Please invite him back next season. Next up: Webern’s Five Pieces and the Mahler 7th (replacing Saariaho’s cancelled “Passion of Simone”) on Saturday night.

Comment from David Ocker
Time: January 11, 2007, 4:22 pm

No history of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group should fail to mention the name of its founder, William Kraft – in turns timpanist, assistant conductor and composer in residence for the Los Angeles Philharmonic – and a tireless supporter, performer and creator of new music in L.A. for 50 years or so.

(And still going strong, too. I asked him about Salonen’s anecdote of Stravinsky first using the vibraphone in his final piece and what I got back was a story about Bill performing in Le Marteau at MEC, with Stravinsky himself following the score while sitting next to him at rehearsal – and, because Bill was using a “rehearsal” vibraphone which needed adjustment in the form of a loud SLAP – jumping each time Bill slapped to search his score for the source of the unexpected sound. The story ended after the performance with Stravinsky remarking to Kraft that the “performance” vibraphone was “a much better instrument.” Bill even did a Russian accent.)

Back on topic – of course Ernest Fleischman deserves credit for the importance of the Green Umbrella – which started a few years after the NMG – and judging by the crowd last night it is nothing if not a huge success. Fleischman deserves credit for much more beyond that – for a great deal of the growth and stature and quality of the Philharmonic. But in the one issue of history of new music at the LA Phil, Bill Kraft always deserves recognition.

Meanwhile I was really moved by Steven Stucky’s quartet – its simplicity, consonance and delicacy served as welcome contrast with the rest of the program. And of course, the WDCH acoustics made listening to it a pleasure.

Comment from JerryZ
Time: January 11, 2007, 9:46 pm

David Ocker correctly points out the recognition deserved by William Kraft and his many contributions to the Phil and to music in Southern California. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Kraft retrospective for one of the Green Umbrella programs in the near future (like next year)? And when Mr. Holland praises a concert, you can be comfortable in believing that it has been a good one. I’d bet that Dudamel has been given an open invitation to come whenever his schedule permits; he probably wouldn’t have been given one of the recording opportunities otherwise. But his dance program will fill up very rapidly, with the number of major orchestras looking for the music director of the future.

Jerry Z

Comment from Anonymous
Time: January 13, 2007, 3:28 am

And when Mr. Holland praises a concert, you can be comfortable in believing that it has been a good one

Hahahaha, well done, nice bit of sarcasm there. :-)

No history of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group should fail to mention the name of its founder, William Kraft – in turns timpanist, assistant conductor and composer in residence for the Los Angeles Philharmonic – and a tireless supporter, performer and creator of new music in L.A. for 50 years or so

Very well put.

Yes, Mr. Dudamel’s dance card seems to be rapidly filling up, but he starts at the Gothenberg Symphony this year (or has his tenure begun already), I’d say he’s out of the running for one of the bigger posts. Of course, if college football coaches are anything to go by these days, someone saying “I am not interested in that job” = “I’m going to jilt my current employers without a second thought”.