January has brought a richness of performances of contemporary music. At the half-way point on the calendar this has already been a marvelous month, but there’s much more to come. Each of the major music organizations across the county seems to have decided on some exceptional music. I haven’t been able to attend everything: too many tickets, too many nights. Wouldn’t it be nice to be paid to attend the concerts? Wouldn’t it be nice just to afford them all? Oh, well, the old suit will last another year or so before replacement.

The Phil is leading the way, of course, as appropriate to our major music organization. The number of concerts left for Salonen as Music Director is now down to single digits. His valedictory concerts will be of Stravinsky the radical-reactionary (Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms). But the concerts before that all focus on some brilliant new works, Philharmonic commissions or co-commissions. Yes, we’ll have Dudamel, but we’ll certainly miss Esa-Pekka! Last Sunday when he walked on stage to begin the first concert of the year, the applause continued as he stepped onto the podium. The applause continued. He finally had to turn to the audience to acknowledge their welcome before Disney Hall became still enough for the concert.

The first program of the year gave an engrossing, beautiful new work by Arvo Part, Symphony No. 4, Los Angeles. In a rare gesture, Universal Edition published the score of the work, making it available on the internet in December. The symphony is scored for strings, harp, and percussion; often it presents the sound of a single instrument vibrating in the surrounding silence. The work is a meditation, and the thoughts of the symphony are of angels, not of the city named in the subtitle. While a meditation, the work is not restful and offers no easy resolution; the music is tonal, but wavers between major and minor. The score reveals (see the third movement in particular) how Part has the orchestra in two different keys. I had not realized how much the music had drawn me into its own world until we returned from intermission. I had thought that it would be jarring to end the music with Ax playing the Brahms first piano concerto. I found, instead, that the muscular tonality of the Brahms came as a release. The recording of the Part will be a must-buy.

And then this week, another noteworthy work: Kaija Saariaho‘s La Passion de Simone (2006), with Dawn Upshaw in the Peter Sellars production featuring Michael Schumacher as dancer. This Phil co-commission has been withdrawn from the past two seasons, first because of health, last year because of scheduling conflicts. Oh, the wait was worth it. The music shimmers. Dawn Upshaw is peerless. The Sellars dramatization amplifies the language. I must admit, however, that I am not captured by the personality and philosophy of Simone Weil, but I could just concentrate on the music. One point on the artistry of Dawn Upshaw. We could see a TV screen above the stage, facing down to the stage. We wondered what that was used for. Then we saw that Upshaw spent a climactic scene flat on her back in the position of a crucifixion. The screen was for her to see Salonen while singing from the floor. This work is being presented in alternation with the premiere of a new work for orchestra and two pianos by Louis Andriessen. We hear this on Sunday afternoon.

The marvelous Jacaranda series resumed its two-year season celebrating Messiaen. We spoke while walking from the parking structure that we wouldn’t be able to see and talk to Betty Freeman that night, and we will miss her. Jacaranda presented a lovely program of Messiaen and his students, Boulez, Murail, Benjamin, and a follower, Takemitsu. The musicians are skilled, the works are well-selected. We now re-schedule other tickets to attend a Jacaranda concert. Our revitalized Monday Evening Concerts presented an evening of American music. Their program this week started at a high with Kazi Pitelka playing Morton Feldman‘s The Viola in My Life II (1971), and this seems to resonate with some of the sounds of the rest of the month. And we had the first L. A. performances of Rzewski‘s Pocket Symphony (2000) and 96 (2003). We didn’t have tickets for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and their performance, with Yo-Yo Ma, of Golijov’s Azul, in its West Coast premiere.

And coming up we have the Phil’s Green Umbrella concert and Southwest Chamber Music and its program of music by composers who are women: Gabriela Ortiz, Joan Huang, Lera Auerbach, and Thea Musgrave.

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