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a-zLast night’s Green Umbrella concert was programmed as part of “West Coast, Left Coast”, and it certainly sounded as if almost all of the 1500-or-so of us had as much fun as I did. The program ended on a high with five selections from Frank Zappa‘s The Yellow Shark album (1992), conducted by John Adams, our festival curator (and conductor, and occasional composer, and friendly guide). You can read Adams’ comments made during rehearsals here (just read the second half of yesterday’s entry and then scroll down to the November 25 entry). The concert ended with a riotous (orgasmic?) performance of “G-Spot Tornado”, which was then repeated as an encore. Adams finally led the orchestra off stage, because very few of us in the audience were headed for the exits, instead staying and applauding and wanting more.

The Phil has had a long association with the music of Frank Zappa, going back to 1970 when Zubin Mehta was music director and Ernest Fleischmann had started his program of bringing contemporary music into the Phil’s repertoire and helping the Phil’s audience listen to the new. (Ernest and others had to cultivate the ground for many years before the current audience was built up; you in New York should not get too impatient.) As the program for last night states, that 1970 concert was “locally notorious”. Here are Zappa’s comments. Some uncredited and undated but contemporary comments are here if you scroll down to the heading “Hit It, Zubin”, and here is a funny article from a 1971 Playboy concerning the first Zappa concert. (Confession: Phil concerts have been my only exposure to the music of Frank Zappa.)

The concert opened with Fog Tropes (1981) by Ingram Marshall, an accessible work for six brass and taped sounds of fog horns and San Francisco in fog. Then Kronos Quartet with the astounding voice of David Barron performed Ben Johnston‘s 1998 transcription of Harry Partch‘s 1943 U.S. Highball, originally written for adapted guitar, kithara and chromelodeon. Johnston worked hard enough to support Partch and his work, especially at the U of Illinois, that I trust his instincts in agreeing to make this work more performable by replacing the original instruments. This was a delightful performance, and David Barron’s unique pitch control and his acting skills made him a great narrator.

Sunday the Festival gave us two concerts. In the afternoon, the Phil and Gustavo Dudamel showed us that the powers had recorded the wrong concert when they taped the inaugural concert and John AdamsCity Noir symphony. That first night gave us a good performance; Sunday (the fourth performance of the work) gave us an exciting performance of the absolutely best orchestral work yet written by John Adams. On Sunday, the “big band” and jazz elements had swing while still retaining drive. The work built into a great evening. The concert began with Dudamel conducting Esa-Pekka Salonen‘s pivotal L.A. Variations (1996). And then the strings, trombones, harps, and percussion (re-tuned as appropriate) with Marino Formenti on the piano in Lou Harrison‘s Piano Concerto (1983-1985). Darn! There should have been a recording of this performance. The second movement, “Stampede”, was thrilling in its breath-taking drive; we relished the change into the almost ethereal slow movement. The whole performance was great, for a work that should have a larger audience. We think of those Sunday afternoons after a concert when we saw Harrison at Betty Freeman’s musicales; these were the first performances by the Phil of this concerto.

And then Sunday evening the four pianists of PianoSpheres (Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson, Susan Svrcek) gave us “California Keyboard”, a survey of some of our music. The opening work was instructive. The spotlights shone on four toy pianos as the four pianists came on stage and bent down to the keyboards for John Cage‘s Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960). Initially there were some titters: the sounds were a bit odd and the sizes were humorous. But four pianists, focused on the music, brought the audience from humor into music appreciation, and the performance cast a spell. Mark Robson then played the oldest works: four of Henry Cowell‘s Miniatures (1914 to 1935), and we heard how original Cowell was, and how modern he could be.

But there was so much in the program. My own favorites included a concerto-like work for piano and electronics by Shaun Naidoo, Bad Times Coming (1996), played by Vicki Ray. I also really liked William Kraft‘s Requiescat (Let the bells mourn for us for we are remiss) (1976), commissioned by Ralph Grierson and premiered at the 1975 Ojai Festival. This was a lovely work for electric piano. And the concert closed with a beautiful work by Daniel Lentz, NightBreaker (1990) for four pianos. A great concert!

Mr. Adams, Ms. Borda: you put on good festivals!

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TheLeftCoastBetter[1]The Los Angeles Master Chorale gave the Phil’s West Coast, Left Coast Festival the opening it deserved: a joyous statement, a vibrant concert, and a rousing end that left us wanting more and looking forward to our next event. Regrettably, last night’s concert wasn’t the opening, but the second event. The opening occurred Saturday night in a hodge-podge concert that just drained away. But more on that, later. It’s much more fun to talk about the good things.

Grant Gershon and the LAMC put together a program of four works by four composers (all alive, present, and introduced at the concert) that certainly brought out one of the festival’s themes: to portray the sheer number and variety of traditions and styles present in our music. The program gave us a local premiere to begin, then brought out two LAMC favorites, and concluded with a reprise of a delightful LAMC commission from 2007. The work new to us was “Savage Altars” (1992) by Ingram Marshall; his notes on the work are here.

Morten Lauridsen has enriched our music, not merely through his own major compositions, but also through the other composers and colleagues he has mentored, challenged, and helped in composition at the USC Thornton School of Music. The program gave us his “Mid-Winter Songs” (1980, in this version with piano accompaniment). Lovely music. His notes are here.

The second half of the program moved forward a generation, to two composers still (barely) in their 30s: Eric Whitacre and David O. The LAMC performed a youthful work of Whitacre’s, “Cloudburst” (1992), written while he was still a music student at UNLV. Listening, and watching, the work is great fun. Here is the video of Whitacre conducted a group of mixed choruses and singers in Minnesota last April; I wish there were a video of last night’s performance.

Two years ago the Master Chorale had a great enabling them to commission works recognizing the diversity of Los Angeles, LA is the World. The hit of the year was David O’s “A Map of Los Angeles”, and this was given a reprise last night. The chorale gave some good program notes for each of the works in the concert, and I recommend reading those on David O’s work in particular (just scroll down through the notes). I hope that this music is not too location-specific, because this is so much fun to hear it should receive many performances. I think all of us in this full house left WDCH with a feeling of pleasure. A perfect opening.

riley_terry_175x175[1]But Saturday night’s official opening was a good program badly positioned and supported. Great ingredients: Terry Riley extemporizing on the WDCH organ, the Kronos Quartet in a new work, electronics/visual performances by Matmos, and a young composer in a performance of a new work inspired by the architecture of Disney Hall. The Phil’s web site has three interesting videos here. Perhaps for marketing purposes, perhaps to make this seem like a rock or hip-hop performance, the concert began at 9:30. It did bring in a younger audience (not more, just younger) than even the Green Umbrella series, but there were lots of late arrivals, which didn’t quite fit with the performance by Kronos of Thomas Newman‘s new work “It Got Dark” (2009); and while interesting, and worth really listening to, this didn’t seem quite right for a festival opening. But finding out what we were listening to was another of the problems: for some reason the program did not provide a summary listing of the works to be performed. You had to go through the text in the program to see what was named and then to try to match that with the sequence in the performance.

Terry Riley came on stage for some improvising in the second half of the program, and then, at midnight, went to the center console of the WDCH organ, which he has named “Hurricane Mama”. He gave a solo concert last season, and through his midnight practices has developed quite a feeling for the organ and its capabilities. He began playing. Probably many in the audience had no idea of what to expect or what to listen for. There were no announcements nor descriptions of what he was doing. And it was late. The audience began leaving. The concert concluded near 1:00 a.m., with probably a quarter of the audience left.

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This coming Saturday is the official opening concert of the L.A. Phil’s exciting new festival, West Coast, Left Coast, but performances introducing the concept have now begun. REDCAT showed a “re-interpretation” of a noted performance piece with music by Morton Subotnick and choreography by Anna Halprin, and Jacaranda Music had another full audience for its concert last night as a prelude to the festival itself.

Parades & Changes, the Halprin-Subotnick performance collaboration from 1965 is coming to New York, and it provides a fascinating hour. The use of electronics in music has advanced so much in the past forty years, and can now be heard so often, that Subotnick’s music no longer sounded as radical or disturbing as it must have seemed then, but it held its own and contributed to the performance, which didn’t seem at all dated. When I got home, however, I did a search to find my LP of Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, once played so often. Gone. I don’t know when, or how. Surely the California pioneers in electronics in music should have had a place in a West Coast, Left Coast Festival!

The Jacaranda concert Saturday night was pure delight, and perfectly aligned with the festival’s theme. The program opened and closed with John Adams: Road Movies (1995) for violin and piano to open, and Shaker Loops (1978) for string sextet to close. The Denali Quartet brought in two friends to round out the performance of “Loops”, and this was a pleasure to listen to. The hit, however, was early Lou Harrison: Solstice (1949-1950) for celesta, tack piano, and flute, oboe, trumpet, two cellos and bass (including an instrument on its back, providing its strings as the target of mallets). This was Harrison attracted by Eastern sounds, but not yet comfortable with how much use to make of them. But it’s a lovely work. The fourth work on the program was by Ingram Marshall, whose work I don’t know. The concerts by the Master Chorale and by the Phil’s New Music Ensemble in a Green Umbrella concert will also give us works by Marshall, and I’ll wait until I’ve heard more before commenting.

The West Coast, Left Coast Festival looks on paper as if it can be more exciting then the last festival, Minimalist Jukebox, curated by Adams. Here’s the listing of events. And the LA Times has an excellent essay on Adams, here.

Today’s Philharmonic concert featured Luciano Berio and Franz Schubert, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The concert opened with Berio’s commentary on the fragments left from Schubert’s ideas for his Tenth Symphony, Rendering (1989). Instead of developing a hybrid work “in the style of” Schubert, Berio supplemented the fragments with his own ideas, carefully orchestrated so that the listener could distinguish between real and restoration. We then ascended to the higher realms with Berio’s Folk Songs (1964, with the 1973 version for orchestral accompaniment). The singer? Dawn Upshaw. Dudamel closed the concert with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The Dude is gaining control of the audience; in today’s concert he got everyone to be silent for over a minute after the last notes as he slowly lowered his arms. Last week’s concert, Verdi’s Requiem, was the only concert so far without a major work written after 1900.

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The new Jacaranda season began last night with a concert that almost filled the church and brought out the Los Angeles Times critic, with photographer as well. The program comprised three key works from the 70s: Morton Feldman‘s Rothko Chapel from 1971, Ben Johnston‘s Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace” from 1973, and Philip GlassEinstein on the Beach: Five Knee Plays from 1976. God, it was a gorgeous concert.

I didn’t want the performance of Rothko Chapel to end, but it did, and too soon, coming in at less than 25 minutes. The spaces between notes could have been a bit longer, and some of the notes could have hung in the air a bit longer. The three instrumentalists were Alma Lisa Fernandez on viola, Aron Kallay on celesta, and Kenneth McGrath on percussion, and they seemed to breathe the sounds. A group of local singers billed as the Jacaranda Chamber Singers risked all of those exposed pitches, and they handled all the challenges. This was a great experience.

Few works could follow something like the Feldman, but Johnston’s “Amazing Grace” could do so, and fortunately it took a little while to remove the instruments and risers to give some space between the two. The Denali Quartet now plays this work with seeming ease; perhaps they’ll make it their calling card, as the Phil under Salonen made the Rite of Spring. But the Johnston quartet leaves me wanting more; perhaps the Denalis could expand their Johnston offerings. Or perhaps Monday Evening Concerts could give us a Johnston evening.

The Jacaranda series has recovered the “Five Knee Plays” from Einstein on the Beach, with approval of Glass and the publisher. At the time of their first presentation of the set, in 2005, only the middle work was available; three other segments had been issued for children’s chorus but were no longer available, and the opening segment had been withdrawn and had to be reconstituted. Jacaranda has given us the full set, with pipe organ instead of electronic keyboard, with mixed chorus, with children’s chorus (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, of all riches) for the final set, with violin (the violinist of the Denali Quartet) and with three narrators, including Gail Eichenthal and Sandra Tsing Loh of NPR broadcasts. The music still grabs at you.

Jacaranda’s next Santa Monica concert, November 14, serves as an introduction to the Phil’s exciting new “West Coast Left Coast” series with music by John Adams, Ingram Marshall and Lou Harrison. Better get your tickets.

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Gustavo Dudamel is here! But I should quote the posters on buses, lamposts and billboards: “Pasion Gustavo”, “Radiante Gustavo”, “Dramatico Gustavo” (please forgive the absence of diacriticals). The home page of the Los Angeles Times, the still-staid Times, has a special section on Dudamel, down to an article on his childhood (gosh, that’s recent history) complete with photos at age 5, treatment awarded to the most headline-worthy. With the posters on buses, I really don’t think that the Phil is trying to sell concert tickets to bus riders. Instead, they are blanketing the area with the word that something exciting is happening. The parking lot attendant at the central courthouse, who works weekends at Disney Hall, told me how exciting it was to have Dudamel in Los Angeles and asked if I would be coming to the concerts.

I don’t think the Philharmonic’s advertising people created the buzz, but they recognized that this was happening and really decided to ride the waves with it. The Phil has supported a Dudamel video game here, and you can play the on-line version if you choose. The Phil organized a well-thought-out community affair as the welcome concert at the Hollywood Bowl: first individual community groups, primarily of young people; then the Youth Orchestra, conducted by Dudamel; and finally Dudamel conducting the Phil in Beethoven’s 9th. To top things off, they made the concert free (with contributions by Target). I don’t think the Phil quite expected the demand for tickets they received, since they let people stand in line for tickets that had long since been sucked up on the internet. But the people at the Phil learn from mistakes, and for the opening concert at WDCH, they provided a lottery for the free tickets to watch the concert on the large screens mounted in the Music Center plaza. Even the decidedly non-classical alternative newspaper, LA Weekly, did its part in recognizing the rock star level of interest by doing a cover story on Dudamel here. And a single article wasn’t enough, so they brought back our dean of music critics, Alan Rich, (whom they had earlier jettisoned as extraneous) for a nice article here. I particularly commend Mr. Rich’s essay to your attention.

How long has it been since there has been this sort of enthusiastic buzz in classical music? There was the “3 Tenors” fad, but that was only for an occasional concert, not a series. I can remember when Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky contest and we rushed out to buy that first record. Several people compare the Dudamel arrival to the appointment of Bernstein, but I didn’t experience how New York reacted and that meant nothing to me. Reading history, there used to be some wild affairs at the Hollywood Bowl, like the orchestrated marriage of Percy Grainger, so perhaps that’s the most comparable. Whatever; we enjoy the attention being given to the music we love.

In a coming post, I’ll talk about the new music high points across Los Angeles in this new season. For this post, let me merely point out that in all but a single program by Dudamel this season there is at least one major modern or contemporary major work of music, not merely a fanfare. That one exceptional program is when he will lead Verdi’s “Requiem”. Perhaps I’m cheating a little by including a program in which the “modern” work is Berg’s Violin Concerto; you’d think that by now the piece would be too old to be considered modern. This year looks pretty good. And next season EPS returns, as well.

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The Ojai Music Festival came to a triumphal ending last night with a raucous, committed, glowing performance of Louis Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” (1976). The performance of the Andriessen began four and a half hours after the start of the Sunday evening concert. The six musicians of eighth blackbird came on stage and played two or three iterations. Then one of the other musicians of the evening came on stage from the wings and joined in. Then another. Then two more. Then four more came through the audience. Then more. Almost three dozen playing and joining in “Workers Union”, including Tom Morris, the Festival’s Music Director, on percussion. We in the audience wanted to join in the joyous noise; it wasn’t enough to just yell out our approval, we needed to join in at the end of a long day and a great festival. It’s a shame that the musicians didn’t go back into the audience to let us join in.

Saturday night’s concert ranks up there close to Salonen and the Finns or to Dawn Upshaw in Berio and Golijov as the very best events from Ojai. To start was “Quasi Sinfonia” by David Michael Gordon (2008), a wild, woolly, noisy, charming chamber symphony for 16 musicians (the blackbirds and 10 friends). This was performed without conductor, no small feat in itself for a festival ensemble, but even more accomplished for a work that occasionally seems to change meter with each measure. (blackbird cellist Nick Photinos must have strong neck muscles; his time-keeping through head motions seemed more effective in maintaining the beat for the ensemble than many conductors can achieve with their arms and a baton. His beat made it easier for me to follow what Gordon was doing, I know.) Think of a toy-derived non-traditional instrument: Gordon came close to finding a way to use it in the work. This was fun, riotous, but fun.

And then… The blackbirds plus Lucy Shelton plus dancer/costumer Elyssa Dole performed “Pierrot Lunaire” in what was the best of five versions I’ve seen. (Yes, better than that done by the WDCH house ensemble. Sorry, E-P.) Sometimes the movements and stage bits that the blackbirds like in performance seem to detract from my hearing the music; sometimes their stage business seems to me like busyness. But not here. Their shifting ensembles helped make clear the music’s shifts of resources and colors. Lucy Shelton offered a just-right blend of “low art” (cabaret) with the high art of the formal salon. Matthew Duvall, the eighth’s percussionist, was a perfect Pierrot in his ice-cream-suit and bow tie. This was a model performance. (I think that people do a dis-service to this work by trying to add a storyline. I wish they could accept the work for what it is, instead of trying to make it more “important” with a story. This performance gave us a non-story line, a series of memory fragments, and it certainly worked for me.)

Sunday morning’s concert was “Music for 18 Musicians” (yes, Reich, of course), performed by the blackbirds and 13 friends. (The performance used an extra person; I think this was to provide some rotational relief.) I was glad to hear it, but where I was sitting (too close) the volume from the pulse strokes absolutely dominated the sound. The balances were off; some voices were missing. I felt we needed Reich to re-set and focus the audio system. However, I should point out that I was in a small minority in this opinion. Others around me had no problem. So perhaps it was the way those notes reverberated in my skull…. Perhaps.

And then the evening concert began at 4, opening with Reich’s Pulitzer-winning “Double Sextet” played by the blackbirds and six friends, with the ‘birds dividing themselves equally between the two units. For this performance the musicians just stood and played, with no choreography. I appreciated it. The pairing of this work with “18 Musicians” was perfect, for both pieces. Clearly, “Double Sextet” is something that must be added to our libraries.

We then had ten sets, divided into three segments, of friends plus blackbirds. When Mark Swed publishes his review, probably tomorrow, I’ll add a link so that you can read the professional’s comments. For me, however, here are a few vivid memories.

First, Carla Kihlstedt gave a solo performance, singing and on the violin, of seven songs by Lisa Bielawa, a composer new to me. This was a work of art. Having seen the Upshaw/Sellars production of Kurtag’s “Kaftka Fragments”, I assert that the Kihlstedt/Bielawa arrangement deserves a degree of comparison.

The next vivid recollection is of the “recorder” ensemble QNG performing a set of three pieces, in which a Taverner extract was sandwiched between two contemporary works. The four musicians in the group are enormously talented, and they use a range of instruments, including contemporary “recorders” that have a square cross-section and flapper valves, giving some delightful partials that you haven’t heard before.

I enjoyed the two works by Steven Hartke. Jeremy Denk accompanied Lucy Shelton in recording-worthy performances of seven Stravinsky songs. Amy Briggs gave knuckle-busting performances of four piano etudes by David Rakowski. I’m doing a dis-service to the others by not mentioning them. This was a great evening, even though it was a bit of a smorgasbord, and “Workers Union” was a grand conclusion.

Next year’s Music Director will be composer George Benjamin.

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The Friday night concert at the Ojai Music Festival was the premiere performance of “Slide”, a musical work of theatre by Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert, and performed by the two with eighth blackbird as performer/musicians.

For the title, think of those cardboard holders of 35mm photographic images. The composition was named for a series of related psychological experiments in which subjects were shown out-of-focus images from slides, and asked to guess the subject of the image, which would then abruptly come into focus. In “Slide”, the principal character is the psychologist who ran the experiments, sorting through his box of materials from the tests, trying to decide what to keep and what to discard. He finds aspects of his own life suddenly becoming interspersed with the images of the slides and contending for interpretation, within focus and out.

For the performance of “Slide”, Steven Mackey was narrator and guitarist, and Rinde Eckert was the psychologist, Renard. The members of eighth blackbird served variously as members of a chamber group with Renard, or as friends, subjects, participants, and perhaps ghosts of Renard’s memories.

The work is identified as a song cycle of 11 songs, with supporting on-screen images, but the work moves continuously through the set, without pause. While watching and listening it is often difficult to be aware that one song scene has ended and another has begun, difficult until you realize this has happened. Mackey said that he tried to compose some music that could be out-of-focus, suddenly snapping into recognition.

The work of 80 minutes of performance is too complex to grasp in a single hearing. I, and I think most of us in the audience, felt the power and sweep of the music (especially of a “song” titled “Addiction”), without feeling that we had yet grasped the central image or idea. But while this was happening to you as watcher, it was too difficult to become a neutral, evaluating observer. The blackbirds, of course, did well in their on-stage performance roles, and Rinde Eckert was a compelling center. The music was fascinating; you wanted to follow it and know what it was presenting.

As “opener”, we had a short set by Tin Hat. I’m biased. Their music grabbed me when they opened with a middle-eastern, folk-tinged, blues-compatible version of Satie (which I could once play on the piano because the notes were easy to hit correctly). These musicians will appear later in the festival.

The Saturday morning concert was by Jeremy Denk, and he captured us. His recital opened with the Ives Sonata No. 1, the one completed thirty years later by Lou Harrison. The way Denk performed this, he created no doubts that this had been a faitful realization of Ives, nor that it was anything other than a major work by a major composer. What playing!

And then Denk came back and played the “Goldberg Variations”. Denk’s Bach was a composer who could have fun with a composition, and certainly did with this one, piling one variation on top of another, a keyboard “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Denk’s Bach liked musical jokes and the play of ideas; he wasn’t merely a composing whiz. With the quiet reprise of the aria, the notes then died away and we heard the crows in the oaktrees, and then the faint noise of traffic. Finally some clod in the audience had to show that he really knew the work had ended as he became the first to break the spell with loud applause. We hated to leave for lunch.

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The freeway ends a few miles from Ojai. You have to slow down to get there. You look at the hills and at the valley floor. You look at the trees. You think about the concerts you’ll hear over the next hundred hours.

The group eighth blackbird was named Music Director of this 63rd instance of the Ojai Music Festival, and this initially-surprising choice is looking to be one of Thomas Morris’ more inspired ideas. They’ve put together an exciting program. (Yes, I do say that almost every year.) Here’s an eighth blackbird blog about this year’s event.

Last night’s opening concert was a perfect beginning. The focus of the concert was George Crumb’s great 1974 “Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III)” for two amplified pianos plus two percussion (plus additional sounds). Lisa Kaplan (of 8th) and Jeremy Denk were pianists, and Matthew Duvall (8th) and Doug Perkins were percussion. I’m in favor of a Crumb revival; this was a delight.
The concert began with Duvall, Perkins, and Todd Meehan playing Thierry de Mey’s “Musique de Table” (1987) for three amplified “tables” (flat wooden slabs with a hollow sound chamber). Here’s a YouTube recording of the work. After this start, Kaplan and Denk played a two-piano (plus recorded electronics) version of John Luther Adams’ work “Dark Waves” from 2007, an escape from the mundane, a contemplation. The first half closed with Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree” (1981) for vibraphone (Duvall), marimbas (Perkins and Greg Beyer) and crotales. The performance didn’t evoke rain, but it bring us in the audience into its own quiet world.

This was a lovely evening.

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Sunday afternoon was the final concert provided by Esa-Pekka Salonen as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has consistently said that he’ll be back with us on a regular basis, but before the start of the concert, the administrative management and the Board came on stage to announce to us the Salonen now has the title of Conductor Laureate and will return on a regular and “significant” basis in the future. The nature of the continuing role was not announced, but it is consistent with how well the Phil (and Salonen) have handled this transition that the details on the role of the future would wait to be announced until after Dudamel is on board and present.

One of the most significant composers to Salonen as conductor, as composer, and as musician has been Igor Stravinsky. The times he has given us as music director of the Phil are studded with some memorable performances of Stravinsky works. The Rite of Spring has become a signature piece of the orchestra under Salonen. If my memory is correct, the first association of the Phil, Salonen, and Peter Sellars was a production of l’Histoire du Soldat given in the Dorothy Chandler, which had the somewhat-embarrassed Salonen in cowboy boots, still awkward at having a stage role. For his final series of concerts as music director, Salonen chose Stravinsky; Salonen chose a double bill of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms. I think it was typical of his personality that he chose works that required group forces, soloists and chorus, making it easier for Salonen the person to diffuse the focus on Salonen as the exiting music director. He also had thoughts about these works, interpretations he wanted to provide us.

Salonen gave us a powerful, emotional performance of Oedipus. From the starting anguish of the mens chorus, the citizens of Thebes suffering under the plague, to the powerful conclusion as the fates had acted this was a gripping performance. The orchestra and the members of the master chorale gave us the music with power and with emotion. At times on Sunday, however, the power seemed to drown out the voices of two of the lead singers. Following the terrible events of the Oedipus, Salonen’s Symphony of Psalms was healing and consolation, a blessing at the end.

Peter Sellars’ concept was to link the two works, following the concept that Stravinsky was experiencing a development of his own religious beliefs during the period of composition. Sellars’ concept was to have the narrator of Oedipus become the daughter, Antigone, and the text of the narration was edited to fit this concept. The approach gave much more immediacy to the communication of the narrator. Then for Symphony of Psalms, Sellars imagined this as a musical equivalent of the concluding play in the Oedipus trilogy, the work to bring consolation and closure to the experience. He gave the narrator, Antigone, an introductory speech that may have been taken from “Oedipus at Colonus”, and he also brought Oedipus on stage for movements to image the closure of the trilogy. (Sellars had also introduced the second daughter, Ismene, a dancer in a non-speaking role, to aid the movements in both works, further promoting the concept.) Sellars used the flexibility of Frank Gehry’s design for the Disney Hall stage and auditorium. Oedipus was given three levels for its performance, a level for the orchestra, a level for the chorus, and a level for the characters. Further, the announcement of the death of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus could be made from the top left tier of the hall. For Symphony of Psalms, the chorus first lined the side aisles of the front and back of the auditorium, before crossing to the top of the three levels while Antigone, Ismene and the blinded Oedipus were given the middle level for their closing pantomime. I thought the whole concept worked brilliantly. Viola Davis was excellent as narrator/Antigone. Of the singers, Anne Sofie von Otter was particularly notable in the small, crucial role of Jocasta while Roderick Dixon was an affecting Oedipus.

Salonen had avoided much of the applause the audience wanted to give him at the start of the concert and the second half. But when he finally lowered his arms as silence emerged in the hall after the conclusion of Symphony of Psalms the torrent of applause began. We all rose to our feet, clapping. No one hurried out to beat the parking lot traffic. We applauded. Salonen came out for a bow. We kept applauding. The orchestra members were applauding. Quite a few of us were wiping our eyes. Then members of the orchestra who hadn’t been used in Symphony (violins, violas, a few others) came down from their seats in back, with the women carrying bouquets of flowers for Salonen; he had to accept those, one by one. Finally the members of the orchestra lined up to walk by and hug Salonen, as the applause continued. Then the end came. What a set of memories!

The Los Angeles Times has two nice galleries of photos of the performances on their web site, here and here.

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Last night Salonen conducted the premiere of his new Violin Concerto, performed by Leila Josefowicz. You can be sure there’s a lot of advance buzz about a piece when the Wall Street Journal publishes an essay about the soloist of a piece of classical music; unfortunately, much of the WSJ is protected by a subscription-only wall, but here’s the link in case you are willing to try. The work was initially scheduled for premiere back in January when Salonen conducted the Chicago Symphony, but it wasn’t ready and he substituted performance of the new Los Angeles Symphony (No. 4) by Arvo Part. The new Part symphony is a major and important work, but I don’t think the Chicago audience got the better of the switch. This new Salonen piece is astounding, the work of a mature composer and a great virtuoso on the violin. Why wasn’t this being recorded? (The performance will be broadcast tomorrow night, Saturday the 11th, at 8:00 p.m. PDT on KUSC.)

First of all, the violin part sounds almost unplayable, as implied by the WSJ article. How did she hit so many notes without any sounding wrong? How did she have such drive and energy to come to the orchestra like a storm, lifting them up and moving them along and capturing their music in her environment? Second, the orchestral parts show Salonen as an assured master of melody and color; his understanding of the colors of Stravinsky and Ravel as a conductor come across as a composer. In his pre-concert talk with Steven Stucky, Salonen said that he composed thinking of the Philharmonic musicians who would be playing the parts; he knew how they would do, how they would sound. Third, and most important of all, Salonen as composer has something to say, not merely the techniques with which to say it.

The work is in four movements, lasting just over a half hour. But rather than reading my words, read Salonen’s comments on the work, here.

The work was surrounded by Ligeti’s “Clocks and Clouds” and the Beethoven Fifth. Salonen, composer-conductor, had something new to say about the Fifth, something he didn’t quite say in his Beethoven cycle three years ago. This was not a performance by Karajan or Bernstein, to name just two. It seemed as if Salonen was working to make us feel how new and how radical Beethoven’s work was. Parts seemed to race, parts seemed to contemplate; the whole was very persuasive.

    A note for composers in Southern California

Two students at USC Thornton have formed a group named “What’s Next?”, and with the cooperation and assistance of advisors at USC/Thornton are scheduling a series of three concerts of new music this June (June 11, June 16, and June 19). They are soliciting composers across SoCal to submit “adventurous” new works, no longer than 20 minutes long, for soloist or chamber group. They already know they will be playing works by Don Crockett, Stephen Hartke, Erica Muhl, and Paul Chihara. If you go to their web site, here, you’ll find much more information, including information for composers and for musicians with abilities to participate in the performances. If, like me, you’re without either talent, you’ll also find the initial information about location and starting time of this interesting new start-up. Oh, yes, you’ll also find their names, but do check out What’s Next?

Photo credit:  J. Henry Fair

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