Classical Music is New Again in LA Phil's 100th Season

By Truman C. Wang

What a fantastic, fantastical inaugural week for the LA Phil!  The Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall became a giant canvass for the fanciful video projections of Turkish media artist Refik Anadol.  From September 28 through October 6, the outdoor video art show, synchronized to loudspeakers playing festive music, was repeated every 20 minutes in the evening, drawing woos and ahhs from a large crowd outside.

Inside, the celebration of LA Phil’s 100th-anniversary season boldly looked into the future, not the past, with two avant-garde works that are tailored for the players of the LA Phil – “LA Variations” by Esa-Pekka Salonen and “Sustain” by Andrew Norman.  Sandwiched between the two was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, showcasing three principal players from the orchestra.  There are also two new faces this season – principal viola Teng Li and principal oboe Ramón Ortega. Here’s hoping the high turnovers in the wind section have finally come to an end.

Salonen’s LA Variations, written 20 years ago, still sounds as avant-garde and inscrutable today as it did back then.  Rhythmically complex, dynamically extreme, tonally disruptive, colorfully diverse – it is an apt, though bizarre, depiction of the City of Angels that has changed little over the two decades in its congested freeways, ethnic diversities, clashing gangs, etc.  This isn’t the romantic view of a cityscape penned by Gershwin in “An American in Paris”.  Far from it, Salonen’s piece is a product of a far more cynical, dystopian society that’s been through decades of political turmoil and social unrest.  In the 19 minutes that this piece lasts, we hear lyrical episodes, played on lower winds and trumpets, cut short by bursts of random violence that crescendo into monstrous heights.  It all comes to an end not in a lyrical apotheosis of a nineteenth-century Romantic work, but with a minimalist, cynical, piccolo chirp.  The players of the LA Phil, to which this work was dedicated, played like they owned the music under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto was a much-needed lyrical intermezzo to catch one’s breath in between two avant-garde beasts.  It is not a ‘deep’ piece, as it was first performed in 1808 to an audience of Viennese aristocrats on summer vacation.   It did, however, feature concertmaster Martin Chalifour, keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin and principal cellist Robert DeMaine playing in their most congenial fashion with their orchestral colleagues and, in the short middle movement, playing an intimate piano trio by themselves. 

Andrew Norman’s world premiere piece, Sustain, occupied the entire second half of the concert, some forty minutes of new-age music filled with ethereal harmonies and gossamer textures that would make great background music in a sci-fi film or a day spa.  If a lot of Norman’s music is influenced by architecture, then ‘Sustain’ would be akin to a steel-and-glass contemporary house with modern furnishings and abstract art.  Then, as sudden as it was frightening, the calmness erupted into a huge maelstrom (with the full complement of the LA Phil percussion section, including a wind machine!) bigger and more formidable than anything heard in “L.A. Variations”, jolting you completely out of your meditative state.  The storm subsides and the music dies away as quietly as it began with a slow piano arpeggio. 

The audience loved the ‘new’ approach to the LA Phil season and gave a long standing ovation.  They can expect to hear at least 50 more all-new pieces by the end of the season.  Which begs the question – does quantity equate quality?  That remains to be seen/heard.  It’s a daunting task for the listeners as well as for the musicians who have to learn all this new music.  Next week, the Green Umbrella series of concerts will feature only new works, and new thrills.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.