LOS ANGELES, CA -- When I dashed through the doors of L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall three weeks ago, it was hard to believe that it had been nearly five years since my last visit. Much of that has to do with the acceleration of time that goes with getting older, but also with the indelible impression this Frank Gehry-designed hall—by far the best in the U.S.—had left on me.
Back then, Esa-Pekka Salonen was just winding up his long tenure as the L.A. Phil's Music Director, during which time he reinvented this once second-tier orchestra as one of the best in the country, especially in the performance of contemporary music. The following year, Salonen was succeeded by the young Venezeuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, 31, noted for being one of the most exciting and dynamic conductors today. Dudamel has also earned praise for shepherding the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), inspired by El Sistema in Dudamel's native Venezuela, providing instruments and training to youth in underserved parts of L.A.
Dudamel was on the podium for the first of three concerts I saw at Disney Hall, with music inspired by fairy tales from both ends of the 20th century: Ravel's Mother Goose and Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are, based on the Maurice Sendak book. Collaborating with British director Netia Jones, the performances were accompanied by giant projections, along with live characters in costume.
To my ears, the Ravel was lush and romantic, but also a bit lifeless. Dudamel, who specializes in music filled with pyrotechnics, seemed out of his element, while a group of children—supposedly Mother Goose's children—seemed lost without anything to do.
In the 1970s, the L.A. Phil became the first major orchestra in the world to develop an in-house contemporary music series and new-music group. Still going strong 40 years later, the Green Umbrella series has since been imitated by orchestras from Boston to Birmingham.
On a recent Tuesday night, Disney Hall was reasonably full for a Green Umbrella concert of music by Nico Muhly and the Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason. The concert was conducted by the Bay Area composer John Adams, who also serves as the L.A. Phil's Creative Chair.
In between Nico's arrangements of Byrd motets and a traditional Icelandic folksong, electric violinist Thomas Gould played the West Coast premiere of his chamber concerto, Seeing Is Believing. Employing looping and other effects, the concerto floated like a still lake for most of its length before building to a dramatic, wind-driven climax.
Bjarnason's Over Light Earth, an L.A. Phil commission, was more dark and spare, filled with the mysterious shaping and texture of the Rothko and Pollock paintings that inspired it. Bow to String, a cello concerto filled with repetitive phrases and smooth textures, was played with cool expression by the young Icelandic cellist Saeuun Thorsteinsdottir, fading away at the end.
Nico's music was also featured at Disney Hall the following Sunday, on a program of contemporary music for organ and chorus by the L.A. Master Chorale. Led by music director Grant Gershon, Nico's Bright Mass with Canons and A Good Understanding brimmed with color and texture, not surprising given that the LAMC recorded them for Decca in 2010. Other standouts on the program included Arvo Pärt's meditative "The Beatitudes," Judith Weir's otherworldly "Ascending Into Heaven," and Paul Mealor's "Ubi Caritas," which was performed at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. (Mealor was in the audience, enjoying his first-ever visit to L.A.) Paul Meier and Kimo Smith alternated on Disney's striking organ, whose riot of pipes resembles a carton of french fries.
There is plenty more to check out this season at Disney Hall, including the premiere of John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a staged production of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, and a week-long Brooklyn Festival featuring guitarist/composer Ty Braxton, organist Cameron Carpenter, and new works by Matt Marks and Ted Hearne, among others. Watch out NYC: these Angelenos are giving us a run for our money.
More pics below.