"The idea of the arts is not to be the response to what is going on. It's to be a catalyst for thought and change and an opening up of experience." David Robertson
Here is what you will do if you wish to make orchestral music a vital artform in the 21st century. First, build a concert hall that is not only acoustically sound, but visually striking, both inside and out. Next, dress the players in comfortable (if uniform) clothes, similar to those worn by members of the audience. Then, program entire concerts - or series of concerts - of contemporary music, rather than the customary program of short modern work-concerto-symphony, which ends up satisfying noone. Finally, engage conductors who are not only musically proficient, but able to communicate the composer's intentions directly to the audience.
This may all sound like a fantasy to those who live in New York, or in most other parts of the country, where attending the symphony is like going to church, and contemporary music spaces tend to suffer from bad sightlines (and worse plumbing). But, over a span of five days, I heard three concerts in the same astounding concert hall that explored some of the most extraordinary sounds created in the latter half of the 20th Century, as well as at least two compositions from the 21st. None of the concerts were close to sold out, but all those in attendance were engaged and excited to be there.
The location? Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California.
First, a word about the venue. I've had the good fortune to visit most of the major concert halls in this country and in Europe, and I can say without hesitation that Disney Hall has them all beat. There is nothing that can quite prepare you for the first glimpse of Frank Gehry's aluminum facade, which rises out of the downtown LA landscape like a cut-up tin can. It sits at the top of Bunker Hill, not far from City Hall and adjacent to both the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The LA Philharmonic, which used to share Chandler Pavilion with LA Opera, is now in its fifth season at Disney Hall, and seems to have settled comfortably into their enviable new digs.
Disney is designed along the same lines as the Philharmonie in Berlin, where the stage is placed in the center of the hall and the seats rise in one flat plane to the top of the gallery, like the hull of a ship. I ended up in the Terrace: basically a tier hanging directly over stage left. There are literally no bad seats in Disney Hall: the curved wood ceiling reflects the music in all directions, generating tremendous volume without any amplification.
I arrived in town last Friday evening, and drove straight to Disney Hall, where I was able to snag a ticket on the street for $30. (You pay for what you get at Disney Hall: ticket prices for Philharmonic concerts start at $40 and go up to $142, though $10 rush tickets are available to students and seniors.)The concert was the second in the LA Phil's enterprising and somewhat risky Concrete Frequency festival, which sought to "examine and celebrate the elements that define a city, and how they are affected by, and reflected in, music." The connection was tenuous at best, but at the very least served as a booster to Downtown LA, once the thriving heart of the region and now largely desolate after-hours, thanks to the Eisenhower freeways which enable commuters to cross the city in less than 30 minutes (depending, of course, on traffic.)
The festival was organized and conducted by LA-native David Robertson, currently Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony and a noted new-music specialist. When I arrived, he was onstage introducing the first two pieces on the program: Berio's Sequenza X and Ives' Central Park in the Dark. Berio's fourteen Sequenzas were written for solo performers, each intended to be explore the furthest poossbile reaches of a particular instrument. (The New York Philharmonic was supposed to present all fourteen Sequenzas at Rose Hall next month as part of their "Day of Berio," but as of the last time I checked with the box office, the event was off for unspecified reasons.)
Sequenza X for solo trumpet was commissioned and premiered by the LA Phil in 1984, and performed here by Gabriele Cassone, who Berio hand-picked to give the European premiere. The entire hall was darkened except for a sharp spotlight on Cassone, who employed a whole battery of virtuosic techniques, including flutter tonguing and blowing into an open grand piano. The fifteen minute piece was a true endurance test for Cassone, who played brilliantly and nonstop.
The lights came on for Ives' Central Park in the Dark: a blue-violet haze that was both pretty and eerie. After a period of calm representing the perspective of a park bench at night, brass players hidden up in the balcony crashed in with ragtime tunes and street sounds, drowning out the orchestra and bringing to mind what a stroll down Delancey must have sounded like 100 years ago. Robertson followed it up with music of another New Yorker: Morton Feldman's The Turfan Fragments, written in 1980. The Feldman was enveloping, repeating, occasionally dissonant, often ominous. It was, above all, incredibly soft, like a James Turrell light installation that seems to exist only in your peripheral vision: brass sounding like foghorns, strings playing pizzicato with the pads of their fingers. At that moment, it became clear that these players had some serious chops.
After intermission, I moved downstairs into a front orchestra seat for George Benjamin's Palimpsests (2002). The sound from there was overwhelming: unbelievably loud, but crystal clear and balanced. Palimpsests are typically reusable manuscript pages, but the term can also be applied to urban landscapes, which are torn down and built up in an ongoing cycle of renewal. Benjamin's music constantly shifted shape and volume, eventually arriving at a climax full of rich, heavy brass.
Robertson brought out the full orchestra for the final work on the program: Bernd Alois Zimmerman's jazzy Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (1954), featuring the young British soloist Alison Balsom. Clearly, the LA Phil is not concerned about costs: how many orchestras would keep their players sitting in the wings for two hours, only to come out at the end to play a fifteen minute concerto? Not to mention, how many orchestras have the means to engage two trumpet soloists on the same program?!!
Unfortunately, Balsom - who certainly isn't lacking in the looks department - seemed to struggle a bit with the score, her lips turning eggplant-shade towards the end. But, she managed to play with beautiful tone and expression, and the crowd gave her the biggest ovation of the night.
Robertson didn't wait long to come out of the wings for an encore: Bill Holman's arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight." Robertson made for an awkward jazz conductor, but the orchestra seemed to be on autopilot anyway: this, after all, is familiar fare over at the Hollywood Bowl, where the Philharmonic performs each summer. After the big, brassy finish, there were huge whoops and cheers, and everyone left the hall smiling.
The concert scored a favorable review from LA Times critic Mark Swed, who rightly noted, "No other major orchestra that depends on subscribers for its livelihood trusts its audience as much as the Philharmonic did with this program." But, at least one subscriber in his comment box apparently didn't get the memo that Beethoven wasn't being played until the following week:
"It was the worst concert we've ever heard in the hall. No one liked hearing this junk in the 1970's, and they don't like hearing it now either. Robertson tried to reedem himself with an encore of jazz, which was well received from the few remaining ticket holders (many left at intermission) who had put up with this stuff for a very long evening." - Norm, Torrance, CA
Not to be deterred, I was back on Sunday afternoon for the matinee concert. It began with Pierre Boulez' ...explosante-fixe..., based on a short theme he wrote in memory of Stravinsky in 1971. It would be another 20 years before Boulez could realize his original intention for the piece: to have a flutist interacting with electronics and a chamber ensemble. The solution was to have the flutist play a MIDI flute, which would sample the soloist's playing and process it in real time. Boulez also added two accompanying flutes, adding another layer of density.
Here, too, the LA Phil spared no expense, bringing over sound and computer engineers from IRCAM, the music research institute Boulez founded in Paris in 1970. The flutist, Emmanuelle Ophele, is a member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, which Boulez founded in 1977, and has recorded the work under his direction. And, there could hardly be anyone better qualified to conduct than Robertson, who was Music Director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the time ...explosante-fixe... was composed. As on Friday, he spoke at length beforehand, effectively conveying his notoriously difficult former colleague's mindset in order to help us comprehend this challenging, aggressively modern work.
The music started wildly, with the flutes recalling Stravinsky's Rite of Spring while the orchestra played music of extreme density and complexity. At two intervals called "interstitiels," the house lights went down, the orchestra stopped playing, and the hall was filled with electronic sounds, projected from speakers placed around the perimeter. Over the course of 40 minutes, the music became gradually more spectral, eventually arriving at the original E-flat with which the piece began. For me, at least, it felt like a relief, back on safe shores.
The second half of the concert featured the world premiere of Michael Gordon and Bill Morrison's Dystopia, which I wrote about previously. Gordon is one of the founders of Bang on a Can, and his aesthetic is far more rock band than serialism. In comments before the concert, Gordon said that he enjoys writing for orchestra, because, "you get to play with all of these toys." Gordon clearly took full advantage of what he had at his disposal, using a full complement of musicians as well as the massive Disney pipe organ, which was hidden behind the giant film screen but sounded absolutely bonkers.
Dystopia is certainly an engaging and exciting experience, getting by far the biggest audience reaction of any of the Concrete Frequency performances I heard. Still, there's nothing really groundbreaking about Gordon's music, and I have to wonder how well it would hold up without Morrison's images, which provides a convenient distraction for the listener trying to place these works in context.
The third and final concert I heard in Disney Hall wasn't part of the Concrete Frequency festival, but rather the LA Phil's longstanding Green Umbrella series, which for over 25 years has presented concerts of challenging contemporary fare. The performances are given by the LA Philharmonic New Music Group, which is culled from the main orchestra: a unique institution in this country, and one with few parallels anywhere in the world (the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is the only one I can think of off the top of my head.) No doubt the main reason for Green Umbrella's longevity is the support of LA Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen: a composer and new music specialist who has premiered dozens of works over his 16 years with the orchestra.
Salonen was on hand to conduct Tuesday night's concert: a performance of Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars. Messiaen wrote Canyons in response to a 1973 visit he made to three national parks in Utah: Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, and Zion Park. The piece, which is divided into twelve movements, provides an aural picture of each of the parks, complete with wind, birdsong, and other, less definable sounds.
I sat in the choir stalls behind the stage, where I was able to look directly at Salonen, who kept the music moving along with clarity and precision. During the big crescendos - particularly at the end of "Bryce Canyon and the Red-Orange Rocks" - he conveyed an almost shamanistic power: eyes closed, arms outstretched. I frankly have no idea when he and the Philharmonic found the time to rehearse this extremely challenging piece, with only one day off since Sunday's concert.
In addition to being a visionary orchestral score, Canyons is officially the world's longest piano concerto, clocking in at just over 90 minutes. The piano part was performed here by contemporary music specialist Mario Formenti, replacing Andreas Haefliger on short notice. Formenti has been compared to Glenn Gould in his playing ability, but the same could also be said for his eccentricities: he grunted like a wild animal, played with his mouth open, and ended up nearly prostrate at the end of each solo. As is common with pianists who take on Messiaen, this was no ordinary performance, but rather like watching someone in the midst of a mystical, ecstatic trance.
The final movement, called "Zion Park and the Celestial City," lasted nearly ten minutes, ending with a shimmering A-Major chord that Salonen let hang for a long, long time. When he finally released it, the audience exploded in an immediate standing ovation: a reaction almost unimaginable at another major orchestra.
Speaking of Celestial Cities, I can't think of a more fitting conclusion to this complex and remarkable city's exploration of music's relationship to our urban centers. In the end, it is the audience - the city-dwellers - who make music possible, who sustain it with their admiration and awe. (And, yes, with their patronage.) After five days in the City of Angels, I doubt I'll ever be able listen to the music of my home city the same way again.
Postcript: According to Chris McLaurin, Principal Percussionist of the Kansas City Symphony, who played xylorimba in Canyons, Formenti didn't know he was going to replace Haefliger until 3 1/2 weeks before the performance. And, it was the first time he ever performed it: no wonder he seemed at the end of his rope!