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A Boldly Modern Mission, With a Hall to Match


Published: October 27, 2003

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 26 — If the goal of Thursday night's gala inaugural program at Walt Disney Concert Hall, titled "Sonic L.A.," was to show off the acoustics of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new home, Friday night's concert, titled "Living L.A.," was a statement of mission.


The orchestra's charismatic music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducted the premiere performance of a major new work by John Adams, "The Dharma at Big Sur," commissioned for the occasion, and a bracing 1996 work of his own, "L.A. Variations." Instead of safely balancing these works of today with familiar music of earlier eras, Mr. Salonen also conducted an arresting performance of Lutoslawski's visionary 1970 Cello Concerto, with Yo-Yo Ma as the impassioned soloist, and concluded the program with a crack account of Revueltas's giddily raucous "Sensemayá," composed in 1937-38. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, this program asserted, is going to be an orchestra of the 21st century, and it has a boldly modern Frank Gehry hall to match its mission.

Judging from their brawny and inspired playing and from the comments they have been sharing with anyone who will listen, the musicians are thrilled with Disney Hall. Still, every new concert hall, no matter how initially excellent, takes adjusting to, both by audiences and musicians. Perhaps in time the musicians will learn to tailor their playing to the bright, modern acoustics of the hall and lend more warmth to the overall orchestral sound, especially in the strings.

They will also have to learn how to better balance sonorities in the auditorium. The performance of Mr. Adams's new score was marred by a balance problem that could have been solved in about two minutes during a rehearsal. "The Dharma at Big Sur" is the composer's musical reflections of the collective experience of being Californian. The "guiding deities" of the work, he has written, were the California composer Lou Harrison, who died this year, a pioneer in the incorporation of Eastern musical traditions and tunings into Western concert works; and Terry Riley, who was in the vanguard of minimalism, a movement that profoundly affected the young John Adams.

The work is a de facto concerto for electric violin and orchestra. Electronic instruments, digital samplers and prerecorded tapes are ingeniously blended into the scoring for lush, full orchestra. The solo part, played with fleet agility and tangy expressivity by Tracy Silverman, deftly evokes Appalachian fiddle music, an Indian sitar and wistful jazz riffs with wailing hints of Jimi Hendrix.

But Mr. Silverman's violin was way overamplified. Whenever the violin dropped out, you heard so much more of the rich intricacies in the orchestra, with haunting stretches of music that seems laconic in some laid-back Los Angeles way, yet trembles underneath with fidgety figures, wayward counterpoint and fractured rhythms. Even with the balance problem the score had a powerful impact. The piece built to an ecstatic final section, Mr. Adams's Messiaen moment, a rapturous din so buzzing with piled-on activity and tension that you could not tell whether the music was about to explode or to implode.

Not surprisingly, the most striking aspect of Mr. Salonen's 19-minute "L.A. Variations" was its savvy and imaginative orchestration. Yet the work offers more than incandescent colorings and relentless energy. Mr. Salonen knows how to compose thick-textured, chunky harmonies that still keep the notes clear. And after all the musical tumult and rigor, the work ends playfully: a group of string instruments distill into a solo violin playing a high, soft sustained pitch that is taken over by the piccolo until, after a while, a two-note "bye-bye" gesture ends the entire piece.

Actually, the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated the opening of Disney Hall with two contemporary music programs, because Saturday night's concert, "Soundstage L.A.," was devoted to film music, starting with Max Steiner's score for the 1933 classic "King Kong." During the 1930's, Los Angeles became a point of refuge for a whole generation of exiled European composers, who were leading figures in a film-music tradition that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has honored until Mr. Salonen.

The program was introduced by Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Steven Spielberg. Mr. Salonen shared the podium with John Williams, who conducted excerpts from scores by Alfred Newman ("Wuthering Heights") and Elmer Bernstein ("The Magnificent Seven") and his own "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," among others; accompanied the singers Josh Groban and Audra McDonald at the piano in a few renowned Hollywood film songs; and also conducted the premiere of his own ebullient and atmospheric new work, "Soundings," commissioned for the concert. There were some surprises as well, including Brian Stokes Mitchell's tender performance of the great song "Laura" by David Raksin with words by Johnny Mercer.

Watching Mr. Salonen conduct music from film scores by Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann and others with such flair and involvement, you wondered at the evolution of his career. When he was a sober-minded Finnish student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, could he have even imagined that one day he would conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Jerry Goldsmith's music for "Planet of the Apes?" This city will do that to you.

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