A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Emanuel Ax / photo courtesy of LA Phil

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Emanuel Ax / photo courtesy of LA Phil

LA Phil Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to Los Angeles with Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and a triumphant saga for the ages.  Like Homer’s Ulysses, Salonen tethered himself to the mast of the LA Phil and took us on a dramatic voyage through the world of the Sirens, and with Hillborg’s help, we too heard their irresistible song and survived.

Our odyssey began Friday, Nov. 25, at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and after a dramatic all-Beethoven first half featuring world-acclaimed pianist and LA Phil friend Emanuel Ax, we were on course to witness the siren songs of soprano Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the LA Master Chorale.

Salonen opened the evening with a bolt of lightning; he put his whole body and soul into it, and prefaced it with an extended dramatic pause.  Beethoven’s dissonant Leonore No.2 served up a powerful opening shot.  Salonen and the Phil are no strangers to the work, having released a recorded performance of it in 2006, and the artistic persona expressed by it is rarely exposed so purely and simply.  Salonen “kicked it up a notch” as he leaned into the orchestra with his animated gestures.  He reminded me of popular chef Emeril Lagasse putting “Bam!” into his Beethoven. The winds were strong, and they balanced artfully with the strings, although the horns were muddled at times. The off-stage trumpet of Chris Still was nicely done, and the frenetic finale created a wonderful introduction for the Concerto.

Emanuel Ax was brilliant with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  His technique made his work appear effortless, a seemingly impossible task given the lightning quick arpeggios and runs.  His artistic integrity is unmatched, enabled by the acute attention he devotes to the details of every note and phrase.  Although elegant, there was urgency in the connotation of his interpretation, and Salonen, for his part, kept the resulting energy electrified. Ax’s flawless and inspired performance was surely the highpoint of the concert for many in the audience.  After a warm and sustained ovation, he took us to a sweet, more contemplative state before his departure with a beautiful solo encore of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, No.1.

Hillborg’s Sirens was commissioned by the LA Phil and is dedicated to Salonen and in memory of Betty Freeman. This evening’s performance was the much-anticipated world premiere. Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey is the theme, and the text is taken from historical sources with original material added by Hillborg.  The text was projected in the Hall and it significantly enhanced the experience, as did the intense blue lighting that was used to create a theatrical effect that ushered us to and from the other-world of the Sirens.

Plitmann and von Otter were stellar in their roles; Plitmann’s voice was crystal clear and pierced through the dense sound like a laser beam, and Von Otter was genuinely alluring. The two of them were especially beautiful in duet when their fluid lyric passages soared over the unsettled background.  The singing was particularly affective when accompanied only by the sound of the ethereal glass armonia, a set of glass bowls that resonate with a delicate shimmering sound made by gentle finger pressure around the wetted rim of the vessel.  The wetness of the sound was a nice touch.

Hillborg’s orchestration was large with the winds extended in all ranges and colors. Unorthodox instrumental and vocal effects around complex inharmonic and harmonic intervals were characteristic of the dense and ever-evolving background, highly charged at times, but rarely lyric.  The chorus snapped their fingers and whispered indistinct syllables in addition to their conventional art.  An undercurrent of constant energy ebbed and flowed to form a sonic mass of meticulous textures, and the melodic lines flowed upward in broad swaths to entice the listener with anticipation.

Hillborg described the chilling culminating scene in which the “Sirens’ true monstrous identity is revealed, as their powerful singing gradually transforms into horrendous screaming, the mirage/hallucination dissolves and all reverts back to calm sea, as Ulysses’ vessel sails out of danger.”

What a voyage!  What an education to hear the charm of the Sirens unfazed.

Bravi to all!  Salonen and the LA Phil, Ax and Beethoven, Hillborg, Plitmann, von Otter, and the Master Chorale navigated us through a very special night of extraordinary epic drama.

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA