A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Esa-Pekka Salonen / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

If revolutions require a spark to ignite, then a logistical glitch during the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s preparation for Hector Berlioz’s Romeo & Juliet proved to be the catalyst that upended what was originally supposed to be a program featuring the work of a popular Romantic-era composer and “America’s Favorite Soprano” Susan Graham. Instead, Salonen and the LA Phil boldly programmed Visions of America: Amériques on Nov. 7, featuring 20th- and 21st-century composers mostly from Europe: Bernard Herrmann, Kurt Weill, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Edgard Varèse. Unbound by dogma and traditions of the Old World, these composers found their creative voices in America, and in turn expanded the possibilities of musical expression.

The program was also the launch of LA Phil’s In/SIGHT series, an innovative experiment featuring film installation with music. The work of the multimedia artist Refik Anadol was to have been cast with Romeo & Juliet. With the program change, Anadol’s film was paired with Varèse’s Amériques.

Varèse may have been too sickly to serve in the French Army during World War I, but as the man whom John Cage credited for having “fathered forth noise into 20th-century music,” Varèse was on the front lines of bringing about modernism. In Amériques, the first major work Varèse composed after having settled in America, he employs a “gargantuan” orchestra that includes a Mahlerian-sized string section, eight horns, three piccolos and a Santa wish list of percussion instruments, including the signature wailing siren inspired by his urban surrounding in Manhattan.

A jolly Gershwin-esque cityscape Amériques is not, however. Amériques opened starkly, much like The Rite of Spring (Varèse attended the notorious premiere of The Rite). As the lonely flute chanted to the rhythmic beats of the harpists tapping their instruments like a drum, film images were projected on the front and side wings of the hall, taking the audience through an aerial view of graphic buildings and skyscrapers. When the bass drums pounded in a march to the alarming sirens, blocky views of streets and buildings gave way to organic shapes, where streams of red cloud violently flowed out of the organ pipes, followed by 10-foot viruses and flowing blood streams. The seats of Disney Hall turned into a vessel in an Isaac Asimov novel, where human scientists are atomized to the size of cells and transported inside a human body.

The brilliance of Anadol’s film and technical wizardry was most evident towards the end, when the tubas propelled the orchestra to loud exclamations with the sirens shrieking in the background. Amidst this furious orgy of sound, the array of stars spread against the walls morphed into a shape of a giant human imitating the exact conducting gestures of Salonen. No one missed the downbeat.

LA’s import from Finland, Salonen composed Foreign Bodies during his sabbatical in 2000, and later recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Salonen wrote of the piece, “I very much enjoy the energy and joy of my adopted hometown of Los Angeles. And yet, I feel foreign, a misplaced shy northerner amidst extroverted and confident Californians. This polarity is quite inspiring….”

Foreign Bodies does certainly start with the confidence of a Spartan-like march from the massive orchestra. The columns of Thai nipple gongs hanging like an abacus in the center of the stage added to the visual presence. LA’s Latin flair and extrovert influence can be heard in the first movement, “Body,” where the woodwinds play against maracas, while the calm introvert is trapped in the glowingly serene second movement, “Language.” The third movement, “Dance,” ends the piece in a seismic eruption of energy.

Herrmann was born in Brooklyn, but was of Russian-Jewish descent. He found his calling in radio where he wrote and arranged music for Orson Welles’ radio program at CBS, and in film where he scored seven Alfred Hitchcock films.

Herrmann’s score to Psycho, as iconic as it is today, was borne out of a low-budget slasher film. But necessity has often proved to be as effective of a muse as nature or Venus in providing artists with the creative impulse. The strings-only orchestration of the film score, necessitated by budget constraints at first, turned out to be one of the creative hallmarks of the score. Herrmann later said, “In using strings alone…I felt that I was able to complement the black-and-white photography of the film with a black-and-white sound.”

Salonen made a landmark recording of Herrmann’s film scores with the LA Phil, including Psycho, for Sony Classical in 1996. Tonight, it took a few miles of driving in the Rainstorm scene for the LA Phil strings to warm up. But by the Murder scene, the audience — chuckling at first, recognizing the glissando attacks from the violins — fell silent by the sixth or so stab, as the unbearable shrieks were followed by the unrelenting sinister rumble from the lower strings.

Psycho proved to be the perfect prelude to the immensely charming Weill songs, in which the humor hides an otherwise dark fatalistic sensibility. Susan Graham’s exquisitely lush and medium-bodied voice made those admirers in the audience ache with tender longing, while the sarcasm, wit and humor she accentuated made the reminders in the songs of the harsh realities of life easier to swallow.

Salonen, perhaps more than any conductor since Leonard Bernstein, owns the piece of music to be performed, as if it were his own. Salonen spoke about music as a physical need and the instruments of the orchestra as an extension of the body. With this approach, he brings on a new dimension of atmosphere and physicality to the music he conducts, whether it be the work of Sibelius, Grieg, Mahler, Herrmann or Varèse, or his own. In Salonen’s Pyscho, you can both feel and hear the whisper of doom. In Salonen’s Amériques, you can feel the acceleration, as the music takes you on a warp speed journey through exploration of new sounds. After nearly 30 years in LA, Salonen continues to lead the way in the city’s cultural resurgence.

—Samuel Jang, Culture Spot LA

For information on upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.