A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

John Adams and Leila Josefowicz / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

Leila Josefowicz delivered a magnificent virtuosic performance of John Adams’ Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 5.  Her selection for this role by Adams himself speaks to the integrity of her portrayal, and the Thursday night performance was truly unforgettable for her brilliant energy that is still lifting my spirits.

In addition to conducting his own Concerto, Adams also led the premiere of Philip Glass’ new Ninth Symphony, co-commissioned by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, Carnegie Hall, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.  This performance was the West Coast premiere after having been first heard on Jan. 1 in Linz with Dennis Russell Davies conducting, and then again on Jan. 31 at Glass’ 75th birthday celebration with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

The evening began on the mellow vibe of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.  The strings blended beautifully in the hall, and I was struck by the seminal influence of Henry Purcell echoing in the music and eventually heard the connection with Adams and Glass.  A hammered chime cast a solemn mood into the ambiance.  Cascading, descending stepwise melodies were bound together by their common directionality, but Pärt’s asynchronous timing and tempos evoked a sensation of fluid continuity.  The climax was subtle; Adams and the strings had an amazing expressiveness and control.

The mood of the concert abruptly changed as Josefowicz spun Adams’ magical, endless melodies into a seemingly continuous stream of consciousness.  Her rhapsodic sound flowed with an intense, evocative energy.  The blistering speed and perceptual overload in Adams’ melodic lines obliterated the details of the tune itself, leaving only contours and impressions in the senses.  The forward-pulling draw of her hyper-melodic energy never relented. She assertively grabbed our attention and presented as an intellectual force that was keenly focused and distinct from its orchestral body.  The cadenza was elegant with an alluring expressiveness.  Josefowicz has no peers in this arena.

The second movement was true to its poetic title — “Body through which the dream flows.” Josefowicz’s dreamy phrases floated with Adams’ organic orchestral being.  She had a beautiful fluidity of movement that captured the inherent ballet of the music, and her delivery was pregnant with anticipation.  The final “Toccare” again brought a phenomenal display of virtuosity where she may have achieved Mach speed.  Her disheveled bow showed the wear of her fantastic performance, a display of emotion and virtuosity that will likely become one of the high points of her career and may set the standard for the Concerto.

The woodwind-rich orchestration provided much of the coloration in the background.  The sparse brass parts were often muted.  The percussion section was rich, and in addition to the standard instruments, Adams also employed numerous pitched toms, bongos, congas, guiro, claves and cowbell, among other devices, including two keyboard samplers.  Of all the effects, the most compelling was from a bowed vibraphone that was surprisingly resonant and piercing.

Glass’ Ninth Symphony was equally striking.  The jigsaw rhythmic motifs were signature Glass, but the orchestration was richer, especially in the strings, and the sound was definitely a departure from his iconoclastic minimalism.  The music was like comfort food; it was easily digested although hearty and rich.  The contemporary and historical cultural references made it approachable, easily understandable, and inherently satisfying in an updated Gould-like fashion.

Undulating strings formed a diffuse but energetic background, and grumbling low pitches from contrabass instruments gave a murky bottom to the overall impression.  An expansive array of percussion included castanets, glockenspiel, celesta and harp and piano, and although large in scope and orchestration, the Symphony never was unleashed as Adams maintained composure and restraint throughout.

The second movement, soft and tender, was the substance of the work and presented some of the most moving moments of the entire evening.  The third movement sported concurrent non-uniform tempos that blurred the texture, and then culminated with a subtle extended crescendo that gave way to a quiet, introspective ending.  The orchestra was superb, and Adams was perfectly attuned to Glass’ new vision.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic again gave proof to the legitimacy of its unique position as a leader among modern orchestras.  Bravi to Josefowicz and Adams for taking us on such a thrilling sonic adventure!  Bravo to Philip Glass for a wonderful contribution of bold indigenous originality to the contemporary symphonic repertoire!

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA