By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — Some of you out there in cyberspace might remember the light shows of the 1960s in which gaudily colored lights would seemingly play in tandem with live rock music and take you to other places — depending upon your level of intoxication.
Well, the ever-adventurous Los Angeles Philharmonic is experimenting with an expansion of that idea (minus chemicals) in a new concert series called in/Sight, which it rolled out Nov. 6 in the appropriately futuristic-looking interior of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Yet for many reasons, the concert turned out to be much, much more than just a light show, and a far cry from what was originally envisioned.
When the LA Phil’s 2014-15 season was announced last February, Berlioz’s massive Romeo and Juliet was supposed to receive the first in/Sight treatment with the help of Turkish-born video artist Refik Anadol. Yet by the time the season’s pocket brochures came out in the fall, R&J had been scrapped. “We abandoned it for logistical and technical reasons,” said the project’s conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
No matter, for Salonen gradually came up with an even better idea, limiting the video activity to Edgard Varèse’s Amériques after intermission and tying it to a manically diverse, wonderfully stimulating “Visions of America” program that tried to illustrate how some European emigré composers came to terms with living and working in America. Many never did, sticking resolutely to their Old World styles and ways, but Kurt Weill, Varèse, and Salonen himself underwent sweeping transformations.
There was a quirky inconsistency, though, for Salonen led off the program with the 16-minute string-orchestra suite from the film Psycho by New York-born Bernard Herrmann (all right, the film’s director Alfred Hitchcock was a British emigré). Salonen had recorded this with the LA Phil for Sony during his tenure here, but this was the first time the Philharmonic had ever performed the whole suite live, with brilliantly precise and visceral string attacks. It still sounded like a bunch of isolated, repetitive film cues, generating the requisite moods of suspense and anxiety, yet inextricably tied to Hitchcock’s film.
The blue lights focused on the orchestra in the Herrmann turned crimson for Weill as mezzo-soprano Susan Graham — a holdover from the abandoned Berlioz project — seated herself at a cabaret table, wielded a cordless microphone, and captivated the hall with convincingly moving and sassy renditions of six theater songs, five of them from Weill’s Broadway period. Weill had completely Americanized his style by 1940 — as a hastily-added “Das Lied von der Harten Nuss” from his Berlin days graphically demonstrated. The penchant for satire remained but the tough sarcastic edge was gone. Hearing “My Ship” and “September Song” with such sumptuous symphonic backing brought a lump to the throat, and Salonen showed that he could swing “One Life To Live,” “I Am a Stranger Here Myself,” and “The Saga of Jenny” in prime Broadway style.
Salonen’s own Foreign Bodies quickly dispelled the sentiment and pizzazz with a loud, splashy, relentlessly driving, almost mechanized orchestral hit to the solar plexus, juxtaposed with a central section that approached a lyrical epiphany. Salonen’s transformation after leaving Finland for Los Angeles (he recently moved back here after a short stay in London) was nearly as profound as Weill’s: His music shed its cerebral rigor, acquired lavish color, and certainly in this score, he was under the influence of John Adams’ minimalist engines. The U.S. premiere took place in the old Chandler Pavilion across the street in 2002; this performance in the sizzling acoustic of Disney Hall was a spectacular revelation of detail that would have been masked in the Chandler.
It’s impossible to say exactly how Varèse changed when he came to America — only one tiny French song from Europe survives — but Amèriques basically picks up where Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring left off and creates a new language in that zone: Varèse’s impression of being plunked into Manhattan’s teeming streets and skyscrapers. That is where Anadol launched his own video expedition onto the Douglas fir panels and organ pipes within Disney Hall, projecting spidery threads, points of light, and a dizzying abstract cruise through the New York skyline. He moved on to collapsing and evolving blocks of light, exploding fireworks and suns, a stunning display of digital art unified with its canvas. Only toward the end of the piece, with its repeated upward shrieks from the strings, winds, and trumpets, did we get any evidence of the promised interaction with the performers, the images hazily following Salonen’s motions on the podium.
The musical performance, to be sure, really didn’t beg for video enhancement; it was as explosive and radical and forceful and incredibly detailed as you could hope for — Salonen in his element and reveling in it. The little things were as important as the overall, overwhelming sonic assault; for example, the trombonist faithfully observed the “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” instruction that Varèse inscribed underneath the notes of his solo after one of the orchestral cataclysms (most do not).
Yet Anadol’s often-startling projections undeniably contributed to the zonked-out impact of this performance. It left heads reeling and others feeling that they had seen a viable glimpse of what an audio-visual concert hall experience could be like in the future. The promise of such a fusion, though, did not pull in a particularly big crowd on this occasion, whereas Salonen’s almost-perversely-against-type program of standard-issue Mozart and Beethoven the week before nearly filled the hall. I needn’t spell out the implications of that.
A most ambitious in/Sight experiment comes Jan. 9-11, 2015, with Michael Tilson Thomas’s re-imagined “staging” — he calls it an “installation” — of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with video and spatial placements (this will also be performed with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall June 10-13, 2015). Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice In Wonderland receives a video treatment Feb. 27-28, 2015, and the multi-media Three Tales by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot concludes the series May 29, 2015.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.