Luxury Casting – Adès Plus LA Phil And Royal Ballet

A scene from Thomas Adès’ astonishing new ballet `Inferno,” a collaboration between the LA Phil, Company Wayne
McGregor and the Royal Ballet. It’s part of an as-yet-unfinished Dante triptych. (Production photos by Cheryl Mann).
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – Like a fireworks show that keeps on popping after the final salvo has supposedly come and gone, the Los Angeles Philharmonic added another epilogue to its centennial season more than a month after the final subscription concert took place. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that it was no ordinary concert.

Thomas Adès led the LA Phil in the pit for the ballets. (Brian Voce)

Taking a deep breath, the LA Phil trekked back to its old home from 1964 to 2003, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, for a collaboration with the Music Center, the visiting Royal Ballet of London and Company Wayne McGregor on July 12. The Phil landed in the pit with a frequent guest, the British composer and conductor Thomas Adès whose early promise has now come into full bloom. It was an all-Adès affair centering upon the first full production of his astonishing new ballet Inferno, along with some allegedly ground-breaking experiments in choreography from McGregor. It turned out to be a genuinely bold feast for eyes and ears – especially the ears.

Indeed, it can be said that the LA Phil was Dance Central for five days in July. In addition to the Adès bill (repeated July 13), the Phil hosted a collaboration with the Siudy Flamenco Dance Theater at Hollywood Bowl the night before (July 11), and another with a revised staging of parts of Prokofiev’s Romeo And Juliet by Benjamin Millipied’s LA Dance Project on July 16 – also at the Bowl.

The LA Phil had already delivered the world premiere of Inferno in concert form May 10 across the street in Walt Disney Concert Hall. They didn’t know what they had at first. The piece originated as an “open-ended proposal” for an orchestral commission, 25 minutes in length according to the program book. But when Inferno finally arrived, it was a full-blown ballet score stretching over 45 minutes. And it turned out to be that rare thing, a modern masterpiece that also had immediate appeal to an audience which interrupted the performance with a wild ovation just prior to the final section.

Another scene from `Inferno,’ with Edward Watson (in turquoise outfit) as Dante.

At the time of the premiere, it was announced that Inferno would be the first section of an as-yet-unfinished, two-part, evening-length ballet under the umbrella title The Dante Project. It now appears that the project will be a triptych – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso as per The Divine Comedy’s three parts – scheduled to be unveiled at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in May 2020. [The project also will be recorded May 28, 2020, for screenings worldwide. Watch here for details.]

Inferno opens with a tremendous blast of the brass, cracks of the whip, and shrieking winds in “The Portal” – a helluva fine noise to open a work that is set in Hell – and works its way through thirteen sections depicting various scenes and residents of Dante’s underworld. Although Adès claims that Liszt in his demonic mode was his inspiration, I hear the roar of early Prokofiev (the Scythian Suite) in the opening, a touch of Debussy in the center, and especially Shostakovich in the terrific, deliriously madcap galop, “The Thieves,” near the end (that’s the part which stopped the show in Disney and did so again at the Pavilion).

The Royal Ballet’s Melissa Hamilton and Mayara Magri in `Inferno.’

Amidst the score’s stupendously orchestrated rumblings, explosions and ventures into various dance forms – like the irresistible Spanish fandango that emerges from out of nowhere – Adès is also not shy about exploring his lyrical side here. While some repetitious passages seemed more redundant upon a second hearing, as a whole, Inferno still strikes me as the most emotionally thrilling score that Adès has done so far. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the triptych which, if it is as good as this, will join Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas as Britain’s greatest evening-length ballets.

The composer took Inferno a little bit slower overall than Gustavo Dudamel did at the world premiere (it now comes in at 48 minutes), swaying along to the 3/4-meter grooves, urging the musicians on with sometimes extravagant gestures. The score boomed through the Pavilion with darker colors than it did in Disney, flooding the room with appropriately ominous bassy textures. Some of that impression may have been a psycho-acoustical reaction to the set – a dimly-lit backdrop of rocks, hills and ravines that to this observer looked faintly like the bare landscape of Southern California (which can be a living Hell in the hot summertime).

While McGregor supplied the choreography, the Royal Ballet provided the dancers for Inferno, with Dante (Edward Watson) – as guided by the poet Virgil (Gary Avis) – mostly acting as an observer to the various dances. Unfortunately, the individual numbers were not listed in the program book, and the storyline was condensed to a pair of sentences that were of little help. Thus uninformed, viewers were basically on their own, watching this as if it was an abstract ballet that happened to be set in the underworld.

The rest of the program could be musically summarized as “the road to Inferno” – two Adès symphonic works from the previous decade that point the way toward the composer’s current blossoming, as converted into dance pieces by McGregor. They were the beneficiaries of luxury casting in the pit – Leila Josefowicz knocking out the jaggedly difficult solo part in the Violin Concerto (Concentric Paths, from 2005) with fearless rough-toned emotion, and Kirill Gerstein’s piano glittering against the percussion in the Genesis-inspired tone poem In Seven Days (2008). The Phil spares almost nothing these days, it seems.

Maria Daniel Gonzales and Jacob O’Connell in `Outlier’.

The Violin Concerto became Outlier, a 2010-vintage ballet set against a background of concentric circles at first, then a white-to-grey-to-black backdrop as the music descended into the depths, and finally an off-white screen with most of the dancers in shadow. I’m not sure who represented the “outlier,” unless it was Josefowicz as a lone voice over the circulating, complex orchestral parts. For this piece, McGregor mixed dancers from the Royal Ballet with those of his own company.

In Seven Days was the guinea pig for an experiment in using Living Archive, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool that studies extensive videos of the McGregor style, receives feedback from dancers in real time, and generates new choreography from what it has learned while also encouraging improvisation from the dancers themselves (hence the piece’s title, Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment). Supposedly this system, a collaboration between McGregor and the Google Arts and Culture Lab, will extend the ongoing work of choreographers infinitely beyond their lifetimes (would something similar work for Schubert or Gershwin?). If there was any difference in the dance styles between this piece and those of Outlier, I could not tell.

While In Seven Days doesn’t lend itself to dance movements as readily as Inferno does, it remains a compelling, sparkling, at-times-eloquently ruminative work. The AI-informed choreography was performed in front of projections of rapidly rolling computer code (with McGregor’s name sneakily flashing amidst the digital garbage), thousands of dots of light, and some blindingly bright displays – all very tech-tech-tech in look and a good fit with much of the music.

The choreography for`In Seven Days’ was generated with the AI system Living Archive.

Finally, this extraordinary dance concert reportedly marked the first time that the LA Phil had been in their former digs since moving to Disney Hall 16 years ago. Even when they were the Pavilion’s resident orchestra, the Phil played in the pit only on rare, memorable occasions like Verdi’s Falstaff under Carlo Maria Giulini or Berg’s Wozzeck under Simon Rattle. Yet they adapted surprisingly well; the orchestra’s collective tone and virtuosity didn’t sound cramped or confined. Since Disney Hall still does not have a real pit (the temporary one that Yuval Sharon devised for Atlas last month wouldn’t hold much more than 15 musicians), I would think that future LA Phil collaborations with visiting opera or dance companies shouldn’t hesitate to use the orchestra’s old homestead again.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.