By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — No, it wasn’t over yet. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s centennial season, already overloaded with newsmaking events — at times, hardly a week passed by without one or more — went into overtime this month.
On Oct. 24, the exact date the Phil was born 100 years ago, its three living former music directors — all now with titles at their alma mater — gathered on one stage for a gala concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Then, over the next two nights and a day, each had a concert to himself. Three of the four concerts contained world premieres, by now a staple of LA Phil fare.
Wait, there are more statistics to come. The three music directors — Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Gustavo Dudamel — are spaced apart in age in almost exactly the same proportions; Mehta is 83, Salonen is 61, and Dudamel will be 39 in January. Salonen holds the record for longevity at the Phil (17 years), Mehta is second at 16 years, and by the time Dudamel finishes his contract, which expires in 2022, he will be tied for third at 13 years. All three can be said to have been the most transformative conductors in Philharmonic history. Mehta put the orchestra on the world map with spectacular-sounding recordings for Decca/London and tours; Salonen made it a great orchestra with an incorrigibly progressive bent; and Dudamel made it a community force with its El Sistema-inspired YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) programs.
Seeing the three maestros from a front-row seat on the western side of Disney Hall overlooking the stage Oct. 24 was an education on how much difference a conductor can make — not only in physical style but in the sound they can coax out of an orchestra. And it was great fun at that, watching them pursue some of their specialties.
In a switcheroo in the order of the program, Salonen — now the LA Phil’s conductor laureate — went first with Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4, which was written for this orchestra and, as fate dictated, turned out to be the Polish master’s last major work. Salonen took up the piece immediately after the composer conducted the world premiere here in 1993, and Salonen’s identification with it has grown even deeper since. Whenever he returns to conduct his old band, the Phil immediately takes on the lean, brilliant sheen and attention to precise detail of the Salonen sound. Lutosławski’s atypically lyrical writing never sounded so clear and luminous, and his ad libitum outbreaks of controlled freeform exploded in new heights of craziness.
Conductor emeritus Mehta, who underwent hip surgery and cancer treatments last year, now walks to the podium with a cane and conducts seated yet won’t let physical infirmities stop his jet-propelled ways. Having led his last concert as music director of the Israel Philharmonic the previous Sunday (Oct. 20), he came to the centennial with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Prelude and Ravel’s La Valse. Instantly, the LA Phil sound changed; it was now thicker, heavier, mellower, striving toward the Viennese ethos that Mehta tried to cultivate when he was the boss here yet still solid of rhythm. Mehta made a sensational recording of La Valse while in L.A.; his concept is slower now but deeper in its feeling for the pulse of the waltz, and the coda still carries a potent punch of chaotic brutality.
Current music and artistic director Dudamel chose a piece in which he could demonstrate some flash, Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite, and he delivered in that aspect with a scorching Infernal Dance, while dancing lightly with the Firebird’s appearance and radiating great joy in the Finale. His particular sound is harder to define; he retained much of Salonen’s precision and added extroversion, yet his was a relatively conventional Firebird, if heightened on both ends of the volume spectrum.
Finally, Iceland’s Daníel Bjarnason came up with the concert’s pièce de resistance, the world premiere of a short tone poem called From Space I Saw Earth. It does sound like the work’s title to a certain degree, though as always it seemed to me that the view was focused mainly on the composer’s remote homeland — ten minutes or so of Icelandic drones surging and ebbing in waves.
The piece was intended to showcase three conductors, so the orchestra was divided into three sectors. Dudamel was in charge of the strings up front; Mehta led the flutes, clarinets, brasses, piano, and percussion from center-left; Salonen conducted the double reeds, duplicate brasses, harp and percussion center-right; and both elder conductors looked back to the youngest one for cues. Some YOLA kids chimed in with delicately struck crotales from the aisles at the piece’s tail end — and after Mehta laid down his baton with a humorous thunk, confetti imprinted with images of each maestro fell from the ceiling. It was a uniquely fun spectacle to behold, but really, folks, only one conductor would have been needed for this homophonic soundscape.
On Friday night (Oct. 25), Mehta returned with a magnificent Mahler Symphony No. 2 — gorgeously played, gracefully shaped with many eloquent turns of phrase, yet full of the old thrust and firm rhythm that has always characterized Mehta’s Mahler, with the cataclysms rolling in with an unforced inevitability. And then Mehta was off to the airport for concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic starting this weekend. His father Mehli Mehta, who conducted into his 90s, once told me, “Mehtas never quit” — and hopefully, like father, like son.
Then Salonen weighed in Saturday night (Oct. 26) with a program of Finnish music new and old, including the first complete performance of a composition of his own. As he told the audience in a talk laced with his usual dry wit, Salonen had originally set out to write a 20-minute single composition but soon realized that the material was developing in two incompatible directions. He thought of the Greek legend of the non-identical twin brothers Castor and Pollux and lo, a solution occurred to him — two pieces with the same “DNA” merged into one that could also be played separately if desired.
So Pollux came first, given its world premiere April 13, 2018, at Disney Hall with Dudamel on the podium, and Salonen spent the next year finishing up Castor and writing a short, quiet transition with percussion linking the two. Salonen himself led the first performance of Castor here Oct. 18, and Saturday was the first time both were heard together under the umbrella title of — you guessed it — Gemini.
Salonen calls Pollux “slow and quite dark in expression,” yet what I heard was something moderately paced, not at all dark in color, and densely packed, with lots of sparkling orchestral detail and an occasional bass pattern pounded out by the timpani (said by the composer to be a much-slowed and altered line that he heard from a post-grunge band in a Paris restaurant). At roughly the 11-1/2-minute mark of the 23-1/2-minute piece, Castor takes over, and suddenly we are in a hurtling, shimmering, violent world loaded with dramatic buildups topped by the boom of twin timpani sets and the whomping sound of two pairs of taiko drums. The score indicates two bass drums, but Salonen evidently wanted more power if he could get it — hence the taikos.
Gemini is another exciting, colorful example of Salonen’s liberation from rigid avant-garde theory that began right here in Los Angeles after he assumed command of the LA Phil in 1992. One can only guess what will come out of him when he becomes the San Francisco Symphony’s music director in 2020, although he may have his hands full at first cooking up new concepts in creative programming.
Speaking of creative programming, I believe that Salonen chose Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 on purpose as a companion to Gemini, for here, too, was an example of two pieces being folded into one. Sibelius originally wrote the Fifth in four movements, was dissatisfied at the premiere, and rewrote the piece, telescoping the first two movements into one long movement for the version we know (it’s fascinating to hear the original version, recorded by Osmo Vänskä on BIS). Salonen pushed the flexible LA Phil along in the Fifth at a mostly faster clip than he did in younger days, faring best when whipping up a furiously propulsive first movement coda that elicited a whoop from someone in the audience.
Also there was Sibelius’ Luonnotar, a strange short tone poem based on a tale from the Kalevala for soprano and orchestra Salonen introduced here in 1995. With conductor and orchestra graphically illustrating the seascapes and storms that Sibelius could always depict so well, soprano Golda Schultz was in impassioned storytelling mode.
Dudamel completed the LA Phil’s momentous centennial weekend Sunday afternoon (Oct. 27) leading the world premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s percolating, Afro-Latin-percussion-accented Yanga and a swaggeringly fast Beethoven Ninth — and will take the Phil on tour to Mexico City, London, Boston, and New York City in November. And Salonen will introduce Gemini to the New York Philharmonic Nov. 6-12. The beat goes on for the three maestros.
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.