Bloom Is Missing In Julia Wolfe’s New ‘Flower Power’

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By Rick Schultz
Images for the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere of Julia Wolfe’s ‘Flower Power’ included Marc Riboud’s photo of a young woman offering a flower to National Guard troops at a 1967 antiwar protest. (© LAPA Artistic Planning / LA Phil)

LOS ANGELES – Social injustice and political turmoil as major themes in music have been around for centuries, and for at least a decade they’ve been a prime point of departure for composer Julia Wolfe.

In Steel Hammer (2009), Wolfe took on labor history through the prism of the John Henry folk legend, and in her 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Anthracite Fields, she found inspiration in the hardscrabble lives of Pennsylvania coal miners.

Composer Julia Wolfe (Photo: Peter Serling)

Her companion piece to Anthracite in 2019, Fire in my Mouth, stitched together music and images to form a devastating depiction of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. For Wolfe, one aesthetic challenge is finding an effective musical, and sometimes musical-visual, gateway into an era.

So why did her latest commentary for orchestra, Flower Power, feel so uninspiring? Initially, the approximately 35-minute piece, which received its premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 18, seemed to have a lot going for it, including John Adams, who conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Bang on a Can All-Stars. (Wolfe co-founded the latter ensemble.)

But Flower Power goes too heavy on the composer’s signature powerful blocks of sound. With the six- player Bang on a Can (amplified) ensemble positioned in front of the orchestra, acting as a kind of concertino in Wolfe’s modern version of the Baroque concerto grosso, Flower Power is mostly a frenzied, unrelenting juggernaut of orchestral sound lacking the cumulative force of her earlier large-scale works. The score is also saddled with cursory video images projected on a ruffled white curtain behind the orchestra.

Wolfe, who describes herself in the program as a “post-’60s child” (she’s 61), and production designer Jeff Sugg certainly had plenty of dramatic source material. By the 1970s, imagery of the Vietnam war flowed along with assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. (both LA Phil concerts featuring Flower Power occurred over the latter’s holiday weekend), as well as the burning of Watts, the 1968 Democratic convention riots, military occupation of college campuses, and the shootings at Kent State.

John Adams conducted Wolfe’s ‘Flower Power.’  (Photo: Musacchio-Ianniello-Pasqualini)

In a pre-concert talk, Wolfe said she wanted her piece to create feelings of optimism and hope, “to harness that energy again to change things.” Given the score’s many suggestive ’60s felicities – electric guitar licks, hypnotic early Terry Riley rhythmic patterns, the drone-like blending of lower strings, and thrilling Hendrix-like sliding pitches – it’s surprising so few passages effectively conjure the lives and spirit of that era.

For one thing, Wolfe’s presentation of the ’60s proved too generalized. The broad strokes of Flower Power simply didn’t create enough specific moments for reflection or feeling. I missed points of entry into the musical-visual narrative. And even though the images included several of the era’s highlights – the Selma to Montgomery marches, the March on Washington, a hippie placing a flower inside a rifle barrel — few seemed wedded in any compelling way to her music.

At times, the score came off as a musical analogue to the typographical style of Tom Wolfe’s 1968 nonfiction look at Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In that book, everything was writ large – lots of italics, capitals and especially EXCLAMATION POINTS !!!!!!!

Wolfe’s Flower Power, which employs a huge orchestra, often felt overcrowded. Perhaps the score needed an architectural master like Esa-Pekka Salonen to sort it out. That said, Adams did an exemplary job of keeping Wolfe’s galvanizing, clamorous work moving. He bravely directed an astonishingly adept LA Phil, as well as the always bold Bang on a Can ensemble, in which David Cossin at one point (it’s supposed to suggest the ’60s, after all) wails on his drum kit.

Wolfe’s piece ended with thousands of colored tissue paper flowers dropping from Disney Hall’s ceiling, a moment my younger female seat-mate rightly called “cringey.”

The irony of the night came after intermission, when Adams conducted the LA Phil in his Naive and Sentimental Music. Composed 20 years ago, the similarly ambitious 45-minute piece unintentionally came closer than Flower Power to recreating the touching, but by no means ineffectual, optimism of the besieged ’60s era. Especially in the score’s central “Mother of the Man” section, with Paul Viapiano’s lightly amplified acoustic guitar adding lovely texture, Adams conveyed a mellow beauty that enhanced and provided welcome contrast to the more kinetic outer movements.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.