LA Phil Powers Down Its Season With Revival Of ‘Power To The People!’

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Peter Lieberson, right, wrote ‘Neruda Songs’ for his wife, the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, which she premiered in 2005. (Photo by Emil Miland)

LOS ANGELES —  In early June, the Los Angeles Philharmonic arrived at the end of a long, tiring, yet momentous 2021-22 season, shadowed by the recurring waves of COVID and the rush to make up for lost time. Fortunately, nothing in the subscription season had to be canceled, and ambitious projects that were scrapped or stopped in mid-sentence by the 2020 shutdown were resuscitated on schedule. Even when looking backward, the Phil manages to look forward.

Angélica Negrón wrote ‘Moriviví ‘ for the LA Phil. (Photo by Catalina Kulczar)

Capping the season was a revival of the Power to the People! festival, which was stopped dead in its tracks by the pandemic in March 2020 after barely clearing its collective throat.  “Power to the People! “ — a slogan from the tumultuous 1960s later immortalized in a John Lennon song — manifested itself here in a series of concerts and happenings, including a lecture by an icon from that era, Angela Davis; an appearance by United Farm Workers activist Dolores Huerta; and the often-postponed local premiere of Ted Hearne’s multimedia piece Place.

While linking arms with progressive movements and issues won’t raise any eyebrows in sapphire-blue Los Angeles, it’s still a bold move for a symphonic organization. Try pulling something like this off in certain other places I could name in this polarized country.

Which brings us to the final concert of the season by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil on the afternoon of June 5. The program’s links to PTTP activism were sometimes tenuous, but you could say that it put a progressive spin on the conventional structure of overture, solo feature, symphony.

The last of the long lineup of world-premiere LA Phil commissions from Latin American composers this spring, Angélica Negrón’s Moriviví led off the program, and it turned out to be a gem. A “moriviví” is a shrub found in Puerto Rico (Negrón’s home territory) that she says “gently closes its leaves when touched” as if shy, and the word “moriviví” itself can be translated into a plethora of other meanings that are full of contradictions.

Musically, this translates into a series of clinking sounds spaced out in time, each one trailed by attractive, digitally delayed electronic fluttering from a MIDI keyboard. Swirling strings, deep synth bass reinforcement, growling electronics, and brass crescendos follow, and the clinking sounds return at the end of the approximately 10-minute span. It’s a beautiful piece, and I hope they program it again sometime.

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges (Courtesy of LA Opera)

Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs was probably the piece closest to the idea of “Power to the People!” since it consists of settings of five poems by Pablo Neruda, the popular leftist Chilean poet/politician/diplomat who, according to recent investigations, may have been poisoned by the Augusto Pinochet regime shortly after it came to power (the “official” cause of death was said to be a heart attack).

Politics, though, are not on the agendas of these love poems, some of which indulge in the metaphors made famous in the Italian film Il Postino and the Daniel Catán opera of the same name that feature Neruda as a character. With its caressing, glistening, neo-Romantic surface, touches of Latin maracas in the fourth song, and a fifth song that breathes the same serene, leave-taking air as “Im Abendrot” from Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, it is well on the way to becoming a contemporary classic.

Written as a love letter to Lieberson’s wife, the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, this, too, was an LA Phil project from its birth — a co-commission with the Boston Symphony, given its world premiere by the Philharmonic. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges displayed a fuller, deeper, operatic timbre than Lieberson, not quite as emotional in delivery but every bit as communicative as Dudamel reacted alertly to every twist and turn in the cycle.

William Grant Still

To put a seal on the concert, there was William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1), which may be finally coming out of its shell after a long period of neglect. In L.A., it burst into the regular repertoire just before the George Floyd murder thrust Black composers into the spotlight. This was the first time I heard Dudamel conduct it, and while the opening blues was just a little square in feeling, some swing developed when the hi-hat cymbals set the beat. The third movement with its “I Got Rhythm” allusions had the razzmatazz of a charging big band on Broadway, and the low brasses were in particularly solid form in the finale. I’m sure it won’t be the last time that this enormously appealing work will round out a traditional three-part program instead of an overplayed European warhorse.