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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


The Los Angeles Organ: review (II): Richard Strauss: Festive Prelude, Op. 61 (1913), James MacMillan: A Scotch Bestiary (world premiere) (2003-04), Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1895-96), Wayne Marshall, organ, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California, October 7 and 9, 2004 (BH)


(See also, Harvey Steiman’s review of the second of these three concerts.)


I wish I could just park my ears in Los Angeles for the entire month of October, when the Walt Disney Concert Hall is showing off its 6,134-pipe organ, now up and running after a year of anticipation. After hearing two concerts (same program) over the weekend, and without pretending to be an expert in construction of these instruments, I can’t help but think that the city now has one of the most spectacular organs in the world. It has been a long year waiting for its thousands of pipes – in every size from a telephone pole down to a pencil – to be tuned and calibrated to suit the hall, and judging from what I heard, the new arrival has been an unqualified success.


Given that some people are still unfamiliar with what to expect in this space, it’s good to note one’s physical location when hearing concerts there, at least for the first year or two. On Thursday night, I was sitting in the middle of the Orchestra East section, with a clear view overlooking soloist Wayne Marshall, whose octopus-like grace commanding this spectacular instrument could only be marveled at. As Salonen dropped his hand to begin the Festive Prelude, the physical impact of the organ blast seemed to leap out into space like some Straussian version of the Jabberwock, making me literally jump a few inches out of my seat. I won’t repeat in print what I said to a friend later, but suffice to say the first word was "holy" and the second begins with "s."


Strauss’ seldom-done opener was written for the birth of the Vienna Konzerthaus organ, and contrary to most of the opinions I’ve read, I love the piece. Yes, it’s in the somewhat staid Pomp and Circumstance vein – music designed to commemorate rather than move, perhaps – but its construction is so dramatic that I completely forget about its origins, especially when the orchestration and pacing are so masterful. After the organ makes its overwhelming entrance, there is a broadly drawn middle section in which it drops out for awhile, before re-entering for the thunderous final pages. In this latter, Mr. Marshall took off like the best kind of banshee, as Salonen led the orchestra into the triumphant C-major conclusion, with six offstage trumpets positioned in the aisles on either side of the stage adding some bronzed underlining, and when the orchestra stopped the resonance lingered in the air. For Saturday’s concert, I was seated further back, in the center of the Terrace, with the sound traveling even further to reach the ears, making an exciting, slightly fearsome sonic wall. You know you’re in for an experience when the decibel level in a hall used primarily for classical music almost seems to approach that typically associated with rock concerts.


The news of the night was James MacMillan’s rambunctious and enchanting A Scotch Bestiary, co-commissioned by the Los Angeles ensemble and the BBC Philharmonic. It is dedicated to the organ’s two builders, Caspar von Glatter-Götz and Manuel J. Rosales, both of whom have been enjoying the love-fest with their new baby, and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Herr von Glatter-Götz on Thursday to congratulate him on his wondrous achievement.


There is just no way to ignore an outsized statement of the type MacMillan has dreamed up to take advantage of this instrument’s capabilities. All I can say is that BBC audiences planning to attend had better hang on to any loose objects while listening. The work, subtitled Enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition, begins with The Menagerie, Caged, which uses the promenade rhythm of Pictures at an Exhibition as its core. Although harmonically completely different, one’s brain still registers the result as related to Mussorgsky, even though the characters described are not quite the same, in sections such as Ode to a cro-magnon hyena, and The red-handed, no-surrender, howler monkey. The second part, The Menagerie, Uncaged, uses all of the myriad sounds introduced in the first section, in a freely assembled jungle where according to the composer, "All the animals are now unleashed and rampage in chaotic, violent abandon."


Like many contemporary composers, MacMillan deploys an almost drunken love of percussion, including all manner of bells, wooden blocks, gongs, and a drum kit typically found in rock groups. Oh, and two old-fashioned manual typewriters, actually listed in the program as "typewriters (noisy)". In brief comments with MacMillan before the piece, Salonen explained that it was extremely difficult to locate examples of this particular instrument – no doubt, given that faster, quieter methods of producing text on a page have long since eclipsed hand-carriage returns, and that acute smacking sound of the keys hitting the roller. At the end of the piece, the designated typist received a nice ovation commensurate with his diligence using this tiny bit of office obsolescence.


The orchestra seemed to thoroughly enjoy MacMillan’s wild ride, which occasionally incorporates music indebted to cartoons; he was inspired by everything from Disney to Bugs Bunny to Tom and Jerry. The thing also looks terrifically fun to play. I especially enjoyed a small dialogue beginning with pips on a clarinet, answered by a contrabassoon, and later, some winsome muted "wah-wah’s" from the orchestra’s trumpet section. This piece won’t really succeed without a sense of humor, and Salonen not only delivered this, but was in exciting command of MacMillan’s forces, right through the work’s accelerated conclusion with the entire ensemble in raucously noisy form, sounding like some factory assembly line gone nightmarishly awry.


If one hasn’t guessed by now, the extraordinary Mr. Marshall had an overarching effect on the evening, with his virtuoso command of this new instrument making a thrilling experience from start to last – a coachman holding reigns with a thousand horses straining to be unleashed. For the first half of the program, he was seated in front of the orchestra, as a great soloist should be, at a portable console that looked like some kind of streamlined spaceship control deck. His articulation in the initial Strauss and the MacMillan, coupled with the hall’s ability to project virtually anything with still-surprising clarity, enabled the organ lines to be audible in the densest orchestral textures.


For many in the house, the draw was Zarathustra, and I will never forget Mr. Marshall’s eerie, exquisite low pedal note that began it all. With great patience, Salonen let the suspense build until the entrance of that lonely trumpet call, which expands into the life-affirming blaze that is all-too-familiar, thanks to one Stanley Kubrick. I know I sound like a broken record (or CD on "repeat") but to hear this passage blossom in this space was just pretty sublime. But of course, as those of us who love the entire piece know, there is quite a bit more ecstasy following those first blinding minutes, and special praise should be given to the orchestra’s cellos and basses, whose beautiful work that followed immediately afterward was a highlight. Principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour deserves a small glass of champagne for giving us such a sweetly lyrical bit of sunlight in "The Dance Song." Salonen kept the pace moving swiftly, without over-dwelling on the work’s many climaxes, allowing Strauss’ episodes to follow cleanly and without taking any for granted, and coaxing really melting sounds from the orchestra.


My friends are probably getting weary of my blathering about the new hall. All I can say is, anyone who loves classical music should really make a point to visit, especially to hear the resident artists, who are no doubt becoming even more confident as a result of rehearsing and playing there. It is a very young-ish orchestra (after a cursory visual survey), and I wouldn’t be surprised if over time and with repeated keen listening to each other, the ensemble develops into one of the four or five best in the world – no offense to anyone who considers the group to be in this category already. But a great acoustic environment can have such a transforming effect – witness what building the hall in Amsterdam helped do to that group.


Later in the season, there are some intriguing opportunities for further acoustic tests, when three visiting orchestras arrive with their own litmus papers: Tilson-Thomas and San Francisco in the Mahler Ninth, Gergiev and the Kirov with an all-Russian program including Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, and Franz Welser-Möst with the Cleveland Orchestra, who will conclude the season with Ravel’s Bolero. About the latter: yes, I know, it’s the chestnut of chestnuts. But then, in this room you fall in love with old flames all over again.


Bruce Hodges

More information on the organ can be found here, on the Philharmonic’s web site: http://www.laphil.org/press/press_detail.cfm?id=1239&ps=3

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