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MacMillan Premier and Zarathustra Give Disney Hall's New Organ a Workout in Los Angeles: Wayne Marshall (organ), Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, Oct 8, 2004 (HS)


Walt Disney Concert Hall, the fantastical Frank Gehry-designed building that is fast becoming the icon structure of Los Angeles, celebrated the completion of its new organ with a series of concerts this past week. As striking in appearance as the curved, flowing lines of the hall itself, where right angles are virtually nonexistent, the organ pipes resemble a sheaf of gigantic kindling about to tumble apart. The largest pipes are placed most prominently, directly in back of the stage, framing the space where the organist sits. They make a mighty sound in the live but remarkably clean acoustical space. There is richness to the timbre, but the predominant effect is a bright, resonant presence.


The two pieces on the concert heard Friday Oct 8 showed off virtually everything this organ can do. The world premiere of A Scotch Bestiary, James MacMillan's concerto commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and by the BBC for the BBC Philharmonic, brought the organ front and center -- literally so, a satellite console present on stage next to the conductor. Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra cast the organ in a supporting role. Wayne Marshall proved an exciting soloist with a flair for the dramatic. MacMillan's densest, most complex paragraphs posed no challenge for him, and balances with the orchestra were near ideal in the Strauss.


Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen took a direct approach to both works, pushing the music forward with tremendous energy. This made for an exhilarating evening, even if one could have wanted more delicacy in some moments in Zarathustra to contrast with the big, loud ones.


This overt approach served the new MacMillan piece well. The Scottish composer took his inspiration from medieval bestiaries, which are illustrated books of fantastical animals. In this case, however, the fantastical animals comment on modern human archetypes, including a pompous, off-key march for "Scottish Patriots" and an annoying clarinet cuckoo leading a band of raucous woodwinds for "The Reverend Cuckoo and his Parroting Chorus." In both cases, the organ intones solemn commentary. In other movements, the organ takes the lead, as in "Her Serene and Ubiquitous Majesty, Queen Bee." It starts with the lowest notes, showing off a clean presence in the bass register, and buzzes ever upward, the orchestra interjecting brief commentary.


After a brief introduction, eight of these individual portraits are linked together by recurring variations, titled "a page is turned," on that introduction. It's the same idea as the Promenade in Mussorgsky's "A Pictures at an Exhibition," only MacMillan jumps right in with dense harmonies rather than letting it start simply with a melody alone. Clearly, Elgar's "Enigma" Variations and Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals are also antecedents, and sharp ears can also catch snatches of music reminiscent of Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons. MacMillan's musical language and style are all his own, however, and it's rich, complex and colorful. Some of it assaults the ears with garish dissonances. Other moments can be serenely beautiful. At times, it's laugh-out-loud funny, as when a galloping phrase, à la Ride of the Valkyries, interrupts.


All that is just part one, subtitled "The Menagerie, Caged." After a brief respite on a tentative chord, part two begins. "The Menagerie, Uncaged" unleashes a fantasy built on all the themes from part one. This is even denser, more complex music, and it demonstrates what an assured composer MacMillan is. The energy never flags and there's always something new coming around the next corner. The piece's debut with the BBC orchestra should be something to hear.


Salonen took a carefully detailed, aggressive approach to Zarathustra, drawing out every dynamic shading to an extreme, playing with the resonances among the sections of the orchestra. The organ's broad, transparent sound enveloped the orchestra’s in the massive opening fanfare, and enriched it in the later hymn-like sections. The conductor pushed tempos, which made the performance propulsive, paying special attention to entrances and balances, leaving it to the Philharmonic's players to fill in any subtleties of interpretation. The result was a strong, nuanced performance.


Harvey Steiman


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