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S & H International Concert Review

Salonen, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Yefim Bronfman, piano, James Wilt, trumpet, Jamie Chamberlin, soprano, Hila Plitmann, soprano, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, June 11, 2004 (BH)


Salonen: Wing on Wing (2003-04)
Shostakovich: Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, Op. 35 (1933)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1910-13, rev. 1947)


In the final concerts of the inaugural season at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen gave flight to a new work, Wing on Wing, written to take advantage of the space, and I found it quite effective. In addition to its reference to Frank Gehryís building and its bird-like contours, the title is a nautical term, describing the two sails of a boat when they are opened to produce the maximum amount of area to catch the wind. Certainly Salonen is thinking expansively here Ė not surprising at all given the enormous inspiration of Gehryís masterpiece Ė and deploys a large orchestra augmented by two soprano soloists and electronics, using huge washes of sound. Perhaps because I had recently heard Sibeliusí Seventh Symphony, Salonenís language seemed masterfully similar, with slowly shifting textures showcasing each section in the orchestra. The group seemed to pull together with an almost alarming passion, throwing out the composerís buzzing floods with complete assurance.

The two excellent soloists, Jamie Chamberlin and Hila Plitmann, began from chairs on either side of the conductor, and then reappeared on each side of the middle of the hall, and then finally on the upper balconies behind the stage. Often both seemed to sing in unison, creating interesting spatial effects as a sort of stereo soprano choir.

My only hesitation was in the use of speech fragments Ė in this case, words and phrases taped from Gehry himself, such as "space," "light," and other terms uttered during discussions of the design and philosophy of the building. The dilemma is that speech does not always occupy the same brain functions as music, and can sound a bit preachy, and I confess that those portions Ė and only those portions Ė occasionally sounded a bit trite. We all know Gehry is a brilliant architect, but I wasnít convinced that incorporating his actual voice in this manner was the most effective tribute to his talent. I wonder how the work will fare, both in succeeding years after these initial performances, and further, whether it will be performed in other spaces. But overall I enjoyed Salonenís homage to the genius that has given him this acoustic marvel of a stage, and the orchestra, sounding beautifully alert and clear on a gorgeous West Coast Friday morning, certainly plunged into the work with gusto.

The Shostakovich, written when he was twenty-seven years old, shows the young composer as "musical polyglot in overdrive" (to quote my favorite phrase from John Mangumís excellent notes). The trumpet, perhaps strangely, is given a prominent but decidedly secondary role, almost as just another color against the strings. Yefim Bronfman (who has recorded the piece with Salonen and this same orchestra) seemed to be having a high old time, especially relishing the broad humor in the final movement, when the pianist is asked to become a sort of superhuman barroom denizen and play in a sort of refined honky-tonk idiom. But none of this was at the expense of much of the melancholy poetry that slinks its way into the piece, and Bronfman can be as introspective as they come. Associate principal James Wilt sounded terrific in the sunny, slightly insouciant trumpet part that seems to insert itself like some small mammal squeaking for attention.

But for most in the audience, including me, the highlight was Salonenís biting, over-the-top Rite of Spring, now virtually a signature work for him, and rightfully so. From the lonely opening solo, flowing from David Breidenthalís gorgeous bassoon, hundreds of details in the dense score seemed to leap up into the middle of the room like unharnessed electricity. Among dozens of striking moments, I single out one only because it demonstrated the skill of the players as well as the hallís unusual sensitivity to dynamics. Shortly into the second section, The Sacrifice, two heavily muted trumpets engage in a duet that must be ppp, pppp or even ppppp in the score, and here Mr. Wilt and principal Donald Green seemed to be almost competing with each other to see who could play the softer. But I could cite memorable work by virtually every instrument in the ensemble.

The hues Salonen created just astonished, turning the building into a seething cauldron of sound. The orchestra played with magnificent exactitude, transmitting Stravinskyís primeval energy with an urgency you just donít hear in this piece all that often. It was a pleasure just feeling the sound thrashing around in towering canyons, then dwindle down to intimate trickles, over and over and over. Some complain that Salonen tends to micro-manage the score and "conduct it to death." My take is, first, that the piece is more difficult than we might recall after decades of becoming accustomed to it, and second, that if Salonen perhaps overemphasizes the abrupt contrasts, pushing them as far as the blocky structure will allow, the score can withstand this treatment. If it isnít the only way to do the piece, it is certainly hair-raisingly effective, and as with almost everything Iíve heard in Disney Hall, just sounded sensational in the space.

This concert was just so much fun. After seven visits to this nascent sonic temple, and experiencing the music from all sides (except the one behind the orchestra), I can only shake my head in wonder that this is now one of the most spectacular venues in the world. What is slightly amusing is that, given the stunning architecture the sound could easily get by being merely "good," and on the other hand, given the superb acoustics, the building could be much more prosaic. If you are anywhere near the Los Angeles area and able to hear the Philharmonic, or appearances by visitors (which are bound to increase), give your ears and eyes a little vacation and stop in to witness it for yourself. History is being made in Los Angeles as we speak.

Bruce Hodges


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