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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic – end of season concerts: Tracy Silverman (electric violin); Pacific Chorale, John Alexander, music director; Performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California, USA, 26, 27, 28, 29 May 2005 (GS)

Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question (1908)
John Adams, The Dharma at Big Sur (2003)
Maurice Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé (1909-1912)

The genius of programming like this exemplifies the response to the (unanswered?) question: Why are the ranks of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s subscribers swelling like never before and those of other major orchestras in the United States (most notably, New York’s and Boston’s) diminishing? Amazingly enough, these entire programs contained works written in the 20th and 21st centuries. Not only that, there is a thread which links these works in a way that would be obvious even to a musical neophyte who never bothered to read the well written program notes.

All three works begin with the same low rumbling in the strings. The Ives proceeds to the solo trumpet’s five-note motive (placed, not off-stage as is usually done, but at the very back of hall in the top balcony, in the midst of the small string section) and the four flutes (who are above the orchestra floor in front of the organ keyboard) respond eerily. There is a straight line from the balcony to the conductor to the flute quartet. The dialogue continues for a few minutes and then trails off into nothingness. Kudos go to principal trumpet Donald Green and flautists Anne Diener Zentner and Janet Ferguson, co-principals, Catherine Ransom Karoly and Sarah Jackson.

The Dharma at Big Sur, a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, owes its inspiration to a number of sources, both literary and musical. In his comments at the work’s premiere (two years ago with the same artists) Adams said that he “wanted to reflect the experience of those who, like me, were not born here [in California] and for whom arrival on this side of the continent had both a spiritual and physical impact.” He found that Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur fitted the bill, both in its setting and in its encapsulation of the desire to uncover the self by exposing it to something bigger, something vast.

Other tributes in the score are laid at the feet of Terry Riley (the father of minimalism) and Lou Harrison, whose writings for just intonation are easily managed for small ensembles, but which Adams used to create a new challenge for himself by bringing the system to the orchestral milieu. The composer wished to create the illusion that the work was improvisational, as if the soloist were “making it up as he goes along.” The fact that Mr. Silverman strolled up and down in front of the orchestra like a troubadour while playing added to this feeling. The effect was purely visual because, being amplified, the sound emanated from the speakers and not the instrument itself. By the time the work ended, with the entire orchestra playing triple fortissimo (including a marimba, xylophone and a plethora of gongs), my head was spinning as if I had been standing inside a washing machine while it was on its “spin” cycle.

The fact that Daphnis et Chloé received a lukewarm reception at its premiere, given by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on June 8, 1912 has been (reasonably) blamed on the scandalous debut a few days earlier of Nijinsky’s choreography for Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The complete score is rarely performed, mostly because of the excellence of the two concert suites which Ravel derived from, and published shortly after, the first performances. The opportunity to hear the score in its entirety was indeed a treat.

The ballet is based on a story by the ancient Greek writer Longus about the title characters who are foundlings raised by shepherds and goatherds on the island of Lesbos. Part One introduces the two who become very friendly very quickly. Daphnis teaches Chloe to play the pan-pipes and they fall in love. Chloe is abducted by pirates and Daphnis prays to the god Pan for aid. The music of part one introduces all the themes which are later developed in Parts Two and Three, most notably an aquatic sounding orchestral texture and the rapturous “love theme.” Part Two opens a choir of wordless voices singing an eerie and transcendental chord progression which announces the arrival of Pan in the pirate’s camp. The god uses his power to scare them (a staccato repetition of trumpet notes, which returns in the finale) and Chloe is rescued. The scene ends with a saucy, sexy dance by Chloe which employs flutes, oboes, English horn, harps and strings.

Part Three will be familiar to anyone who knows the second of the two concert suites because they are nearly one and the same. The three sections of Part Three correspond to the scenes following the rescue of Chloe to the finale. In Part One, “Daybreak”, Daphnis is awakened when his fellow shepherds bring Chloe to him. During Part Two, “Pantomime”, the two lovers dance the story of Pan and Syrinx as told by the bard Lammon. The nymph Syrinx, pursued by Pan, jumps into the river Ladon and prays that the gods turn her into a reed. Pan plucks the reed and fashions it into a musical instrument, the so-called “pipes of Pan” or panpipes. During this scene, the famous flute solo occurs, in which flowing, uncertain rhythms are used to depict the flirtation of an object of desire being held just out of reach. In the final section, Daphnis and Chloe are married at the altar of the sacred nymphs. The Danse General which follows is one of the most exuberant, exultant and explosive finales in the entire orchestral/choral repertoire. The last chords release all the tension and desire that has ebbed and flowed throughout the entire score.

The Pacific Chorale, directed by John Alexander performed their wordless duties with great accuracy and precision. Esa-Pekka Salonen held the orchestra and chorus in the palm of his hand for nearly an hour as they performed every nuance of Ravel’s score with the virtuosity one has come to expect from this fine group of musicians. The flute solo was performed with great alacrity and aplomb although I’m not certain if Anne Diener Zentner or Janet Ferguson deserve the plaudit. The entire percussion section, all ten of them, were kept very busy and deserve special mention.

For those lucky enough to be in New York on Sunday, June 5 at 2 PM, the Philharmonic and Mr. Salonen will be performing this same program (with Mr. Silverman) at Avery Fisher Hall. The choral duties will be performed by the Concert Chorale of New York. The brief two-concert tour at New York’s Lincoln Center will begin on Friday, June 3 at 8 PM, when pianist Alexander Toradze will be the soloist in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto, No. 1 in C Minor, Op 35 (1933) (which has a fiendishly difficult obligato trumpet part) and the same composer’s Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op 93 (1953) which was performed just last week, and brilliantly, I might add. The program will begin with the original orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain (1867).



Gregory W. Stouffer

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