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LA Phil 100 - The Los Angeles Philharmonic Centennial Birthday Gala
C MAJOR 753504 Blu-ray [137 mins]

The Los Angeles Philharmonic pulled out all the stops for their centennial celebration, including commissioning a new work that required three of their most prominent conductors. The Blu-ray contains an 85-minute concert followed by 52 minutes of worthwhile documentary. This is all captured in state-of-the-art sound and generally superb camera work.

The concert begins with 83 year-old Zubin Mehta, who was the orchestra’s music director from 1962-1978 and the youngest ever to hold that title. He was 26 when he was hired there.
He makes his way onto the stage with a cane and then sits to conduct Wagner and Ravel. The LA Philharmonic play very well for him and the Wagner is performed without fuss, just straightforward with the brass resounding, though mellow. As the camera focuses on the horns, I noticed a player not usually associated with this orchestra, Sarah Willis, hornist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Although the orchestra members are listed in the glossy booklet, neither she nor another hornist, Sarah Bach, are present there. However, both are listed in the credits on the Blu-ray itself. There may be other such “guests” in the concert with whom I am unfamiliar, but I was not aware of any.

The performance of Ravel’s La Valse, which follows the Wagner, is also played well, but lacks the excitement normally associated with it. Tempos could have been swifter and the ending that should knock one sideways is rather tepid. On the other hand, the woodwinds, especially bassoon, are winning. The camera work on the percussion section is exemplary and it is a pleasure to see the antique cymbals. The audience is obviously impressed with the performance as they are with all of the others.

Following Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts one of his signature works, Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony, which was an LA commission and premiered by the orchestra under Salonen in 1994. His recording of the work may be considered authoritative and he does not disappoint here. Salonen was also very young when he debuted with the LA Philharmonic in 1984. He served as music director from 1992-2009. Under his leadership, the orchestra commissioned and performed many new works, including his own. Salonen’s specialty is contemporary music, but he is also well established as a composer. His conducting of the Lutosławski on this concert is incisive and clear. The orchestra give him their all, with special mention due to the solo trumpet, clarinet, flute, harp, piano, and the whole percussion section, including the mallet percussion and tom-toms. For me, the video is worth this performance alone.

When Dudamel enters the stage, the audience’s admiration is palpable and his rapport with the orchestra is obvious. He has been the music director since 2009. According to the documentary following the concert, Salonen was a judge on the panel of the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004 where Dudamel was a contestant and winner of the competition. Salonen was so thrilled with his conducting that he immediately recommended him to Deborah Borda, then president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Here the orchestra gives a radiant performance of the 1919 Firebird Suite, with outstanding solos by flute, clarinet, oboe; and especially in the Berceuse, bassoon; and in the Finale, horn. The only criticism I have is that the camera could have focused more on the soloists and less on the conductor.

As the audience is settling down after the Stravinsky, chimes begin to sound and lead directly into the world premiere of Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason’s From Space I Saw Earth for orchestra and three conductors. This ten-minute work, the timing for which the booklet erroneously lists as three minutes, is a fascinating piece. The orchestra is arranged with the strings in front and winds and brass divided behind, and the percussion at the back. Dudamel conducts the strings, while Salonen and Mehta each conduct one of the two brass/woodwind sections. Based on the music, which is generally slow and evocative of its title with its opaque textures shifting between tonality and atonality, one wonders whether a single conductor would have sufficed. In any case, it is fun to see all three coordinating their conducting duties, led by Dudamel. The music builds gradually to a climax and, as it concludes quietly, four young musicians from the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) descend from the back of the concert hall playing crotales.

At the conclusion of From Space I Saw Earth the composer comes on stage to greet the conductors and accept the vociferous applause from the audience, as confetti is being dropped from the ceiling. This is, indeed, a gala celebration. The camera’s few shots of the audience focus for a second on some well-known figures, including composer John Williams and former LA Phil president, Deborah Borda. The 52-minute documentary film, The Los Angeles Philharmonic – The Tradition of the New, following the concert is also well worth watching.

The documentary provides a more or less chronological history of the LA Philharmonic with cameo discussions by conductors, Mehta, Salonen, and Dudamel; former CEO Deborah Borda, now CEO of the New York Philharmonic; current members of the orchestra’s staff; architect Frank Gehry; Los Angeles historian Andrea Thabet; LA Times music critic, Mark Swed and New York Times music critic, Zachary Woolfe; and several others. While the film primarily focusses on the history of the orchestra and the three performance venues, it also pays much attention to the city and its culture. The contrast between the cultural approaches of the more staid New York and the forward-looking Los Angeles is made clear. The vital role that youth are playing is shown in the discussion and performance by YOLA, which was patterned after Venezuela’s El Sistema where Dudamel first became involved as a musician. Throughout the documentary there are excerpts of performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 with Dudamel conducting, as well as other pieces, such as Le Sacre du printemps with Salonen. YOLA rehearses the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There is a great deal of interesting information packed into this film. Indeed, the Blu-ray, as a whole, should provide plenty enjoyment for all lovers of classical music.

Leslie Wright
Disc contents
Richard WAGNER (1818-1883)
Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862-67) [11:22]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse (1919-20) [14:10]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Symphony No. 4 (1992) [22:30]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Suite from The Firebird (1919) [21:32]
Daníel BJARNASON (b. 1979)
From Space I Saw Earth (2019 [10:02]
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta (Wagner, Ravel); Esa-Pekka Salonen (Lutosławski); Gustavo Dudamel (Stravinsky); all three conductors (Bjarnason)
rec. live, October 2019, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
In English with Korean and Japanese Subtitles
Documentary: The Los Angeles Philharmonic – The Tradition of the New: film by Laszlo Molnar
Video Director: Michael Beyer
Producer: Bernhard Fleischer
Filmed in High Definition, Mastered from HD Source
Picture Format: 1080i 16:9; Sound Formats: PCM Stereo DTS HD MA 5.1

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