The Most Elaborate Sound Check in History
By James C. Taylor

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic baptize Walt Disney Concert Hall.

"Sonic L.A."

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Dianne Reeves (vocals)
Martin Chalifour (violin)
Don Green (trumpet)

Thursday 23 October 2003
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Smith/Key: The Star-Spangled Banner
Bach: Preludio from Partita No. 3 for violin, BWV 1006
Ives: The Unanswered Question
Gabrieli: Canzon septimi toni No. 2
Ligeti: Lux aeterna
Mozart: Symphony No. 32, K. 318
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

How do you open the most talked about musical venue in a generation? With Beethoven's Ninth? A concert version of Parsifal? Dvorák's "New World" Symphony? An untested world premiere? Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen steered clear of obvious choices and programmed the opening night of the Walt Disney Concert Hall with possibly the most elaborate sound check in history.

The evening began with a single voice. Dianne Reeves, the LA Philharmonic's jazz impresario, sang a short 18th-century melody by one John Stafford Smith. She didn't need an orchestra behind her to give the song a full, rich sound, nor did she need any of the vocal affectations so often connected with the work since Francis Scott Key set a patriotic poem to Smith's tune in 1814. In Reeves's hands, The Star-Spangled Banner sounded fresh and un-mannered. The new hall complemented this by making the voice sound intimate and warm, as if sung not center stage at a gala concert but rather in an old parlor room by someone standing inches away.

The lights then dimmed to black and a spotlight dramatically shone onto the organ loft, where Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour began playing the Preludio from Bach's Partita No. 3 for unaccompanied violin. This work was written 57 years before the Declaration of Independence, yet in the right hands it can have a distinct rural American flavor, especially in the opening bars (which Carlisle Floyd interpolated into a square dance scene in Susannah). Sadly, Chalifour didn't imbue his fiddling with an Appalachian flare — or any other type of flare, for that matter. He played without much emotion, preferring simply to aim for technical clarity (in which he succeeded). Though he was perched well above the stage, there was no loss in sound quality: the high notes leapt crisply from the bow, while the lower tones spilled subtly down. It was as sonically interesting as it was musically dull.

Luckily, the theatrical highpoint of the evening quickly followed. The lights dimmed again, Salonen walked out onto the stage alone, took the podium and looked straight at his score, standing still for 15 seconds. Surrounded by empty chairs and music stands, the conductor marked time as the lighting in the upper reaches of Frank Gehry's interior began to shift to blue. Then shimmering string sounds began emanating from somewhere in the hall. After a few measures, one could see the flicker of silhouettes dancing above the lip of one of the curving walls, making it clear that musicians were located in one of the rear porticoes. Then a horn rang out from the highest place in the hall: standing above the last row of the balcony, Don Green played his trumpet as a screen on the ceiling opened to reveal a skylight flooded with turquoise light. Four flutes, stationed in the Terrace behind the orchestra, soon joined in.

Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question was a masterful choice to introduce the world to this space. The strings' soft, rolling chords clashed with the winds' spiky tone clusters hurtling from another direction, creating an atmospheric effect that would be utterly impossible at the orchestra's former home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. These six minutes of Ives in this extraordinary space promise great things for modern music in Los Angeles — let us hope that other environmental works like Cage's String Quartet in four parts and Dalbavie's Concertate il suono will be heard here soon.

Next, four trumpets and four trombones were spread in pairs among the garden-level seats for Gabrieli's Canzon septimi toni No. 2. Gleaming brass tones flowed from the four corners of the hall into a pool of sound hovering above the audience; the ear could barely follow as a torrent of treble blasts was overcome by a slow current of bass notes, only to be washed away by a wave of harmony. A spectacular aural effect, though the emphasis was not on Gabrieli's music but rather on showing off the acoustics.

Then Salonen exited and the Los Angeles Master Chorale filed in, lining the aisles of the lower levels, and began singing György Ligeti's Lux aeterna. Disney Hall's cedar- and Douglas fir-lined walls and floor are as resonant for choral music as for instrumental: the voices resounded through the space, words weren't muddy and textures were remarkably integrated. (If anything, the acoustics were too clear, as even a slightly out-of-place breath was noticeable.) This Lux was not particularly light; in fact it was a bit heavy and emotionally dry, except for one particular passage when the bass section hit a sustained note in absolute unison and the reverberating overtones felt as natural as falling rain.

Mozart's Symphony No. 32 closed the first half of the concert. The playing was fine and the sound true, making it clear that even a string quartet would have no problem filling this space. On an ordinary night, the palpable energy the Philharmonic demonstrated would have been praiseworthy, but after the dramatic uses of space that had come before, such a straightforward presentation seemed a bit anti-climactic.

Only after intermission did the full orchestra appear. As the first full-length piece that the Los Angeles Philharmonic would play at Disney Hall, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was a fitting selection. Not only is it a signature work for Salonen and the orchestra, but it is a piece that Walt Disney himself picked to be in his film Fantasia, which helped solidify Stravinsky's popular fame. Most of all, it is a thrilling score that would test the full sonic capabilities of the new hall.

And test them it did. The rattle of the strings' bows, the color of the bells, even the different ways the timpani was struck — all of these sounds were distinct. But the parts were more impressive than the whole. Make no mistake; it was first-rate playing — when the strings first began their violent, pulsating thrusts, the air in the hall felt as if it were being beaten by the wings of a giant bird. But the piece was loud and epic all the time, with little build-up of intensity. Perhaps Salonen and his players couldn't resist the urge to unleash torrents of volume (the Chandler's vast auditorium used to swallow up much of their sound), or perhaps it was just the sound-check mentality of the evening (the program was, after all, titled "Sonic L.A."), but this was not a Rite of Spring to intoxicate or seduce. It was one to blow the audience away.

Which it did. Perhaps it was the excitement of the event, or the free champagne served at intermission, but as the musicians took their bows and silver, Gehry-designed confetti fell from the rafters, there was a prevailing sense that something important had just happened.

Of course, there will be debate over the acoustics: many will rave (many already have) and others will dismiss the raves as mere hype. To these ears, the hall is a vast improvement over the Chandler, but it possesses nothing inherent that instantly or magically makes the Los Angeles Philharmonic a better band. (A Stradivarius is only as good as the musician who plays it.) What Walt Disney Concert Hall does provide is a chance for this fine orchestra to finally develop its own distinct sound in its own home space, rather than only being able to hear itself properly on tour.

But just as the auditorium's acoustics allow instruments to be heard clearly, they do a magnificent job of amplifying coughs, dropped programs and other non-symphonic sounds. (Slowly unwrapped hard candies have a particularly resonant crackle). Los Angeles has long had a world-class orchestra, and now it has a world-class venue; perhaps Walt Disney Concert Hall's biggest impact will be to force Angelenos to become world-class listeners.

"Living L.A."

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Tracy Silverman (electric violin)

Friday 24 October 2003
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Salonen: LA Variations
Lutoslawski: Cello Concerto
Adams: The Dharma at Big Sur
Revueltas: Sensemayá

After an evening devoted to modern acoustics, Disney Hall's second inaugural concert was devoted to modern music. It is a tribute to Esa-Pekka Salonen's stature in Los Angeles that he was able to program an expensive fund-raising gala without a single piece written before 1937.

Shrewdly, he began the evening with a contemporary work no one could argue with: his own 1996 composition LA Variations. Salonen wrote this part-serialist/part-tonal score especially for the Philharmonic, and the players know how to make it work: the brief flute-harp duets were quite lovely and the massed violins produced frosty sheets of sound that enveloped the entire hall. The music is fun at times, seemingly influenced by film scores, pop rhythms and other facets of Los Angeles life, and the final notes have a quivering flute giving a wittily cartoonish "toodle-oo." But unlike Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue or Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien — works that viscerally (perhaps vulgarly) try to evoke a certain place — Salonen's music seems aloof from its subject. Still, it's a fast ride that finishes in a grand and lively cacophony. LA Variations may not be played much after Salonen's tenure ends, but while he is here, it gets a nice (and deserved) round of applause.

Witold Lutoslawski is a composer for which this orchestra has almost as much affinity as it does for Salonen himself; the late Polish composer conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic many times and chose the orchestra to premiere of number of his works. So the inclusion of his Cello Concerto seemed a sort of tribute, and Yo-Yo Ma and his orchestral colleagues played their hearts out. Unfortunately, the piece is not very interesting: the claustrophobic music has moments of real power, but it meanders all over the place and ultimately comes off like something Shostakovich left in his "unfinished" file. But Salonen and company gave it as good a performance as it is likely to get anywhere, and thanks to Ma, it is unlikely that the cello part has been played with such precision and intensity since Mstislav Rostropovich debuted it in 1970.

The evening's main event was, of course, the world premiere of John Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur, commissioned especially for the occasion. The opening minutes of this Kerouac-inspired half-hour piece gave promise of a classic: pensive strings evoked the gray morning mist of the central Pacific Coast. Then the jarring notes of Tracy Silverman's electric violin rang out in an unabashed, almost improvisatory fashion. The visual impression — a young man with long, wavy hair and a purple shirt standing in front of the orchestra, wailing away on an amplified instrument in a pop idiom — may have made one think the composer was tweaking the pretensions of the gala crowd, but the music is (at least initially) genuinely moving. It may flirt with an Enya-like New Agey-ness, but it reflects the sound of a modern busker such as one might find wandering around Venice Beach. Amazingly, Adams's music conveys the direct, sentimental quality of this rough style of playing and at the same time comments on the naïve and self-indulgent thoughts that inspire it.

Unfortunately, after a few minutes this reflective quality starts to evaporate like Bay Area fog: what seemed daring and fresh begins to get repetitive, and the electric violin, with its relatively limited emotional range, loses both its power and its novelty. (Some of this impression may have been due to balance problems: the orchestra was consistently drowned out by the amplified sounds). One starts to forget about what the music is saying and ask questions like, what does this have to do with Kerouac? Luckily, the last few minutes of the score shine with the clarity of the opening; the writing for the electric violin becomes more integrated with that for the orchestra. The idea of the work at last comes into focus: The Dharma at Big Sur is a meditation on the Golden State's casual decadence, a sympathetic but not uncritical look at a day in the life of a Californian. The writing seems to reference many popular West Coast musicians, from the Eagles to Frank Zappa to Chet Baker. It is Adams's ability to borrow from these colloquial styles and his lack of fear at musical phrases that express unmasked sentiment that makes this piece feel so authentically Californian.

Silvestre Revueltas's Sensemayá was an odd choice to follow Dharma, but in Salonen's interpretation it bore a striking resemblance to The Rite of Spring that closed the show the night before. The piece sounds like something Berg would have written after a drunken week in Tijuana — but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sensemayá is another Salonen/LA Phil specialty, and their performance left the audience wanting more. The crowd called the conductor back on stage for many curtain calls, but, much to their dismay, he did not give them an encore. Not to worry: there will be plenty of time for them in the future.

© andante Corp. November 2003. All rights reserved.

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