'Paper' leaves a trail of missed opportunities

SportsDanceEntertainmentPrince (music artist)Haley Joel OsmentRobert CasadesusWalt Disney

Tan Dun's "Inventions for Paper Instruments and Orchestra" is a delight. A percussion soloist entertainingly tears, crumbles, shakes, taps, pops and bangs upon what seems like half the inventory of a large stationery shop. That is when he isn't startlingly blowing, singing or whistling into sheets of paper.

Intended for children, it was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and previewed last month at the first of the invitational pre-opening events for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It finally had its official premiere Saturday morning at a Toyota Symphonies for Youth program led by the orchestra's assistant conductor, Yasuo Shinozaki.

The concept, following on the heels of Tan's nature scores that use water, is great: the idea that music is something organic and can be made from the sounds of our immediate environment and its materials. The three long paper scrolls over the stage looked and sounded (when noisily waved by the orchestra's percussionists) terrific. The performance was sensitive, entrancing. The percussion soloist, David Cossin, is an exciting and amusing player.

Kids don't get itAnd yet it was a failure as was the entire hourlong concert, which also included "Peter and the Wolf." Kids were restless, bored, noisy, didn't get it. If this program was any indication, Symphonies for Youth has become a disgrace, especially given the enormous appeal Disney Hall can have for children.

The first problem is that the young listeners get little helpful information about how to listen from the host, John de Lancie, a congenial baby-sitter.

Tan's score is divided into four connected movements. One tells the story of paper's invention, another imitates the twitter of birds in the bamboo forest, a third conveys the thunder and lightning of a storm and the fourth celebrates a carnival of paper drumming.

The orchestra musicians are placed unusually around the stage, and sound travels in interesting directions. But there is a great deal of subtlety to this; musical demonstrations might have done wonders to focus attention.

Problem two is the video screen. Washed-out close-ups of the orchestra spoiled just about everything. At the most basic level, the screen covered the dramatic-looking organ pipes, denying the kids one of the most thrilling visual elements of this theater. Moreover, Disney, which has the wonderful benefit of natural light, was darkened for the video — and this for a piece meant to connect its listeners with their environment!

The most useful aspect of a concert for young people should be to show how sound stimulates the imagination, but Saturday the distracting video had its imagination-limiting circuitry turned on high.

I can't prove it, but I'm also becoming suspicious that the video screen may rob the room not just of its visual punch but also of a small measure of acoustical immediacy.

"Peter and the Wolf" fared no better. Well-prepared child actor Haley Joel Osment read dutifully. Shinozaki led an unobjectionably elegant performance of Prokofiev's score. But "Peter and the Wolf" is a story told in words and tones and needs a riveting narrator.

Parents who had bored children on their hands Saturday might check out the recording of Prokofiev's masterpiece narrated by Boris Karloff lately reissued on CD. That will put chills down your spine and prove to you just how lazy the Philharmonic has become with this popular and important series.

Certainly, the sense of storytelling was far more vivid Friday night, when David Robertson conducted the Philharmonic in Bartók's fairy-tale ballet, "The Wooden Prince." Robertson is a technically superb and highly imaginative conductor rapidly moving into the big league. He also has a zany side when he speaks, although lately he has started to tone it down. That's too bad, because he can be wildly hilarious; even his brief introduction to "The Wooden Prince" was enlivening.

Here the Philharmonic made a wise decision to project the story on titles above the stage. The ballet contains some marvelous music — a mystical opening that in the ultra-receptive Disney acoustic was miraculous — but it doesn't hold up musically for 50 minutes. It helps, at least, to know what is going on. It also helps when the orchestra plays as colorfully and incisively as the Philharmonic did on this occasion.

The Philharmonic, in these early weeks in Disney, is creation-obsessed. Last week was Haydn's "Creation" oratorio, and Friday's program began with Milhaud's jazz ballet "La Création du Monde" (the Creation of the World). Robertson led a performance by a small ensemble that just about perfectly melded a musically tart jazz-age Paris with a wilder Harlem.

Here, however, Disney's acoustics were a slight letdown. The solo strings did not carry as efficiently as the pungent winds and in-your-face brass and percussion to a seat near the rear of the orchestra.

But Mozart's celebratory Piano Concerto No. 25 made an all-around splash. Robertson is best known for 20th and 21st century music, but he is also an exhilarating Mozartean. With Emanuel Ax as a gracious, compelling and glowing-toned soloist, and with richly textured playing by the Philharmonic, the performance was one of Mozart coming to life.

I wonder how the kids would have reacted to something like this — pure music made with joy by a couple of guys who have a sense of humor. All that was needed was a wackier cadenza than the one supplied by Robert Casadesus.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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