While much of the U.S. orchestra world has gathered in Cleveland this week to fret about the future and listen to Richard Strauss at the annual League of American Orchestras conference, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is busily optimistic, espousing the next great thing on Grand Avenue. Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the "Next on Grand" Festival got fully underway with the orchestra's final concerts of the season.
"Next on Grand" is more accurately "Now on Grand." The festival is a follow up to the orchestra's previous "Minimalist Jukebox" festivals, in this case focusing on what Minimalism in America has wrought. And that impact happens to be maximal, sending succeeding generations of composers into an obsession with patterns, repetition and tonality, as well as freeing them to absorb the influences of pop music.
Founding Minimalists Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley are hands-on performers and entrepreneurs, and another of their great gifts to American music has been their example of how to maintain musical integrity through feisty independence from institutions, not that the L.A. Phil isn't a major institution.
Still "Next on Grand" takes chances. No two of the four orchestra programs though Sunday are the same. On Thursday, Dudamel led the first performances of Philip Glass' Concerto for Two Pianos, with Katia and Marielle Labèque as soloists, and Bryce Dessner's "Quilting," both commissioned by the orchestra. These will be repeated on Saturday, while on the alternating Friday and Sunday programs, Dudamel conducts the premiere of Steve Mackey's "Mnemosyne's Pool." Visiting ensembles complete the programs.
Thursday night began with the West Coast premiere of "Ritornello 2.3," by Caroline Shaw, the 32-year-old vocalist, violinist and video artist, who, two years ago, became the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Written for the eight-member vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (of which Shaw is a member) and string quartet (on this occasion, the Calder Quartet), "Ritornello 2.3" is a half-hour contemplation of a simple tonal cadence, an idea the early Minimalists pioneered.
Shaw is at ease with Glass' arpeggios and rhythmic procedures. But the character of her music is vocal, thanks to Teeth's sprightly applications of extended vocal techniques.The imagination in this score, however, comes from the harmonies themselves. Where Minimalists once used common chords as a foundation on which to do other things, Shaw delights in the pure sounds of the tonic and dominant.
At times, she makes the most obvious resolutions in all music ambiguous by turning them around. At other times, she simply gets lost in the gorgeous consonances of the chords to the point that the uncomplicated sweetness could become cloying if she didn't know when to let go.
Unfortunately, she didn't quite trust her own instinct for when to let go, and added a meaningless film showing paper folded this way and that and drawn upon, along with other equally quaint images.
Dessner is exactly the kind of composer who personifies what might be next for classical music. He is an academically trained composer who became a rock guitarist and a founder of the indie band, The National. He has written compelling pieces for the rock-able Kronos Quartet. He has produced atmospheric, rhythmically incisive scores that he plays with orchestra. His latest recording, "Music for Wood & Strings," is a piece for So Percussion that imagines percussion instruments as being a big strummed guitar.
"Quilting" is for orchestra alone. It begins in a haze. Instrumental colors are smeared. Bass drum and timpani are combined with snare drum to produce an indistinct percussive buzz. About half way through, a solo cello starts a Steve Reich-like riff that gratifyingly infects the whole work with rhythmic life.
The final section is the most effective. Here pitches begin to slide as they might on an electric guitar. When a whole orchestra does this, you sense it in the pit of your stomach the way you do when an airplane looses altitude during turbulence.
These are all pleasing ideas, but if Shaw added too much with her video, Dessner could have used something a little alien, such as his electric guitar. His orchestral writing is thick, and Dudamel went for grandeur where more transparency might have helped. But mainly what "Quilting" lacks is the quilter, the vitality Dessner has brought as a player to some of his other orchestral works.
Glass' new concerto has no lack of vitality, not with the Labèques, and he intentionally avoids transparency. Instead he employs the pianos as added glitter and grit to the big orchestra.
The first movement is exuberant. At 78, Glass is long past his own infatuations with straightforward cadences and has become a master of arresting chord changes. A similarly fast second movement, however, begins a process of tonal darkening, with double basses producing an ominous unpinning to the pianos. The third movement begins in, and retains, a solemn quiet.
Dudamel kept the pulse in the background and brought out broad expressivity. Details, though, were lost. Could the large screen for Shaw's film have affected the acoustics, making the orchestra sound muddier than usual? Whether or not that was the case, by obscuring the Disney organ, they removed too much visual appeal from of one of the world's great musical spaces.
More worrisome still, that screen meant the seats behind the stage, normally the least expensive in the hall, couldn't be sold. Video has its place in the modern concert hall, but only when it matters. What Grand needs next, above all, is affordable ticket prices.