Esa-Pekka Salonen-led L.A. Phil explores revolutionary nostalgia in French program

Esa-Pekka Salonen-led L.A. Phil explores revolutionary nostalgia in French program
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Feb. 12, 2016. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Let there be "City of Light."

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's current celebration of French music from roughly the last 125 years has thus far supplied a great excuse to illumine Walt Disney Concert Hall, adding visual projections to musical performances. A country with a revolutionary flair, France has produced revolutionary art. Harmonic, melodic and structural innovations from the Baroque to the Spectralists of present have changed the way the world thinks about and makes music. It is always welcome to throw some light on that.

But light, as we know, can blind as well as brighten. Can it also deafen? The main part of the "City of Light" festival began two weeks ago with members of the St. Louis Symphony performing Messiaen's wondrous evocation of Bryce Canyon, "From the Canyons to the Stars," with projected backdrops of the visual splendors of Utah's national parks. Messiaen came out pretty much intact.


Then, on Friday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the L.A. Phil in a fascinating, magnificently performed mixed French program with the help of four Austrian installation artists from Ars Electronica Futurelab. The Linz-based collective promotes itself as "accompanying the Digital Revolution for the past three decades."

Salonen's program, however, was about the remnants of revolution, about the subtly subversive way that revolutionary change relies on nontrivial nostalgia. Nostalgia makes newness possible, since you can't understand where you are going without knowing where you have been. But at the other extreme, an unthinking "Digital Revolution" can be found in the way Instagram and other similar outfits have turned into tools for preserving every trivial, immaterial instant of our lives, encouraging us to obsess over the past to perhaps keep our minds off the impending.

Futurelab's "City of Light" came down on the side of Instagram, applying new technology to nostalgically trivialize all it lighted with a commercially bland and curiously old-fashioned graphic sensibility. There were screens facing every which way inside Disney Hall, and Futurelab's projections, like mayonnaise past its freshness date, posed the danger of spoiling anything they came in contact with.

Salonen chose the pillars of Henri Dutilleux and Ravel to explore a revolutionary nostalgia. This year is the centennial of the birth of Dutilleux (1916-2013), and though he had been well known pretty much since his first acknowledged work, a piano sonata written in 1946, he was always considered an outsider. Dutilleux was (as Ravel had been) a modernist and a meticulous colorist who did not rock the musical revolution the way Messiaen and Boulez did in the postwar years. Consequently, he attracted a lot less attention.

Those battles are fought and over. Dutilleux is now championed by the progressive likes of Salonen and Simon Rattle. A Seattle Symphony Dutilleux recording is up for three Grammys on Monday. The greatest recent Dutilleux recording is one by Salonen that was made with Dutilleux's blessing in France just before the composer died. On it is the exquisitely haunting late song cycle "Correspondences," which was also on the L.A. Phil program.

Written for Dawn Upshaw in 2003 and performed Friday by the excellent Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling, the score combines texts in French by Rainer Maria Rilke about the fragility of sound, along with sad letters by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vincent van Gogh, as well as an evocation of cosmic oblivion by Prithwindra Mukherjee. The work is a wise old man's calm appraisal of great events filtered through the distance of time and experience, expressed in music in which every note is tinted and placed to make a maximum effect. The song of a fool in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" is heard as an echo of nostalgia's blissful profundities, a sign of passing time we can never control.

Salonen introduced "Correspondences" — in which every detail spoke as if in three-dimensional sound — with a short, lush in memoriam to Dutilleux by Eric Tanguy, a 48-year-old French composer who has managed to find effective correspondences between Dutilleux and the more radical post-Boulez French Spectralist school, without being in either one.

Salonen followed "Correspondences" with an unlikely correspondence, Poulenc's Organ Concerto. Here, wisps of scented religiosity and rhythmic ferocity hint at a decades-later Minimalism that the French have never particularly embraced. (Boulez believed there should be a special place in hell for such Poulenc.) The soloist was the audacious new organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, Vincent Dubois, who was loud and winning.

Ravel's popular ballet "Mother Goose" is nostalgia so touchingly original in its harmonic language and instrumental colors that even Boulez returned to this score regularly, which he made sound revelatory when he conducted it with the Cleveland Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic. Salonen and the L.A. Phil were easily as striking.

Futurelab's restrained doodling with shadows and moving lines didn't do much damage to the first half of the program. The digital foursome, though, missed an opportunity with "Correspondences." English translations were projected in large type on the screens, but no advantage was taken of all that screen acreage to include the original French, supply any information about the texts or attempt atmospheric effects with photos or whatnot. For Poulenc, video cameras found their way to the organ keys, and that was nice.

"Mother Goose" was Futurelab's main event. Conventional computer wizardry produced flowering forests of moving lines and lava lamp-like blobs pointlessly bobbing to the music. Occasionally, Salonen or a musician in the orchestra showed up on the screens, solarized in 1960s light-show fashion.

The best that a "Digital Revolution" could do for the "Fairy Garden" finale was to project faded photos of bicycles and biplanes from Ravel's time over music of transporting finesse capable of raising nostalgia to lofty heights. After undergoing a Futurelab treatment, the City of Light was here finally reduced to a decaying capital of digital stagnation. You could say that's a revolution of sorts.