Symphony orchestras operate on many models. Corporate is increasingly common. Some are collectives; others resemble sports teams. There are monkish ones on spiritual missions and academic ones with a musicological bent.
Maybe it's a California thing, but our big orchestras like to think of themselves as families and credit their uncommon successes to building long-term relationships. Carl St.Clair is in his 26th season as music director of the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa. Michael Tilson Thomas' 20 years with the San Francisco Symphony was preceded by 20 years of annual guest conducting.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic is an especially familial outfit, as its weekend program proudly demonstrated. The highlight was the U.S. premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's latest major work, "Karawane," a work for large chorus and massive orchestra with a wild and wonderful spirit. The L.A. Phil conductor laureate was music director for 17 years and his relationship with the orchestra goes back to 1984.
Salonen is conducting at the Paris Opera, but "Karawane" remained all in the family. Lionel Bringuier, who had been an assistant conductor under Salonen, was on the podium at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the evening's chorus, is also a former Salonen assistant conductor.
The evening's soloist in a Mozart piano concerto was Yuja Wang, yet another member of the L.A. Phil family. She has particularly close working relationships with Bringuier (they've just released a luscious new recording of Ravel's two piano concertos) and L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel (they recently recorded Messiaen's "Turangalîla" Symphony in Venezuela).
The approach by Wang and Bringuier to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, called the "Jeunehomme" after the supposedly lovely French pianist for whom the 21-year-old composer wrote it, was big-boned. The orchestra was on the large side, and so was Yang's playing. She is, of course, known for her high style. Her fashion statement this time was a sexy long gown, glittery on top and sheer on the bottom, so mermaid-like that she had trouble walking in it.
It suited her glittery and transparent Mozart. This was not a typical showpiece for Wang, who likes dazzling technical challenges. For Mozart, she ventured just a touch over the border of tasteful elegance, which is exactly where the concerto belongs and seldom is. Every phrase was precise. Nothing was overplayed. Just as important, nothing was underplayed either.
For instance, the slow movement, an exquisitely touching aria for piano, is often treated as either wistful or classically exquisite. Yang revealed something truer, the excess of depth typical of a young genius like Mozart who has not yet the perspective or experience go along with the deep feelings. In an otherwise flashy Finale, Mozart drops a serious minuet, which Wang allowed to remain in the alluringly ambiguous region between seduction and irony.
For an encore, however, Wang let spectacularly loose with an ostentatiously droll version of Mozart's "Turkish March" by the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos with added goofy bits by the Turkish pianist Fazil Say.
Mozartean Dada made a good transition to "Karawane." Bringuier commissioned the score for the opening concert a year ago of his first season as music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, a concert that also featured Wang as soloist. Since then, "Karawane" has been making its rounds in performances conducted both by Bringuier and Salonen.
But Friday the work felt as if it had come home. No only do the L.A. Phil and Master Chorale have the Salonen style in their blood, the Disney Hall acoustic appears to have imprinted itself on the Salonen concept of sound. "Karawane" opens with an effect the composer particularly loves — the otherworldly vibrations of droning, low winds (including the tall contrabass clarinet and contrabass bassoon), which have a special presence in Disney.
The inspiration was the Dadaist movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland, a century ago, and the nonsense text by Hugo Ball caused a kind of stream-of-consciousness parade of circus-like images in Salonen's imagination. The first word of Ball's poem, "jolifanto," made him think of a parade of elephants and jubilation.
In two parts lasting around 26 minutes, "Karawane" covers surreal and real ground. There is wild, primordial stomping, Stravinsky on steroids. Twice, the chorus breaks into Balinese monkey chants. There is a moody impressionist landscape, for which Bringuier set the stage by opening the concert with a succulently rich performance of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." And there is Salonen cutting loose with a rock drum set and a chorus that doesn't so much sing as catapult Ball's text.
Exciting as the Zurich premiere was, Bringuier now makes "Karawane" richer, lusher, livelier and all the more unhesitatingly in-your-face. He couldn't exactly push his new Swiss audience too far on his first day on the job.
Memo to the New York Philharmonic, which was a commissioner of "Karawane" and will perform it later in the season under Alan Gilbert: This is difficult music. If you are really courting Salonen to be your next music director, as some believe you may be and the New York critics particularly want, do not skimp on rehearsal time. Gilbert's New York Philharmonic performance of Salonen's "LA Variations" at the beginning of the season was not well reviewed and was said to have sounded not well rehearsed.
Bringuier's sensational "Karawane" performance at Disney was, according to an L.A. Phil spokesman, allotted a full five hours of preparation. It really does make a difference when new music is treated as a family affair.