Music review: A tribute to Ernest Fleischmann to remember at Walt Disney Concert Hall
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Cities do not put up monuments for arts administrators, Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda noted Tuesday afternoon in her remarks before the unveiling of a monument to an arts administrator. The clouds broke. The hot sun blazed. Brass players blared a fanfare. With perfect timing, a tour bus drove by, offering waves and cheers.
Musical luminaries from around the world –- Pierre Boulez (in very cool mirrored aviator sunglasses), Esa-Pekka Salonen, James Conlon, John Williams, John Mauceri, many others -– sat on folding chairs in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall for the ceremony naming the corner of 1st Street and Grand Avenue Ernest Fleischmann Square.
No one may have thought to provide umbrellas for shade as the sun reflected off the Disney steel. But inside the hall that evening there was a special Green Umbrella concert, ‘A Tribute to Ernest.’ True to the man it honored, it was a night to remember.
Fleischmann, who was managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1969 to 1998, died in June at 85. He gave us Disney Hall. He gave us generations of great conductors whom he mentored and monitored. He broke boundaries between old and new, popular and classical, music and other arts, music and education, music and food and, maybe most important of all, music and civic life.
Among Fleischmann’s many innovations was founding the L.A. Philharmonic’s New Music Group in 1981, now widely copied by other orchestras, and its Green Umbrella series, which he named for some cockamamie reason no one could talk him out of. He stuck by an unpopular idea, these new music concerts, funded them from his own pocket when necessary (and inspired Salonen and Borda to do the same) and now they are an envied success everywhere. Tuesday’s Green Umbrella Concert, with free tickets for those lucky enough to jump the day they became available, featured three generations of conductors close to Fleischmann. Boulez conducted his 1998 masterpiece “Sur Incises” four days after his 86th birthday. Salonen, whom Fleischmann hired as the L.A. Philharmonic music director in 1992, chose Stravinsky’s “Renard.” Lionel Bringuier, the orchestra’s associate conductor whom Fleischmann discovered, selected Franco Donatoni’s “Arpège.” The Los Angeles Children’s Choir gave the U.S. premiere of Salonen’s “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
Notably missing from this lineup was Gustavo Dudamel, another Fleischmann discovery. But the orchestra’s latest music director made a surprise last-minute appearance in the hall, and in brief remarks to the audience before the concert explained that he couldn’t conduct because this was the day his first baby was due. He also said that he was the only one who didn’t have to turn his cellphone off.
After retiring from the L.A. Philharmonic, Fleischmann spent several seasons as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival. For his last, in 2003, he invited Boulez to be music director and “Sur Incises” was performed. The same three harpists, three pianists and three percussionists reassembled to open Tuesday’s program. Unlike probably every other conductor in history, Boulez has been speeding up as he ages. This “Sur Incises” lasted just under 38 minutes, two minutes faster than the Ojai performance eight years ago.
“Sur Incises” is a vast expansion in dazzling sonorities of a small piano piece, “Incises.” Although as intricate as everything else he has written, it reveals a new freedom and playfulness. Boulez magnified each tiny percussive slap or trill in the original ‘Incises’ into a vast musical concourse and discourse. He set one thing vibrating, then another, then another, and pretty soon the whole room shimmered.
“Dona Nobis Pacem,” for children, had its premiere in Paris last month and is based on a solo cello piece that Salonen wrote in memory of Fleischmann. A melody turns on itself, in a folk-like manner that shows Salonen’s current obsession with Bartók and Eastern European music. Children everywhere will want to learn this. And they will have to be very great to sound more merrily angelic than the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus did under Anne Tomlinson Tuesday.
The Donatoni connection was that the Italian composer was Salonen’s teacher. Colorfully performed by Bringuier and six members of the New Music Group, “Arpège,” from 1986, was a study in fascinatingly opaque turns of phrase. Salonen may have adopted some of his teacher’s turns but not the opaqueness.
Before conducting “Renard,” Salonen explained why he had chosen it to end the concert. Recounting a hilarious story of a harrowing trip with Fleischmann at the wheel of a rented BMW in Germany and Austria, Salonen said that Stravinsky’s ever-changing meters reminded him of Fleischmann’s terrible driving. The second reason was because Fleischmann loved the piece. The third, Salonen said: “Because I loved him.”
“Renard,” a burlesque in song with an absurdist Russian text for two tenors (Daniel Chaney and Grant Gershon), baritone (Abdiel González) and bass (Reid Bruton) and chamber ensemble, is a kind of companion piece to Stravinsky’s much better-known “Les Noces.” Salonen, who recorded “Renard” in London in 1990, made the Russian folk character, the acid sonorities, the fractured road-map rhythms vivid in Disney.
The old CD still stands up. But 21 years later, Salonen’s Stravinsky stands out. This “Renard” was electrifying.
Broadcast live by KUSC, “A Tribute to Ernest” will remain available for streaming for a week. But Ernest was big enough to deserve two monuments. The station should keep it online permanently.
-- Mark Swed