Sellars’ Fantastic Bowl Voyage


We’ve been told, as schoolchildren, about the Native American technique of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But to actually see the grace, finesse and success of smoke rising from a twirled dowel, as shown in a film from 1914, on the Los Angeles Philharmonic program at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night, is startling. The physics, of course, impress, but so does the symbolism. Selecting the footage to accompany Scriabin’s orgiastic tone poem “Prometheus, the Poem of Fire” happened to be a Peter Sellars inspiration. It was Sellars’ night at the Bowl, and it is his continual quest to rub different cultures together and watch the sparks fly.

In this case, the director, acting as musical curator and master of ceremonies, had a particular point. Not only were the clips--the only film shot by American photographer Edward Curtis--and the music by the Russian composer contemporaneous, but it happens that inquiring Russians early in the century were enthralled by Native American ritual. And so, with the help of Esa-Pekka Salonen--back in town for the first time this summer to lead the final three weeks of Philharmonic concerts at the Bowl--pianist Alexander Toradze and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Sellars took an often bewildered audience on what the program called a “Fantastic Odyssey.” Sellars put it more candidly as he welcomed the crowd to “psychedelic night at the Hollywood Bowl.”


The conceits of this fascinating evening were many. One was Scriabin and his often overlooked impact on Modernism. The composer who, in his youth in the late 19th century, was a promising successor to Chopin, became increasingly peculiar during the first quarter of the 20th, as he merged a personal philosophy of self, divine spirit and sex into a cosmic musical vision. But his chords and his ability to create musical colors were terrific, and the most advanced young composers of the day were deeply impressed, among them Stravinsky and Edgard Varese.


So it was Stravinsky’s very Scriabinesque five-minute cantata, “King of the Stars,” to a Russian text by the flashy symbolist poet Constantine Balmont, that Sellars chose to open the program. And it was Varese’s “Deserts,” the last work by this composer, who always thought of the future first. Finally, there was also Ligeti’s mechanistic “Clocks and Clouds,” as machine-like in its construction as Varese, yet as mystical in its realization as Scriabin.

The other conceit was visual. Scriabin saw pitches as specific colors. Varese dreamed of some kind of visual component for “Deserts,” which was for 1954 a radical combination of electronic sound and live instruments. Stravinsky’s cantata, written in 1913 just before “Rite of Spring,” is full of radiant visual imagery. The vibrating twitters of “Clocks and Clouds” from 1973 almost seem to be a musical equivalent of flickering luminosity, and the show of different shades of white light that Sellars had projected on the shell of the Bowl was like a living Robert Ryman painting.

Most spectacular of all was the hauntingly beautiful video Bill Viola created to accompany “Deserts.” Enhanced by liquid, shimmering desert scenes and brilliant fire, Varese’s harshly modernist sounds seemed to take on a new poetic depth. The projection was stunning, and the combination of site, sight and sound were profound. Even intrusions from helicopters, usually an annoyance to music, were an added dimension to the experience.

The return of Salonen meant strong performances. The orchestra in the Scriabin seemed distant, which may have been the conductor’s own coolness or more likely the amplification and the addition of the curious film. But Toradze is a pianist who is all heat and passion, and there was fire in the exciting trumpet of Thomas Stevens, the Philharmonic’s famed principal player who retires at the end of the summer. Everything else was exceptional, and the Ligeti, downright amazing. It was nice, as well, to hear the Master Chorale stretching out further than it usually does--the women were especially effective in the Ligeti.

But the return of Salonen reminds us of something else as well. The Philharmonic, in its ongoing managerial crisis, has everyone worried. And there were signs Tuesday night of why we should be. Nowhere in the world will you find anything quite like this program. Yet the Philharmonic did little to take advantage of its unprecedented access to international art stars like Sellars and Viola. The orchestra, which could have used this evening as an outreach to the hip, to the theatrical and visual arts communities, treated it pretty much as any other subscription night at the Bowl.

There were a few boos after Ligeti. There were competing cheers, but how many more might there have been were this a nonsubscription special occasion (with special low prices)?


The Philharmonic would like us to believe the excellence on stage proves that everything is well. This time the excellence on the stage raised only more questions.