L.A. Phil’s Embraceable Two

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With its Green Umbrella Series of new music concerts, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has made a long-term commitment to embracing the future. Monday night at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, the orchestra’s New Music Group closed the 20th Green Umbrella season with something more resembling a bear hug. Marijn Simons, a 19-year Dutch violinist and composer of astonishing talent, made his American debut, and the program featured recent work by Osvaldo Golijov, one of the most charismatic of American composers.

Not everyone in the large audience was sent home bursting with optimism for music in a new century--two old-time new musickers I walked out with were underwhelmed. But they were surely a minority. The electric buzz in the theater at intermission and after the concert was more than enough to light up the dark strip of Grand Avenue on a Monday night.

Simons takes the breath away. He is boyish, lanky, adores the stage and seems to have a thing about Stan Laurel, whom he resembles (one of his pieces is “Capriccio for Stan and Ollie”). As he played the solo part of his new Violin Concerto No. 2, “Secret Notes,” on the first half of the program, his face might have been Laurel’s--his plastic expressions, along with his waves to the audience and orchestra afterward, were priceless.


The concerto, written for a chamber group that includes percussion and accordion, is already his Opus 19. In the program he writes about moving away from composing with notes and working with sonic fields. But a lot of notes in “Secret Notes” are far from secret, although Simons loves to bend the pitch like a jazzman or microtonalist. The physical, jerky rhythms in the first movement, “Keep Them in the Dark,” come from the world of Stravinsky, but the scoring also has the raw instrumental edge favored in Dutch new music. In the second movement, “Keep Silent,” lyricism turns tonally surreal. A short conclusion, “Leaked Out,” is a merry fling.

Everyone in the ensemble--carefully conducted by Yasuo Shinozaki, the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor--appeared challenged, but Simons seemed to simply dance through the solo. An old-school virtuoso, he beamed happily with his applause and then played a Bach encore in a robust Romantic manner.

The second half of the program, which was turned over to Golijov, was the culmination of the composer’s residency with the Philharmonic this season. And it was the first chance in Los Angeles to hear music from his breakthrough “Passion According to St. Mark.”

The immediacy of Golijov’s music wins over audiences with such ease that one waits for the backlash. But just the opposite. As he is getting better known, even his failures are proving attractive, not failures at all. Such was the case with the score he wrote to Sally Potter’s film “The Man Who Cried,” which can seem affectedly eclectic in the context of an affected movie. But “Lullaby and Doina,” based on variations from a Yiddish lullaby he adapted as counterpoint to a Bizet aria, succeeds in a new chamber version for flute, clarinet and strings. The lullaby now morphs into a gypsy dance with ease.

A recent song, “How Slow the Wind,” for soprano and string quartet, with a text adapted from Emily Dickinson, demonstrated Golijov’s increasing ability to find the core of emotional expression in pure music, every transparent gesture beautifully conceived. Jessica Rivera was the shining soprano.

Three arias from “Passion”--those for Jesus and the apostles Judas and Peter--offered only a 15-minute taste of the evening-long work (which will be given its West Coast premiere in October at the Eclectic Orange Festival in Orange County). But, with Rivera, the gripping Brazilian mezzo-soprano, Luciana Souza (who sang in the premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2000) and excellent contributions by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Philharmonic players, conducted by Shinozaki, there was at least a sense of the panoramic range of this remarkable compendium of Latin music. Yet another side of Golijov, who came to the U.S. from Buenos Aires via Jerusalem, was heard in a piano quartet he put on the program--”About an Old Tune,” by his Israeli composition professor, Mark Kopyman. It is a passionate evocation of Jewish folksong in sliding strings and tolling piano and was given a powerful performance.


Although this concert marked the end of the Green Umbrella season, the Philharmonic can’t quite keep itself from yet one more hug--it has added a special concert next month at UCLA devoted to Toru Takemitsu.