Bold ‘Encounter’ for the Philharmonic

Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic quietly began commissioning a number of new concertos written expressly for orchestra members as soloists. The worthy project has not turned out to be as ambitious as originally hoped. Only three concertos have been produced, with one of them for outside soloists. And perhaps that is why the project is now being launched without fanfare.

Nevertheless, it is notable that three intriguing concertos by North American composers are being premiered this season, and the first -- William Kraft’s English Horn Concerto, with Carolyn Hove as soloist -- began the series splendidly Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Next week comes a percussion concerto from Gabriela Ortiz featuring the Swedish percussion quartet, Kroumata. In March, the Philharmonic will present Joan Tower’s Trombone Concerto, written for Ralph Sauer.

Kraft calls his concerto “The Grand Encounter,” a lofty title for a work of subtle enchantment. But this is canny music, and Kraft has earned the license. He has already written a group of pieces called “Encounters,” and it follows on the heels of “Encounters XI,” which was created for Hove and Raynor Carroll, the Philharmonic’s principal English Horn player and percussionist.


The new concerto is a grand encounter in another sense as well. An exceptionally versatile musician, Kraft spent 26 years in the orchestra, serving as principal timpanist, composer-in-residence and assistant conductor, as well as founding the Philharmonic’s New Music Group. He knows something about how players interact, and that is what he exploits in his concerto, which is a series of musical encounters. Hove moves around the stage, playing in three different trios, playing alone and playing with the orchestra at large.

This is partly a color ploy. Explaining in the program that the English horn has a limited tonal palette and dynamic range, Kraft wanted a way to produce variety. So to pave the way for the smooth, nasal sound of the solo double-reed instrument, he provides nothing but percussive sparkle for the first two minutes of the 19-minute score. It opens with tuned metallic percussion and harp. Hove finally joins her first trio imperceptibly on a long-held A, slowly swelling into audibility like a gorgeous siren song. In the second trio, Hove is doubled by an alto flute, while a guitar carries on the glittering harp music. In the third trio, the English horn encounters lyrical violin and a rhapsodic cello. Between the trios the orchestra interjects actively; the timpanist’s thunderclap lies deep in Kraft’s soul. And Hove is not denied a soloist’s due, a cadenza with virtuoso fireworks.

But all that is the attractive surface. What made me immediately want to hear it again is the rich harmony. After years of experimentation, Kraft, who turns 80 this year, has returned to the thick, sensual, bittersweet harmonies of American jazz and French Expressionism that first drew him into composing. The result is Bix Beiderbecke and Ravel filtered through a half-century of American orchestral experience and a life spent in the full range of new music.

The performance, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen was warm and fluid. Carroll stood out in his opening percussion solos, and Hove played her instrument as sweetly as one ever expects to hear it played.

Salonen has surrounded the Kraft premiere with two core examples of middle 19th century German Romanticism -- the Prelude to Wagner’s opera “Die Meistersinger” and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. On paper this seemed strange programming. But he makes it work.

In both cases, but especially in the Schumann, Salonen demonstrated just how strongly rhythm moves the music. Bringing out the metrical shifts in the first movement of the “Rhenish” -- they often get lost under Schumann’s heavy orchestration -- demonstrated just how unsettlingly jazzy this score can sound.


But Salonen was also alert to Wagner’s passionate lyricism and to Schumann’s playfulness, producing yet another grand encounter, this one between German Romanticism and American Impressionism. It turned out to be surprisingly friendly.


L.A. Philharmonic

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.

When: Today, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Price: $14-$82

Contact: (323) 850-2000