Faces out of the crowd

Special to The Times

It isn't usually very easy to find Ralph Sauer among the Los Angeles Philharmonic's musicians. When the full orchestra assembles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he's way in the back, four rows of violinists, cellists and others in front of him, and just the percussionists behind. Even his bright gold trombone is hardly visible.

That changes this week when he heads center stage for a Philharmonic concert program spotlighting orchestra members. Not only will Sauer play the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas' "Canticle Weaving," commissioned for him, but Brahms' Double Concerto will be played by Philharmonic violinist Bing Wang and cellist Ben Hong.

Although orchestras often feature their own musicians as soloists, the number and range of musicians at the Philharmonic this season are unusual. In mid-January, for instance, English horn player Carolyn Hove played the world premiere of William Kraft's English Horn Concerto. In total, 10 of the season's 26 instrumental soloists are Philharmonic musicians.

Soloists have also been drawn not just from among the orchestra's principal players, but from its rank-and-file musicians as well. "One of the great strengths of this orchestra is the younger musicians who sometimes sit in the middle of a section," says Philharmonic executive director Deborah Borda. "At the start of a career, nothing tests you like playing a solo with a major orchestra."

Philharmonic musicians use words like "honor" and "privilege," but they also admit to stomach upsets and racked nerves. "I didn't want to let my colleagues down, and I didn't want to let myself down," recalls violinist Stacy Wetzel, who made her pavilion solo debut last fall in Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." "To stand up in front of a great orchestra, in front of a packed audience, is very stressful."

For the 10 to 12 minutes she and her three Philharmonic colleagues each played a solo, Wetzel estimates that she practiced three to four hours a day for a month. (Her husband, Minor Wetzel, a Philharmonic violist, picked up the slack with their three children, she notes.) "The last time I soloed was in 1999, playing a Beethoven concerto with a regional orchestra performing at a church. For a section player in the orchestra, a performance of this nature doesn't come along very often."

Think baseball, suggests trombonist Sauer. "Normally my job as an orchestra musician is more akin to a relief pitcher who doesn't play all that much. Sometimes, in a symphony by Brahms, I don't play at all until the ending. But being a soloist is more like being a starting pitcher: The pacing and endurance are totally different."

Sauer and others refer to that change as challenging, and that is exactly what their music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, says he had in mind. "For the players, it is great to have this challenge and be measured against professional and legendary soloists. It is stimulating and helps their artistic growth."

But the notion goes beyond player morale, he adds. "When we were planning the last season in the old hall, we tried to invent all kinds of things for the audience. The audience knows the people they see and hear every week are very good musicians but rarely hear them play solos. Now they can verify with their own ears something they were suspecting all along."

PRESSURE AND TIME

Assistant principal cellist Hong usually sits in the second seat of the front row, stage left, with associate concertmaster Wang across the way in the second seat of her row, mirror images on either side of the conductor's baton. This is Hong's second solo at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Wang's first, although both have also soloed with the orchestra in other venues.

"When you solo with a different orchestra, you're more of a guest," observes Hong. "I work with these people day in and day out -- it's like playing for a family. When we're featured as soloists, we feel the responsibility of representing the orchestra, and I think most of the players who have played solo with the orchestra in the past would agree with me."

The two musicians first performed the 40-minute Brahms Double Concerto with the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in September 1997. Los Angeles Times music reviewer Daniel Cariaga called them solid, accomplished and authoritative soloists, and apparently Salonen was equally impressed. "The performance was so fabulous, I was deeply moved and felt afterward it was something we had to do downtown as well," says Salonen. "Now it's finally happening."

For Wang, whose violinist father was a member of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for 25 years, the pavilion appearance is a long-awaited moment. "It's a tremendous opportunity, especially working with Esa-Pekka Salonen on this occasion," Wang says. "He only conducts about 14 weeks out of the season, and to be able to work with him is very special. But it's a lot harder to stand in front of the orchestra and become a soloist because we are so used to being part of a big group."

Besides the psychological pressure -- which some of the soloists compare to auditioning for the orchestra in the first place -- there is also the time commitment. Orchestra soloists need additional rehearsal time and, in the case of Hong and Wang, they must rehearse still more so as to play together seamlessly.

"We have to make sure that we sound like one small ensemble in front of the orchestra," says Hong, "we have to make sure we have the same interpretation and agreement on how to do the piece."

Wang expects them to spend nearly three weeks rehearsing daily for three hours together, then home alone for another three hours. "Ben and I have similar attitudes toward preparation," she says. "We're both perfectionists. "

A NEW REPERTOIRE

Other instruments, like the trombone, are far less frequently heard in symphonies, particularly in concertos in which musicians solo with the orchestra. "Composers usually write concertos for violin, piano, possibly cello and very rarely anything else," says Salonen. "There are lots of instruments that desperately need new repertoire.

"There are no Beethoven or Brahms concertos for the trombone, for instance. Ralph Sauer is one of the best-known trombone players in the world. I felt it was time for him to be in the spotlight, and it would be nice to commission a great new piece for him. It makes perfect sense for us to commission for our top players music that, hopefully, at the end of day, will enter the repertoire."

Sauer, who last played a trombone concerto with the Philharmonic in 1979, easily recalls the moment backstage when Salonen first mentioned to him a series of concertos being commissioned for "the more neglected solo instruments." The orchestra's principal trombone player, Sauer received samples of music from several composers and chose that of Augusta Read Thomas, the composer whose piece he'll premiere this week. "When I heard her music," he said, "I was attracted to the language and beauty of her writing."

"I received the first installment of the piece maybe four months ago," says Sauer. What he discovered was that Read Thomas wrote big, literally. "The pages were more than one foot wide and more than three feet tall. They were huge. I received about 20 of those and, a few weeks later, another 20, then a third and final installment. It was about 70 pages and weighed five pounds. I was rather overwhelmed."

Sauer hasn't met Thomas, currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, although he says they've exchanged quite a few e-mails. "There were minor modifications I requested and she readily agreed to. In some cases, she made the modification even better by putting a change on top of my change. I never asked her to customize the piece for me. I wanted it to be universal and not just for one player."

Sauer calls the 22-minute piece both "an epic poem with this very colorful accompaniment" and "an oration for me with an orchestra." Thomas told him she felt the music had "the perfume" of Messiaen, early Stravinsky, Boulez and Tommy Dorsey, says Sauer, "among others."

Sauer says he's looking forward to the chance to debut a new piece but concedes that new works can be particularly difficult. He had, for instance, neither a piano reduction nor computer MIDI file of "Canticle Weaving." Piano reductions allow the soloist to rehearse with a pianist standing in for the orchestra. Or notes can be put in a computer MIDI file that can be played back and rehearsed to. Fortunately, says Sauer, he was able to have a read-through with the orchestra a few weeks ago that "gave me the correct picture of what I was trying to do in my head."

The world premiere in late January of Gabriela Ortiz's concerto for percussion, "Altar de Piedra," another Philharmonic commission, was initially planned for four members of the orchestra's percussion section. The Philharmonic turned instead to the Swedish percussion ensemble Kroumata, explains Salonen, when orchestra members told him they felt they lacked the necessary time to get accustomed to unfamiliar Latin American instruments.

"They didn't want to compromise the quality," says Salonen, "and I appreciated their honesty."

Plans for a Strauss oboe concerto this week, featuring principal oboist David Weiss, were also changed. "We had very little rehearsal time and felt it should be a program we could put together with the amount of rehearsal time we have," Salonen says.

The rest of the season's in-house Philharmonic soloists include concertmaster Alexander Treger, who will play Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D in early April. Then "The Four Seasons" solo turns will be reprised at the Hollywood Bowl in August -- with violinists Michele Bovyer, Akiko Tarumoto, Jonathan Wei and Stacy Wetzel. And also in August, Martin Chalifour, who regularly solos with the orchestra as part of his job as principal concertmaster, will perform Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3. Finally, in September, Michele Zukovsky, principal clarinet, plays Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.

"I think what is important to remember is that these are not failed soloists," says Salonen. "These are people who since their early childhoods have worked hard to get positions in a major orchestra. To get a job in the Los Angeles Philharmonic these days, technically you have to be on the level of international soloists. But not everybody is mentally suited to be an international soloist. They appreciate the togetherness, the collective situation. You make music together and become something larger than yourself. The cliche about the whole being more than the sum of its parts is absolutely true here."

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

When: Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

Price: $14-$82

Contact: (323) 850-2000

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