‘Big Sur’ Erupts With Power, Force

Times Staff Writer

Mozart is lovely in Walt Disney Concert Hall; Stravinsky, sensational. But Disney’s design -- to say nothing of its heart, soul and sound -- is of our town and time, our state and state of mind. It demands the same in music.

Friday night, at the second of the three opening galas, it got just that with the premiere of John Adams’ irresistible tribute to California, “The Dharma at Big Sur.”

Co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, and expertly conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Dharma” is one big, rapturous bear hug of a score, a spine-tingling hommage to two of California’s most lovable composers, the late Lou Harrison and minimalism’s father, Terry Riley.

It is full of surprises, the biggest being that it is a violin concerto, written for an unconventional electric violinist, Tracy Silverman, who happens to be in a class of his own. Taking the evening’s recommended dress code -- L.A. chic -- to an entirely unexpected level, he appeared in a flowing blue shirt and brown pants patterned with large squares on the sides. His long curly hair was set off by a tiny strip of beard on his chin.


Silverman’s approach is as different from the classical model as is his look. Standing in front of a large loudspeaker, he produced an amplified fiddle sound that was excitingly raw and raucously toned. Electronics gave him a wide range, from cello to violin. The effect was that of an arresting whine, a cross between rock guitarist Eric Clapton and Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar.

For nearly half an hour, over the two insinuating movements of this piece, he was in constant melodic flow. The first part, “A New Day,” recalls Harrison’s gift for a persuasive tune, as the violin floats over typically soft Adams sonorities, as complexly colorful as this complex and colorful composer has ever produced.

At first the sound of this raspy violin (which may have been overamplified) comes as a shock over these orchestral pastels. The tuning is also unconventional, following the lead of Harrison with musical intervals purer than the traditional style -- and much harder to control. The shock very quickly turns into delight as it dawns on a listener that this melodic invention, the feeling of controlled (but just) ecstasy, might actually go on for a wonderfully long time.

As the music flows seamlessly into the Riley-infused second movement, “Sri Moonshine,” rhythm starts to take over, with repeated small motifs producing waves of energy. The end is a communion between seductive melody and take-no-prisoners rhythm, a coming together of yin and yang (this is California, remember) in a way that is maybe more convincing in music than in any other art.


Disney is a house that thrives on instrumental color, and Adams, a modern master of the orchestra, seemed to instinctively understand that he could use as rich a palette as he liked, and the kaleidoscopic score tingled with lively timbre.

The program as a whole, titled “Living L.A.,” was L.A. where the living is hardly easy or uneventful. It began exactly as it should have, with Salonen’s own “LA Variations,” a work that in 1996 proved a compositional breakthrough for him and has now gone on to have an important life of its own and might be heard as readily abroad as here.

The transparency of Disney, the hall’s easy handling of orchestral power, made it seem as though the piece, fabulously played, had come home.

More astonishing sonorities are the hallmark of Witold Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, for which Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist. If Adams’ “Dharma” is a West Coast embrace of contrasts, the Polish composer’s 1970 concerto is a battle of instrumental wits. The cello insists. The brass shouts it down. The rest of the orchestra takes the brass’ side. The cello listens, responds and outsmarts its enemy.


Ma is a cellist who loves such interaction, turning here and there as he shoots off his remarks to the players. He is also a cellist who can’t play a phrase inelegantly. It was a beautiful performance, if one that might have benefited from a tiny bit of inelegance to give it an edge.

My deadline meant an exit before Revueltas’ “Sensemaya,” a Philharmonic favorite, but a performance of it last week in one of the advance Phil the House programs was as sexy as Salonen always makes it.

Night Two, and Disney Hall has taken the next major step toward greatness.