Sounds of eternal spring
Steven Stucky’s brand-new Second Concerto for Orchestra arrived Friday night like another garden for Walt Disney Concert Hall. A colorful, delight-bringing score, it has the feel of music we know well lovingly replanted to charm new surroundings.
Stucky, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s consulting composer for new music, has had a 16-year relationship with the orchestra that began when he was composer in residence in 1988. He is a respected musical thinker (his book on Witold Lutoslawski is a classic; last year he delivered the prestigious Ernest Bloch lectures at UC Berkeley). He is popular as the congenial, witty, insightful host of the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series. I have not witnessed a Stucky premiere in L.A. that did not please its audience or uplift spirits.
Yet Stucky’s music has not, so to speak, stuck. His scores, however well received, are seldom repeated, and too few are recorded. We enjoy the music and then move on.
Whether the Second Concerto for Orchestra will have the same fate is hard to say. It is bespoke music, a perfect fit for an orchestra, conductor and audience Stucky knows well (and that know Stucky well). It is also the first score written for Disney by a composer with an intensive experience of the hall. It is music expertly designed to show off the Philharmonic, Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Disney acoustic at their dazzling best.
And to flatter the audience as well, by cleverly alluding to music -- that of Ravel, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski, Adams, Salonen -- that has, under Salonen, helped inform the Philharmonic’s trademark brilliance. A composer-gardener, indeed, Stucky cultivates music, musician and listener.
The 25-minute new score breaks no new ground. It begins so similarly to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G -- a whip crack followed by the splashing sound of wind arpeggios -- that one has the not-unpleasant feeling of being in the presence of something well-known yet different -- say, a loved one with striking new glasses.
The first movement continues as an homage to friends and music. Through a complicated series of manipulations, Stucky assigns notes to the letters of the alphabet so he can honor Philharmonic friends, beginning with LAP for the orchestra itself. Salonen (both as EPS and his full name), former Executive Director Ernest Fleischmann, current General Manager Deborah Borda, architect Frank Gehry, and Leonore and Bernard Greenberg (who underwrote the commission) are acknowledged in a lavish musical acrostic.
The LAP code, translated to the notes A-A-B, is arresting -- the brass proudly blast it -- but other names can be as hard to pick out by the ear as a 12-tone row. Still, the feeling of celebration is unmistakable.
The strongest impression throughout the concerto -- which has a richly expressive, exquisitely tinted variations movement in the center and a rollicking final movement -- is of Stucky’s sumptuous ease with the orchestra. He makes the transition from Ravel’s sound world to Salonen’s not only natural but fresh, the way new blooms always are. This is music of eternal springtime.
For Friday night’s performance, the Philharmonic made the Second Concerto for Orchestra the subject of its new “First Nights” series. Salonen introduced it by conducting flashy bits and pieces from Ravel, Respighi, Stravinsky, Stucky and his own “LA Variations” (but, curiously, no Lutoslawski). Writer-director-host John de Lancie introduced the composer with what felt like a laboriously droll version of “This Is Your Life, Steven Stucky.” Young composers who look good were asked to drape themselves around a piano and drool inanities. Stucky played along good-naturedly, occasionally even managing to raise the level of banal discourse a notch or two.
Saturday afternoon, the concerto got a second outing, more securely and spectacularly played. And the audience got its money’s worth (even at Disney Hall prices) with a full program that included a performance of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto, delivered with gripping drama and stunning technique by Christian Tetzlaff, as well as a tart performance of Stravinsky’s Symphonies for Winds.
This was a superb concert. The night before was classical music for dummies.
And dummies are apt to be shortchanged.