‘Wing’ truly catches the wind this time, and sails

Times Staff Writer

“Wing on Wing,” Esa-Pekka Salonen’s seductive, restless ode to Walt Disney Concert Hall and to the orchestra he had headed for a dozen years when he wrote it, endured a difficult birth last season. Now the work, which returned to Disney on Thursday night and is newly recorded, has taken flight.

That mixes a metaphor, in that “Wing on Wing” is a song of the sea, an imagining of the concert hall as a sailing ship weathering storms (the title is a sailing term). But mixing metaphors is music’s prerogative. Music that lasts can never be one thing; built-in character and emotions must make room for coloration by performance, environment and the ears that receive it.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic gave “Wing on Wing” its premiere last June as the climax to a chaotic day that began with angry shouts at a large antiwar demonstration downtown, included a mixed-message seminar on music and architecture, and involved bad performances of good pieces (such as Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel”) and good performances of bad pieces (including Liza Lim’s “Ecstatic Architecture”).


Throughout this long, noisy day, Disney Hall stood as a shining beacon, and such was the effect of Salonen’s piece. Metallic percussion exploited the acoustical tingle factor. Prominent parts for contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet displayed Disney’s affinity with bass resonance. Two high sopranos singing interlocking stratospheric siren songs were moving targets, leaving the stage to intone from higher aeries and make us aware of Disney’s dimensionality. At the end, the full large orchestra broke into a jubilant, if ever so slightly dutiful, dance.

Wonderful music, however, was also touched by melancholy, which Salonen explained as a reflection of the inevitable letdown after the momentous opening of a celebrated new landmark. But “Wing on Wing” also tried a little too hard. Interweaving the recorded voice of Gehry into the piece pointed out the hall’s troubled handling of amplification.

Originally intended to last about six minutes, “Wing on Wing” had by June grown many times that size, to 27, and verged on the unwieldy. Many listeners wondered whether it could ever transcend its association with Disney and find comfort in other venues. Many also wondered whether the wistful aspects of the score might signal the end of an affair, as the question of Salonen’s future with the orchestra once his contract was up in 2006 was suspiciously left hanging.

All those concerns -- even, ironically, the issue of venue -- were addressed Thursday. Played with new confidence, “Wing on Wing” took on a more euphoric character. Salonen has speeded up his tempos, shaving close to two minutes from the clock. With the concert coming on the heels of a new contract that extends Salonen’s music directorship of the Philharmonic until at least 2008, the performance was pure celebration. The sopranos, Hila Plitmann and Cyndia Sieden, began on a note of ecstasy and never left it. The amplification has been tamed and Gehry’s intrusions toned down to become more appropriate atmospheric enhancement. The riotous dance at the end, in this tighter performance, felt a true culmination.

Wings, moreover, have grown legs. With the release this week of a Deutsche Grammophon CD of recent Salonen orchestral scores performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony and recorded in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, “Wing on Wing” has been wrenched out of Disney and away from the Philharmonic. That is reason for anger. It costs a prince’s ransom to record American orchestras these days, and Disney Hall is untried as a recording venue. But some things are worth the trouble and expense. Still, “Wing on Wing” played without the Philharmonic’s flair and recorded in an anonymous acoustic shines.

The piece’s future was further ensured last week when parts were played for children at the Philharmonic’s Toyota Symphonies for Youth, accompanying a skit devised by Bryan Davidson, directed by Jessica Kubzansky and strongly conducted by the orchestra’s new conducting fellow, Joana Carneiro. The response was encouraging.

Also on the program, the first of three titled “3 x Salonen” that will feature pieces by the music director, then be taken to Cologne, Germany, next month, were Debussy’s “Fantaisie” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

The Debussy is an early piano concerto, all but unknown. One hears in it a composer emerging, but one also comes to recognize what a breakthrough was “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” Debussy’s next piece. The soloist, Emanuel Ax, played the sparkling piano part with brilliance.

There may be little left to say about Salonen’s “Rite”; it has become one of the signature Disney Hall experiences. But his interpretation evolves, growing freer, more expressive, more exhilarating. If the Cologne performance comes across as this one did, it will drive the Germans wild.