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Salonen, Phil face Beethoven challenge

Times Staff Writer

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Beethoven Unbound” series with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now nearing its end, has been pretty much Beethoven Unchallenged. Embedded in programs with the nine symphonies has been new and recent music. The now has been expected not to stand up to Beethoven’s impossible standards, asked not to comment on centuries-old symphonies, but to coexist.

But coexistence, in today’s world, is not a trivial thing, and maybe music’s most important social message. The task for Swedish composer Anders Hillborg at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night was to fit a new piece in between Beethoven’s classically droll Eighth Symphony and the gloriously manic Seventh.

Hillborg’s Beethoven credentials may seem curious. Born in 1954, he is more one of us than a follower of 19th century musical mandates. He began in rock before turning “serious,” but he still has his popular, not to say silly, side. In his new “Eleven Gates,” bits of Beethoven, the Beatles and Donald Duck (“Kalle Anka” in Swedish) cheerfully converge.

The composer is, Salonen told the audience before the premiere, a surrealist. Perfectly normal imagery in Hillborg’s music has a habit of going oddly astray. The musical universe is Dali-esque. Clocks bend, and they liquefy time.

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In this new piece, each “gate” opens onto a strange vista. Near the end of the 20-minute score, Hillborg describes one of these as “Whispering Mirrors at the Seafloor.” As he would have it, those mirrors got there only after first “chattering,” then “floating” in a room. On the way to the ocean’s bottom, they passed toy pianos at the surface and a string quartet spiraling underwater. Somewhere else, woodpeckers had “confused dialogues.”

Hardly noble, prophetic Beethovenian stuff this, but rather hugely entertaining, sonically enveloping music. Hillborg creates pools of liquid sound, beginning with a big, wet D-major string chord that moves to the winds as scales in the strings flutter through it.

Hillborg’s compositional rhetoric is to create a series of unfolding scenes, more like Sibelius than Beethoven. The sounds are strange and captivating but not strangely captivating. That is to say, his is a science fiction of our time -- we recognize the strangeness.

Probably no orchestra anywhere plays new work as convincingly as the Philharmonic under Salonen. Its interpretation of “Eleven Gates” will undoubtedly grow -- the orchestra has admirably programmed the work seven times this month. A lot, moreover, was on the line Thursday, because the concert was being taped for release on iTunes. I can’t say, after a single hearing, that everything was as right and secure as it sounded, but there was little question that the floodgates had been spectacularly opened.

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The Eighth Symphony was an enthusiastic beginning to the evening, Beethoven’s wit here cool and dry, his sound from Salonen pressed into something hard and focused.

The Seventh, after intermission, was spectacular. This is the symphony that seems closest to the heart of Salonen the composer. Beethoven’s rhythmic drive has a counterpart in the machine-gone-wild passages of Salonen’s music. Once past the introduction of the first movement, played with glassy stillness, Salonen launched into the rest with the passion of the last moments of “The Rite of Spring,” and though the music ebbed and flowed, as Beethoven must, the tension never let up.

With this transfixing performance, Salonen demonstrated another aspect of Beethoven Unchallenged. Modern composers can’t make Beethoven sound more modern, just as Beethoven’s example is of only vague value to them. But Beethoven is modern in that his music is with us all the time in our lives, far more so than Hillborg’s or that of any of the other composers in this series.

The biggest challenge of a Beethoven Unchallenged, then, may be simply to make us sit up and listen to the quotidian. A case could be made that Beethoven actually coexists too easily with our daily soundtracks. Salonen’s Seventh remedied that brilliantly.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

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Price: $15 to $129

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com


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