Mr. Robertson’s challenging neighborhood
In a darkened Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night, the exit signs glowed a faint, radioactive red. Dim aisle lights offered just enough illumination to reveal the ship-like shape of the auditorium, creating the feeling of a vessel that had lost power and might at any moment begin to list ominously.
The darkness was meant to represent, as much as a postmodern concert hall might, the disquieting city at night. This was the city as a black hole -- an absorber of energy, sinister yet a social magnet, a place to be.
From the shadows at the rear of the stage emerged a solo trumpet, that symbol of the lonely individual. It stuttered at first as if trying to find its voice. It railed. It sang. It danced. The trumpeter, Gabriele Cassone, a riveting virtuoso, often blew into a piano, testing his resonance against that of the strings.
The concert was the second program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Concrete Frequency” festival, examining music and the urban experience. The solo trumpet score, Berio’s “Sequenza X” -- commissioned by the Philharmonic in 1984 -- led seamlessly into Ives’ “Central Park in the Dark.” Strings stationed onstage played quiet, irregular, moody whole-tone chords representing nature. Boisterous brass, winds and keyboards hidden away in a balcony corner were the noisy drunken revelers who could not care less about contemplating a starry sky.
Although he grew up in idyllic Malibu, “Concrete Frequency” music director David Robertson is also music director of the symphony orchestra in St. Louis, a city with its share of tough neighborhoods. And Thursday he put both extremes of contemporary experience into a long and challenging night, to which the Berio and Ives were but a prelude.
What followed was Morton Feldman’s “Turfan Fragments,” one of the most disorienting orchestral pieces I have ever heard. Then came George Benjamin’s “Palimpsests,” in which relatively pleasant music is regularly interrupted by mysterious, frightening foreign elements. Malibu neighborhoods may be nice and manicured, Robertson told the audience, but he remembered as a kid a person he thought was a crazy old lady digging in an empty lot. She eventually found a Chumash burial ground.
The last piece on the program -- which introduced to the West Coast the sensational young British trumpet soloist Alison Balsom -- was Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s concerto “Nobody knows de trouble I see.” Written in 1954, it represents the attempt of a German composer to find a place for an African American spiritual in the world of the then-new German music, which was trying to replace old-fashioned emotion with the scientific method.
The result is a battle between angst and anti-angst (which is, of course, just another form of angst). And that lonely trumpet, which gets the jazz bug after some saxophonists ease the way, at least has friends in the fray.
No other major orchestra that depends on subscribers for its livelihood trusts its audience as much as the Philharmonic did with this program. The music, all of it, was extraordinary. Robertson led tireless, strong performances. He set moods. He also mercilessly broke moods. He kept listeners on a razor’s edge, as he undoubtedly did his musicians. If there was a comfort zone, that came in the single encore -- Bill Holman’s orchestral arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s jazz classic “ ‘Round Midnight” -- and it wasn’t that comforting.
For me, the heart of the program was “Turfan Fragments,” which was written in 1980. The title comes from ancient manuscripts found in a city in southwest China. The stories they tell are incomplete and indecipherable. Feldman’s score, which is insanely difficult to play, deals not with what one might learn from such parchments but with what we can’t know.
In very quiet music with highly confused meters, Feldman develops what feel like mental prisons for these fragments. Time ceases to exist, and yet you must have patience anyway. The Philharmonic was inevitably tense but coped remarkably well with a score that no other regular orchestra in America dares play but that remains a seminal work of American music.
Benjamin’s “Palimpsests,” by comparison, is good old-school Modernism, and Robertson got brilliant results. Zimmermann’s jazz, for its part, was no problem at all for this band, though the jazz writing is stiff, even a tad condescending.
But Balsom handled the trumpet solos with exactly the right attitude. She was serious and resisted the temptation to swing more than she should. This is, in the end, Expressionist music, a German composer impossibly trying to reclaim from the ashes the freewheeling culture the Nazis destroyed.
Some years later, Zimmermann, caught in a nightmare from which he couldn’t escape, killed himself. The city at night is clearly not for everyone, and not everyone stayed to the end of Thursday’s concert. Applause all evening was tepid. But the night proved a remarkably brave and powerful way to prepare for a new year.