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Entertainment & Arts

Review: The L.A. Phil’s Three Maestros bring their magic to a 100th birthday party

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Zubin Mehta and Gustavo Dudamel
Esa-Pekka Salonen, left, Zubin Mehta and Gustavo Dudamel take a bow at Thursday’s concert celebrating the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 100th birthday.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It was cold and raining hard in Los Angeles when an audience, described in The Times as “not especially notable as to size,” gathered the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 24, 1919, at Trinity Auditorium, at the corner of 9th and Grand downtown, to hear the largest orchestra ever to perform in the Southland. “The glamour of a premiere was not broadly apparent,” The Times reported the next day.

Onstage there were, though, a whopping 10 double basses and “long avenues of violins and violas,” and “the people who were there represented musical taste.” This was the first concert of an orchestra that “startled Los Angeles out of her symphonic slumbers.” Ticket prices ranged from 50 cents to $1.50.

This week, it was a hot Thursday evening, nine blocks up Grand Avenue. Fires raged across the state as a large and glamorous crowd gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If adjusted for inflation, many seats at the concert cost less than they did in 1919, while tickets for tables at the post-concert dinner were in the tens of thousands of dollars for big donors. It has been a century of climate change, cultural change and, most notably this night, glorious symphonic change.

Of all major American orchestras, only the National Symphony (founded in 1932) is younger than the L.A. Phil. The New York Philharmonic is 77 years older. But the L.A. Phil has overtaken them all in spirit, ambition and standing. Awakened from symphonic slumbers, the city is now well branded by the L.A. Phil’s two iconic homes, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

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How we got there has obsessed arts institutions worldwide, and the L.A. Phil’s “Gala 100” had something to say about that. Cue the Three Maestros. All of the 11 L.A. music directors were notable conductors of their eras, and Otto Klemperer’s tenure in the 1930s was especially significant for raising the technical quality of the orchestra and its openness to the music and artistic thinking of its time.

But it was Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen and, now, Gustavo Dudamel who have contributed the most by far during the last 57 years to make the L.A. Phil the epitome of the modern orchestra. And that was on display as they appeared for the first time on the same program. Each conducted works representative of them, of the orchestra or both. Together, they premiered Daníel Bjarnason’s “From Space I Saw Earth,” written specifically for the three conductors.

Obviously the Three Maestros were the center of attention. Would this turn out to be a competition? What would the dynamic be when they conducted together? Would the program be an anticlimax, the result of centennial burnout after a massive 100th season of unprecedented scope and adventure?

In fact, this proved a sensational concert, which PBS was on hand to capture for an upcoming “Great Performances” broadcast. Despite all the Three Maestros fun, the orchestra was the real star, the not so secret but too often underestimated sauce of the L.A. Phil success story.

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The distinguishing feature of the L.A. Phil is not its sound, but its sounds. For Salonen, who went first, it was Salonen’s orchestra. Same thing for Mehta and Dudamel when they followed.

As the composer John Adams and several of the players noted in video introductions before each piece, the defining character of the L.A. Phil is its versatility, its quickness, whether that is learning new scores, which it does most weeks, or adapting to different interpretive visions.

Salonen began with Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 4, commissioned by the L.A. Phil and given its premiere in 1993, a year before the composer’s death and a notable part of Salonen’s first season. Salonen recorded it with the orchestra later that year.

Though a daring 22-minute way to begin a gala, one of Salonen’s hallmarks as music director was to make season galas that actually were artistic, and often quirky, events. The Fourth is a valedictory symphony. Thoughts are fleeting and too rich for completion, their implications capable of leading in many directions. The soundscape is extraordinary, and in a brilliantly commanding performance, Salonen brought out extremes of agonizing, expressive shimmers that contrasted with bold declarative statements. I’m not sure the audience was quite expecting this, but it sat spellbound.

Looking more robust than when he last appeared with the orchestra in January following a year of cancer treatments and recent hip surgery, Mehta still sat to conduct Thursday, but that seemed to make little difference. From the first thick, dug-in chord of Wagner’s overture to “Die Meistersinger,” which was followed by a ravishing account of Ravel’s “La Valse,” the L.A. Phil was transformed.

Mehta is the only maestro to have conducted the L.A. Phil in the old Philharmonic Hall on Olive at 5th, to which it moved in 1920; the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which Mehta opened in 1964 during his third season; and now Disney Hall. His goal was to create an orchestra that sounded like a New World Old World Vienna Philharmonic. He loves the Viennese fullness, but he also thrives on Hollywood-bright lights. He had to push hard to make that happen in the Chandler, and he did.

In Disney that then becomes even more spectacular than Mehta’s audiophile Phase 4 Stereo records that made the L.A. Phil internationally popular. Here, Salonen’s clarity was replaced with the most lavish of string playing and brass perfectly engineered to knock your socks off.

Dudamel’s choice was the suite to Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” which the composer had conducted with the L.A. Phil many times, and which was a favorite of Mehta and Salonen. Dudamel chose the flashy 1919 concert suite (Stravinsky had revised it in West Hollywood in 1945 to renew copyright) and made it his own in a performance brimming with vitality.

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For Bjarnason’s “From Space,” each conductor had a podium with his signature on it. Dudamel stood in front, leading the strings section and a percussionist. Mehta and Salonen were placed in the midst of the orchestra, respectively on audience left and right, each facing a group of brass, winds and percussion.

The Icelandic composer was inspired by space flight. The motto on the score is a quote from Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin: “I see Earth! It is so beautiful.” Even though looking at Iceland from space now would reveal the disappearance of large glaciers, Bjarnason sticks with a misty, indescribable, beautiful Earth.

He might even be looking at the L.A. Phil from space, the sounds reaching the cosmos no longer organized but drifting in their own wondrous ways. The piece begins for a few seconds with murmurs and ringing even before the conductors are settled.

These may be three of the most rhythmically adept conductors anywhere and in any era, but they are seldom asked to synchronize. Each leads a kind of pleasingly atmospheric sonic soup that filled Disney in such a democratic way that it wasn’t always apparent where the sounds were coming from, who was up to what. Now and then the score would pause, Mehta and Salonen turning to watch Dudamel, so that they would all start anew together and then go their own ways.

For 15 minutes, the L.A. Phil was no longer the orchestra of any one of them, but of something larger. The last word (or sound), moreover, belonged to neither the orchestra nor the conductors, to not a charmed past, but to the hope for a charmed future. “From Space,” and the gala, ended with members of YOLA, Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, Dudamel’s pride and joy, walking down aisles playing crotales, finger-size cymbals. It was magical.


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