Critic’s Notebook: An L.A. Phil festival with Bird, beer, Moby, Hancock and new music galore
Week 2 in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s centennial season meant five radically different programs over seven days.
An uilleann piper beguilingly combined the sounds of his Irish bagpipe with those of the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ. Members of the orchestra engaged in chillingly effective robotic laughter. Electronics and unconventional uses of instruments explored the enticing interactions among body, psyche and sound. A large, ecstatic chorus transformed Keck Amphitheatre in the Disney garden into a mystical evocation of a forgotten but eerily present Los Angeles.
Mayor Eric Garcetti took to the piano to perform with Moby as part of the pop star’s evening with L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra. Other evenings were devoted to the folk-rock of Andrew Bird and jazz luminary Herbie Hancock with Dudamel, as part of the conductor’s L.A. Fest. Disney’s BP Hall was turned into a beer garden for the introduction of an L.A. Phil 100 beer brewed in collaboration with Los Angeles Ale Works in a collectible can featuring an image of Disney Hall at sunset.
The week was exhausting, moving, enlightening, entertaining, intoxicating (the beer is strong), highbrow, mainstream and, all and all, inspiring. Even if I did walk out on Moby and consequently miss the mayor.
Let’s get this over quickly.
After he asked, it turned out facetiously, whether there were any requests from the audience Friday night, an inexplicably offended Moby attacked an enthusiastic fan for shouting in Disney Hall. “I don’t come to Burger King and yell where you’re working,” lectured the singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, DJ and vegan restaurateur.
Given the L.A. Phil’s mission of inclusivity, that was enough for me. The mayor’s surprise appearance was the encore. I suppose it was too late for him to pull out.
No matter, the week’s new music proved meaningful and memorable. In her organ recital, Renée Anne Louprette was joined by Irish piper Ivan Goff for the premiere of Eve Beglarian’s “Were You at the Rock,” which added a parade of fluted, flighty, scintillating embellishments to a traditional Irish song. It was sometimes hard to tell whose pipes were doing what, making nothing what it seemed and everything new.
The Tuesday Green Umbrella new music program was entitled “L.A.’s Newest Music,” featuring commissions from five Angelenos born between 1981 and 1993. Despite today’s young composers’ disregard of genres and the L.A. Phil’s obvious embrace of pop, folk and jazz, none of these five was having any of it. Each proved an arresting experimentalist.
Ethan Braun’s “The Lost Ones,” for instance, electronically elongates the sounds of brass instruments. I can just hear the players during the first rehearsal of “Laughing to Forget,” asking composer Natacha Diels, “You want us to do what?”
The what is for two lead percussionists in front and an ensemble behind them to, as novelist Milan Kundera proposed, “relearn laughter.” They were instructed to mimic android-like movements as they played and produced exaggerated facial expressions. The score is exciting. The concept, arresting. Everyone was talking about it afterward.
Tina Tallon’s “…for we who keep our lives in our throats” includes all manner of instrumental scrapping, including the bowing of Styrofoam and electronic distortion. Daniel Allas’ “to be tender,” for clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan and ensemble, was hypnotically tendered on the edges of audibility. Carolyn Chen’s “The Sleeper and the Drinker” is a small flute concerto, which Dudamel conducted with Denis Bouriakov as soloist, in which sensuality and abstraction find common ground.
Tuesday’s program also included the unveiling of Ellen Reid’s Keck sound and art installation, “Oscillations: One Hundred Years and Forever,” that continued through the week before concerts and during intermissions with either live singers or a recording. It was transfixing.
Each of the three big L.A. Fest celebrity nights began with Dudamel returning to past L.A. Phil commissions. Preceding Bird on Thursday was Steven Stucky’s 2012 Symphony, with its calm orchestra waters interrupted by symphonic catastrophe. Heard now, this great symphony sounded like a shocking premonition of the tumor that came out of nowhere and quickly killed the composer four years later.
With its entrancing uses of folkloric elements representing our inherent and often troubling instinct for territoriality, Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz’s 2017 “Téenek — Territorial Inventions,” on Friday unwittingly underscored Moby’s outburst. John Adams’ “City Noir,” written for Dudamel’s first gala as L.A. Phil music director in 2009, made a fine introduction for Hancock with its brilliantly jazzy evocation of a jazzy, smoky, noir-tinged old L.A.
Each star, who appeared with the orchestra and also in a set alone or with his own ensemble, brought a different vibe. Bird’s violin virtuosity, gracious demeanor and self-searching songs seemed right at home. Composer, pianist and singer Gabriel Kahane made an arresting orchestral arrangement of Bird’s song suite, “Time Is a Crooked Bow,” although Bird seemed uneasy finding a balance between that and his modestly melancholy vocal delivery. But Kahane, nevertheless, appeared on the right track, urging a highly accomplished musician out of his comfort zone. Meanwhile, Bird’s solo violin version with electronics of bits from Ravel’s String Quartet was a knockout.
Moby proved a problem from the beginning. A bland orchestral arrangement of his hit “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” could not deliver value added substance. The Jason White Singers joined Moby for “Helpless,” and that was powerfully expressive. But the main role for the orchestra when accompanying Moby was to provide predictable climaxes with lots of roaring organ.
Finally, there was Hancock on Saturday. As the creative chair for jazz, he is part of the L.A. Phil family and has become closer to Dudamel. As Herbie Hancock, he is the jazz musician of our time who has done it all — a member of a famed Miles Davis quintet; a pianist, bandleader and composer in his important own right, a musical thinker who was invited to deliver the 2014 Norton Lectures at Harvard.
Dudamel, the L.A. Phil, Hancock (on his various and sundry keyboards) and his current electrifying quintet turned the L.A. Fest into a love fest. Hancock and Dudamel had impressively previewed their collaboration at the Hollywood Bowl two weeks earlier. But this time, three numbers with the orchestra (“Butterfly,” “Chameleon” and “Rockit”) took off with an even greater sense of uplift. Such was the occasion that Hancock, at age 78, joined the “L.A.’s Newest Music” brigade at the L.A. Phil.
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