Review: Salonen and Philharmonic see America anew

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham joins the L.A. Philharmonic to sing six songs composed by Kurt Weill.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

In what had promised to be the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s most ambitious project of the fall and the launch of its new in/SIGHT series of collaborations with video artists, Esa-Pekka Salonen was to have led Berlioz’s wondrous, large-scale choral symphony “Roméo et Juliette” on Thursday night. Turkish multimedia artist Refik Anadol’s contribution would be to paint Walt Disney Concert Hall in light.

Anadol, indeed, took his cue from mind-blowing music to transform the rear of the Disney stage and emblematic organ pipes into an immersive psychedelic wonderland. But it wasn’t Romeo and Juliet tripping out. Overly ambitious, the Berlioz project has been postponed and was replaced by Edgar Varèse’s 25-minute “Amériques,” a kind of “Rite of Spring” on steroids.

Salonen then built a stimulating, if oddball, new program around the French composer’s first work written after moving to New York in 1915 and embracing the New World in all its blaring, boisterous, urban, optimistic and modernist splendor.

The evening began with Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” Suite, derived from the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s film; a group of songs by Kurt Weill, sung by mezzo Susan Graham; and the conductor’s own orchestra score, “Foreign Bodies.”


The connecting thread for the program, Salonen remarked to the audience, was that the evening’s four composers were immigrants. Weill fled Nazi Berlin and landed on Broadway. Salonen’s 2001 “Foreign Bodies” is music by a Finn who moved to Santa Monica. Born in New York, Herrmann doesn’t quite fit. Still, he grew up in the environment of Russian Jewish émigrés and ultimately immigrated, himself, to England. And there happened to be another, more telling, connection. Although only “Amériques” got the multimedia treatment, foreign bodies, musical and extra-musical, mounted an evening-long invasion.

“Psycho” set the terrifying scene. Screeching strings sharp as a knife blade required no video screen to conjure up Janet Leigh in the shower.

For the Weill songs, Graham, who was to have appeared in the original Berlioz project, came onstage in a silver gown reminiscent of the Jazz Age, sat at a nightclub table and sipped from a cocktail glass (it’s only water, she complained).

All but a song in German from Brecht and Weill’s 1929 musical “Happy End” were from Broadway shows of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s and tended toward alienation: “I Am a Stranger Here Myself,” “September Song,” “My Ship” “One Life to Live” and “The Saga of Jenny.”

The accompaniment was the Philharmonic as jazz band. Graham found a useful middle ground between her opulent operatic mezzo and something more straightforward. Amplification, though, was the fly in the Weill ointment, reverberant and artificial.

Salonen’s “Foreign Bodies,” a three-movement study in musical physicality for a very large orchestra, has built-in musical viruses. Masses of brass and strings face up against gravity. In the slow movement, weird tuning in the cellos and basses creates new sound worlds. In the last movement the brass undo a dance with their own complicated rhythms.

First played by the L.A. Phil in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, “Foreign Bodies” was in another realm in Disney, where Salonen’s vivid application of orchestral color and the inner clockwork structure became far more visceral. Originally, the composer had used an organ for a final bit of rhythmic mischief but replaced it with an electric bass when it became clear how few concert halls have a proper instrument. Unfortunately, he didn’t get around to adding it back into the score for Disney.

Still, hearing Salonen conduct the L.A. Phil in his own music in Disney is an experience unmatched anywhere else, and it was surprising that the evening did not attract a full house.

With the percussive noisemakers wailing, massive brash chords and seductive summoning calls in the winds and general untamed brashness, “Amériques” got a thrilling performance. Anadol created equally thrilling visual swirls, occasional city images and, finally, the shadow of Salonen writ large over organ and balcony ledges. The organ pipes morphed into magical new shapes. The environment changed miraculously, as the imagery, operated live, literally followed the music.

It looked great, yet my desire was to close my eyes. The imagery not only took attention from evocative, riveting sound, but it added banal underscoring of the score’s most obvious points. These are old battles in Hollywood, going back to the ‘30s and the experiments in early animation and, of course, “Fantasia.”

Anadol brings exciting 21st century technology to Mickey Mousing music, where imagery mimics musical effects. Now we need a 21st century Mickey. Or “Psycho.”

Twitter: @markswed


Los Angeles Philharmonic: ‘Visions of America: Amériques’

Where: 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $65-$197

Info:, (323) 850-2000