Review: New music mania: Nico Muhly at the L.A. Phil, Ellen Reid at L.A. Chamber Orchestra

Ellen Reid acknowledges the audience for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra premiere of "Petrichor" at UCLA's Royce Hall.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Music Critic

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has become so commission-friendly that the orchestra is starting to get the occasional snide quip from traditionalists. All those new pieces are supposedly just a way of detracting attention away from not being able to play the classics with a European authority. That is to say that keeping an art form alive is somehow an extension of Hollywood.

There is no question that Walt Disney Concert Hall has become a temple of the new. But what is particularly striking is how contagious that has become. If things had gone as planned, it would have been possible to hear two new L.A. Phil commissions Sunday. Nico Muhly’s arresting organ concerto was on the orchestra’s matinee program led by guest conductor James Conlon, but Italian composer Mauro Lanza didn’t finish his piece in time for pianists Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan at their evening recital.

No matter. Sunday evening, across town at UCLA, a stunning new piece by Ellen Reid had been commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and Douglas Boyd was conducting. Reid doesn’t yet have anything like the exposure or prolific output of Muhly (both are thirtysomethings), but over the next nine months she will have world premieres given by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Los Angeles Opera and the L.A. Phil — an unheard of run.


Meanwhile, LACO has taken up the new music mantle to such a degree that it has a premiere on every remaining program of its orchestra series this season.

On the surface, Muhly’s frenetic, verging on claustrophobic, “Register” is very New York urban, whereas Reid’s doors-wide-open “Petrichor” has a West Coast vibe. Underneath, it gets more nuanced.

Written for British organist James McVinnie, a longtime colleague of Muhly, “Register” takes its name both from the organ term “registration,” for choosing the organ stops that determine the different pipes used and thus tone color, but also from the tone, or register, of speech.

This might be likened to the variety of voices you might hear on a busy urban street. One minute your attention is drawn to voices of children, then to a couple with Long Island accents, then a French tourist. For this, Muhly draws on the solo organ pieces — be they dreamy or fast, repetitive and cyclic — he’s written for McVinnie. He also turns for inspiration from 17th century British keyboard music he fancies. Finally, “Register” is an invitation to freedom; the organist is invited to select his own, thus becoming his own orchestrator.

For most of the concerto’s 20 minutes, “Register,” doesn’t let you catch your breath. A sharp percussion attack sets the organ off in one manner; another attack and the orchestra suddenly changes direction. Different chord sequences go every which way. The effect is exhilarating, but the goal is something else, a quiet liberation with dulled strings and the organ mellowed. The concerto ends with what feels like the arrival in a sanctuary, where the real business is about to begin. Every New Yorker knows that miraculous momentary escape feels like.

Reid’s “Petrichor,” on the other hand, takes its inspiration from a sensation Angelenos crave. The title is the marvelous term for the distinctive smell that accompanies the first rain after a warm, dry spell. The composer spells it out, so to speak, by putting a number of musicians from the orchestra behind the audience as well as placing two horns on the balcony, creating a kind of sonic rain forest. At UCLA’s Royce Hall, the music drifted like fog and dripped as if from leaks in the roof.


You didn’t at first quite know where you were. Just as rain changes your sense of your surroundings, the shimmering strings and bright winds in the back that opened “Petrichor” seemed to mysteriously erase the physical barriers of the hall. Attention was eventually directed to the stage, where the larger ensemble gradually became an exotic rhythm machine, although the voices from beyond returned us to the greater open spaces.

Otherwise, both programs went in for blockbuster-ing. In this, Conlon, who is the music director of the L.A. Opera, was the more appealing. He brought an appropriate dramatic approach to Muhly and to Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (using Ravel’s orchestration with some added new touches by the conductor, himself). In sticking to the overarching theme of “registration,” he began the program with an incisive performance of Ravel’s orchestration of his piano piece, “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

In Boyd’s case, the Scottish conductor provocatively turned Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 into a blockbuster. The orchestra kept up with his aggressive tempos and attempts at grandeur over wit and wonder. But showy excitement only goes so far.

An overly forthright performance of Benjamin Britten’s mysterious Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, also on the jumbled program, displayed little of the creepy allure of sweet and scary death stalking. Instead, tenor Thomas Cooley and the orchestra’s principal horn Michael Thornton competed for the spotlight, while Boyd minimized the strings, the only mystery being what was being sung (no texts were supplied).

Something else was striking Sunday. Remember “Hopscotch,” the mobile opera around downtown L.A. and environs that was devised and directed by Yuval Sharon with his opera company, the Industry, in 2015? It had so many moving parts that keeping the music by the six composers straight wasn’t always the point.

Those L.A. composers, of which Reid was one, have now become a center of a new music community. It just so happened that another of those composers, Veronika Krausas, interviewed McVinnie for the L.A. Phil Upbeat Live preconcert talk. A terrific new piece by a third, Andrew McIntosh, was the other L.A. Phil commission at Tuesday’s Green Umbrella.


A children’s opera by a fourth, Andrew Norman, will be given its U.S. premiere at Disney Hall on Friday by the L.A. Phil in a production directed by Sharon. Oh, yes, Norman, who is also composer-in-residence and artistic adviser to LACO, interviewed Reid about “Petrichor” at Royce for the preconcert talk. (She said “Hopscotch” opened her to using her surroundings in her music.)

Could that be where the confusion of new music with Hollywood comes from? When it comes to L.A., the Industry doesn’t mean only Hollywood. Nor does Hollywood only mean movies — the L.A. Phil has an “Oscars” concert Wednesday.