The weekend concert schedule promised an excellent opportunity to take stock of West Coast music. A variety of programs offered significant examples of the novel ways of thinking about and making music that the Pacific Ocean has inspired.
Then the Islamic State struck Paris. France could not be ignored. Everything I attended went on as planned. But nothing could be the same. The weekend was no longer about us but about our connection with the world.
This was not an uncommon response around the world. The Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Vienna State Opera and countless other international stages began performances Saturday by paying tribute to victims of the terrorists’ guns and bombs.
In L.A., performers and audience members were asked throughout the concerts to think about why we were there. Opening remarks typically set the stage. For the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Sunday night program, “Made in L.A,” the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ was lighted to resemble the French tricolor. Music, in the face of tragedy, is expected to offer solace and solidarity, but it can also provide vital perspective.
Saturday afternoon in Disney, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the L.A. premiere of John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean.” Wave upon wave of oceanic orchestral sounds — swirling strings, arpeggiated harps, droning brass and winds, the whitecap shimmer of multiple harps, bells, marimbas, vibraphones and keyboards — momentously evoked the Pacific.
Sylvain Perriot stops to take a picture of the flag at half mast above the Presidential Palace in Paris. France’s Sate of Emergency will continue, with flags at half mast.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Looking inside the courtyard of the Presidential Palace, guards stand at attention for the departure of Secretary of State John Kerry after his meeting with French President Francois Hollande.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
On the third day of national mourning, the Eiffel Tower was illuminated in the colors of the French flag after going dark.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
On the third day of national mourning, people continue to gather in public places like the Place de la Republique, including Tao Cisse, age 5, and Maya Sutej.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
People observe a minute of silence in front of the Le Carillon cafe in Paris on Nov. 16, paying tribute to victims of the terror attacks.(Lionel Bonaventure / AFP/Getty Images)
Paris residents take part in a Nov. 16 moment of silence under the Eiffel Tower in observance of those who died during the terrorist attacks three days earlier.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
French President Francois Hollande, center, stands with government officials to observe a minute of silence Nov. 16 at the Sorbonne University in Paris.(Stephane De Sakutin / AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the French Foreign Legion stand guard near the Eiffel Tower on Nov. 16.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A Paris shopkeeper stays inside Sunday as soldiers guard the street where she works.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A sign that reads ‘Not even afraid’ is draped on the statue on Republique plaza in Paris.(Ian Langsdon / European Pressphoto Agency)
Women run past French soldiers as panic spread through the streets of Paris when rumors spread of another possible terrorist attack, which turned out to be a car left running in the street.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
French police have released a photo of Abdeslam Salah, a 26-year-old sought in connection with the Paris attacks.(National Police)
Prelates arrive to celebrate a Mass in memory of the attack victims at the Notre Dame cathedral.(LIONEL BONAVENTURE / AFP/Getty Images)
An emotional crowd gathers in front of Le Carillon restaurant.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The glasses and silverware remain on the table where bullets were fired at Cafe Bonne Biere.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Armed police stand guard Nov. 14 near the Eiffel Tower, which was kept dark in honor of those who died in the terrorist attacks.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Mourners place flowers and candles outside the Bataclan theater in Paris.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A woman is evacuated from the Bataclan theater after the shootings in Paris.(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
People lie on the pavement near the Cafe Bonne Biere in Paris following a series of attacks.(ANTHONY DORFMANN / AFP/Getty Images)
Rescuers evacuate people following an attack in Paris, where there were also reports of an ongoing hostage crisis at a concert venue.(Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP/Getty Images)
A victim lays dead under a blanket outside the Bataclan theater in Paris.(Jerome Delay / AP)
Hundreds of people spilled onto the field of the Stade de France stadium after explosions were heard nearby during a match between the French and German national soccer teams.(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)
Though a native of Mississippi now based in New York City, Adams’ West Coast credentials include being a graduate of the first class at CalArts in the early 1970s and a longtime Alaskan composer and environmentalist noted for his acoustic and electronic works in which he assimilated the sounds and, more important, the spirit of nature.
“Become Ocean,” which was composed in the Sonoran desert of Mexico not far from the Pacific, quickly became a sensation after its Seattle Symphony premiere in 2013. It won the Pulitzer Prize for music, and the Seattle Symphony’s stunning recording of it became an immediate hit.
Seattle’s French music director, Ludovic Morlot, who commissioned Adams’ score, was the guest conductor for the Disney performance, and Saturday he began by reminding the audience of Leonard Bernstein’s oft-quoted reply to violence: “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Taking Bernstein at his word, violinist Sergey Khachatryan brought an almost unreal beauty to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the first half the program, Morlot’s accompaniment was more pedestrian.
With “Become Ocean,” the temptation can be great to float mindlessly in a warm bath of sonic beauty for a sublime 40 minutes. Morlot more or less encouraged that by prizing luminosity over illumination. Even so, just enough detail came through to encourage a look beneath the hypnotic breaking of waves and into the startling musical biosphere underneath.
At UCLA on Saturday night, French composer Gérard Grisey’s 1996 “Vortex Temporum,” played by the Brussels new music group Ictus and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker for her Belgium company, Rosas, was a dive in the opposite direction. Grisey’s score is one of the great works of the French Spectral school of composition developed at the Paris new music institution IRCAM. This is music based on a mathematically sophisticated way of looking at harmony though the physics of sound and with the help of computer calculations.
Spectralism is often described as a French rejoinder to West Coast Minimalism. But its roots are pure California: The IRCAM computer music setup was developed at Stanford University in the 1970s. Grisey’s three-part score for piano, flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello may be vastly more complex than “Become Ocean,” but both spring from a briny sea of arpeggios.
If Grisey’s happens to be a more violent sea, that only made De Keersmaeker’s choreography all the more unsettling and cathartic. The last of a weeklong De Keersmaeker retrospective at Royce Hall, “Vortex” started with Ictus alone on stage playing the first part of the incredibly difficult score from memory, almost sadistically tearing into what usually seem like abstract, otherworldly investigations into pure sound.
Members of Rosas took the ensemble’s place for an interlude, danced in silence and with an emphasis on gestures as complicated as Grisey’s music. For the second section, dancers and musicians interacted. The pianist played his weirdly tuned descending scales as he ran along with his piano while it was pushed around the stage by a dancer.
The final section, with Ictus behind the dancers, began a slow progression of sound losing its vitality and dancers losing theirs. The result was sadness compensated by completion. Created two years ago, De Keersmaeker’s “Vortex” would be a wrenching experience under any circumstances. Saturday it felt a necessary corrective to a world gone wrong.
The Master Chorale’s “Made in L.A.” program on Sunday, the first of a new multiyear series in which music director Grant Gershon will focus on L.A. composers, opened with Morton Lauridsen’s “Ave Maria” that for a refreshing few precious moments takes a listener into a world of a cappella purity. In Paul Chihara’s “Ave Maria/Scarborough Fair” for two choruses and oboe, Gregorian chant meets Simon & Garfunkel, something that would not have seemed farfetched in the more hopeful 1960s.
Other pieces by Dale Trumbore, Moira Smiley, Matthew Brown, Jeff Beal, Shawn Kirchner and Nilo Alcala were examples of younger composers from various walks of L.A. musical life in a generally somber, sentimental mood, none much connected with music of our time and place.
Today’s L.A. scene is characterized by more ambition and adventure. But the two versions of “Ave Maria” provided solace and solidarity as needed.