Pierre Boulez once infamously called for burning down opera houses as a way of beginning all over again with what seemed, to progressives in the 1950s, a moribund art form. He, of course, kept his matches in his pocket.
Thursday night during a Los Angeles Philharmonic gala, Esa-Pekka Salonen said that there was no place on Earth like Walt Disney Concert Hall, then all but set the place aflame. Not figuratively, with his conducting of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” incendiary as that performance was. But really.
Remember the images of Disney’s opening night five years ago when the exterior of the new hall was lighted by spectacular fireworks? This time, the orchestra went a step further and lighted the interior with fireworks. They exploded in front of the famed French-fried organ pipes. They reflected off the players’ valuable instruments. They rose all the way to the carefully carved Douglas fir ceiling. They left the hall full of pungent smoke.
It was the greatest of galas.
The evening began by making news. Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president, announced the creation of the Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissioning Fund, seeded with $1.6 million, as a surprise gift to a music director who was beginning his 17th and final season with the orchestra. “I am so proud of my organization,” Salonen said, “because this is a thing nobody else does.”
He then led a 90-minute concert that was also the kind of thing no other orchestra -- and especially no orchestra with ambitions to be on “Live From Lincoln Center” -- would dare do. It was framed by excerpts from “The Firebird.” In between were performances by three glamorous and very different sopranos: Dawn Upshaw, Audra McDonald and Barbara Hannigan. Still, the concert required a disclaimer.
Salonen told the audience that any connection between the proceedings and the real world was coincidental. On the night of the vice presidential debate, Upshaw’s first number, “This is prophetic!,” happened to be an aria sung by Pat Nixon in John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China.” It begins: “A time will come when luxury / Dissolves into the atmosphere / Like a perfume.” Upshaw found, in this imagining of a first lady’s inner life, heartbreak.
The final vocal number was entrusted to Hannigan, a striking young Canadian singer who showed up in a short black latex skirt, fishnets and high lace-up boots for György Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre.” In this adaptation of a scene from the Hungarian composer’s pointedly satirical opera “Le Grand Macabre,” the ditsy chief of the “Secret Political Police” warns of a coming apocalypse by jabbering away in coloratura code and a politician’s disjointed clichés.
There were many sorts of connections to be made all evening. Salonen’s closeness to Adams and Ligeti -- composers on opposite sides of the new music aisle -- has been typical of his years with the Philharmonic. And Stravinsky is the composer to whom he feels closest and the one he has chosen to highlight in his last season.
Upshaw also sang, with rapt regard for every word, “No word from Tom,” an aria from Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” A staging of the opera, starring Upshaw, that was part of a Philharmonic Paris residency in 1996 has been credited with inspiring the fundraising that made Disney possible.
McDonald’s three numbers in the center of the program were Stephen Sondheim’s “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “10,432 Sheep.” There were trumpets. Frittering away on middlebrow television too much of what might have been a Broadway-transforming career has not cost McDonald her command of the stage. In fact, the urgency she brought to these standards gave me hope. McDonald’s still got it, and maybe she’s finally ready to make up for lost time.
Not all luxury dissolved in the atmosphere. You can’t escape the money factor in gala-making, given that commissioning funds and the like don’t grow on trees. A party tent with crystal chandeliers, hanging bird cages and fancy chairs had been obstructing Grand Avenue for days. Breguet, the gala’s sponsor, displayed $100,000 watches.
Under such circumstances, it makes little sense to waste resources on too much expensive rehearsal time. This program, smart as it was, was thrown together at the last minute, and a time or two Salonen seemed to get the order mixed up, to the amusement of his players.
“The Firebird” will be offered in full next week, and then taken on tour in Asia, and it will inevitably gain polish. But the expressivity of Thursday’s performance, to say nothing of the orchestral energy, was already unmistakable and incomparable.
That Salonen has made the Philharmonic the greatest Stravinsky orchestra in the world alone assures his legacy. Fireworks in Disney, however jaw-dropping, were mere icing on a “Firebird” cake.