Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Last night with Mr. Adès

December 03, 2006

Large and in charge
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2006
Saturday saw the final installment of Thomas Adès “on location” residency with the LA Philharmonic where he led a performance of his 25-minute orchestral piece Asyla. It was disturbing and haunting in a beautiful way, filled with throbbing rhythms and the tinkling chords of upright pianos; one intentionally tuned 1/4 note flat. The piece makes allusion to a world of mental illness and simultaneously to another of refuge and was clearly a favorite for the local LA audience. The Phil have played the piece before and their new music chops were in evidence yet again. The Adès sponsored shows over this and last season have been a huge highlight in seasons filled with highlights since the move to the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, including the Minimalist Jukebox programs and the Tristan Project to name only two others. Adès has graced us with his piano virtuosity in chamber pieces by Schubert and Fauré, and championed new music, both his own (his violin concerto and Asyla) as well as others, including Kurtàg, Castiglioni, and Gerald Barry. The most remarkable thing is how strong all of this has been across the board. I can’t think of a sour moment among any of the shows and I can only hope he’ll return in the relatively near future with more. Right now, after seeing the absolutely bewitching opera The Tempest over the summer, I mostly hope he’s working on another opera.

The other piece on the program was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 which was led interestingly enough not by Adès but by the Phil’s current assistant conductor Joana Carneiro. As Mark Swed points out, the LA Phil has a good track record with associate and assistant conductors in recent years including Alexander Micklethwaite and Miguel Harth-Bedoya. The performance was solid if not the most profound take on the work I’ve ever heard.

Of course it may have been better than I appreciate since it set off some of my own audience pet peeves. A few in the audience couldn’t tolerate one moment of silence causing the end of the piece to be trampled all over by appreciative but frankly histrionic shouting and clapping. I may be wrong about this, but I’ve always taken this as an especially American vice. I’ve always felt this kind of behavior – the need to clap first or clap loudest- shows off the American preoccupation with individualism and “self-fulfillment”. In the end, the music or performance experience stops being a communal one and starts being an individual one. It’s all about making sure you’ve enjoyed the show and that by-golly you've gotten your money’s worth. Who cares about the music actually being played, the work of the artists, or the enjoyment of others, as long as you’ve gotten your “culture” in, thereby making you a better person and validating your own personal identity. The centerpiece of this behavior is letting everyone else know it as quickly and loudly as possible. In the end this is the biggest problem with the excessive programming of all the big-ticket crowd-pleasing 18th and 19th century works by major orchestras. I suspect that in this country people don’t actually like this music any more than they do new music – they just like the idea of themselves liking it better.

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