Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The show must go on

January 14, 2007

So what do you do when a big star, in this case Dawn Upshaw, falls ill and drops out of your scheduled big premiere of a major new work, Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone, only a few weeks before the show. If you're Salonen and the LA Philharmonic, you put together a well- thought-out program of works you haven’t played before. That is exactly what has happened this weekend in LA where Salonen led the Phil in a program he suggested in his own comments addressing the “collapse” of romanticism. Our orchestra has become world-famous for its interpretations of 20th century (and newer) music and Salonen used this program of “extreme contrasts,” Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra and Mahler’s Symphony No.7, to make his case. These two pieces, he argues, written within a few years of each other represent a collapse of the maximal grand expression of emotion in orchestral music to a completely minimal and brief 5 minutes intended to do the same with nothing but the bare bones of the music. The Webern, Salonen argued, was the orchestral equivalent of a haiku. And of course such a haiku could only be paired with the War and Peace of a Mahler symphony.

Part of the reason why this particular symphony is additionally interesting in this context is that this is the first time that Salonen has conducted it with the LA Phil. He is no stranger to Mahler and certainly has his favorites – No. 2 most notably. But I’ve often felt that Salonen prefers works such as No. 7 where there is a “soft” of delicate core in the midst of all the noise and bombast for him to exploit and examine. He did just that last night bringing out many of the gentle textures and examining the intricacies of the many beautiful solo or small ensemble moments buried in this piece. There certainly were moments where I felt things got away from him near the end to the last movement, but all in all it was another great performance for the Phil.

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