Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Now that's what I call music

January 15, 2008

The LA Philharmonic with Salonen and Marino Formenti
Photo: mine 2008

The 20th century music bonanza continues in LA this week as our very own Esa-Pekka Salonen dropped back into town in the midst of the “Concrete Frequency” Programs just in case any of us had forgotten the role he has played in helping develop this city's interest in music from the last 40 to 50 years. As is typically the case, he does nothing half way and tonight he presented a freaking fantastic performance of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles with the profound and emotional playing of Marino Formenti at the piano. (Check out his excellent website.) Of course this is a Messiaen anniversary year so his wonderful music suddenly is in abundance everywhere. But whatever the reason, the huge crowd at Walt Disney Concert Hall tonight was clearly blown away by a performance that was nothing short of masterful.

Written as a commission for the commemoration of the American bicentennial, Des canyons aux étoiles is Messiaen’s reflection of what is perhaps the most beautiful places in North America – Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. Messiaen may not have seemed the most obvious choice for this work. Let’s face it – what says America more than birds, stars, and Catholicism? But the French have a long tradition of making spectacular gifts to the US and this is no exception. Strangely, and wonderfully, the heady Messiaenic mix overwhelms with beauty and a true sense of spirituality. The work weaves in and out of material about specific birds, the beauty of the canyons, and the stars over the course of its twelve segments incorporating material for solo piano as well as more concerto-like movements. Salonen held everything in complete control producing a loving performance from his band of Philharmonic regulars including a remarkable horn solo from William Lane. The concluding segments of both the second and third parts were awe-inspiring. Although the piano soloist was originally announced to be Andreas Haefliger, an extremely fortunate substitution was made with the presence instead of Formenti. No stranger to Messiaen or the Los Angeles contemporary music scene, Formenti played with remarkable intensity switching from light and birdlike to darkly celestial without missing a beat. He and Salonen, as well as the rest of the players, received an extended standing ovation from the crowd.

The only bad news would seem to be this – with such a miraculous performance so early in this Messiaen year, everything else may be downhill from such a pinnacle.

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Brian - your comments were spot on. It was am amazing concert, and I too was shocked at the size of the attendance, and also by the quality of attendees:
About 5-6 LA Phil players not involved on stage took their night off to hear their cohorts play, and the conversation everywhere in the hall was very musically focused, not the usual drivel heard during regular subscription series.
Thanks, Brian. It was an honor and a privilege to be in the audience that night. L.A. certainly has some major new music mojo, in no small thanks to Salonen, whose recording of "Canyons" I've been listening to for years.

If you want to read a NYer's perspective on the evening (as well as the last two Concrete Frequency concerts), please visit:
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