Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Cat Concerto

January 16, 2009

Salonen with Katia and Marielle Labèque
Photo: mine 2008

Friday was yet another remarkable program in two weeks L.A. Philharmonic shows under Esa-Pekka Salonen as he heads into his victory lap here in Los Angeles. It’s going to be hard for him and the group to top this one between now and the end of the season, though it will be fun watching them try. The night started out with Salonen dedicating the evening to the late, great Betty Freeman with the maestro expressing his great love for “the most unsentimental person” he’d ever met. He rightly acknowledged that in terms of her support for a staggering number of commissions (he estimated them at over 400 works), Freeman may well end up being one of the most influential individuals in the history of 20th century music. He could not have offered a more touching tribute with this evening’s performance.

It started off with Janacek’s Sinfonietta, which was received with wild enthusiasm for the first piece on the evening's bill. It is a quirky pseudo-symphony that is neither fish nor fowl but five movements of folk-infused energy that features major contributions from an expanded brass section. It was truly lovely and often thrilling. The heart of the show, though, was another big world premiere, this time from Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Entitled The Hague Hacking, this single movement double piano concerto performed by Katia and Marielle Labèque, is cut from the same exuberant percussive clear-minded cloth as Andriessen’s most recent works such as La Commedia, which bring to mind Messiaen without the avian overtones. In fact, the work, which is based on a theme from a Tom and Jerry cartoon ("The Cat Concerto") and a popular “sing-along song” about The Hague, is uniquely Andriessen’s. Despite it’s more conventional sources, The Hague Hacking so alters them in form that these melodies disappear at times amongst the volleys between the Labèque sisters. Initially the melodies are expanded as notes are given much slower values than the original, but then later quicken only to be deconstructed within the orchestra. Meanwhile, the Labèques attacked the score with a pixie-like ferocity that seemed both whimsical and deadly serious at the same time. At around 20 minutes it was too short by half and another feather in the the Philharmonic's cap.

The evening ended with Salonen’s signature piece, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Hearing him lead this work is always an event and it has been amazing to watch his approach alter and change over time. It is a testament to Salonen’s genius as a conductor that he seems to bring something new to the table with this work every time I've seen him perform it with the orchestra. Tonight, the piece seemed more infused with a sense of ritual, drawing out the dramatic contrasts and darker elements in favor of the more pastoral ones. It’s sad that this is the last time we’ll hear this work from him as music director here in L.A., but hopefully the many other gifts he’s leaving us will continue to bear fruit in years to come. This excellent program will repeat on Sunday afternoon and on Saturday night, there will be a second performance of Saariaho's La Passion de Simone that I'll have more to say about later.

Oh, and one other thing, both this program and the Saariaho are being recorded for release on iTunes where two of the "Shadow of Stalin" programs, featuring the works of Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Husa, and Shostakovich, can be found in fantastic live performances. You should obtain them now.


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