Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Let It Rock

January 11, 2009

Pärt and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

In the last few seasons the Los Angeles Philharmonic has started the calendar year off very, very strong. Last year we had visiting conductor David Robertson and the “Concrete Frequency” programs, which were both bold in scope and well executed. This year we have two weeks of shows under the leadership of outgoing music director Esa-Pekka Salonen that are heavily weighted with new works from major contemporary composers. Next week are two essential shows, one featuring Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone with Dawn Upshaw alternating with another featuring Salonen’s trademark version of Le Sacre du Printemps and a world premiere double piano “concerto” from Louis Andriessen written for Katia and Marielle Lebèque. Before all of this excitement, though, was another blockbuster of a show this weekend that was built around another world premiere.

Saturday brought legendary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt to Los Angeles for the unveiling of his Symphony No 4, subtitled “Los Angeles.” It’s always thrilling to hear music written by a living composer, but when that composer is of Pärt’s stature, it takes on a special significance. The premiere was also unique in that the score had been published on-line weeks in advance, so Saturday really had the feeling of an unheard music taking its first living breaths in public. And it was spectacular. The symphony is undoubtedly a major orchestral work from a composer who is not known for them. That being said, it is scored only for strings, percussion, and harp and runs just over 30 minutes consisting of three movements that are strung together without pause. The irony here is that they are perhaps the only pauses that don’t appear in the work. Pärt continues to be very interested in the silent spaces between the notes, and the orchestra often springs forward only to stop and wait again in silence before beginning again throughout the entire work.

The symphony is often very quiet but still filled with the rhythmic and spiritual elements one has come to expect from Pärt. And while the piece never blooms into a full-fledged melody for more than a handful of bars, it is littered with familiar Eastern European folk elements. The beauty of the piece comes not only from its delicacy but its ability to create immense amounts of tension and joy from so few basic building blocks.

What does all of this have to do with Los Angeles? Frankly, not much. The subtitle seems to refer solely to the city of its commission; though, in all honesty, LA is a place enigmatic enough that it can be heard here in Pärt’s music. In a program note, Pärt dedicated the work to former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned Russian businessman who is seen by some in the West as a political prisoner. Pärt casts the Symphony in its own way as a ray of hope and a prayer for freedom which is also easy to hear in the music.

Perhaps the most heartening thing for me though was seeing the composer get such an enthusiastic and warm reception from the crowd. He was greeted like a rock star and seeing from the long line awaiting to meet him after the show, he seemed like some 70-year-old Estonian Miley Cyrus. Only in L.A.? Maybe. But whether or not that’s true, tonight was clearly an important one.



Arvo Part is a wonderful composer, and I was glad to read about this dedication. However, I think you will find that more than just "some" observers believe he is a political prisoner - even the president of the European Parliament, Andre Glucksmann, Mario Vargas Llosa, and most everyone else who takes the time to study the details of the case would agree.

Read more about Khodorkovsky at the Robert Amsterdam blog.
It was an impressive piece, wasn't it? Contemplative, at the speed of breath, with just enough variation to maintain a sense of progress over its length. I want to hear it again. The ending sequence was a treat, too, melody spreading from high to low strings and the percussion ringing into our memories as the tempo increased.

Pärt was well received, but the Brahms concerto got noticeably better reception from the audience... what fraction of the audience do you suppose was there primarily for Pärt?
The Brahms did get the bigger ovation but was far less interesting and rather dull. I'm not a Brahms fan though to be fair.

I would actually bet there were more audience members there specifically to hear the Pärt than the Brahms. However, I think both groups are largely outnumbered by subscription holders who are there solely because that is the night their particular tickets fell on. They don't really know what is on the program until they get there and are glad to see a composer's name they recognize. A sad state of affairs if you ask me, but one that I wager is more common than not.
I will say, from perched on my vantage point in the west terrace, it was depressing to see the last rows completely full while blocks of four went empty in the front orchestra because their ticket holders couldn't be bothered to make it out or give them up.

Not an occasion for cynicism though... a well-received, sold-out premiere of brand new quality work is something to savor!
My experience had a different reaction. We had a modest number of empty seats near us, yet after intermission, many more seats became empty, as the Colburn students in attendance for the Part work had no interest in the Brahms!
I am with you Brian on the subject of Brahms, in this case the PC1 - that first movement is total nonsense. The concerto gets better as it goes into the 2nd and 3rd, yet....
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