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.
Labels: LA Philharmonic 08/09