Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Then We Came to the End

April 18, 2009

Salonen with the LA Philharmonic and members of the LA Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

There’s no avoiding it. We’ve reached the end, and it’s time to say goodbye. Esa-Pekka Salonen completed his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend with one final program. The good news is that he did not go out with an overabundance of sentiment or a lazy sop to nostalgia or his own ego. Instead, it was as it always has been with Salonen – an eye to the horizon, lots of ambition, and thoughtful, detailed music. The program was a big production in just about every sense featuring two major works by Stravinsky, the short opera Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms. Although the works were separated by an intermission, the intention of director Peter Sellars was to create a single experience with the Oedipus story's denouement occurring in the latter piece. Together the two works are presented as a tale of redemption that allows for a closer spiritual examination of both Oedipus and Stravinsky himself. It's a thoughtful project and, while I wasn't completely satisfied with this particular program on this particular evening, it was still something to admire.

Oedipus Rex opens with Antigone, here voiced by actor Viola Davis, recounting the general events of the story in a new English-language text written by Sellars replacing the Jean Cocteau script in Stravinsky's original. Davis gives a very engaging performance and fits in nicely with the rest of the singing cast, which included Rodrick Dixon as Oedipus and Anne Sofie von Otter as Jocasta. Ryan McKinny and Daniel Montenegro rounded out the cast in the smaller parts. The soloists were seated at the rear of the stage on the highest riser with the men's chorus below them and the orchestra in front. The chorus was dressed in causal street clothes in hues of blue and the soloists were given thrones to sit on. These were no ordinary chairs, however, but instead art works from Ethiopian sculptor Elias Sime who recently wrapped up an exhibit in Santa Monica. All the cast performed their parts with a series of sharp and repetitive hand gestures to emphasize the content of their speech. And, while all of this was interesting, it was frustrating that, despite rather mild amplification of the speakers and soloists, it was often hard to hear them over the orchestra. The chorus was a big highlight, though, providing most of the hour's biggest drama. At the end, a blinded Oedipus is led across the stage by his daughter Ismene in front of the chorus with their backs turned. Following this, the entire cast, conductor, and orchestra left the stage deferring any bows until the end of the evening.

In Act II, Antigone begins again with a monologue accounting the events that led up to Oedipus's eventual death after his exile including his disappearance into nothingness. As before, the events are acted out following this descriptive passage, this time in pantomime since there are no solo vocal parts in the Symphony of Psalms. This time out, the chorus began divided into four groups on the various staircases within the auditorium and then slowly moved to form a large circle around the entire stage and part of the audience. Oedipus is led to an enclosure of neon lights where he lays down and later vanishes following the return of his daughters. In the end, he has transcended this plane for another. Salonen again led a wonderful performance of the piece with this orchestra he's come to know so well. Here was redemption, not in a heroic, romantic 19th century way, but something less familiar. It was a distinctively more modern version that encapsulated quite well Salonen's larger project here in Los Angeles - keeping art music relevant by showing us all how things have moved on after 1900 while still maintaining connections to its own history.

So what's my problem? It was really one of expectations. It's unreasonable to believe that the final show will be the best one Salonen ever led with the orchestra, just as it is to believe that the last show should sum everything up in a nice and clean way. I wanted something more cathartic that recognized my own sense of loss for our beloved music director. But as always, Salonen avoided placing himself at the center of attention and ended his run here in L.A. amongst a large cadre of artistic collaborators including the orchestra and chorale. There was a rapturous standing ovation for his solo bow, but he remained one of many here in his closing moments. An important reminder that regardless of his own contributions to this orchestra and this city, he has left us with things much greater than himself. No matter who is at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we are a community much richer than we were before. And I for one will miss Esa-Pekka Salonen's regular appearances here greatly.



Just got back from the finale, I'm just utterly baffled why anyone in charge thought having Der Zwerg Sellars do his usual roll-on-the-floor and hands-doing-shapes nonsense to the two Stravinsky pieces was a good idea. It's a farewell and the first piece is droning on and on (and on and...) about plagues, fucking your mother and gouging eyes out? WTF?

The Viola Davis church sermon was painful and the Symphony of Psalms its usual boring self.

Not how I want to remember E-PS at all, I'll stick with my memories of a searing Firebird at the Dot, Pelleas et Melisande at the opera (why didn't he conduct more for LA Opera?), the evenings of post-war modernism like Lutoslawski etc.
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