Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Cunning Little Vixen

March 30, 2011

 
Ernest Fleischmann in 1988 Photo: Lebrecht Collection

At 86, the composer, conductor, and lion of late 20th-century music, Pierre Boulez, rarely makes appearances on the West Coast. So when he appeared to conduct his own sur Incises on Tuesday night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, you know it was a very special occasion. Indeed, the evening was a tribute to the late Ernest Fleischmann, a champion of new music, and an administrator who reshaped classical music in Los Angeles and around the country. Fleischmann’s achievements are too numerous to mention but include at a minimum being the driving force behind remaking the Hollywood Bowl, building the Walt Disney Concert Hall, establishing the career of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and turning the Los Angeles Philharmonic from a regional orchestra into a world-class one over his three decade association with them. Not that everything he touched turned to gold. Despite landmark achievements, there were some bad decisions and no one achieves this much in a lifetime without some interpersonal collateral damage along the way. But on Tuesday, the focus was on the bright spots in his legacy as Boulez and Salonen were both present for the tribute concert and both spoke with deep love and admiration for their friend and mentor.

It couldn’t have been a finer musical tribute. It was an aggressively modern program that featured the kind of bold music and playing Fleischmann helped make the orchestra’s calling card. Boulez’ masterful performance of sur Incises was a wonder of precision and clarity. Three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists create a waxing and waning flurry of activity. Crystalline ringing rose and then washed into dark eddies for music that was both expansive and overwhelming at times. The second half of the show featured three works including Salonen’s setting of Dona Nobis Pacem for children’s choir. This a cappella work performed by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus under Anne Tomlinson was perhaps the most musically reverent of the whole evening. Next was Donatoni’s Arpège, which featured members of the L.A. Philharmonic’s New Music Group under Lionel Bringuier in another work marked by its rhythmic intricacy and virtuosic demands. The program concluded with Salonen himself on the podium leading the group and four male vocalists from the L.A. Master Chorale in Stravinsky’s Renard. The comical piece, which recounts the adventures of a fox who lures birds unsuspectingly into her clutches who is then given her own comeuppance by some humans, was tautly played with the Salonen hallmark attention to detail. The Russian text was sung by four of the L.A. Master Chorale's finest including its director tenor, Grant Gershon. The maestro shared that Renard was a piece Fleischmann loved, and his accompanying humorous anecdote about Fleischmann’s reputation as a driver spoke of his love for a lost friend. Renard's warmth and humor was the perfect close to the tribute evening.

It was a somewhat bittersweet evening for me, though. As much as I loved the performances and admired their high quality, it was another reminder that today's L.A. Phil, under music director Gustavo Dudamel, is not the same one it was even just five years ago. The music and faces on Tuesday's program spoke far more of the orchestra's history than its current state. All of this passion for contemporary music and the relationships that helped foster the ascendency of the L.A. Philharmonic, are increasingly a thing of the past amidst the TV cameras and exposed navels of Hollywood celebrities that pass for programming these days. Now, certainly Fleischmann himself was not against publicity when the opportunity arose. But an increasingly artistically-bifurcated L.A. Phil seems to me to be looking for a way to stay relevant in a classical music world that will one day be without the likes of Boulez and Ernest Fleischmann.

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In 2011, any musical organization that is NOT "looking for a way to stay relevant in a classical music world that will one day be without the likes of Boulez and Ernest Fleischmann" is simply dumb and irresponsible because we are already without the latter and the former is 86 and not getting any younger. Also, the LA Phil is right now in the midst of a fortnight that shows that its "passion for contemporary music and the relationships that helped foster the ascendancy of the L.A. Philharmonic" is NOT at all "a thing of the past" but very much an integral part of its vibrant present.
I agree that there is still plenty of contemporary music to be heard under the sponsorship of the L.A. Phil. It's just murky to me exactly who is taking the leadership role in its advocacy for it with audiences these days. Sure Ades is leading things for a couple of weeks, and John Adams pokes his head in now and again. But this is nothing compared to the consistent ongoing advocacy that Stucky and Salonen provided on a year in, year out basis that now appears to be disintegrating.
It does not appear that way to me. If the kind of music you want to hear is being performed (in spite of the fact that it is decidedly less popular than other kinds) and played well too, then what difference does it make who is leading the effort? None whatsoever that i can see.
I will have to disagree with you there. Leadership always makes a difference in either its presence or absence. Newer music did not become a calling card for the LA Phil (in fact from my view it more or less but them on the map) simply by being programmed and played well. An interest in local audiences was actively cultivated by artists who cared about it. There are people I imagine who would argue that this was at the expense of other areas that may have withered from neglect.

The lack of artistic leadership in the newer music area now will have its effect. Will that audience continue to come without care and attention? Probably some of it, but it wont be what it was when it had ongoing attention and guidance.
You are certainly entitled to your predictions however dire, but i am not making any - present is tough enough for all serious musical organizations. As for the future, time will tell.
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