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Song to the Siren

November 26, 2011

Anders Hillborg Photo: Rickard Eriksson
Esa-Pekka Salonen is back with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend and all is right with the world. In fact on Friday night, you might be able for an instant to forget the last three or so years had ever happened given the combination of artistic forces assembled for this week’s show. Salonen led two works by Beethoven, the Leonore Overture No. 2 and the Second Piano Concerto along with the world premiere of a major new work for orchestra and chorus by Swedish composer, Anders Hillborg. The soloists for the pieces were long-time Salonen collaborators – Emanuel Ax on piano and in the Hillborg work, vocalists Anne Sofie von Otter and Hila Plitmann. And while the show sounded a little rough and tumble at moments, the evening on a whole was a big success for the nearly capacity and very enthusiastic crowd.

The Beethoven sounded like quintessential Salonen: clean and not overworked. Ax is perhaps the ideal piano soloist for Salonen with this particular concerto. He gives a warm, polished performance that is nether drenched with Romantic embellishment nor unassuming reserve. His approach is clean and straightforward providing a compliment to Salonen’s orchestral approach. The Leonora Overture No. 2 that preceded this very familiar concerto was a bit more of an oddity. More dramatic and severe than the music that finally made it into Beethoven’s only opera, the Leonora Overture No. 2 has numerous stops and starts that play perfectly to Salonen's strengths. But the best was yet to come.

The Hillborg world premiere that followed, Sirens, was a surprisingly large one for orchestra, two female soloists, and a 32-member chorus. Of the four world and U.S. premieres presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season, this was by far the most ambitious and satisfyingly executed. As the title suggests, the 30-minute, single movement orchestral work is based on the famous story from Homer's Odyssey. The English language text, adapted and added to by the composer, concerns Ulysses' (Odysseus' Roman name as used in Sirens) encounter with the mythological creatures who lure sailors to their deaths on a rocky shoal by seducing them with their beautiful voices. In the Odyssey, Ulysses outwits the sirens by ordering his men to block their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of the ship, promising not to release him no matter how he threatens or pleads until they have arrived to safety. Hillborg's Sirens is not an oratorio or narrative of these events as much as a representation of what Ulysses might have heard floating in the sea.

The work calls for a large orchestra, which is often more restrained than thundering. The music for the most part involves several lengthy discordant tones held and passed back and forth between various sections of the orchestra like sea tides. The beauty and underlying horror of the sirens is reflected from the very beginning in these slowly shifting chords. About 10 minutes into the work, these chords are joined at times by sequences of rapid repeating single notes taking a page directly from the handbook of American minimalism. Atop this ocean of sound are soloists Anne Sofie von Otter, Hila Plitmann, and 32 male and female members of the Los Angles Master Chorale. They alternately plead and seduce with promises of joyous release and entry into another world. The choral music is quite beautiful and really the heart of the entire work. Plitmann and von Otter sounded great here. Plitmann managed recurrent sets of very high tones and von Otter came off much better than in her last L.A. Phil outings with a tessitura much better suited for her. The chorus, which used both men's and women's voices, provided a much richer sense of the sirens voices than simple seductive sea vixens.

Though Sirens is lovely and the L.A. Philharmonic had gone to lengths to give the work theatrical lighting, the work does suffer a bit from the lack of dramatic development. There is no sense of Ulysses or his crew's presence, nor is there a sense of real resolution to the piece as if the sailors have finally passed the sirens or that the creatures have any reaction to the fact that their deadly songs have been escaped for the first time. Initially Sirens does employ some whispering and finger-snapping from the chorus to suggest that the deadly creatures are just out of ear-shot before coming into view. But I never got the sense once they had arrived that there was anywhere else to go. There are also a couple of weak spots in the text as well, with the sirens promising at one point to "turn you on" and imploring Odysseus to "come fly" with them. But these moments are few and could be easily addressed if Hillborg was so inclined. And Sirens and Salonen couldn't have been more warmly received by the crowd on Friday. It was a lovely program and great evening from the L.A. Philharmonic's much missed maestro. The show repeats on Saturday and Sunday.


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