Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

A Country for Old Men

April 08, 2012

What exactly constitutes “new music”? It’s an interesting question that I should make clear I have no intention of addressing in any meaningful way in what follows. I will mention that in the world of high art music performance or perhaps “classical” music if you like, the term “new music” is commonly used to refer to just about anything written after 1900. Understandably this pisses a lot of people off, and it flies in the face of any common understanding of the word “new”. So what is the cut off? 1950? 1990? 2010? Is it simply a matter of whether the composer in question is living or not? If the composer is alive, does their age have some bearing on the “newness” of the music? I’ve heard composers, performers, and fans of music deride works based on any or all of the preceding. What seems to make most composers most happy, and rightly so, is hearing their own music performed. Whatever this “new” business is, however, it must be beautiful because it is apparently in the eye of the beholder.

So what about this weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts? They might have been “new music” performances by some definition. The crowd was certainly younger and more eccentric than the standard weekend evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall. All of the works of the program were by living composers, one of whom, John Adams, served as conductor. His 1993 Violin Concerto was paired with Arvo Pärt’s 1977 Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 9, premiered in 2011 and receiving its first L.A. Phil performance. True, all three works were by living composers, but for those keeping score, the youngest of these was Adams born in 1947. Both the Pärt and Adams works have been heard with the L.A. Phil previously; in the case of the Violin Concerto, on more than one occasion if my memory serves me. The only recently composed work was Glass’ symphony and it was certainly the most anticipated piece of the evening.

The symphony is unmistakably the work of Glass, though not unlike the work of Adams, the minimalist label has come to mean less and less in describing his music over the decades. There are still basic units of sound repeated for effect but with nowhere near the rigidity or enforced structure of his work from 30 years ago. The music has grandeur and each movement develops slowly and gradually with a somewhat restrained dramatic pallet. What was most interesting to me is that the faintest touches of identifiable Latin rhythms creep up again and again in the most unexpected places though never enough that they declare themselves full-throatedly above the rest. Adams wasn’t overly concerned with sharp accuracy with the rhythmic elements of the piece and things did get a bit sloppy especially if you listen to the live recording of the work made by the Bruckner Orchester Linz under Dennis Russell Davies that recently became available. To me Adams’s sound favored the wind instruments a bit over the strings, often asking from more restraint from the latter.

Adams took a similar approach with his own Violin Concerto, which was played by its most ardent interpreter these days, Leila Josefowicz who is nearing the completion of a pregnancy and looked as wonderfully as she played. Again Adams was all about sounding the violin solo part against the winds and horns while keeping the rest of the strings at bay. And as mesmerizing as this piece is, admittedly it didn’t quite reach the heights that others have been able to achieve with it here or other prior outings. The Pärt piece, perfect in so many ways, continues to bring chills with its poignant, subtle invocation of Britten and fits well into the evening overall. And whether it, like the other works on the program, is considered “new” or not, it helped make for a very good show from a world-class orchestra. And that will do for right now.


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