Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


January 06, 2008

David Robertson and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008
It’s back to business here in LA and the Philharmonic has wasted no time in diving into the new year with one of their major programming initiatives this season. As usual, the marketing people have had their way and come up with perhaps the worst, most indecipherable title for the series, “Concrete Frequency.” In reality, these two week's worth of shows consist of music addressing the experience of urban existence in the 20th century. I suppose this is as legitimate a theme as any, but the really good news is that it serves as an excuse for the Philharmonic to perform a variety of 20th century masterpieces not commonly heard from major American orchestras. The series is under the leadership of David Robertson who is no stranger to this kind of material and his experience was evident in the very strong playing by the Phil as the series got underway.

This weekend was the first of three Philharmonic shows in the series and consisted of Copland’s music for The City, Frank Zappa’s Dupree’s Paradise, George Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape, and Varèse’s Amériques. These are clangy, evocative works filled with wonder and consternation at a densely packed landscape. The high points were definitely in the second half of the show with Crumb’s quiet sounds of isolation and Varèse’s loud booming vision of a new world he arrived in following WWI. These last two pieces provided a nice contrast in that Crumb's Landscape was eerie producing a sense of isolation, a sound that Robertson argued referred to the sensation of a large empty downtown area in the evening. Amériques is maximal music uninterested in melody with everything thrown in to the mix including an air-raid siren. However, while all of this was interesting and enthusiastically received, it was also somewhat disjointed for this audience. With the exception of the short Zappa work, this music is wedded to the vision of a dystopian city filled with skyscrapers, smoke, and the press of people on the streets – a city vision much closer to an East Coast metropolis than anything we in Los Angeles know. “Concrete Frequency” may be about city life, but not about the city we Angelenos live in with its omnipresent sun, large expanses, and physical separation. Not that LA isn't a dystopia, it's just a very pretty and different one.

But no matter how good or bad the playing in any of the “Concrete Frequency” shows may be, they are already in some ways a huge success. The Philharmonic is reasonably filling the WDCH for seven concerts with often challenging music composed entirely in the 20th Century without an obligatory performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I doubt there are too many large classical music ensembles in the US that would dare to pull this off. The programs continue through next weekend and include at least two other programs of popular music from other artists, all at WDCH.

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