Esa-Pekka Salonen was back for his second week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With a world premiere of the abandoned opera, Orango, paired with the withdrawn-for-25-years Symphony No. 4, his all-Shostakovich concerts were a study of two contrasting works that had both been hidden and eventually brought to new light. To add to the lost-and-found theme, E-P himself was late to the proverbial Shostakovich party. Early in his conducting career, Mr. Salonen actively avoided conducting any of the Russian/Soviet composer’s works, comparing it in 1987 to his well-known love for Stravinsky this way:
“Shostakovich is in many ways a polar counter-force for Stravinsky. […] When I have said that the 7th symphony of Shostakovich is a dull and unpleasant composition, people have responded: ‘Yes, yes, but think of the background of that symphony.’ Such an attitude does no good to anyone.”^
Of course, he eventually changed his mind. On Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he led compelling performances of two works that were written only a few years apart, but created very different aural landscapes: one circus-like and oddly cheery; the other, manic, dark, and brooding.
The concert began with the raucous, satirical-sounding 40-minute opening to an opera about a half-man, half ape whose life journey takes him from World War I soldier, to journalist, to financial speculator, and finally to side-show freak (insert your own commentary about the symbolism about this devolution here). The music, originally a 13-page piano and vocal score, was orchestrated by Gerard McBurney based on completed Shostakovich scores which had incorporated some of Orango‘s parts, and had a sound and spirit which reminded me of the composer’s pro-Soviet Symphony No. 2, (To October). The melodies were similarly crowd friendly and had less bite than some later works, but still could be recognized as having much of the innovative melodic and rhythmic style for which the composer would be known. Mr. McBurney’s instrumentation provided textures that one could believe to be Shostokovich-like, if perhaps a little smoothed over.
The singers for the evening all acquitted themselves well. Ryan McKinny had the meatiest part as “The Entertainer” and he made the most of it, adding a colorful and appropriately smarmy bit of acting to his prominent part — you had to love him trying to bribe Mr. Salonen into conducting a lullaby or hilariously sitting-in for the title character to play the toy piano solo of a Russian children’s song. If his voice could sometimes be overwhelmed by the large orchestra, one could forgive him. Eugene Brancoveanu sang the physically demanding and vocally brief title role with appropriate frustration, sadness, and rage. Yulia Van Doren was the vocal standout as the mysterious Susanna, and the other soloists, including four members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, provided earnest interpretations of their respective characters. The reduced contingent of the Master Chorale provided a robust vocal backbone to the proceedings.
Generally speaking, the vocalists were aided by direction from Peter Sellars. He had bass-baritone Jordan Bisch, the opening “Voice from the Crowd,” pop up from an audience seat in Orchestra East; the Master Chorale and the array of minor soloists sang from the choir benches, but with the seating section laid out as it would be for a non-choral performance (i.e. on the same level as real audience members) instead of linked to the stage as it would typically be when a chorus is utilized. Orango was placed in an elevated, neon-light framed “cage” at the front of stage left, which Mr. Brancoveanu reached by a ladder brought in and out as needed. Aside from some fist-raised marching-in-place by the Master Chorale, there was nothing distracting in their movements or blocking.
Perhaps that is because the director saved all the distractions for images he flashed onto the large screen floating above the stage. He can occasionally be brilliant, but most of the time, Mr. Sellars is as subtle as a Kardashian. The photo montage he used to accompany the music was definitely the latter, and very quickly after the images began flashing above the orchestra, I did my best to try to ignore the tedious attempts at modern social commentary. The whole experience would have been so much better without that uselessness.
The LA Phil played the reconstructed score with flair, giving it an energy and conviction any world premiere would be proud to have. The fact that this is the ninth new or rarely played work performed by the orchestra already this season (more if you count the four pieces played at the Green Umbrella concert) makes their well-executed effort even more amazing.
Just as impressive, if not more so, was how they played the Symphony No. 4. From the jolting opening to the haunting close, the entire work was performed with the virtuosity that Southern California audiences have come to expect. Only once did things seem dangerous beyond Shostakovich’s design: as the string sections passed the first movement’s high-speed fugue back and forth between themselves, it sounded as if the handoffs were not quite in sync and the whole thing might eventually split at the seams, the way an unbalanced turbine would eventually spin out of control and throw broken parts in all directions. The moment soon passed, and the the remainder of the symphony zigged and zagged with remarkable precision. The trumpets and trombones collectively sounded as good as they have all season, most especially during the third movement’s bright pseudo-finale, right before the coda brings the work to its eerie, true ending.
Principal Bassoon Whitney Crockett imbued his many solo opportunities with great depth and character, and at the end, Mr. Salonen gave him multiple solo bows; he’s been a wonderful addition to the LA Phil since coming from the Met Orchestra, and its a shame we haven’t had a chance to hear him in The Rite of Spring yet. Carolyn Hove (English horn), Sarah Jackson (piccolo), and Jim Miller (trombone) also made noteworthy individual contributions and were acknowledged accordingly. Cheers for conductor and orchestra were loud and enthusiastic.
If Mr. Salonen began his conducting career unconvinced of Shostakovich’s worth, he has since turned into an advocate for the composer, and we are much better off for it. The world premiere of Orango captured much of the pre-performance attention, but for me, the performance of the Fourth Symphony proved most memorable at the end. Perhaps the LA Phil’s current music director will conduct his own Shostakovich programs in coming seasons, and if they included either of the pieces from Saturday night, I’d be good with that.
Random other thoughts
- Before giving the first downbeat to the Prologue to Orango, Mr. Salonen took a brief moment to publicly acknowledge Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow, for making possible the delayed world premiere of the work.
- Was I the only one who finds it deliciously ironic that Mr. Salonen conducted the world premiere of an unfinished opera about a half-man, half-ape, when his own unfinished opera-to-be, The Woman and The Ape, based on the novel by Peter Høeg, is about an extremely similar subject? I wonder if he’s finished the prologue for it and stashed it away in a closet somewhere . . .
- The exposed concrete corners of the Disney Hall ceiling, normally bathed in a blue light at most evening concerts, were colored orange for this concert. Not to be outdone, Mr. Sellars sported his own blousy orange shirt.
- According to Laurel E. Fay’s program notes, Otto Klemperer was one of the conductors who saw Shostakovich’s score for the Symphony No. 4 in the mid 1930’s and expressed a strong interest in conducting it; e happened to be Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time. Of course, Shostakovich withdrew the work on the heels of Stalin’s unsigned attack in Pravda on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the world premiere of the Fourth Symphony didn’t occur until 30 Dec 1961 under the baton of Kirill Kondrashin.
- Mr. McBurney gave a brief interview about Orango to National Public Radio (NPR). Both streaming audio and written transcript are available HERE.
- For other opinions, read what music critics Tim Mangan, Mark Swed and Bob Thomas had to say.
- Speaking of music critics, I had the pleasure of spending the evening in the shadow of one of the world’s great humanitarians and musical minds; not to mention any names for fear of embarrassing him, but to give you loyal readers a hint, it starts with a “T” and ends with an “imothy Mangan.” Looking quite dapper in his Zegna Couture suit (or perhaps it was Kiton?) with cashmere scarf thrown non-chalantly over his shoulders, he got many lingering glances from the ladies, young and old alike. A particularly fetching long-legged redhead with a Russian accent came up to him to ask for an autograph and picture together (if you look hard enough on Facebook, perhaps you’d find it). He was quite generous with his time with her, even offering to give her post-concert one-on-one lessons on the life of Paul Bowles, the nuances of Peter Sellars’ take on George Crumb, and the gender preferences of muppets. I didn’t get the same offer, but I was informed of the following: (a) music critics don’t like sitting in window seats, (b) Dr. Arthur C. Bartner wept when his star trombonist decided to leave the Trojan Marching Band, and (c) Virgil Thompson is a bad-ass. Anyways, there were so many fans near his seat before the performance began that neither Peter Sellars nor Irina Shostakovich were able to fight their way through the surrounding throng to shake his hand. When I grow up, I want to be this music critic.
Los Angeles Philharmonic; December 3, 2011; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Peter Sellars, director
Ben Zamora, lighting designer
Ryan McKinny, Veselchak, bass-baritone
Jordan Bisch, Voice from the Crowd/Bass, bass
Michael Fabiano, Zoologist, tenor
Eugene Brancoveanu, Orango, baritone
Yulia Van Doren, Susanna, soprano
Timur Bekbosunov, Paul Mash, tenor
From the chorus:
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, music director
Shostakovich: Orango (world premiere) (orchestration by Gerard McBurney)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4
^ Salonen, Esa-Pekka & Otonkoski, Lauri: Kirja – puhetta musiikitta, p. 73. Helsinki: Tammi. ISBN 951-30-6599-5 (per Wikipedia)