It was time for musicians to break out their summer whites and for the audiences to try to not roll empty bottles of wine down concrete steps. That’s right: I’m talking about summer at the Hollywood Bowl.
After a few concerts of playing back-up band to Barry Manilow, the Los Angeles Philharmonic opened the classical music portion of the 2012 summer season last Tuesday in an unlikely fashion: playing three works written by living composers — living female composers, no less. If you throw in two concerts of playing the world premiere of George Fenton’s Frozen Planet in Concert, this was a non-trivial amount of new music that the orchestra had to digest.
Granted, it wasn’t as a big a challenge as, say, playing Don Giovanni and The Gospel According to the Other Mary in short succession, but it’s not like the musicians could just put it on autopilot even if they wanted to. Considering the usual penchant for warhorses at the Cahuenga Pass combined with the limited rehearsal time in the summer, this was rather noteworthy. And if you added in the single performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a work that can hardly be thrown together nonchalantly, it all made for a relatively ambitious and auspicious start to the Bowl season.
When everything was said and done, it all worked quite nicely, even in an environment that can be filled with attention-deficit concertgoers, many of whom were generally unfamiliar with any contemporary classical music and only there for the Beethoven. Credit conductor Leonard Slatkin for putting together a program that gelled and for inspiring compelling performances from the orchestra. He may not always be the easiest conductor to follow (he tends to conduct waaaay ahead of the beat), but there is clearly enough chemistry between him and the LA Phil that they can give him what he wants with equal parts precision and finesse.
It was a satisfying evening, easy to enjoy and full of musical rewards.
The best of the new works was American Icons by Anne LeBaron. If there is an “it” composer in Southern California right now, she’d hold the title, so it is more than a little surprising that this was the first time any of her compositions had been performed by the LA Phil. Better late than never. This is a clever work, drawing sounds and rhythms that are clearly evocative of a variety of American musical genres without sounding like an over-intellectual parody. The contrasting sounds blend and crash into each other in complex yet entertaining ways. It is a compact tour de force.
Anna Clyne‘s 2005 work, >>rewind>>, was the veritable curtain-raiser (well, if you don’t count the Star Spangled Banner). Inspired by the notion of an editor repeatedly watching the same sections of analog video tape, it begins with the same booming chord that opens Carmina Burana, then immediately begins rapidly churning away in minimalist fashion. Good stuff.
Tempus Fugit by Cindy McTee was the third new work of the evening, prominently featuring the percussion section . Mr. Slatkin mentioned from the podium that he programmed the piece because it was good music, adding in the spirit of full disclosure that Ms. McTee also happens to be Mrs. Slatkin. I didn’t think of it as highly as I did the other two works, though it was interesting enough to make me want to hear more from Ms. McTee in the future.
After intermission, Mr. Slatkin led an unobtrusive, middle-of-the-road account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He took rather stately tempos throughout, but only in the trio section of the Scherzo did it feel like it dragged. The mellow, dream-like third movement had an appropriately easy-going quality that maintained enough tension to keep a good portion of people from falling asleep. The fourth movement had a nice balance of joy and grandeur and with the able contributions of the soloists — Rachel Willis-Sørensen, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Gordon Gietz, tenor; and Christian van Horn, bass — and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, ended well.
While the musicians seemed to be in mid-season form, the audio/visual support folks seemed stuck in spring training. Small nuances are usually lost at the Bowl given the rather uneven amplification, and on this night, it was like the folks manning the sound board tried to over-compensate for it by turning things up way too much, especially on the high end. Balances were off — the piccolo would be stridently blaring, while the horns often sounded like they were playing off stage.
The director and camera folks handling the video close-up of the musicians had their own share of problems, often switching to a musician who had just played a part and was now sitting idle or highlighting a supporting part instead of a prominent line. This could be understandable with the new pieces, but was surprising to see and annoying to experience in the Beethoven.
Just as the video crew seemed to get in a groove by the middle of the fourth movement, they were cut off. Images of musicians were replaced with a video prepared by artist Herman Kolgen that was created to accompany the Beethoven from the moment the baritone makes his vocal entrance. Mr. Kolgen’s work alternated between two themes:
- A vine growing and spreading throughout various urban landscapes, with new leaves sprouting and unfurling in a way reminiscent of how some cars’ instrument clusters try to show their drivers that they are being fuel efficient
- An electronic jumble of colors and squiggles that looked a lot like what you might see when you turn on the “Visualizer” in iTunes, only a lot more pink
From a technical standpoint, there was only a rough synchronization with the orchestra: there was no click-track or other such aides, and the movements of vines and squiggles were vague enough to work with whatever the music was doing; switches between vines and squiggles coincided with major shifts in the music. Overall, I don’t think it particularly added to the experience, but it didn’t detract from it either.
A few nights earlier, the performance at the Bowl was a wholly different combination of music and video.
George Fenton has been writing the music for the the trio of nature series produced by the BBC and Discovery Channel: Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and most recently, Frozen Planet. He has appeared here before, conducting musical excerpts from each previous series with corresponding high-def video footage appearing on the Hollywood Bowl’s video screens.
It all makes for a highly engaging and entertaining experience. The music certainly plays a supporting role, but it holds its own and without the voice-over that would normally be a part of the TV broadcast, can be enjoyed more easily on its own terms.
Mr. Fenton uses an amalgamation of familiar styles. He isn’t the first composer nor will he be the last to crib from Debussy when writing music about the ocean or sunrises, or utilize Stravinsky’s strident rhythms from Rite of Spring when sharks or killer whales lurk about (cough, John Williams, cough cough, Jaws, cough). You might even hear some early John Adams in some segments.
Regardless of his inspiration, Mr. Fenton succeeds in writing music that underlines and heightens the emotion of the scene in question. Whether it’s penguins trying to avoid a prowling sea lion, orcas methodically and clinically going after their prey, or a polar bear mother lovingly raising her cubs, Mr. Fenton’s music works wonders.
Moreover, I think this is some of Mr. Fenton’s best music yet. After the concert, I went home and put on some of the DVDs of Planet Earth and Blue Planet, enjoying the wildlife footage while paying closer attention to the music underneath it. The music played in concert sounded more rich, layered, and complex in comparison.
I couldn’t help but be reminded about how Carl Stalling was able to evoke various composers in his iconic Looney Tunes accompaniments, and how a generation or two unwittingly gained knowledge and appreciation of Wagner and Rossini (among others) because of it. If Mr. Fenton’s fine music somehow open people up to Debussy, Stravinsky, or Adams, then bravissimo to him and to the folks at the LA Phil for programming this accessible yet intelligent concert.
RANDOM OTHER THOUGHTS:
- Principal Trumpet Donald Green was back in his chair after being on hiatus during the 2011/2012 season. As previously mentioned, he’ll play for the rest of the summer season before retiring and handing his chair over to Tom Hooten.
- David Buck is still playing as Principal Flute with the orchestra.
- Concert start times at the Bowl had been 8:30pm for a long time, but this season, things kick-off at 8pm. Not sure why the 30 minute change, but it certainly makes for washed-out video for the first portion of the evening. The Frozen Planet in Concert began almost twenty minutes late, and the sun still hadn’t set. It wasn’t until about 9pm that things were truly dark enough to get full effect of the video.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 7, 2012; Hollywood Bowl
George Fenton, conductor and composer
Frozen Planet in Concert
Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 10, 2012: Hollywood Bowl
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Herman Kolgen, video artist
Rachel Willis-Sørensen, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Gordon Gietz, tenor
Christian van Horn, bass
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, music director
LEBARON: American Icons
MCTEE: Tempus Fugit
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9, w/video (collaboration with Getty)