Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

My $0.02 on the 2018/19 LA Phil season: beyond the obvious awesomeness, my 3 big takeaways and other noteworthy tidbits

After teasing its 2018/19 season in November and postponing its originally planned announcement by an extra couple of days, the Los Angeles Philharmonic finally dropped the other shoe last week and released full details of its Centennial Season.

It is, to use a word that is ubiquitous yet completely accurate and appropriate this time:  awesome.

Totally awesome.  Defiantly awesome.  Rewardingly awesome.

The season is a marvel to behold, cementing and extending the LA Phil’s leadership position among orchestras in the U.S. and even the world.

  • More than fifty world premieres (?!!!) Is there any other orchestra that has the combination of chutzpah, resources, and musical acumen to pull that off?  No.  No, there isn’t.
  • Festivals to celebrate Stravinsky, the Harlem Renaissance, the Fluxus movement, and, of course, Los Angeles.
  • Collaborations featuring film, ballet, opera, popular music, new music specialists, and others.
  • Surveys of Brahms symphonies and concertos, Tchaikovsky works juxtaposed with American composers (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas), a two-day celebration of the Chinese New Year, and pairings of late Haydn symphonies with all of the Beethoven Piano Concertos.
  • And so much more . . . (full details HERE)

An “A+” season, without a doubt.

That said, there were few truly jaw-dropping revelations made last week, especially when it comes to guest conductors and soloists.  Much of the sizzle — like all of those world premieres, festivals, and new initiatives — was already made public in November.

So what more is there to say that hasn’t already been said by others?  Quite a bit, actually.  I’ve been taking some time to process the immensity of the season, analyzed the offerings beyond what the press release had to say, and came up with three big takeaways plus some other interesting tidbits worth mentioning.  

Big takeaway #1:  This is a remarkably dense season

In typical years, most of the programs are repeated over the course of three or four concerts.  Not so for the 100th season.  There are an astounding number of one-night or two-night concerts — particularly within regular subscription series — thereby creating a heightened sense of occasion for each evening and increasing the chance of turning any individual performance into a “must-see” event.

The biggest implications of squeezing a greater variety of music into the same amount of time:  more opportunities to present world premieres, explore rarely played repertoire, and still fit in familiar works.

One way to quickly see this is by examining the ratio of programs-to-concerts.  First, realize that a traditional week of orchestral programming often has a four-concert week of the same program, which would be program-to-concert ratio of 25% (1 program / 4 concerts).

Compare that to 2018/19 ratios for the three main LA Phil conductors which often double that:

  • Gustavo Dudamel (Music & Artistic Director):  14 weeks, 21 different programs, 40 total concerts –> 52.5% program-to-concert ratio
    • Of those 21 programs, 14 are regular subscription programs played over 33 concerts –> 42.4%
    • The remainders are single-performance events:  opening night gala; “Celebrate LA” event; one concert each from the Green Umbrella,  Jazz, and Songbook series; a special non-subscription concert with Moby (!); and a telecast for the 2019 Oscars
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor Laureate and former Music Director):  4 weeks, 5 different programs (all regular subscription concerts), 13 total concerts –>  38.5%
    • The numbers when you isolate his Stravinsky Festival are even more dramatic:  2 weeks, 3 programs, 6 total concerts –> 50%
  • Susanna Mälkki (Principal Guest Conductor):  3 weeks, 4 programs (three subscription, one Green Umbrella), 10 total concerts –> 40%

That means that on average over the course of the season, Mr. Dudamel leads a completely different program every-other time he conducts . . .  let that sink in for a second . . . and Mr. Salonen and Ms. Mälkki aren’t far behind.

For a smaller orchestra, this isn’t a big deal.  For musicians doing four, sometimes five, performances every week over nine months, that’s incredible.

At the same time, there is also one non-trivial side effect worth noting:  this will put much more pressure on those same musicians:

  • When it comes to digesting tons of new and/or complicated music while maintaining incredibly high performance standards, the LA Phil musicians have the best track record of any major orchestra in the world.  The  2018/19 season is a testament to the extraordinary skill of those musicians.  At the same time, the amount of new music combined with the density of programming is asking quite a bit of them, and I doubt that the rehearsal time available will increase for the centennial.  It will be interesting to see how well the musicians hold up over the course of the season, and how polished the individual concerts will be.
  • Again, compare that to a typical four-concert week.  There are four rehearsals to make sure the conductor and players are exactly in sync, with four more actual performances to really get it right.  Often, the third and fourth performance of a program are the best — particularly for world premieres — because the musicians will have had more experience playing it and have worked all the bugs out.  They often won’t have that luxury next season.

In the end, it’s a give and take.  There’s a huge upside, but it doesn’t come for free.

Big takeaway #2:  there’s a mind-blowing amount of new music on tap

That the LA Phil would load up on new music for its centennial is to be expected, but the sheer volume of new (and relatively new) music is staggering:  54 LA Phil commissions; 51 world premieres, three U.S. premieres, and four West Coast premieres; 61 living composers.  That would be a crazy number even for an ensemble specializing in new music; for a large organization as friendly to new music as the LA Phil, it’s barely comprehensible.

  • You have to acknowledge that the fact that the vast majority of world premieres — 38, to be precise — appear as part of the Green Umbrella new music series or other non-subscription concerts, and not part of the orchestra’s main season offerings.  A little marketing puffery to conflate those premieres with the ones in subscription concerts?  Perhaps, but commissioning and programming all that new music an impressive and admirable feat no matter how you slice it.
  • Of course, even if you only count the works that are appearing on full LA Phil orchestra concerts, you’d still have 13 world premieres, one U.S. premiere, and two West Coast premieres.  In addition, the breadth of conductors and composers, even for those orchestral concerts only, is remarkable:
    • Mr. Dudamel conducts five world premieres (by Julia Adolphe, Paul Desenne, Andrew Norman, John Adams, and Thomas Adès) and one U.S. premiere (by Tan Dun)
    • Mr. Salonen leads world premiere performances of The only one (by Louis Andriessen)
    • Ms. Mälkki is on the podium for two:  a world premiere (by Steve Reich); and a U.S. premiere (by Kaija Saariaho)
    • The remaining world premieres by Christopher Cerrone, Philip Glass, Du Yun, Unsuk Chin, Steven Takasugi, and Augustus Hailstork, plus a West Coast premiere by Olga Neuwirth, are led by various guest conductors (see below for more details)

No one else comes close.  For comparison, here are the other major U.S. orchestras who’ve already announced their 2018/19 seasons, plus a couple of other orchestras who recently celebrated centennial seasons of their own, and the number of world premieres they offered (and the  composers whose works are being performed):

BTW: if you also appreciate or even prefer (gasp!) music by composers who are already dead, here are the men (yes, all men) whose works get squeezed in between those world premieres:  Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Bruckner, Debussy, Ellington, Gershwin, Haydn, Hindemith, Ives, Mahler, Mozart, Prokofiev, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Sibelius, Still, Stravinsky, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Weil.

Big takeaway #3:  If you don’t like conductors with ties to the LA Phil, you’ll be disappointed

You’d expect Music Directors, Conductor Laureates, and Principal Guest Conductors to take up the bulk of the regular subscription season.  No surprises here.  The combination of Mr. Dudamel, Mr. Salonen, and Ms. Mälkki will be on the podium for a total of 21 weeks of the seasons.  I think most orchestras would be thrilled to have any of those three conductors waving a baton in their own concert hall for as long as they could get them.

The startling thing is the list of other guest conductors for the regular subscription concerts and the paucity of true stars:

  • Start with conductors associated with the greater Los Angeles Philharmonic Association:
    • John Adams (Creative Chair):  one week, including a world premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 12, Lodger
    • Thomas Wilkins (Principal Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra):  one week conducting a two-program look into the music of William Grant Still and the Harlem Renaissance, including a world premiere by Adolphus Hailstork
    • Christopher Rountree (education programming partner):  one week
  • Add former LA Phil staff conductors:
    • Zubin Mehta (former Music Director): two weeks
    • Michael Tilson Thomas (former Principal Guest Conductor):  two weeks
    • Lionel Bringuier (former Resident Conductor):  one week
    • Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (former Associate Conductor):  one week, including a world premiere from Unsuk Chin
    • Elim Chan (former Dudamel Conducting Fellow):  one week, part of a celebration of the Chinese New Year, and featuring a world premiere of a new work for Chinese opera singer and orchestra by Du Yun
  • That leaves only four weeks left for conductors who’ve never had a formal affiliation with the LA Phil:
    • Daniel Harding (Principal Conductor of the Orchestre de Paris and Swedish Radio Symphony):  one week, including the West Coast premiere of Masaot/Clocks without Hands by Olga Neuwirth
    • Simone Young (former Principal Conductor of both the Hamburg Opera and Hamburg Philharmonic)
    • Roderick Cox (Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra), one week, including a world premiere by Christopher Cerrone
    • Jessica Cottis (Principal Conductor of the Glasgow New Music Expedition)

For those of you keeping score, that’s 12 guest conductors over 14 total weeks:  ten weeks by eight current and former staff conductors, plus one week each for two experienced visitors and two newcomers.

It’s not a bad list per se and there are many capable conductors that are part of it, but that roster of guest conductors is easily the most underwhelming aspect of the full season announcement.

Compare it to the opening season at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 which featured internationally renowned podium figures who were NOT regular visitors to Los Angeles — Pierre Boulez, Valery Gergiev, Christoph von Dohnányi, and Antonio Pappano, to name just a few — and the difference is shocking.

I expected the orchestra would use the opportunity/excuse of the centennial season to bring back at least a few more conductors whose careers are well established and internationally recognized.  I think Messrs. Mehta and Tilson Thomas easily fit that bill; so that means that the LA Phil has ten (10) weeks available for other guest conductors — couldn’t they give us at least one or two more big names for this 100th season?

There are four likely reasons why the orchestra didn’t:

  1. They prefer nurturing extant relationships with up-and-comers and providing opportunities for unknowns rather than pursuing new relationships or rekindling dormant ones with celebrity conductors
  2. They’re putting a high priority on increasing the racial and gender diversity of their guest conductors
  3. They’re choosing programming first — Chinese New Year!  Fluxus! Harlem Renaissance!  — and picking conductors later, as opposed to the other way around
  4. They’re choosing/needing to save money because the rest of the centennial season is really expensive

Reasonable and admirable reasons all, and the end results are somewhat disappointing nonetheless.

So who is missing?

  • The most obvious absentee:  Simon Rattle.  He was Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra longer than MTT, he’s a colossal conducting star, and his last appearance with the LA Phil was an unmitigated triumph that had the musicians so animated in foot-stomps of approval that I thought they would give a standing ovation of their own for him.  I would have bet serious money his name would’ve been one of those mentioned, and clearly, I would’ve lost.  The orchestra had to have asked Sir Simon to join them, right?  It’d be shocking if they didn’t.  I’d be interested to know if they just couldn’t come up with enough money to entice him to make the trip all the way to the Pacific Timezone, or if perhaps one party or the other simply wasn’t interested.
  • Three other conductors noteworthy for their absence:  David Robertson, Leonard Slatkin, and Bramwell Tovey. Messrs. Slatkin and Tovey were both formerly “Principal Guest Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl,” while Messrs. Slatkin and Robertson are both native Angelenos who have been regular visitors in the recent past.  None of them are megawatt-level draws like Mr. Rattle, but given their obvious connections, you’d think at least one of them would’ve made the cut.
  • Other notable conductors not part of the LA Phil’s 100th season that would’ve been nice to see (in no particular order):  Bernard Haitink, Valery Gergiev, James Conlon, Mariss Jansons, Kirill Petrenko, Vladimir Jurowski, Alan Gilbert, Antonio Pappano, Gianandrea Noseda, Riccardo Chailly, Daniel Barenboim, Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Franz Welser-Möst, Christoph von Dohnányi, Riccardo Muti, and a few more I’ve left off for one reason or another.

Yes, they’re all men, and all except for the half-Asian Mr. Gilbert are white.  Sure, many would be unavailable or unwilling.  Doesn’t matter — I definitely would’ve preferred to have any of them over your pick of 2018/19 conductors not named Dudamel, Salonen, Mälkki, Mehta, Tilson Thomas, Adams (for his  programming of living composers), or Wilkins (for his Harlem Renaissance concerts).

Other tidbits about the 2018/19 season

LA Phil musicians getting a well-deserved solo turn in subscription concerts:

  • Martin Chalifour (Principal Concertmaster), Robert deMaine (Principal Cello), Joanne Pearce Martin (piano):  Beethoven Triple Concerto; Mr. Dudamel conducts
  • Andrew Bain (Principal Horn):  Britten:  Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings; Ms. Young conducts

Soloists I’m most happy to see returning:

  • Piano:  Emanuel Ax (Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 22, with Mr. Salonen), Yefim Bronfman (Brahms, Piano Concertos 1 and 2, with Mr. Mehta), Hélène Grimaud (Ravel, Piano Concerto in G, with Mr. Bringuier), Yuja Wang (Adams, world premiere of Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, with Mr. Dudamel) Lang Lang (all five Beethoven piano concertos, with Mr. Dudamel), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen)
  • Other:  Gautier Capuçon (cell0, Tchaikovsky, Variations on a Rococo Theme, with Mr. Tilson Thomas), Matthias Goerne (baritone, Beethoven, Mass in C and Haydn, “Lord Nelson” Mass, with Mr. Dudamel), Paul Groves (tenor, Stravinsky, Perséphone), Audra McDonald (soprano, cabaret music and Weill, The Seven Deadly Sins, with Mr. Salonen),

Soloists that I’m bummed won’t be here next season:

  • Piano:  Martha Argerich [yeah, I know what you’re thinking . . .], Evgeny Kissin, Daniil Trifonov, Leif Ove Andsnes, Mitsuko Uchida, Murray Perahia [he’s making a recital appearance, but it’d be awesome to see/hear do a concerto again], Richard Goode, Garrick Ohlsson, and Marino Formenti
  • Violin:  Gil Shaham, Hillary Hahn, Midori [this one really caught me off guard considering she helms the strings department at the nearby USC Thornton School of Music], Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman [another recital-only year for him], Gidon Kremer, Julia Fischer, and Leonidas Kavakos
  • Cello: Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell, Alisa Weilerstein, and István Várdai
  • Singers:  Plácido Domingo [yeah, the odds weren’t great, but I was really hoping that he’d do his buddy Gustavo a solid and make an appearance; can you imagine his voice in WDCH?], and whole bunch more . . .

Composers and/or specific compositions worth mentioning:

  • Especially happy to see pieces by these composers appearing on the subscription docket:  Debussy, Ellington, Gershwin, Mahler, Mozart, Prokofiev, Salonen, Still, and Stravinsky
  • Surprised and disappointed that works by these composers who had strong connections to Los Angeles and/or the LA Phil (in no particular order) are  not included in the orchestral season:  Copland, Rachmaninov, Stucky, Lutosławski, and Schoenberg
  • Nothing by Bartók or Shostakovich?  Bummer!!
  • Regularly played (overplayed?) warhorses that are nowhere to be found:  Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Dvorak Cello Concerto, Beethoven 3rd, 5th, 7th, or 9th Symphony, Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony, Dvorak 9th Symphony, Orff Carmina Burana,  Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, and undoubtedly a few more I’m neglecting

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Witold Lutosławski

Regarding visiting orchestras:

  • The only visiting symphony orchestra this season is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, with Daniel Barenboim conducting
  • I loved the San Francisco Symphony’s idea for their centennial:  have the six other biggest US Orchestras (from LA, NY, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago) make guest appearances at Davies Symphony Hall instead taking the SFS on tour.  Have everyone over for a party in your house for your 100th birthday rather than go visit everyone else’s place.  It was a brilliant idea that I was hoping the LA Phil would borrow.  Alas, they didn’t.

Final thoughts

In the end, the biggest takeaway is that this centennial season is the LA Phil celebrating its 100th birthday in its own way, with its own musical sensibility, and its own cluster of people.   In the past, that would be indicative of being close-minded, provincial, and even parochial.  These days, however, they’re more appropriately viewed as being iconoclasts at worst and as trailblazers at best.

The alternative would be to do like too many other orchestras:  hunkering down in the safe and cozy familiarity of centuries of musical tradition unhampered by progress.  That’s not an option for this orchestra.

As the Los Angeles Philharmonic approaches 100 years old, it can’t imagine being anywhere else other than at the tip of the spear, with all of the requisite triumph and terror that goes along with it.  There’ll be plenty of both to go around in the coming season, I have no doubt.

“Fortune Favors the Bold,” goes the ancient truism, one that resonates so clearly for this very 21st Century orchestra.  The LA Phil’s 2018/19 season will be their boldest yet, and we in Southern California are most fortunate to be a witness to it.


Photo credits:

  • Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Zubin Mehta:  courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • Susanna Mälkki:  Simon Fowler
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen and Witold Lutosławski:  courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • Simon Rattle:    Sheila Rock/www.simonrattle.de

5 thoughts on “My $0.02 on the 2018/19 LA Phil season: beyond the obvious awesomeness, my 3 big takeaways and other noteworthy tidbits

  1. Great overview and stats. On my wish list was making some historical broadcasts and concerts available as downloads. There are stereo recordings of some van Beinum concerts. And if anyone is asking “who’s that?” that’s another thing missing – a comprehensive history of the LA Phil. Anyway, I’ve already reupped my subscription, and added one!


    • That’s a great idea. I am hoping that once the LA Phil gets the bugs out of their new website, that they launch a special one with more historical photos and recordings. I’ve met more than a few fans and local musicians who didn’t even know van Beinum was prior Music Director!


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