Hearing a new hall for the first time is always a treat—especially if old musical friends are there to greet you. Meeting them again in a different setting provides further insight to their meaning and appearance, and a benchmark with which to compare sounds etched in memory to those made fresh today.”
The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a triumph of form and a visual tour de force its function fares less successfully, but faithfully mirrors the insatiable appetite of twenty-first century music consumers and practitioners alike for sound over substance.
No better illustration of this than Ives’ Unanswered Question. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen took the stage alone: the feisty flute quartet screamed their replies from the organ loft, the trumpet (Donald Green’s unwavering tone and sense of purpose the highlight) emerged from the back of the room, while the strings lobbied out of sight but not mind. This experiment in true surround sound was fascinating. Yet, as the representatives of “silence” the strings (“The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See and Hear Nothing”) were too, well, distant. Salonen spent his podium time keeping the furtive answerers together, flicking his wrist to the unseen questioner for every volley. All of that was at odds with Ives’ intention, who cared not a bit if the increasingly frenetic comebacks were “together”—heated arguments seldom are. The question remains.
For Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, the stage was jammed with some of North America’s finest instrumentalists and backed by the forever awed Pacific Chorale. The performance was a model of clarity and showcased every aspect of the LA Phil: exceptional string tone, no doubt inspired by concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s supple hue and leadership as well as principal cello Peter Stumpf’s faultless technique and panache; the woodwinds came close to melting their keys as they rode the tsunami of notes—special kudos to Monica Kaenzig, who devoured the E-flat clarinet part brilliantly; principal horn William Lane was a constant pleasure, but some of his colleagues couldn’t match his hit percentage; the low brass never intruded, providing punch and support as required; the army of percussionists acquitted themselves well with only a luck-of-the-draw misfire between the cymbals and bass drum marring their contributions.
As the music progressed, the hall revealed more of itself and its residents. The climaxes were delivered with passion and conviction, but fell short of thrilling. Instead, the ear was assaulted with a brittle edge that was all power and no glory. Time and time again Salonen truncated a section or phrase by snapping his body to a full stop. However, the orchestra responded in kind so that Ravel’s fabric failed to weave together: the squares of its quilt beautiful on their own, but not part of a magnificent whole. Happily, later passages in the score forced the conductor to keep his arms flowing through silence and the hitherto missing “whoosh” of a phrase well-completed made a welcome appearance.
Both the hall and Salonen are too brilliant for the good of the music: thoughtful pauses and the reward of vibrant not strident moments were MIA. Too much clarity can be a bad thing—even the chorus couldn’t blend their heroic voices into a homogenous unity.
John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur was much better suited to both architect Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s acoustics and Salonen’s love of colour. The work tends to hypnotize its listeners, first lulling them into a minimalist trance before the electric violin plugs into the soundscape, delving melodically high and low into the composer’s universe. As the soloist, Tracy Silverman was an admirable wandering minstrel, using the full apron to make his points with compelling commitment or standing aside as the orchestra patiently let the work build. Notable was the magnificent effect of combining the violins and upper register celli and Richard Strauss—like high horns. Oddly like a slow motion Rossini crescendo, when the work reached its peak the joy of the trip was palpable, then the decibel meter pegged into red, leaving the ear with a rock concert blast that reverberated far into intermission.
The hall and its maestro are well-matched; time, other repertoire and musicians will tell if they are capable of providing the subtle value-added aural delights that lurk so intriguingly behind the notes. JWR