Monday, April 13, 2009

Loving Los Angeles and music

Carpe Diem. Seize the Day. The Romans had it right.

Living in megalopolis like Los Angeles/The Southland, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and to let the limitless options daunt you into a paralysis of missing everything the region has to offer. I work with high school students and I know tons who haven't been to the beach in months or have never hiked despite great mountains less than an hour away.

Thanks to a former student, M, I've done a better job of adhering to the Carpe Diem ideal. I've attended two Los Angeles Philharmonic performances this season. [After S&S moved, I feared that my high-culture experiences would wane, b/c they were the musical theater buddies.]

And last Tuesday night's performance was extra special because it allowed me to make up for a great oversight. Last fall, when M proposed checking out an LA Phil concert, it was a Eureka-moment! But we were getting such a late start that all of outgoing musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen's concerts were sold out. I don't know the man, and hadn't been to see the Phil except for a free preview mini-concert before the Disney Hall opened. But judging by how the L.A. Times raved about him and the orchestra, the coverage of the L.A. Phil's foreign tours (which won near-univeral lavish praise) the number of times I saw his face on posters, banners and billboards around the city, it was clear that he was one of cultural forces in the city and the world. And by all accounts, a very generous person, who had adopted Los Angeles as a home away from home.

Tuesday's concert was part of The Green Umbrella series, which is dedicated to debuting often-experimental music by younger, lesser-known composers. While reading the program, which featured an "exit interview" with Salonen, I saw a much more tangible example of his impact and influence when he shared what the first rehearsal was like in Frank Gehry's gem of downtown.

"... I remember when in Beethoven's Seventh the basses played a few pizzicatos and there was this whole beautiful, dark rin to this pizzicatos and these experienced, weathered bass players, they started crying because it was such an experience to hear oneself the way one always dreamed.

So, really, for many people, it was a totally overwhelming experience. And the reactions afterwards, when so many people came to talk to me. there were two kids of reactions, basically. There were the young ones, 'Oh, it's fantastic. How fantastic it will be to work in this building.' And then there were the older people who said, 'Well, I have wasted all these years, and now I finally hear it.' Of course, these years were not wasted by any means, because the Philharmonic has given so much pleasure to so many people over the years in all kinds of language. But it really was a magical day."

I actually got a little choked up reading that. To reach such a pinnacle by all outside measured standards (not just Salonen but all the members of the L.A. Phil), but to so value and appreciate the magic of the small moment. That's something we should all aspire to.

When he took the stage that night (following a short film retrospective), the audience rose to its feet for a well-deserved standing ovation. Though his direct impact on me has been smaller (this was just my second time seeing him), I feel as though he's one of the reasons I love this city. The Disney Hall would not have been built without his passion. But it's way more than the architectural model, obviously. But he's got a presence that literally makes me feel like the city is better because he has been in it. I don't know many others like that.

For the show ... I liked everything. Enrico Chapela's "Li Po" fused electronics, a sonically analyzed poem reading and surround array of nature sounds with a small chamber-sized ensemble to create a soundscape that challenged my notions of music.

My favorite piece was Anna Clyne's "With Her Arms." This was the most traditional of the pieces—composed for a small string ensemble. It was gorgeous and melancholy for much of, with an almost lush touch tempered by sadness. I kept imagining someone crying one's self to sleep in a velvet bed while being held and comforted by their mom.

Erin Gee's "Mouthpiece XI" was the most experimental and least enjoyable for me, but that's not to say it was bad. Gee used two microphones (backed by a small string and wind ensemble, including a BASS FLUTE), to emit all sorts of odd vocal sounds. It was an envelope-pushing exploration of the limits and capabilities of the human vocal instrument. Cool for what it was demonstrating, just less traditionally melodic.

The fourth piece was Fang Man's "Deluge," which matched its name brilliantly. The piece incorporated some recorded sounds of rain, but the genius came in Man's creation of those sounds using the orchestra. In the program notes Man wrote that she thinks of music and creations in terms of how they can help the world and bring value to it and people. So admirable. I felt like this evening alone completely justifies the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts; not that any of these artists has received funding from the NEA, but that the state should support art for otherwise who would be there to challenge, inspire, comfort, memorialize, mourn and celebrate us. That art can do all that speaks volumes.

The final piece was an older piece from Salonen titled "Floof." The piece was as whimsical as its name. It featured Hila Plimann on soprano reciting mostly semi-sensical phrases and lots of references to obscure for me, but once I stopped trying to read along with the text and just enjoyed the sonic picture, I was wowed. Just the brilliance of sound in a gorgeous building created by inspiring, hard-working people ... what a night?

In light of this post ... here's a link to VH1 Save the Music, which has a goal of helping keep music education in public schools.

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