By Laurence Vittes
Not even torrential rains could keep a nearly full house of students, musicians, and celebrities from coming to Zipper Hall at the Colburn School to celebrate Frank Gehry’s 90th birthday and to pay homage to the designer’s Center for Performance and Learning, which will offer multiple new venues for Colburn students and cultural partners citywide.
For such an august occasion Esa-Pekka Salonen led some of Colburn’s finest students, which also included some of its international students, in a brand new piece called Fog, which has a deep meaning to the composer, the architect, and the city.
Salonen described his 15-minute-long 90th birthday tribute to Gehry as “a fantasy around the Bach E-major Prelude from the Partita in E, which was the first piece of music Frank and I heard in the Walt Disney Hall while it was still under construction. Much of the harmony is based on Frank’s name: F A G E H (B-natural in English).”
In his remarks to the audience before playing the world premiere of Fog, Salonen described meeting with Gehry when he was collecting material for Wing On Wing, the work he composed for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall. “It was so incredible,” he said, “the music just floated up into the space, it was three-dimensional—or four or five . . . Fog is like a memory of that moment.” Salonen recounted how, at the time Gehry had mentioned to him the idea of a dream image which he found “very beautiful, poetic, and true.”
Fog was nothing as dazzling and “modern” as Lukas Foss’ similar fantasy based on the Bach Partita, the third movement of his Baroque Variations, written 50 years ago. As opposed to Foss, who begins deconstructing the Partita almost immediately, Fog begins with the entire Prelude, in this case played with serene purity by violinist Fabiola Kim. Even as beautifully played as it was, the four minutes seemed long for a piece that would only last another ten minutes on its own once the ensemble–flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, percussion, harp, string quartet, double bass, and piano–joined in the fun.
Salonen’s homage consisted in the choice of Bach: “Just as Bach is always there in the music,” Salonen said during his remarks, “I can say the same about Frank Gehry. ” The flexibility of the structure, which lay underneath the drifting succession of riffs and gestures, were woven like filigree. Salonen assigned wonderful things for the instruments to do. An impossibly virtuosic double-bass part had Joseph Nuñez scurrying just about as high on the fingerboard as a double bassist can reach. There was a lovely meandering flute solo toward the end preceding a massive fog punctuated by a gong followed by a piccolo intoning Bach. A moment later, like sound itself, Fog was over.
The program began with an upbeat performance by a brass septet of Pierre Boulez’ aptly chosen antiphonal fanfare Initiale, commissioned for the opening of the Menil Collection in Houston in 1987, and selected by Daniel Barenboim to open Berlin’s new Pierre Boulez Saal in 2016. The seven Colburners, split on either side of the stage, were up to all the technical challenges and must have been thrilled to be led in such an important piece by such a conductor as Salonen.
For purely musical value the first movement of Beethoven’s early G-major Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 2, had to take pride of place, particularly the gorgeous playing of pianist Yanfeng Tony Bai. Although he had a significant advantage over his similarly virtuosic and expressive colleagues, violinist Zachary Brandon and cellist Nathan Me, by the fact that the lid on his his Steinway was wide open. Still, the sounds they produced made me wish they had played the entire trio.