By Megan Westberg
Though we’re barreling toward the beginning of October, evenings are still mild enough in Los Angeles to hold pre-concert cocktails outside, across from the LA Philharmonic‘s Frank Gehry–designed home. Excited concertgoers filter in, post-red-carpet, and are offered a selection of hors d’oeuvres and beverages, including the event’s signature cocktail, a vodka-based concoction in velvet purple and blue. Small groups chatter around small tables, with eyes flickering often toward the entrance on the lookout for friends and noteworthy fashion. The crowd builds to a comfortable crush about 25 minutes before the gala concert is meant to begin, and then thins as guests begin their short meander across the street and into Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic is celebrating its centennial season this year, with a glance at the past but an utter preoccupation with the future. Former music directors will be visiting all season, conducting music close to their hearts, and this is a lovely way to pay tribute to those whose artistic personalities have helped shape the ensemble. But with 50 new musical commissions, cross-genre collaborations, and forward-thinking community investments, like its plans to build a home for Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), the Los Angeles Philharmonic is almost breathless in its desire to make its 100th year feel like its first; it is a moment to dream, to pursue, to experiment, and to reimagine the orchestra’s place within the fabric of its city.
And it will do so without forgetting its roots.
Once the room settles, the program begins with Jerry Goldsmith’s “Love Theme” from Chinatown. An exquisite trumpet solo draws you in immediately, reminding you that beautiful music is made in the service of image in this town. Just as this dive into Hollywood closes, barely perceptible cellos open John Adams‘ Harmonium, “Wild Nights.” This grows into a wall of sound from the powerful, disciplined Los Angeles Master Chorale, and then back again, the music often underpinned by pizzicato from the cellists.
The program progresses through the jangly fun of Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado and a spoken contribution from actress Shalita Grant, whose poet’s lilt throughout the evening is both sweet and powerful, crisp and luxurious. Then comes Julia Adolphe‘s Underneath the Sheen, the world premiere of an LA Phil commission. Her atmospheric piece offers shimmering glimpses of the sheen now and then, as if taking a quick breath at the surface before diving back into a world of striking, but unsettling beauty below. The piece ends with a quiet ache of loss, perhaps an honest reflection of what lies beneath the shiny surfaces in this city of dreamers: those dreams that go unfulfilled.
After this powerful close, the program then takes a more lighthearted turn, with the charming Corinne Bailey Rae singing André Previn’s “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” from Inside Daisy Clover. Her sweet tone suits the music, and her delight when the audience expresses their appreciation delights them in turn. Coldplay’s Chris Martin then takes the stage to sing Morrison’s “L.A. Woman,” with John Densmore on the drums, and then “Los Angeles, Be Kind,” with a brief harmony provided by Rae.
John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic to open its new concert hall in 2003, and so it was appropriate that the work features in this program, played by the same electric violinist who premiered, and in some ways inspired it, Tracy Silverman. His playing in “Sri Moonshine” is marked by a sense of freedom: a kind of untethered comfort as he subtly dances through the music in front of his seated colleagues. His sensitive playing and impressive left hand draws the audience through the work, which builds to an impassioned, frenzied close.
And at this breathless moment, the LA Phil feels it’s time to bring the audience back into the party it had started hours before, and out comes Rae to sing Ashford and Simpson’s California Soul (cue silver California-shaped confetti cloud from the ceiling), who is then joined by Martin and Silverman to close with “Good Vibrations” as blue surfboard confetti flutters down upon the audience’s upturned faces.
Throughout the entire evening, music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel‘s skills as a conductor are on full display, as his gestures morph from utter grace to sharp angles to a gentle signal to indicate the softness of a release. His players follow and trust him as he sculpts a balanced, dynamic sound. His rapport with both the LA Phil musicians and the visiting artists is evident: Everyone seems comfortable, the moments of humor unscripted and, thus, humanizing.
After the last confetti hits the floor, the audience is off, some of whom attend the post-concert dinner and then the unveiling of WDCH Dreams, a dazzling art installation created by Refik Anadol that projects his vision onto the steel skin of Walt Disney Hall. Following all of these festivities is yet another party, with Pink Martini drawing patrons to a dance floor. It is an ambitious way to kick off the season—which might be the most ambitious the LA Phil has planned yet.