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Barbican Residency of Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, 2-4 May 2018

Gustavo Dudamel presenting New Music Group programme 'Green Umbrella' on May 3, 2018. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

In the beginning of May 2018 London residents were preparing with anticipation for an important musical event. Two years after their last visit in 2016, one of the leading world orchestras – Los Angeles Philharmonic – was coming to the Barbican Centre for a 3 days residency. With their centennial season starting next year, the orchestra is known for actively promoting new music and building on the strengths acquired through previous years under the directorship of Deborah Borda and innovative music leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Now it is the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel and his approaches to conducting classical repertorie, promoting new music and social engagement with the residents of Los Angeles (especially its underrepresented groups and younger audiences) that everyone in Europe and beyond is interested in, with the 37-year-old having become an international star in public and critical vision. Los Angeles Philharmonic, inspired by the new London-born CEO Simon Woods to build stronger connections with the Barbican, showcased the range of their pursuits this May, presenting a 3-day programme that featured new works from living composers (Salonen, Hearne, Rzewski) and classical repertoire including Beethoven and works of 20th century (Bernstein, Shostakovich, Varèse). One could see even from a glance on the programme of the residency that a drive towards future and focus on 20th and 21st century is characteristic of this American orchestra, and, fully expectant and excited, everyone indeed was looking forward to hear this musical collective in action at the Barbican Hall. The residency of the LA Phil was transformed into a big social event by mutual efforts of both sides. There was a possibility for the critics to mingle with representatives of the orchestra at pre-concert receptions and for the audiences to observe Dudamel in open rehearsal with young musicians from National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain who were joined by the visiting members of Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

2 May 2018

The concert on 2nd May 2018 was one of the most anticipated of the three and and received widest press coverage. One of the reasons was that a new work of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Barbican composer in residence for the season 2017/2018, got its European premiere on this day after being played for the first time two weeks earlier in Los Angeles and then in New York. Salonen's new work ‘Pollux’ was co-commissioned by LA Phil and Barbican, and was written by the composer with musicians of this particular orchestra in mind. This concert was closing the series of concerts in London (Barbican) showcasing the output of this renowned Finnish composer, with the season starting with Salonen conducting his own LA Variations (Los Angeles thus being the starting and finishing point somehow). The pinnacle of the season dedicated to this artist was the Total Immersion Day into works of Salonen organized by BBC3 (and its presenter Andrew McGregor) and BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Sakari Oramo. During that day the audiences heard Salonen’s instrumental, choral and orchestral works that traced his composing career in development from early pieces to relatively recent commissions. ‘Pollux’ could thus be contextualized within the output of the composer by those who attended the previous events at the Barbican during the 2017/2018 season.

Total Immersion Day (Esa-Pekka Salonen and Sakari Oramo), December 10, 2017. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

The composer made an effort to help the listeners contextualize his work by explaining in the notes that the new piece had a not yet written twin ‘Castor’ and was a result of his ideas moving into two different directions during the composing process. He mentioned the influence of Rilke’s poetry and explained that he wanted to convey the vision of a link between Orpheus as the earth-based musician (embodying human creative forces) and the cloud-like formations above that were the dwelling of Pollux who was a demigod. Salonen also mentioned that he used a slowed down bass line of the post-grunge band heard in Paris in autumn 2017 and had an intention for his piece to have a manthra quality. It is interesting to be reminded here of Salonen’s words in an earlier interview where he confessed he could not write contemplative music as it did not suit his temperament, but he would definitely want to try it one day. It seems that ‘Pollux’ was indeed a conscious attempt at writing music that creates a static image rather than moves quickly and abruptly into new spaces as it commonly happens in other Salonen’s pieces. The absence of an intended twin piece worked rather to its disadvantage, as in the minds of many music critics present during that evening the piece, despite its qood qualities, did not leave a lasting impression of its own. However, but if it had been presented in its envisioned twinned version, it could have had a completely different effect, with two pieces presumably playing off each other.

As it stood, it was richly textured in a usual Salonen manner, and, as LA critic Mark Swed noted, reflected the composer’s ear for orchestral sound ingrained in his mind through conducting work. With its string chorales slowly building up to include the domination of woodwinds and then bringing in a finishing solo from the cor anglais, it indeed brought a listener to a kind of a very pleasant and enriching mantra state where one wished this unusual music meditation could last longer than it did. Dudamel was patient and careful with the piece and did not over-interpret it by bringing his usual youthful vigour to its sounds, but allowed it to flow speculatively almost on its own terms through Barbican Hall. If this is a new turn to contemplation in music from Salonen, it will be interesting to see where this path leads him in future, while 'Pollux' may indeed require several more 'partners' or sequels for us to form a full picture of the composer’s new development.

Gustavo Dudamel conducting on May 2, 2018. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

After this opening, the night moved into spheres where Dudamel might have felt more in his own element. A very interesting piece 'Amériques’ (1918-21) written by a French composer Edgard Varèse for whom it was a first major work since he moved to America. Varèse, who earlier attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’, in many ways had to start his life anew in America and the piece combines both the composer’s modernist aspirations and his desire to reflect the whole new universe that presented itself before him on a new continent. It seems that such drastic life transitions proved to be almost always fruitful for artists, and Varèse here is no exception, with ‘Amériques’ being both a celebration of a new, almost futuristic musical world and a statement of exhilaration and freedom in expressing the world around him in a way the composer seemed fit. It was quite fitting to present to European audiences this particular piece as for many it was a mini-discovery of their own inner images of bustling America, too, somehow the fact of a century standing between the composer and modern audiences not taking away anything from the overall sense of excitement.

Varèse, in a modernist tradition that was also reflected in literature of that time (Virginia Woolf, James Joyce), is revelling in presentign the street sounds and noises he heard in New York city and presents almost a cacophony (that is always a controlled one, though) of police horns, cars on the street, construction sounds and a general sense of a pedestrian urban beehive. To do this, the composer needs an unusually big (even by modern standards) percussion section, and in an ‘enhanced’ version of ‘Amériques’ there are 50 more musisicans on stage than there were in the Barbican Hall on the evening. The piece surprises the listener by lion’s roar (the zoo, probably?) and the wailing siren of city traffic (the ambulance perhaps) and takes us on a journey of a vast cityscape without ever looking back or worrying about how we will be able to take in all the massive sonorities it grants us. While its rhythmic thrusts seem to be inspired by Stravinsky and thus connected to European tradition, the exhilaration of a ‘Frenchman in New York’ brings us vistas of a world that was quickly and relentlessly re-shaping itself at the times when people’s eyes and ears were still naïve enough to perceive these changes with extreme acuteness. It is this freshness of inner perception of the world that wants to embrace everything around that is most moving in ‘Amériques’ and we are fully taken it. This piece, it seems, suited the conductor Gustavo Dudamel perfectly, who is also ready to embrace new beginnings with youthful and almost naïve joy and for whose temperament is suited for leading the orchestra further and further through the chunks and unconstrained blasts of musical power. This piece was the most successful with the Barbican audiences of the evening and made a huge impact.

Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel on May 2, 2018. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

Symphony No 5 by Shostakovich that closed the evening in a way allowed Dudamel to show his control of both sides of musical expression – intensive and meditative, and he was fine in all four movements of the symphony, sometimes exaggerating the inside phrasing within each movement too much to the peril of the general line and overall feeling of where the symphony was going. In a way, it seems that for Dudamel the exact history of its creation and its insertion in a quite troubled period of Shostakovich’s life wasa not that important as its general, abstract positioning as a piece of music, and he led us through it gently, carefully and attentively, allowing us to lose ourselves in its ‘largo’ movement and appreciate the variability of orchestral sound and different branches of musical thought within it. It was not the most unforgettable Shostakovich one had heard but it somehow gave insights less into music played but rather into the style of Dudamel as conductor and person, instilling trust and respect towards his approach regardless of possible lack of some bigger vision that could have been brought by another conductor to this piece. The audiences were enthralled (may be due to the lasting impact of ‘Amériques’ still ringing in their ears) and were given a prepared encore of orchestral (without the voice) version of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’.

3 May 2018

The second night of Los Angeles Philharmonic residency was completely different from the first, and in a way was more insightful into current inspirations and initiatives of its musiс director who, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Esa-Pekka Salonen, makes an effort to supervise commissions of new music from many composers (many of whom are women) and creates a unique opportunity for these artists to come into limelight through performances of their works by LA Phil. The orchestra also plays the works premiered in other places of the world and is attentive to different experimental developments in modern classical music scene. Not all musicians of the orchestra are actively involved in this championing of modern music, and those who have expressed the interest in doing so have formed a special sub-section called New Music Group. It is their work within the programme supervised by Dudamel and called 'Green Umbrella' that we could observe on the evening of 3rd May. Dudamel chose three pieces to present this side of his endeavours as a music director of LA Phil: Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Attica’ (1972), Julius Eastman’s ‘Evil Nigger’ (1979) and ‘Law of Mosaics’, a work by the 35-year old composer Ted Hearne who currently spends some of his time in Los Angeles.

Gustavo Dudamel conducting New Music Group on May 3, 2018. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

Dudamel chose pieces that were quite challenging for London audiences as they, firstly, were all by American composers (and not the most familiar ones), and secondly, because two first pieces also had a strong political and social message that in a way was overlaying itself over music in a slightly too obvious way. Frederic Rzewski’s Attica (1972) is built as a musical line built on one phrase ‘Attica is in front of me’ – a sentence pronounced by an inmate of Attica Correctional Facility in New York who survived the tumult of uprising and retakinа the prison. Solomon Howard was chanting these lines along with the music that, it seems, tried to convey both the stamina of individual resistance and the silent murmur of the prisoner’s anger. The music was like a distant noice of a crowd preparing for an uprising, like hidden voices and whispers of prisoners suppressed for many years, growing in their expression and suddenly being heard along with the line of the main narrator. The main line sounded like an incantation to allow oneself to build strength and to organize one’s fuzzy memories of the event. However, this impression was more intellectual than really piercing the soul of the listeners, as the context of the uprising was far removed from the experiences of the Barbican audiences.

Four soloists performing 'Evil Nigger' by Julius Eastman on May 3, 2018. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

For the next piece Gustavo Dudamel moved from the stage to the seats in the audiences where he sat with his wife Maria and listened to the next piece presented by LA Phil New Music Group. This piece had quite a proviking title ‘Evil Nigger’ (1979), and was part of a tryptich with other pieces being ‘Crazy Nigger’ and ‘Gay Guerilla’. Julius Eastman (a composer who died in 1990) had always wanted challenge the existing stereotypes of what is allowed and accepted, and, being a black homosexual man, has channeled his music into resistance against expected and ‘normal’ ways of existence both in his life and in his compositions. A video presented before the actual piece was played allowed us to hear his voice and explain some ideas behind the ‘Evil Nigger’ which is notated in an unusual way with single-lined scoring resembling that used for percussion. Four musicians – Dynasty Battles, Michelle Cann, Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicky Ray – played this piece on four pianos which is minimalist in its using the iterations of a single note and a fragment built on descending fourths that always becomes the beginning of the next section. Four pianos indeed created a quite fascinating rhythmic pattern that could be compared to several balls of thread that get entangled with each other. On the other hand, it also resembled several computer arcade games played similtaneously. In a way, the political message here was more in disdain of clarity and pleasure of perception, involving a listener into a rather artifical piece of minimalist music, but somehow it indeed freshened the audio palate of the audience.

Ted Hearne presenting his 'Law of Mosaics'. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

The most interesting was a much more recent composition by Ted Hearne (who was there and explained the conception behind his work) ‘Law of Mosaics’ (2012) that received its European premiere that evening. Gustavo Dudamel returned to the podium and conducted the New Music Group that now grew on stage to the size of the chamber orchestra. This music was experimental in a proper musical way, and, while it was void of any political message that was rather good for a change, it also engaged the listener on a more interesting journey that the previous pieces did. While the first two channelled their authors’s absorption with the problems that troubled them and thus were considered of the utmost importance for everyone involved (and thus having too narrow a focus), this music was meant to be fun and enjoyable for the listeneners and also played with pieces of existing classical and modern music in a very inventive way. All the movements of the piece (there were six of them) are playing with the fact that separate musical lines or phrases or even longer excerpts could be separated from their normal context and listened to separately or in a new combination (including variations of speed, succession, rhythm and interweaving of pieces from different works). Thus, the first movement was called ‘excerpts from the middle of something’ and each time the same vigorous (but completely out of context, as fish out of water) piece is played it is for the listener to re-imagine the context (time, place, previous and following developments and even the concert hall) where this could be heard.

New Music Group, Ted Hearne and Gustavo Dudamel after performing 'Law of Mosaics'. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

It actually becomes a really enjoyable exercise, with repetitions allowing you to internalize this music and build your own ideas and visions around the non-entities of its zero beginning and end. The next movement – ‘Palindrome for Andrew Norman’ is built from quotes and samples of Norman’s (who is a friend of the author) music, with the extracts played backwards or in canon with themselves. It was again a very interesting play with existing material preparing the listener for even less reverential approach to Barber’s ‘Adagio’ and Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ where the ‘climactic moments’ (again some playfullness from the composer) are slowed down and layered upon each other, only to be even more slowed down in the penultimate movement. ‘Beats’ and ‘The warp and the woof’ gave an element of a visual realisation of the whole concept of the piece, with vertical rhythms of noise, punk and electronics being succeeded by musical imitation of a woven fabric. All these elements sounded so fascinating for one’s mind that one began to be a co-creator of the music with the composer as the ‘Law of Mosaics’ indeed invited us to use our imaginations and knowledge in a fun and engaging way, while never pressurizing us with the ingrained political message that ran separately from the music. I think that Ted Hearne’s approach is something to be appraised in modern music as borrowing and post-modern reshufflings of the existing classical material are inevitable in 21st century, and the conscious exposure of the process educates and entices the listener, allowing him to loose the unneeded reverence in the face of the music and engage with it fully, as it were a puzzle of a Lego constructor. My impressions of the evening stayed strongly with this piece, as I was silently wondering about the dangers of choosing music solely for its political and social message (as it was obviously Dudamel’s reason for the first two pieces). Overall, it was a great and exploratory (more quiet than the adjacent ones, but also more intense) evening where Gustavo Dudamel was acting like a host, conductor and messenger of his orchestra’s visions.

4th May 2018.

The last day of the LA Phil residency was the busiest of all three as it started with the open rehersal in the Barbican Hall at 11am in the morning, wherу Gustavo Dudamel rehearsed a short piece Danzón No 9 by Arturo Márquez with young people aged 14-25 from across London and also from LA who had been part of creating ‘Tuning into Change’ manifesto over the preceding half a year. The manifesto was distributed to everyone in the hall, young people (all dressed in blue T-shirts with the manifesto’s logo) made a spectacular entry by emerging in groups from all possible doors of the auditorium, and then Gustavo (wearing the same blue T-shirt) sprung youthfully onto the podium and started rehearsing the piece that sounded like a mix between an extract from a film score and a piece of tango music. After playing it through for the first time, Gustavo Dudamel perched on a high stool and began going slowly over this piece again while talking to young musicians extensively, partly as a way of educating them and also for the benefit of the public that was listenting intently and laughing at the multiple jokes of the conductor.

It was a really interesting insight into how Dudamel interacted with musicians. Stepping into position of a mature mentor as compared to these teenagers and 20-somethings, Dudamel brought forward images of love and affection, and emotional response brought to and elicited from a partner in a dance. He asked everyone to imagine the feeling of inviting a person you love to dance with you and emphasized the moments in music where this ‘you’ had to make a confession to another person. Dudamel tried to achieve the natural flow of the music without the unnecessary rallentandos or speedings-up in the score, and also looked for the right balance of sound between sections of instruments, suggesting to horns, for instance, to pretend there were only 4 of them (while there were 9). He was quite demanding of this young orchestra, never being fully satisfied with the result and continuing to criticize them playfully, bringing forth new examples from the ‘dance with loved one’ situation. He suggested to imagine how it would all go wrong if attention was not paid to balancing the rhythm and delivery so that true emotions were allowed to flow. Dudamel’s interest in extracting the emotional wealth from the music through finding the right approach to its different sections was obvious during this rehearsal. His exuberant wordiness in bringing imaginary life correspondences and readiness to sprinkle the rehearsal joyfully with terminology (various musical tempos where he was ready to invent some of his own) created a feeling of real fraternity that morning, albeit some elements of adjustment of his normal adult approach to younger musicians were also obvious in this process.

Gustavo Dudamel, LA Phil and London Symphony Chorus on May 4, 2018. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

The evening’s programme included two pieces that both required a choir and soloists: Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms’ (1965) and Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. As probably bringing their own LA Chorus was too expensive for the orchestra, this time it was London Symphony Chorus (led by Matthew Hamilton) that helped them out and went with them to Paris later. The programme’s combination worked really well in counterposing the piece by American composer of 20th century that build up on choral traditions of earlier centuries with the famous Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 that brought the grandeur and a resounding finish to the LA Phil residency. It showcased another side of Gustavo Dudamel’s work in his engagement with large number of musicians (orchestra, soloists and chorus) in monumental works as the one performed in the evening. It allowed the members of the public to witness the American orchestra’s interpretation of pieces that are frequently heard in the repertoire of European concert halls.

John Holiday after performing in 'Chichester Psalms'. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

While all the soloists (Victoria Songwei Li, Anne Reilly, Florian Panzieri and William Pedersen) were wonderful in Bernstein’s refreshening, innovative and monumental ‘Chichester Psalms’, it was countertenor John Holiday that brought in the eery, beautiful sounds through his high-pitched, tender voice that gently flowed over the auditorium, underscored by two harps that were replacing the usual woodwinds unusually missing from Bernstein’s score. This music, based on sacred Hebrew texts, created an unusual atmosphere of silent exhaltation somehow similar to the one created by gospel music in modern American churches. It prepared the listener to the final work of the evening – Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, where four other soloists (Julianna Di Giacomo, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Michael König and Solomon Howard) joined the orchestra and London Symphony Chorus in performing a piece that somehow will be recognized by almost every modern listener from young to old. It is to its final ‘Ode to Joy’ (to the words of Schiller) that Australian 104-year-old ecologist David Goodall listened to before ending his life voluntarily in a Swiss clinic recently. In the minds of many listeners this music is one of the most electrifying and magnificent moments in the history of classical music, where one elevates to the spheres where the unity with other listeners and the world around us (possibly with heaven for believers) is possible. It has also been associated with European Union as it was chosen for its hymn, as thus has this additional connotation of togetherness in our minds of European (and British) dwellers, although it might rest in our uncosciousness. Dudamel aimed at building up the symphony up to this pinnacle, and while he still sometimes wavered in achieving this goal while shaping up each movement exquisitely, overall it was very impressive and grandiose.

Gustavo Dudamel, LA Phil and London Symphony Chorus. Credits: Marc Allan/Barbican

Interestingly, the evening’s programme recreated the morning’s feeling of fraternity and unity of performers and the audience, now on larger scale. Somehow Beethoven and Bernstein's pieces together, while so different, were similar in their effects on the audiences and made us physically feel the closeness that music can create despite the distances between the visiting orchestra’s hometown and European capital and public to whom they brought the fruits of their musical labour. This same spirit surrounded the whole residency – there were meetings with musicians and representative of the orchestra management in receptions and backstage, possibilities to learn some life stories of musicians who had been with the orchestra for 40 years (including Russian fellow country men now living in LA), and even a chance to greet Gustavo Dudamel himself. Somehow the world truly seemed a small world after this wonderful residency, with countries and people connected through music. They should definitely come again (and they will) to surprise us with something special from their forthcoming centennary season.

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