How often do you get to see a living legend? Glass, who is 86, is one of the most influential composers of the last century. When I was in music school in the 1980s he'd already made the history textbooks as one of the founding fathers of minimalism, along with Terry Riley and Steve Reich. But his career was still unfolding - Glass wrote his violin concerto in 1987, marking a pivot to larger-scale symphonic music. And this concerto is pretty special - it's actually a wonderful introduction to the composer's work.
But before I go into that, I have to explain that Glass was not the only important composer in attendance - also there was Emmy Award-winning composer and Occidental College professor Adam Schoenberg, to hear the world premiere of his latest piece, Cool Cat, which was commissioned by the LA Phil.
As conductor Karen Kamensek explained, "Cool Cat" was inspired by the "much-beloved but recently deceased" mountain lion named P-22, who somehow lived in a very urban area for 10 years, surviving the crossing of two major highways to make his home in Griffith Park, right in the heart of Los Angeles.
This joyous and energetic fanfare for an uncommon cat was written during a time of great struggle for the composer. Schoenberg has been fighting acute ulcerative colitis for more than a year, a drastic illness that has required multiple hospitalizations and surgeries. As he told Oxy Magazine, "I believe the timing of this commission — and how quickly I was able to write it — really saved my life. Every time I was in the studio making progress on this piece, I felt more energized and alive. It was both cathartic and healing for me and gave my body, brain and heart an extra boost in order to keep on going. It also gave me the strength to make it through the first surgery, which we ended up having to move up by four days as my body was rapidly declining. I am beyond grateful to be here today."
His very presence at this concert was truly a blessing.
But on to his work, which started this extraordinary concert.
"Cool Cat" began majestically, accentuated by timpani, then went into a driving rhythmic pattern that felt just-so-slightly off kilter (a sort of 3+3+3+2 - watch your step on that last one, mountain lion!) It felt a little bit perilous, and there is a sense of crashing around - perhaps the noise of the city, with sounds from a robust assortment percussion - two marimbas, congas, bongos, cymbals and more. Toward the end was a jazzy trumpet solo, played with style by Thomas Hooten - here was the cat's city swagger. The piece concluded with more big, full-orchestra sound - a fairly short piece at five minutes, but it packed a lot of energy and exuberance.
Next, Anne Akiko Meyers took the stage in a blue dress that literally dazzled, evoking much of what this concert was about - the "Hollywood" in the Hollywood Bowl, the stars at night in "The Planets" (a piece which was yet to come, in the second half) and rippling tapestry of a minimalist piece of music. (Sarah Chang once talked to me about matching the concert dress to the music and the program - Meyers' former teacher Alice Schoenfeld emphasized the same thing. Here it was.)
Immediately noticeable was the dark tone of Meyers' 1741 "Vieuxtemps" del Gesù violin, as she fired out triplets in rapid succession. This music is rhythmically layered and busy with activity across the orchestra. In this outdoor atmosphere it took just a little time to fall into the high degree of precise synchronicity required to pull off this kind of piece, but the alignment took hold quickly.
It was interesting to take in a major piece of minimalist music live, to see if I would grow bored or weary of so much repetition. During the second movement I started to get philosophical about it: life is full of repetition, but no less rich for it. If you are paying attention, everything changes in subtle and endlessly interesting ways. Small evolutions mount slowly, then suddenly one day it becomes apparent that everything is completely different. Somehow Glass's music gets at this - there is plenty to keep the listener engaged. No, I was in it the whole time.
Parts of the second movement made me think of a moment distilled from the Passacaglia cadenza from Shostakovich's haunting first violin concerto - a piece also written in the 20th century, some 40 years before Glass wrote this one. It rides a similar gloomy wave of sorrow. Glass subtly pitches beats patterns against one another but he outlines a harmony that feels plucked from the past. A bit of history, a bit of innovation - isn't that what it is, to grow a culture?
The Hollywood Bowl's necessary amplification (it's an outdoor venue for 17,500) took away some of the subtlety in the dynamics, but not the dreamy effect.
The third movement was a whirlwind, full of compelling and dance-like rhythms, everyone hitting their stride. It's fun to feel the tension of four beats against three and the swirl of notes between - and very complicated to pull off, which Meyers and the orchestra did well. Meyers was in constant motion, her bow rapidly oscillating over all four strings and fingers flying.
Toward the end the music slowed down, the solo violin playing sustained notes rather than a flurry of them. The motion in the orchestra subsided to a gentle percolation. The solo violin sound floated high over all this activity, pitch ascending and ascending, then stillness. The orchestra and soloist held this moment well - then ...Applause!
During the curtain calls and standing ovation the famous and well-respected composer joined the musicians onstage.
The second half of the concert featured "The Planets," Gustav Holst's 1914 musical exploration of the planets and their associated Greek and Roman gods and goddesses: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. With so many featured solos, this was a wonderful showcase for the talented musicians of the LA Phil, featuring excellent concertmaster solos by Nathan Cole in "Venus," beautiful clarinet and oboe solos by Marc Lachat and Andrew Lowy respectively, lovely cello playing by Robert de Maine. The piece also featured celeste, played by Joanne Pearce Martin. Kamensek conducted with a graceful presence that seemed to allow the musicians to relax into this piece and shine.
The Hollywood Bowl's cameras were impressively coordinated with the music, showing just the right musician at the right time for their featured solo or section work on the big screen.
Toward the end of the last movement "Neptune" came the sound of a chorus - I wrote down "mermaid voices - from where?" It was a women's chorus comprised of singers from the Pacific Chorale, singing off-stage. It made for a mystical ending to a special concert.
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