Los Angeles Philharmonic Sound Stage series, second season
"The Carnival of the Animals"
The second season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Sound Stage series opened with artistic director Gustavo Dudamel and his adorable nine-year old son Martin. The orchestra played Camille Saint-Saëns’s *Carnival of the Animals* and many of the movements of the piece were preceded by short animated films, telling stories about the animal featured in the following movement. The first season of the Sound Stage series was probably the best thing I saw online during the pandemic, it was so thoughtfully put together, so obviously formulated for the online format. These animated interludes were a perfect example of their thoughtful programming.
The piece was played by the LA Phil with Yuja Wang and David Fung playing the solo piano parts. Such beautiful music! I thought of a few French words: “élan,” “panache,” “frisson.” I had never heard the whole piece before and was quite taken with it. I’d heard a few of the movements before: “Aquarium” comes on at 13:88, you might recognize that.
“The Swan” might be better known to me as “The Dying Swan,” a ballet solo choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905 for Anna Pavlova. According to Wikipedia (and why would they lie?), she did “some 4,000 performances of the dance and ‘swept the world.’” But let’s be clear: Saint-Saëns did not visualize the swan dying, it was just swimming. Fokine added the manic wing flappings of death. I'll give you two versions - - first, a "straight" version, danced by Royal Ballet star Natalia Osipova:
The orchestra was full of sparkle and color and the pianists did a fascinating job of being in the forefront at times but being in the ensemble at other times. “The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods” was my favorite movement, it was scored for the two pianists and solo clarinet. Fascinating, haunting, more than a whiff of Messaien. That happens at 16:40.
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"A Pan-American Musical Feast"
The second episode was called “A Pan-American Musical Feast.” It opened with “Fanfaria” by Tania León, an exciting short piece for brass and percussion. Moments in it were thrillingly messy, with a number of trumpets going OFF. That’ll get your blood movin’.
Dudamel had a conversation with chef and philanthropist José Andrés about how music, food, the other arts inform us as people and as a culture. Andrés said that cooking is made out of ingredients and technique but when it comes down to it, it’s made out of people.
The orchestra played the fourth movement (“Bananera”) of Paul Desenne’s *Sinfonía Burocrática ed’Amazzónica.* Music as tasty and rhythmic as its title. I’d never heard of this guy, I need to check him out.
They played Copland’s *Appalachian Spring* suite, such a masterpiece. They brought out all of the moods in the piece: dreamy, lyrical, vigorous, sturdy, resplendent. This piece is played a lot and it’s easy to see why.
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“Easter Sunrise Service at Hollywood Bowl”
They opened with “Air pour les trompettes” by JS Bach, arranged by Allen. Allen who? More details please. What a darling piece, those trumpet players really nailed it, and some nice licks by a French horn player on the side. Oh, and a nice little trombone lick at the end.
Dudamel gave the historical context to the concert: the LA Phil played their first concert at the site which would be the Hollywood Bowl on Easter Sunday 1921, 100 years before. Wonderful.
The next piece on the program was soprano Nadine Sierra singing Mozart’s old warhorse, *Exsultate, jubilate.* I thought her voice sounded a little thick and lugubrious at first but was relieved to her lighten up when she had to, to get through the rapid passages with the little notes. That sounded to me like her true voice, her voice sounded rich and creamy but not falsely dark.
Dudamel and Sierra took the middle movement, the slow movement, at an unusually spritely tempo. Not too fast, but a bit more spring in the step than I’m used to. She sounded fantastic in this movement. Another tempo surprise, the final movement was a smidge slower than I’ve heard it. Not too slow, but more leisurely than I’m used to.
The concert ended with the gospel duo Mary Mary singing “All Hail the Power of Jesus’s Name,” a hymn that was sung in that first concert a hundred years ago (the arrangement for this performance was by Carlos Simon). The two singers had lovely voices and sounded great together but their noodling was often not to my taste. I love me some gospel noodling, but I like how Patti La Belle does it, not how Mariah Carey does it. I’m just sayin’.
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"Grand Pianola Music"
The fourth concert of the LA Phil second season of Sound Stage was centered on a piece from 1982 by John Adams, *Grand Pianola Music.* The concert started with a conversation between Dudamel and Adams. Adams said the piece was the “craziest, wackiest” piece he’s written. It was inspired by a dream: in the dream he was driving on the highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two limousines pulled up beside him, one on either side, and they miraculously turned into grand pianos.
The piece is scored for winds, percussion, two pianos, and three female singers (amplified). No strings. I love Adams and this is a perfect example of his early style: full of rhythmic vitality, an unusually static sense of harmony, a beautiful use of orchestration to vary the texture, music that stimulates the brain and (a phrase I’m using a lot lately) ravishes the ear. But let me tell you, that slow burn of undulating harmony, don’t be fooled by it! Big changes to come.
This concert did something very unusual for the Sound Stage series - - about five minutes into the first movement, the video switched from a film of the musicians to a film of trees in the forest. Were they redwoods? This switch didn’t bother me, it was just a surprise. We had a few minutes of that and then went back to the Hollywood Bowl and the performance. They made the switch when the singers came in, and it was fun to see them singing, each in their own little COVID Lucite booth. It was fun watching them conduct themselves, to keep track of the rhythm. In an unobtrusive way, of course. Why the hell not. The film went back and forth a few times, between footage of the performance and pre-recorded nature videos. It was lovely, a nice change of pace.
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The fifth episode of the second season of the LA Philharmonic Sound Stage was called “Unfinished,” centered on Schubert’s 8thsymphony, known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” Dudamel introduced the piece and said that unfinished pieces have a sense of mystery. We don’t really know why Schubert didn’t finish the symphony, he only wrote two movements.
I played this piece in high school - - did you know I played string bass in my high school orchestra? My brother Patrick was first chair cello, so the conductor, Mrs. Jennings, knew me, and she knew I was a singer and pianist. The guy who was playing bass was graduating and she thought of me. I had the two essential requirements for someone who could learn bass over the summer: 1) I could read music, and 2) I was tall!
I was never very good but it was fun and a good way for me to expand my ears. Our orchestra got together with two or three other high school orchestras once a year to play together, conducted by someone from UW Madison, that was always a high point of the year. One year we played the “Unfinished” symphony, and I’ll always think back to that experience when I hear it.
The orchestra played it with elegance and verve. But honestly, it’s not a piece that really turns my crank.
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The sixth episode of the second season of the LA Philharmonic's Sound Stage series was a collaboration between the LA rock band Weezer, members of the LA Phil, and YOLA (the LA Phil’s youth orchestra). The concert was preceded by a conversation between radio host Novena Carmel and Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer of the band. He talked about how he had recently become aware of how everyone’s lives had been taken over by technology, which inspired him to do music that didn’t have much of an electronic element.
The band did a song with the orchestra, “All My Favorite Songs.” It took me a while to get used to the sound of Cuomo’s voice. It kind of grated on me but I came around to it. The song had a warm, welcoming vibe but didn’t feel particularly original. It felt like warmed-over late Beatles.
Carmel and Cuomo continued their conversation with Akiko Tarumoto, assistant concertmaster of the LA Phil. Cuomo and Tarumoto were at Harvard at the same time and connected after he found her at the LA Phil. Cuomo talked about what an honor it is for him to collaborate with the LA Phil and hear those incredible musicians playing his music.
The next song was called “Buddy Holly.” It started with the orchestra playing a droopy, sad intro, which dropped into the band playing something bright and poppy, with the orchestra playing a little something underneath the band. This song felt more distinctive. I was into it a little more because I knew how much the experience meant to Cuomo.
The seventh episode of the second season of Sound Stage was a collaboration with musician, actor, and activist Common. The concert was preceded by a conversation between Common, LA Phil artistic director Gustavo Dudamel, and comedian Kimberly Clark. She kicked off the conversation by playing a clip from her recent Netflix comedy special, where she talks about having a crush on Dudamel. So funny.
One of the highlights of the conversation was hearing Dudamel say “hip hop” in his Venezuelan accent. Common said that hip hop was one place where Black and Latino people could feel that they can speak their truth and be heard. Dudamel said that classical music has the same power to break through barriers.
His set with the Phil started with “The Light” and wow, talk about a rocking combo: Common’s hip hop vocals, the sung vocals (which I think were pre-recorded, I didn’t see a live singer), the guitar and drums, and the LA Phil – it all worked together gloriously. I was totally into it.
Clark asked where Common sees hope for change: he said he sees it in her, he sees it in Dudamel, he sees it in his daughter, he sees it in the way people voted in the last election. I got a little teary when he talked about the change and the healing taking place. Dudamel said that culture is an essential element of freedom. Clark asked what they were hoping to achieve with their collaboration. Dudamel said they wanted to build a bridge, from one style of music to another, from one community to another. He and Common both said this was the first of many partnerships.
The next song, “Get It Right,” was performed with PJ, who co-wrote the song with him. She had a cute voice, very distinctive. Once again, it was a delicious combo of all of the elements, it made me smile big time. I heard some pre-recorded backup vocals here and there - - I know the mixture of live and recorded music is part of the genre, but I would have liked to have heard the vocals live. A shout-out to the flute player in the Phil, a few tasty tweets! And yes, a nice little moment featuring the harp, thank you for that.