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CLASSICAL MUSIC

THE iPOD PHILHARMONIC

Meet the young players who mix rap 'n' Bach and find concerts to be an 'Idol'-like thrill.

December 09, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

For Jason Lippman, a 32-year-old cellist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the choice to become a classical musician wasn't a career decision. It was simply inevitable, an impulse as natural to the Cincinnati native and self-described sports fanatic as the urge to watch his beloved Bengals hit the gridiron. Lippman began music lessons at 3 and recalls his parents "immersing" him and his brother in the works of Tchaikovsky and Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to the exclusion of any pop culture stimuli. "We'd go to school and the kids would be talking about this or that song on the radio," Lippman said, "and we had no idea what they were talking about."

Were it not for his certainty at an early musical crossroads, however, Lippman might now be performing for screaming hordes on MTV's "Total Request Live" rather than wielding his bow in Walt Disney Concert Hall. In high school, Lippman's brother Jonathan and best friend, Drew Lachey, started a singing group called 98 Degrees -- a boy band that eventually went on to sell more than 10 million albums, rivaling 'N Sync for the hearts and hormones of teen girls. "At one point, my brother asked me to join," Lippman recalled. "But I knew it wasn't my thing. I had decided to be a cellist."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. Philharmonic: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about young players in the Los Angeles Philharmonic included this sentence: Orchestra members work 11 months a year, perform eight "surfaces" (that is, concerts and rehearsals) every week and practice at home for hours each day. The word in quotation marks should have been "services." Also, cellist Jason Lippmann's name was misspelled as Lippman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 16, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. Phil players: An article last Sunday about young players in the Los Angeles Philharmonic included this sentence: Orchestra members work 11 months a year, perform eight "surfaces" (that is, concerts and rehearsals) every week and practice at home for hours each day. The word in quotation marks should have been "services." Also, cellist Jason Lippmann's last name was misspelled as Lippman.

Of course, rare is the player who must choose between pop superstardom and a spot on the orchestra dais, even if it's for the L.A. Phil, called by New Yorker magazine "the most contemporary-minded orchestra in America." But for a generation of classical musicians that grew up navigating the Information Age's BitTorrent stream -- for whom MySpace.com and "American Idol" are as fundamental parts of daily life as roiling timpani -- orchestral music and popular culture are anything but mutually exclusive.

Symphony players have long held a reputation for being musical omnivores, but efforts to bridge the high-low cultural divide are especially conspicuous here in Los Angeles, beneath the torqued prows of Disney Hall and under the stewardship of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has helped usher in an era of emphatically modern programming featuring contemporary composers.

In that light, consider an interesting young cross-section of the L.A. Phil -- Lippman, Ben Hong, Dana Hansen, Ariana Ghez, Johnny Lee -- whose various extracurricular interests include (but aren't limited to) improvisational jazz, gangsta rap, African drumming, celebrity trivia, Dodgers games and motorcycle riding. (Anyone wanting to meet them in person can do so from January through May at Casual Fridays, a concert series programmed with classical music neophytes in mind. Orchestra members perform sans tuxedos, and the concerts are followed by informal receptions at which orchestra and audience members can mingle over cocktails.)

Fittingly, Ghez, Lee, Lippman, Hong and Hansen are among those eagerly anticipating the arrival of 26-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who is set to inherit Salonen's place at the podium as the L.A. Phil's musical director at the end of the 2008-09 season. "I can't tell you how excited this whole orchestra is," said Lee, 28. "Esa-Pekka is still young. But because Gustavo is in our age group and is this phenomenal presence on stage, he is going to bring that youthful energy and creativity and continue the good work we've done in the last 10 years."

Each one's musicianship has been honed by endless hours of practice and a borderline ecclesiastical dedication to canonical music: Orchestra members work 11 months a year, perform eight "surfaces" (that is, concerts and rehearsals) every week and practice at home for hours each day. (L.A. Phil players command salaries between $112,000 and $350,000 for their trouble.)

But according to a wave of academic discourse on the matter, players such as these have likely benefited from a generational openness to nonclassical influences including hip-hop, free jazz, show tunes and world music. "The first commandment of classical music -- Thou shalt have no other gods before me -- has gone by the by," said Robert Fink, an associate professor of musicology at UCLA. "Even people who devote their lives to classical music can't wear blinders."

'Nothing like I expected'

Speaking at a press event in London last month, Jamie Foxx recalled his first impression of the L.A. Phil's assistant principal cello player, Ben Hong, whom the Oscar-winner enlisted in August to help him "look like a cellist" while portraying a musical prodigy in the DreamWorks drama "The Soloist." The movie is based on Steve Lopez's columns in The Times about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who ended up on the streets of Los Angeles homeless and schizophrenic yet held tight to his music. Hong's playing will stand in for Foxx's on the film's soundtrack.

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