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Umbrella's potent reign

Philharmonic's new music series marks its 20th anniversary with challenging fare.

January 11, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THE Los Angeles Philharmonic's New Music Group is 25 years old. The Green Umbrella, the orchestra's new music concert series, is 20 years old.

"Green Umbrella" doesn't mean anything, a silly symphonies non sequitur dreamed up by Ernest Fleischmann, then the general manager of the orchestra. But the series itself means plenty.

Five years ago, the orchestra gleefully celebrated the series' 15th anniversary and the ensemble's 20th. The concert had sold an impressive 400-plus tickets, filling Zipper Concert Hall. Following after-concert toasts, many lingered outside of the Colburn School and looked across Grand Avenue at the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall and felt optimistic.

But no one then dared dream that for the next anniversary celebration in Disney, attendance would grow by more than 1,000. Box-office figures for Tuesday's anniversary concert topped 1,400 -- and that even after a starry evening featuring Dawn Upshaw had to be scrapped.

What was originally to have been a program devoted to the famed Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, featuring Upshaw and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, has been postponed until next season. In November, the popular soprano learned she needed immediate treatment for early stage breast cancer, and she began treatment last month.

Instead, the program became a family affair. Salonen substituted the U.S. premiere of his new chamber piece, "Catch and Release," first played in Finland last summer. Steven Stucky, the orchestra's consulting composer for new music and the host for Green Umbrella for the last 18 years, was represented by his string quartet, "Nell'ombra, nella Luce" (In Shadow, in Light), from 2000. And Salonen and Stucky put themselves in context with works by Salonen's crazy Italian teacher, Franco Donatoni, and the incandescent Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, an important influence on both younger men.

The sound of the four works was very different, but not their sensibility. Lutoslawski, who died in 1994, and Donatoni, who died in 2002, both found logical ways to structure irrationality and inspiration. Lutoslawski's nine-minute Chain 1 (1983) for chamber orchestra and Donatoni's 14-minute "Hot" (1989) for solo saxophone and a jazz-like combo operate on principles of accumulation. One curious or captivating idea follows the next.

Lutoslawski makes connections through overlapping, hence the "chain" structure, and a continually emotional deepening of the material. Donatoni twists his ideas like pretzels and keeps turning up the temperature. The saxophone part is wildly virtuosic. Complex new music here collides with complex jazz in a Boulez-meets-Cecil Taylor wild ride.

Stucky and Salonen are, like their mentors, careful and smart, if more conventional, makers of musical structure. But also like them, structure is only a container for a lot of really good musical ideas.

Darkness and light was the issue for both of them on Tuesday's program. Stucky's "Nell'ombra, nella Luce" is full of gorgeous, dappled string quartet textures making striking contrasts. Like in Lutoslawski, sections overlap. A violinist is reluctant to leave the light for darker harmonies, but those darker harmonies in the slow section of the single-movement 17-minute score are the dark, warm and wonderfully mysterious soft air of an Italian summer night.

Salonen's "Catch and Release" was written as a companion piece to Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," with the same distinctive instrumentation of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin and bass. In a preconcert talk, Salonen, who was full of amusing anecdotes about studying with Donatoni (who was, among other things, a kleptomaniac, both musically and criminally), spoke of the difficulty of not sounding too much like "Soldat" with that ensemble. But one heard in his 20-minute, three-movement work a different Stravinsky than "Soldat." The playful trombone glissandi were the Stravinsky of "Pulcinella." Wind fanfares evoked the later "Agon." John Adams' influence was clear in the meandering long lines and grace notes of the slow central movement, Aria. Ravel's sound world kept popping up as well.

But the perky spirit, the exceptional quick wit, the quicksilver rhythmic writing and the fresh harmonic language were pure Salonen.

In the end, "Catch and Release" may be more companion to Salonen's "Insomnia," his dark 9/11 orchestral score. He said that it contains ideas he had in 2002, when writing the earlier work, but that were too bright for it. Here, then, is music with which to greet the dawn and take delight in a new day.

There was no easy music on the program. "Catch and Release" sounded confident but could probably, with more rehearsal, sound more so. Douglas Masek was a dazzling sopranino and tenor saxophonist in "Hot." Four from the Philharmonic string section played Stucky's quartet with stunning beauty.

Green Umbrella is a great success story and needs no fixing. But may I make two small suggestions? Lose the green lighting that casts a sickly pall over Disney's interior. And lower ticket prices. They're relatively reasonable, but make them dirt cheap and see if the hall might not sell out.

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