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A city-sounds serenade

The L.A. Philharmonic brings the streets into the concert hall with 'Concrete Frequency.'

January 07, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

A village won't do; it takes a city to make a symphony orchestra. Resources, riches and residents -- all in significant numbers -- are essential to nourishing symphonic music.

But what of the urban experience? For many patrons of the orchestra, and those who write about it, its music exists equally as a pleasurable escape from the pressures, drudgery and distractions of city life. Beethoven's brooks burble and all that.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, however, thinks defiantly. The popularity and accessibility of Walt Disney Concert Hall have both served to connect the musicians with the populace as never before in the ensemble's history and have empowered it to take chances. The latest are the subject of a two-week festival dubbed "Concrete Frequency" -- an exploration of the impact of the city on music, which began over the weekend.

At a panel discussion Saturday afternoon, guest conductor David Robertson, music director of the festival, set out its thesis: A modern city's diversity makes life interesting. That also gave him a spectacular out: In a city just about anything goes, which allowed him to program pretty much whatever he wanted.

If the Saturday night concert had a theme, it was that the center of the city is where everything happens. Live in the suburbs if you will, but come downtown for excitement -- for noise, nuisance and danger.

The evening began with a dated celebration of urban planning: excerpts from an anti-urban film, "The City," created for the 1939 New York World's Fair, with music by Aaron Copland played live. The program ended with a Parisian in New York, Edgard Varese, staring up at skyscrapers, exhilarated by taxi horns and the crowds.

In between came Frank Zappa's "Dupree's Paradise." Short, diverting and typically cynical, it is meant to evoke a Watts bar in the wee hours of the morning in 1964. Here anything really goes, although the score, a Zappa tune given a bit of Varesean oomph in its orchestration, was actually the tamest-sounding music all evening. George Crumb's "A Haunted Landscape" was also included to evoke, Robertson said, a kind of "Twilight Zone" cityscape, empty and lonely.

The sonic range and racket were extravagant. Varese's "Ameriques" is a percussion paradise, with all manner of drums and gongs and a prominent air-raid siren. His is a city that never sleeps. Crumb's city, on the other hand, stirs, tosses and turns. It makes all kinds of intriguing little noises but never quite wakens.

Musically, I found myself intrigued by other issues, though. "The City" posits a socialist paradise, a refuge from a metropolis' consuming greed, whereby big business turns workers into automatons. Get people out of traffic, remove the hustle and bustle from their lives and give the kids bicycle lanes, the film, written by Lewis Mumford, suggests.

Copland could always summon up big-country grandeur well. But Brooklyn born, he was a product of New York City, and it's his city music here that is addictive. Folks eat in a frenzy, and Copland accompanies them with a repetitive few bars that strikingly presage Philip Glass' music of half a century later.

Varese was Copland's opposite. He brought the Old World with him to New York in the early '20s. "Ameriques" is often criticized for being too derivative of Stravinsky and Debussy. Juxtaposing the openings of "The Rite of Spring" and "Ameriques" in a terrific pre-concert lecture, Robert Fink explained Varese's obvious plagiarism as putting Stravinsky's ancient Russian paganism at the service of worshiping New York.

But Varese is more anarchic than Stravinsky. He ultimately throws in the kitchen sink. In fact, he all but tosses it from the top of a tall building and lets it crash to the ground. And what results is something akin to history's first remix, the "Rite" amplified and amputated by DJ Edgard.

Does it mix metaphors to say that the Philharmonic had a field day in its various city soundscapes? It did. Robertson etched clean lines in Copland. He let Zappa's doodle swing engagingly. He brought a wealth of eerie detail to Crumb's creepy night sounds. And he enthusiastically let Varese rip. If the essence of the city is its layers, its comings and goings in private and public, its physical presence and its secrets, those characteristics were all part of this concert's sense of wonder and awe.

But Copland's anti-corporate, utopian vision wasn't completely disputed. As Fink pointed out, the composer offered what is surely the first musical portrait of road rage. In the symposium, Frank Gehry bemoaned, without being willing to go into specifics, what might become of his vision for downtown L.A. if New York developers do their worst.

And this concert, so sonically thrilling, will soon be available for acoustically emasculated download on iTunes. In his comments to the audience, Robertson noted that Varese sought the intelligence of the soul of sound. Apple, alas, destroys that soul by withholding kilobytes, by offering but a small fraction of the raw data of a recording.

But then, isn't the aurally isolating iPod the antithesis of the urban experience? At Disney, at least, the street will still resound uncompromised for another week.


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