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Two sisters as single pianist

Katia and Marielle Labeque are shining soloists -- and mind readers

January 19, 2009|Mark Swed | MUSIC CRITIC

Friday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the world premiere of Louis Andriessen's "The Hague Hacking" at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It is a glitzy 16-minute, two-piano concerto written for the flamboyant French duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque. That makes it a relatively small and relatively flashy piece compared to Arvo Part's soul-searching, expansive "Los Angeles" Symphony and Kaija Saariaho's ravishing, soul-sapping oratorio, "La Passion de Simone," also premiered by Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in recent days. Still, "Hague Hacking" proved hard work, very hard work.

Apparently, getting the 69-year-old Dutch master, an uncompromising anti-establishment figure, to write a concerto for traditional orchestra was, in itself, like pulling teeth. Salonen has said Andriessen needed considerable convincing to accept a commission to write for traditional symphony orchestra. In 1970, after penning his nose-thumbing "The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven" for ice cream bell and orchestra, the Dutch composer moved on to smaller ensembles, or larger ones comprising raucous winds, brass and percussion.

The San Francisco Symphony commissioned "Die Snelheid" ("Velocity") in 1983 for three ensembles, replete with blaring saxophones and Hammond organ, and that aggressive work drove audiences out of the hall in fury and fright. At a rare American revival of "Snelheid" a decade later as part of the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts, one well-known American composer ostentatiously kept his fingers in his ears throughout the performance.

But Andriessen, who has been mentor to many younger American composers and who has created a major stylistic school in Holland, has lately clicked with the L.A. Philharmonic. His work was a hit during the Minimalist Jukebox festival three years ago, and it looks as though a fruitful relationship with the orchestra has emerged. "The Hague Hacking" begins with percussive attacks by the pianists, who play throughout the score as if a single pianist with four hands. They riff on the opening notes of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2," a potboiler the contrarian composer claimed not to know. But he did admit to adoring a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon that parodies the Liszt. He also threw into the mix a drawn-out version of a popular song about the Dutch city The Hague.

Andriessen describes the concerto as essentially a toccata. Its edges are sharp, and everyone on stage Friday seemed on edge as well. But the Labeques, fabulously dressed, were fabulous soloists, reading each other's minds as they became a single super pianist. Stravinsky's prickly sound was an evident influence on the piano writing, but there were also sweetening hints of Messiaen's harmonies in the orchestral accompaniment.

Liszt remained deconstructed throughout in this study of pinpoint pianism. The ending was surprising. Andriessen reaches an unusually triumphant climax -- unusual, that is, for him. The score then ends with a hint of sentiment -- also unusual for him -- in soft string chords.

"Hague Hacking" was the center of a splashy program that began with Janacek's Sinfonietta and ended with Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." The brass, with many added trumpets, blared brightly in the Sinfonietta. Meanwhile, Stravinsky's "Rite" was, as it has become in Disney, a rite of Salonen.

Friday's performance nonetheless differed considerably from the celebratory one that opened the hall in 2003. Though full of drama and given its quotient of frenzy, this "Rite" had a curiously somber cast. For all its explosive drama, Salonen brought a new moodiness to the score. Instrumental details were richer and dwelt upon. An unbroken sense of line was sustained from beginning to end that I felt was moving but unsettling. Alternating the "Rite" with Saariaho's wrenching "Passion" has undoubtedly taken a psychic toll on the performers.

Salonen dedicated the program to Betty Freeman, the Los Angeles patron who died earlier this month. He called her one of the most important patrons in the history of music. He did not exaggerate.

But I would like to add another aspect of Freeman's legacy to the discussion. Besides the many composers she supported and more than 400 works she commissioned, she also inspired new heroes of new music. Lenore and Bernard Greenberg underwrote the Philharmonic commissions for both Saariaho's "Passion" and Andriessen's concerto.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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