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Classical Music : L.a. Phil's Other New Kid : John Adams Prepares The First Festival Of The Dudamel Era.

November 15, 2009|Diane Haithman

What does a renowned, Harvard-educated, Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music composer say just after the standing-ovation world premiere of his new symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of its wildly celebrated new music director, Gustavo Dudamel?

"That was rockin', wasn't it?" says a beaming John Adams.

Yeah, that's the way "we old boomers" talk, Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. President Deborah Borda, 60, jokes of her longtime friend and colleague Adams, 62. It doesn't seem to surprise her during a conversation at the gala party after the Oct. 8 premiere that Adams would use the phrase when talking about "City Noir," a work inspired by Hollywood's classic noir films of the 1940s and '50s.

Besides -- it was rockin'. The buzz at the Latin-themed post-premiere affair seemed to have less to do with the generously distributed "Pasion" cocktail created in honor of Dudamel's first Disney Hall concert as Philharmonic music director -- an alarmingly sweet combo of rum, pineapple, coconut juice and grenadine -- than with the afterglow of the music.

The heady sensation made it clear that 28-year-old Dudamel isn't the only new kid at the Phil: The other is Adams, in his inaugural season as the orchestra's creative chair and curator of the Philharmonic's first festival of Dudamel's tenure: West Coast, Left Coast, a three-week event launching Saturday and exploring California music.

The multidisciplinary festival will feature composers and performers long associated with California's classical music scene, including San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, composer-musician Terry Riley and former L.A. Phil Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, now the orchestra's first conductor laureate; Salonen's "L.A. Variations" will be on the program with "City Noir," also conducted by Dudamel.

Also on the eclectic list are former Beach Boy Brian Wilson and "The Yellow Shark," a contemporary composition by the late Frank Zappa that Adams will conduct and describes as "fiendishly difficult." "Being the cantankerous person that he was, when he composed classical contemporary music, he made sure it was hard," Adams says with obvious relish.

More stuff you might not expect: a "Night of the Beats," blending jazz performance with poetry, and a symposium that includes Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh, film composer Thomas Newman and USC history professor and former California State Librarian Kevin Starr. Starr's series of books on California history were a major inspiration for "City Noir."

"He's quite an Americanist," says Starr of Adams. "John has a special ability, or developed ability, to hear the music of various American places. Look at his operas: 'Dr. Atomic' [about the first test of an atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M.]; 'Nixon in China,' with the breathtaking arrival of the plane onstage -- when Nixon gets out, he really gives us Nixon in the music. His music is abstract but not too abstract. Despite the incredibly intricate theory behind what he does, you can follow the story he's telling you."

Festival artists coming in from outside of the classical concert world seem to appreciate the opportunity Adams offers to work outside the walls of their commercial careers. Newman, whose film score credits include "Wall-E" and "American Beauty," says his new piece, "It Got Dark," commissioned by the Philharmonic and receiving its world premiere during the festival, uses as inspiration Newman's 20-year collection of L.A.-area ephemera, postcards, photographs and the like.

"Many creative choices that you are making for a movie are determinations, because you are looking at an image that gives you so much information, and it really determines the tempo," Newman says. "It's obviously much less so in terms of a concert piece, because the ideas originate from me. It's very exciting, in a very different way."

Also during the festival, audiences will get another chance to hear "City Noir," a jazz-influenced work that Times music critic Mark Swed called Adams' "most demanding symphonic work." Says Adams, "I wanted to write a piece that had a California sensibility to it. . . . We want to create a repertoire that speaks to our culture the way that Mahler's repertoire speaks for living in Central Europe around the turn of the 20th century."

'Only in L.A.'

A few of days after the premiere, Adams offers a more detailed observation on the star-studded premiere concert via e-mail: "What a circus that was! . . . 'City Noir' felt right -- neither too long or too abbreviated. And my wife got to sit next to the very charming Tom Hanks and his very generous wife. Only in L.A."

The white-haired "new kid" has a long history with the Phil: His "Dharma at Big Sur" was composed for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003, and Adams oversaw the Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox festival in 2006.

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