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Review: 'Graffiti' a big draw at L.A. Phil Green Umbrella concert

The L.A. Philharmonic's Green Umbrella program was a showcase concert featuring John Adams conducting 'Son of Chamber Symphony' and the premiere of Unsuk Chin's 'Graffiti.'

February 27, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • John Adams conducting his "Son of Chamber Symphony" with the L.A .Phil New Music Group in the Green Umbrella program.
John Adams conducting his "Son of Chamber Symphony" with the… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

The Walt Disney Concert Hall stage didn't look so hot for Tuesday night's Green Umbrella concert. Rather than the trademark umbrellas being gracefully suspended from the ceiling, they were placed in clumps, like lean-tos, on either side of a stage and so saturated with green light that they appeared covered with AstroTurf.

Then again, the Los Angeles Philharmonic may simply be packing early for its upcoming tour and wanted to have those umbrellas handy. This was a showcase concert of the orchestra's New Music Group, and it will be repeated in London the week after next.

That tour, which includes Europe and New York, is intended to show many sides of what has surely become the most multi-faceted orchestra in the world and certainly the one putting the greatest emphasis on music of our time. Days after announcing that it has commissioned a record 13 new works for the 2013-14 season, the L.A. Phil proceeded with this Green Umbrella program as evidence of just how much new music has become an inherent part of its makeup.

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The orchestra's creative consultant, John Adams, conducted his "Son of Chamber Symphony." The orchestra's music director, Gustavo Dudamel, led the Percussion Concerto by the orchestra's principal timpanist, Joseph Pereira. Finally Dudamel conducted the premiere of Unsuk Chin's "Graffiti."

This was not, however, quite as new an evening as all that might indicate. Adams' 2007 score was just performed in December by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The Pereira concerto had its premiere less than a year ago at a Green Umbrella concert. Chin's piece — an L.A. Phil commission, as was the Pereira — was brand new, though her title was not. Two seasons ago, the L.A. Phil gave the U.S. premiere of Magnus Lindberg's "Graffiti."

Nor did Tuesday's three pieces break with convention. Each was in three movements, highlighted by a sumptuous slow movement in the middle, and each lasted around 25 minutes.

Still, it was about time that the L.A. Phil caught up with Adams' follow-up to his Chamber Symphony, which was one of former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen's knockout numbers with the New Music Group. As a conductor, Adams proved a relentlessly enthusiastic stage father to his "Son," pushing the jumpy syncopations about as hard as they can be pushed. The lyrically rapt slow movement, which goes gratifyingly off-kilter, was, nevertheless, entrancing.

Pereira's concerto was impressive last season but not impressive enough. The soloist then was Colin Currie and the conductor Jeffrey Milarsky. Dudamel conducted; Pereira himself was the solo percussionist. The piece came to life.

The concerto investigates the border between pitched and unpitched sounds, first with drums, then marimba in the mysterious slow movement and finally with xylophone more aggressively at the end. That play also extends to the chamber ensemble as well, with weird moans by the winds and brass and eerie scraping on the strings.

The players might have looked a little sickly, bathed in so much green light, but Dudamel calmly created a rapt sonic atmosphere that represented a spectacular spectrum of color. Pereira matched Dudamel's cool, his solo playing lacking some of Currie's flash. The timpanist may have made everything look easy, but he also made everything sound brilliant.

Chin has had a long association with Green Umbrella and she was also commissioned to write a concerto for the Chinese mouth organ, the sheng, and orchestra for Dudamel's first subscription concert as L.A. Phil music director in 2009. That piece, "Su," is now widely played. "Graffiti" as well is full of exquisite color washes.

Chin's sense of graffiti is complex. She's attracted to the decorative art context, and her piece — scored for a large chamber orchestra of traditional instruments and much percussion — begins with unpredictable busy, flickering inner activity.

But the 51-year-old South Korean composer who moved to Berlin while the wall was still up, also considers the political implications of graffiti, which can be both liberating and threatening. The slow movement, "Notturno Urbano," is darkly mysterious, while the final section, said to be a passacaglia, seemed to bring a new strange instrumental sound around every startling corner.

"Graffiti" is a piece that feels like riding a train and watching graffiti pass by just a little too quickly to quite grasp. I got maybe half of it on first hearing. It's a ride I'd gladly take again.

And we can, in fact, expect more Chin at the L.A. Phil. During the pre-concert talk, she spilled the beans that the orchestra has future plans to mount her opera "Alice" — which Los Angeles Opera commissioned a decade ago but has never performed — with a production by the video artist Netia Jones. The orchestra's president, Deborah Borda, said that couldn't be confirmed because the project hasn't yet actually been confirmed. But it would be pretty bad to back out now.


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