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Review: A mystic in La La Land -- Arvo Pärt's "Los Angeles" Symphony

January 11, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Partbig

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s time as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- two weeks this month and two in April –- is growing short.  But the theme is the future, and he is packing a lot of the future in.  Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he premiered a major symphony by Arvo Pärt.  This week will bring more major Philharmonic commissions from Kaija Saariaho and Louis Andriessen.  When Salonen returns in April, he will conduct five world premieres: his Violin Concerto and four chamber works by emerging composers.

Pärt has taken his commission seriously.  The Estonian composer, who is a cult figure revered for the mystical aura of his meditative music, gives the impression of being a man not of this world.

As a young composer he wrote, between 1964 and 1971, three symphonies that chronicled his struggle with the musical language of his day and his rebellion against the folksy Soviet style.  After a flirtation with 12-tone composition, which he often used in angry confrontation with earlier musical styles, he came upon his own brand of ringing Minimalism, which he called tintinnabulation and which he felt expressed his veneration of nature and his Orthodox Christian bent.

Pärt's orchestral and instrumental pieces since the Third Symphony have tended to be short and otherworldly, although he has written much longer sacred choral scores, many of haunting beauty, in which a single note can mean much.  He displays the full beard and shy, quiet demeanor of a monk not much involved with the quotidian.  He is said to surround himself, in the Estonian countryside, with silence.  His visits to the United States have been few.

But now, 38 years after the Third Symphony, Pärt has written a Fourth, labeled it “Los Angeles” and dedicated it to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oil executive with political ambitions who was accused of fraud and now languishes in a Siberian prison.  Pärt explained in a program insert that he is also reaching out in this symphony to “all those imprisoned without rights in Russia.” For the composer, the symphony is meant as “carrier pigeon” he hopes might “reach faraway Siberia one day.”

If not, at least the pigeon will have a nourished soul, because the symphony is large -- at 37 minutes considerably longer than the earlier ones -- and exceedingly beautiful. I found a carrier pigeon of my own to send a question backstage to Pärt after the performance about the meaning of the dedication.  The composer called Khodorkovsky a great man and said Russia would be a better country had the oligarch, once Russia’s wealthiest man, become its leader.

The “Los Angeles” Symphony is for strings, harp and percussion, and it opens in what sounds like a better world, perhaps that realm to which Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde ascend.  The violins begin with a sustained soft chord in the stratosphere, accompanied by isolated plucks from harp and cellos.  The score, which its publisher, Universal Editions, has posted online for free (a first for an important new work by a world-famous composer), remains sparse through its three movements.  It moves at a snail’s pace.

The percussion is either the tolling of deep timpani or the ring of high bells.  There are deliberate march-like passages with simple harmonies.  Chords, though, tend to smudge into each other rather than resolve.  String textures are thin; nothing in this symphony is hidden.  Single sounds become windows looking out to the world.

Nothing when Pärt’s music is performed can be out of place, and nothing here was.  The strings were exquisite, and Disney Hall’s acoustics might well have been designed with Pärt’s music in mind (coincidentally, the composer’s work will also be featured in an upcoming Los Angeles Master Chorale program and an organ recital in Disney).  The symphony, on every level, was an event.

Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, which was played after intermission, is far too common to be an event.  Yet the performance, in which Emanuel Ax was the soloist, was one nonetheless.  Salonen is hardly known as a Brahmsian, but he could be if he wanted to, at least on the evidence of the intensity Saturday.

Ax is very well known as a Brahmsian but not as the kind he was on this occasion.  Rather than relying on his usual gracious pianism, he was a power player, he and the orchestra excitingly lobbing passages back and forth.  The pianist was hardly immune to the beauty of lyric passages, and the slow movement was gorgeous, but it was his capturing the drama of every moment that made this performance magnificent.

The concert began with Mozart’s overture to his little entertainment “The Impresario.”  Salonen gave it richness and life, evidently intending that not a moment of his remaining few with this orchestra should be wasted. 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Arvo Pärt, left, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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