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Music Review: John Adams goes for ecstasy in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's West Coast, Left Coast festival

December 6, 2009 |  4:35 pm

California is big and ungovernable, and there are many theories as to why we are the way we are. Phil Lesh, the thoughtful Grateful Dead bassist, had a good one Saturday afternoon. Every culture has run downhill to California, he said during a symposium on West Coast music at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and we’re now rolling around in all of them.

Another idea thrown around in “The Art of the State” -- moderated by composer John Adams and also including film composer Thomas Newman and California historian Kevin Starr, as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast festival -- was that just about everything grows in this fertile state, be it horticulture or any other kind of culture. That was pretty much the theme, then, of the orchestra’s final festival program Saturday evening in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Adams, who is the festival curator, selected four unrelated samples of musical fecundity and otherness, beginning with Paul Dresher’s “Glimpsed From Afar,” a duo for quadrachord and marimba lumina, two unusual, Berkeley-invented instruments.

The quadrachord, which Dresher helped design and played, is a 14-foot-long Space Age koto. He plucked and bowed its strings. He struck them with mallets and drummed on them. He put cymbals on them and hit those. He played it like a slide guitar and a sitar. Joel Davel added jazzy rhythmic patterns on marimba lumina, which is a marimba-synthesizer hybrid.

The piece had a raga structure, beginning with drones and slowly getting more rhythmically complex, as momentum built. In each of its 17 minutes, something new and interesting happened.

Next came something completely different, except that William Kraft’s Timpani Concerto No. 1 was also written for an outsider instrument. It has taken the orchestra a surprisingly long time to catch up with a piece from 1983 that has already been played by more than 50 orchestras and was written by the L.A. Phil’s former percussionist and composer-in-residence.

Timp But it was worth the wait, given the smoothly dazzling and terrifically nuanced performance by the Philharmonic’s principal timpanist, Joseph Pereira. Kraft’s score began quietly, the timpanist barely hitting the drums with gloved hands as a form of musical foreplay. The slow middle movement, made from sliding tones on timpani and strings, was exquisite. The last movement, jazzy and exhilarating.

Next again came something completely different, except for the jazziness of a suite from Leonard Rosenman’s score to the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.” This is an Adams favorite, which he recorded in 1986 and which ever so slightly evokes his own recent “City Noir.” It was wonderful to hear it lovingly played by a great orchestra that Adams had sounding bright and brilliant all evening. However, I also thought it a controversial choice.

James Dean, a student of Rosenman’s at Juilliard, enticed the East Coast academic composer to Hollywood, and that proved a deal with the devil. We got some great film scores from Rosenman, who died last year, but he never wrote as much concert music as he might have otherwise, and the concert music he did write never gets played. There is, in particular, a really good violin concerto that deserves to be heard.

And then once again came something completely different, except that Adams’ electric violin concerto “Dharma at Big Sur” has a similar raga-like character to Dresher’s piece, and it too picks up on West Coast jazz. A commission for the opening of Disney in 2003, "Dharma" was written for a jazz violinist, Tracy Silverman, but Leila Josefowicz has now taken up this ecstatic score and made it her own.

Where Silverman has a squirrely rock ’n’ roll sound, Josefowicz brought a gorgeously rich and full tone to the concerto, which was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s luminous prose as well as the Left Coast sound of Lou Harrison and Terry Riley.  She wore a flower child-evoking gown that was just what the stage needed in contrast to the orchestra, which has been dressed in New York black for the festival. Women have not been prominently featured in the festival (two female composer-performers, Pauline Oliveros and Amy X Neuburg, were not part of the Disney concerts but played at other venues), so she also helped slightly redress that neglect.

But mainly, Josefowicz played brilliantly, calling up the electric violin’s deep cello drones as if in a peyote ceremony and rising to heights of rapture. This was an example in music of what we mean when we tell ourselves California is too irresistible to fail.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: (top) John Adams conducts his "The Dharma at Big Sur" with Leila Josefowicz as soloist at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night. (below) Joseph Pereira performing William Kraft's Timpani Concerto No. 1. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times