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Music review: Los Angeles Philharmonic enters into the Connesson cosmos

December 4, 2010 |  5:18 pm

Stéphane Denève, a popular French guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave a charming introduction to the West Coast premiere of Guillaume Connesson's “Une Lueur dans l’Age Sombre” (A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness) Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Denève, whose unruly hair gives him a distracted Einstein mien, brought a French science magazine to the podium and opened it to an article with the same name as the title of the piece.

This was, he told the audience, the copy he had shown Connesson, a controversial French composer born in 1970, one night at dinner in Paris. A few months later, Connesson sent Denève the manuscript of a score inspired by the magazine’s illustration of the birth of galaxies. The premiere of "Glimmer," five years ago, began Denève’s tenure as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

The score clearly means a lot to Denève, who is a year younger than Connesson and who called it “modern French cosmic Impressionism.” “Glimmer” became the central movement in Connesson’s 42-minute “Cosmic Trilogy,” which opens with “Aleph” (which was written as a wedding to present to Denève in 2007) and concludes with “Supernova.”

Science has been a hallmark of modern French music since the end of World War II, be it the mathematically complex music of Pierre Boulez or the succeeding generation of spectralists who create harmonic clouds from acoustical analyses at IRCAM, the new music facility in Paris that Boulez founded.

For Connesson, however, science is more fantasy than musical substance, and his influences are Debussy, Ravel, John Adams, James Brown and bloated Hollywood soundtracks. The IRCAM crowd loathes his music, finding it as objectionable to sophisticated French culture as Frappucinos on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and Big Macs on the Champs-Elysées are to the sophisticated French cuisine.

Although Connesson takes himself seriously, “Glimmer” is at best pop science, and it is cosmic only in that it contains gaseous music. Then again DJ Scientific happens to be a NASA scientist who moonlights as a hip-hop DJ, so who’s to say where rocket science and music must intersect.

“Glimmer” begins with a trace of bass. The deep rumble sets the stage for two meandering melodies, one based on a raga which inspires alluring bent pitches. A middle section is all mistèrieux. Connesson’s oblique slowness is a John Adams oblique slowness. The Ravel of “Mother Goose” finds its way into the last section as a romanticized coda after the ecstasy of light particles and waves superimposed or some such thing.

Denève would have made a much more interesting statement had he played the whole of “Cosmic Trilogy” (which he has recorded for Chandos with the Royal Scottish) rather than follow “Glimmer’ with an animated and deliciously atmospheric performance of Debussy’s “Iberia,” which really does glimmer (and shimmer and glitter-and-be-gay). Debussy began “Iberia” in 1905, the year Einstein published his theory of special relativity and exactly 100 years before Connesson’s "Glimmer." The middle movement of “Iberia” is “Perfumes of the Night,” here intoxicating enough to turn even a number-crunching cosmologist's head.

Angelich After intermission, Nicholas Angelich made his L.A. Philharmonic debut as soloist in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Though born in the U.S. in 1970, he is Paris trained and thus essentially a French pianist of the Denève and Connesson generation. Angelich’s recordings on Virgin Classics make him appear a Brahms specialist (the two piano concertos, the late solo piano pieces, the piano trios and quartets and the violin sonatas), but he is also known -- at least in Europe -- for performing such un-Connesson-like Modernists as Boulez, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry.

The “Emperor” is a bright, bracing concerto, and Angelich added to that a wonderful liquid grace. Denève supplied the excitement, the soloist the genuine mistèrieux, especially in an enchantingly played slow movement that revealed a cosmos some light years ahead of Connesson’s.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Stéphane Denève and Nicholas Angelich; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $44-$167; (323) 850-2000 or

Photos: above, Stéphane Denève conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday; below, pianist Nicholas Angelich as soloist in Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.