Music review: Los Angeles Philharmonic festival ends with Adès and Messiaen
The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Aspects of Adès” ended Saturday night with 128 musicians plus Thomas Adès, who conducted, on the stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The clarinet section alone was 10 strong, ranging from a pair of squealing wee minis in E-flat to the oversize double bass, which burbles like a deep-sea diver excitedly discovering gold. The percussionists, also 10, set up shop with a hypnotic sonic menagerie, including gongs (high and low), bells, tam-tams, wood blocks and whip.
The piece was Olivier Messiaen’s “Éclairs sur l’Au-delà…” (Visions From the Beyond…), the French composer’s last piece, completed shortly before his death in 1992. This was the orchestra’s first performance of the 65-minute, 11-movement ode to divinity and the aviary, and it was overdue. Although it was commissioned by Zubin Mehta for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, Mehta had developed a close relationship with Messiaen during the conductor’s L.A. Philharmonic years, so we get also get a crumb of credit for the birth of a masterpiece.
Beyond that, a vision of the beyond was about the only place left for Adès to go after putting together four ambitious programs, with plenty that was earthly and secular, and for which he served as composer, conductor and pianist. There was so much difficult new music to learn that I heard tales from musicians of sore lips and fried brains.
But “Éclairs” got a confident, impressive performance. And before it Saturday came the Los Angeles premiere of Adès' latest orchestra piece, “Polaris,” a smaller vision of the beyond. It was written for the opening of the New World Center in Miami Beach in January. The L.A. Philharmonic is a co-commissioner, along with the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and others.
Adès’ score is a friendly complication. Airy melodic lines in winds and strings and brass are incandescently lit by the high-wattage sparkle of piano, two harps, celeste, glockenspiel and plenty more percussion. Three times these lines dip into the glitter, and three times they emerge magnificent.
Rosner’s video on three screens begins and ends with animated abstraction. For the main part, two women, shot from different angles, sit near a shore. Something makes them moody. In Miami, the surf looked breathtaking, simply because everything projected in the immersive hall looks breathtaking. Letterboxed, on a single screen in Disney, Rosner’s video became insignificant and extraneous.
But even more annoying was that the screen remained after intermission, ugly in front of the organ pipes, taking away Disney's visually breathtaking vista that would have been the perfect vision for Messiaen’s visions.
Still, Adès’ conducting was spacious, as it was for “Polaris.” But if his “Polaris” performance didn’t have quite the pop that Michael Tilson Thomas gave it for the premiere, Adès met all of Messiaen's huge technical demands in "Éclairs." He balanced huge forces with clarity, and he revealed a sheer delight in Messiaen’s fetishes for birds (the songs of nearly 50 species find their chirping way into the piece) and spiritual ecstasy.
Indeed, Adès once experimented with musical depiction of Ecstasy, the drug, in his orchestral score “Asyla.” And here he showed that maybe ecstasy is ecstasy, however you choose to absorb it. Messiaen’s visions came from “The Book of Revelations” and other sacred sources, but they also were tied into still other passions: for the rhythmic patterns of Hindu music and his passion for passion -- the love music handed over to the strings is luscious.
And so the brass played their chorales with beautiful, burnished tones. The flutes were birds let out of their cages. The strings trilled with such intensity that they sent clouds of overtones wafting through the hall -- and maybe beyond.
Not everyone is a fan, though. At the New York premiere in 1992, many in the audience rudely walked out during the performance. I’d like to report that Los Angeles is different. It is in that far fewer left Saturday, and those who did did so respectfully between movements. An older couple in front of me exited just as the love music was about to begin. I felt sad for them.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic spared no expense for this concert. What it got for its money was sweetness, somberness, rapture and bliss. Those more eager for Elgar and Tchaikovsky, come back this week and next.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: The premiere of Thomas Adès' "Polaris" at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.