That incomparable Beethovenian Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the Missa Solemnis to be Beethoven’s greatest work. Too great, even, to perform. He stopped conducting it at age 44. But maybe if Furtwängler, who died in 1954 at 68, had lived on, he might have come to terms with this visionary epic mass. A spiritually enthralling call for peace, the Missa Solemnis is a habitable country for old men.
The former San Francisco Symphony music director Herbert Blomstedt, who turns 85 in July, led a superbly taut, vital performance of the Missa Solemnis with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. That entitles him to a platinum card in the prestigious Solemnis Seniors Club.
Other members include an 85-year-old Colin Davis, who conducted Beethoven’s mass in New York this season to glorious reviews. One week younger than Blomstedt, Kurt Masur remains a member in good standing despite a recent dustup in Boston. He withdrew from the Boston Symphony’s Missa Solemnis last month, the orchestra said, because of his frail condition. Masur immediately let it be known that he is fit enough to conduct elsewhere. Toscanini’s vigorous 1953 recording of the Missa Solemnis was conducted by an 86-year-old.
Once, during a public conversation at UC San Diego between the video artist Nam June Paik and John Cage, Paik recalled having asked Cage why he wrote music. “Because I promised Schönberg I would,” had been the answer from the composer who had studied with Schönberg at USC and UCLA. And why, Paik had also asked, did Cage continue to write music? “Because,” Paik recalled Cage saying, “it is important to continue meaningless activity.”
“I said that?” a surprised Cage wondered aloud onstage, but laughed engagingly. Who’s in control, and why, is perhaps the most controversial question that’s been posed by the international avant-garde in music since World War II. And that was the principal question of a fascinating, if uneven, Green Umbrella Concert on Tuesday night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The centerpiece was Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, written in 1951 and the first major work in the Western canon in which a composer began to give up musical control. It was surrounded by works from this century. Stockhausen’s “Fünf Stenzeichen” (Five Star Signs), which began the program, was composed by the biggest ego of European avant-garde, a Prospero who pulled all the strings. Oscar Bettison’s “Livre des Sauvages” (Book of Savages) was commissioned for the program by a young composer who delights in crazy percussion instruments with minds of their own.
Philip Glass’ big, new Ninth Symphony –- 52 minutes, written for a large, powerhouse orchestra –- is late Glass at his most momentous, a significant symphony by America’s most significant symphonist. Chalk up another one for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was a co-commissioner of the Ninth and which gave the West Coast premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night. John Adams conducted.
That bit about Glass’ status as a contemporary American composer of symphonies is fact, not opinion.
But despite Glass’ prominence and his large body of symphonic work, that fact is not well known (or, at least, well acknowledged) among American orchestras.
Want to hear another Glass symphony in the next few months? Try Pforzheim, Germany (the Eighth), or Rotterdam, the Netherlands (the Fourth). As if the South of France didn’t already have enough summer attractions, Aix-en-Province is where Glass’ Tenth Symphony will have its world premiere in August.
On the other hand, in the 20 years Glass has been writing symphonies, very few American orchestras have ever performed one.
Leila Josefowicz has played a large number of works over her 34 years, but the violinist has a special relationship to John Adams’ Violin Concerto, to which she returns this weekend. “It was really the piece that started me on what I do now, which is play new music," she says. "I’ve probably played it more than any other piece. The slow movement is one of the most beautiful slow movements in the violin repertory: It’s haunting the way John’s music can be.”
Born in Ontario, Canada, Josefowicz spent most of her childhood in Los Angeles, beginning the violin at age 3 and studying at the Colburn School before leaving with her family for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
She has performed with orchestras around the world, recorded war-horse violin concertos by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and others before committing much of her energy to new compositions by Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Oliver Knussen, Thomas Adès and others.
“Classical music has been based on works people love and come back to for aural comfort,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s gotten out of proportion.” New works ask for “different listening skills. It can make premieres very exciting and experimental. It’s an exploration.”
In her efforts performing and helping to commission new pieces, she says, “You feel like you’ve really contributed something.”
The violinist, who is expecting her second baby at the end of May and who performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend as part of a concert dubbed “Adams Conducts Adams and Glass,” speaks about her influences.
Bach's “St. John” is no "St. Matthew." The "St. John Passion" does not hold the central place as one of the greatest and most revered spiritual artworks of Western civilization that Bach's “St. Matthew” does. "John" is smaller, shorter, more intimate, more dramatic. And controversial. Performances of “John” often include an apologia these days, since only one of Bach’s two surviving Passions is anti-Semitic.
But is “John” the lesser Passion? The current fashion is to consider it the modern one. It is prized for its terse theatricality and for the very fact that “John” is not weighed down by the sanctimonious baggage “Matthew” carries. But in a solemn performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the period instrumental ensemble Musica Angelica at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night, “John” was expected to hold its spiritual own. And it did.
The Master Chorale’s music director, Grant Gershon, is a choral conductor with a foot on the lyric stage. He is also associate conductor of Los Angeles Opera, and there seems little doubt that he could have presented a histrionic, passionate “John” had he wanted to. But this was a “John” of consolation, not confrontation.
For gifted young conductors, who are all but ubiquitous these days, 30 is the new 50. The latest to drop by Walt Disney Concert Hall to make a spirited debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was 33-year-old James Gaffigan.
Friday's program book noted that this past summer Gaffigan, a former associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, became music director of the Lucerne Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, two fine stopping-off posts for a young conductor on a career fast-track. But he's faster than that. On Tuesday, the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne appointed Gaffigan as its principal guest conductor. One of Germany’s most important orchestras, it was once headed by another New Yorker, James Conlon.
Gaffigan is not unlike a young Conlon. His conducting style is direct and communicative. He likes to whip up excitement, and he does it well. He seems attracted to agreeable corners of the 20th century -– he began the program with Respighi's irresistible "Trittico Botticelliano" (Botticelli Triptych), which the L.A. Phil had somehow resisted until now. Gaffigan followed that with an L.A. Phil favorite, the suite from Bartók's "The Miraculous Mandarin." After intermission came a universal favorite -- Grieg's Piano Concerto with André Watts as soloist.
During Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 17 seasons with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so many Finnish instrumentalists, conductors and composers came through L.A. that you might have thought Finnair would have found it profitable to restore service to LAX. But at least one prominent Finnish conductor and one somewhat prominent Finnish composer were notable for their absences.
Osmo Vänskä, a classmate of Salonen’s at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is a darling of New York music critics (he was Musical America’s conductor of the year in 2005), and he has long been a favorite of record collectors. But with his flamboyant conducting style and his championing of the neo-Romantic Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, Vänskä seems the polar opposite of the cooler, more progressive Salonen.
Even so, it is important for the opposition party to get an airing. And at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a month shy of three years after Salonen conducted his last concert as the orchestra’s music director, Vänskä finally made his belated L.A. Phil debut. On Saturday night, moreover, he led the L.A. premiere of Aho’s Clarinet Concerto, with Martin Fröst as the flashy soloist.
I would be surprised if Vänskä were to be invited back any time soon. Ditto Aho.
There goes the Disney Hall stage.
Sunday night, as the grand finale of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, 100 cellists dug their endpins into the expensive stage floor of Walt Disney Concert Hall for a rare performance of Christopher Rouse’s “Rapturedux.”
The tender Alaskan yellow cedar now has a cluster of new pockmarks, and the universe has a remarkable new sound — 400 rich and rapt cello strings vibrating in a great acoustic space. This goes beyond music. Vibration is the essence of nature — everything vibrates. And in the opening F-major chord of “Rapturedux,” it was possible to believe in a palpable music of the spheres.
There are two interlocking storylines at Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend: the culmination of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, and the belated return of Estonian-born maestro and patriarch of a conducting dynasty, Neeme Järvi.
A prolific recording conductor, to say the least -- you name it and it’s probably in Järvi’s discography somewhere -- and once a frequent visitor here, it seems that Järvi hasn’t led the Los Angeles Philharmonic since a 1990 Hollywood Bowl date, and hasn’t conducted the Phil downtown since 1989. So the orchestra is taking advantage of Järvi’s versatility in a most unusual and festive way: He is accompanying three different cellists, one per concert, in five different pieces.
The first cellist out of the gate Thursday night was Ralph Kirshbaum, tackling the signature cello concerto of the repertoire, that of Dvorák. Deadly routine can set in with a piece played as often as this, but Kirshbaum gave it an extra push -- not always precisely in tune yet full of gutsy expression and, particularly toward the end, drawing us in with varying tone colors.
Next up: Mischa Maisky on Saturday and Alisa Weilerstein on Sunday.
Järvi -- now 74 and, as ever, a master of economical, telling gestures -- opened the concert with a Dvorák “Carnival” Overture whose outer sections ripped and roared as much as you might want, delivered with bracing clarity by the Philharmonic.
The main orchestral course was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Järvi, wouldn’t you know it, has recorded all 15 symphonies, if somewhat unevenly, but the Fifth was one of his best recordings in that cycle. Thursday’s performance more-or-less confirmed Järvi’s sane way with the Fifth -- tempos right down the middle, the argument unfolding logically with textural clarity, missing just the last ounce of intensity. Also, Järvi’s treatment of the Finale’s controversial coda has brightened a bit, no longer quite as slow and beaten-down.
[For the record, 2:40 p.m., March 16: An earlier version of this story said that Järvi hadn't conducted the L.A. Philharmonic since 1994. His last appearance with the orchestra was in 1990.]
-- Richard S. Ginell
Los Angeles Philharmonic with Neeme Järvi; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $57-$180; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.org.
Photos: Top left: Neeme Järvi. Credit: Frederick Stucker. Top right: Ralph Kirshbaum. Credit: Henry Fair.
Niall Ferguson’s YouTube tastes are admittedly a little bit different from his peers at Santa Monica High School.
“I search cellists on the Internet and whatever pieces I’m interested in hearing, and I’ve created a library of my favorite cellists,” says Ferguson, a senior.
The 17-year-old recently added himself to the cellists on YouTube as part of an audition for a spot in the inaugural Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, a 10-day extravaganza that began Friday night. Ferguson will be one of 110 cellist performing at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the finale of the festival.
“This is the first time I’ve ever put anything of myself playing solo out there for the world to see,” says Ferguson, dressed in a pressed black button-down shirt and matching trousers before a chamber music performance at the Colburn School. “You upload those two pieces, and they watch it, and you hope you get it.”