Written by Joshua Cobos
Sitting in Border Grill downtown while the sky fades from afternoon smog to a melting sherbert sunset. A samba version of Coldplay’s “Clocks” plays lightly over the PA. An interruption from the muzak takes place when tonight’s guest speaker, L.A. Phil’s bassist Peter Rofé stands up from his table holding a microphone and begins fielding questions. During the course of a delicious four course dinner involving chilaquiles and Mexican ice cream, he talks a little bit about the life of a musician, daily rehearsals, lessons ushering in the next generation of virtuosos as well as managing his 3 or 4 day concert schedule. He explains his passion for music but there is this immediacy in how he talks that is refreshingly honest. This man loves his job.
The night’s events are part of a new Dining & Entertainment series being produced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic called “Get Your Phil”. The Phil has partnered with foodie haunts and award winning restaurants offering prix-fixe menus within walking distance of Disney Hall. Together they’ve created complete evenings centered around concerts that are highlights of the season’s Fall/Winter program. This night’s concert in particular is part of a series dubbed by the L.A. Phil as “Casual Friday”, specifically curated evenings introducing audiences to both classic and new pieces along with a question & answer session immediately after the music. The pieces this evening are a modern offering and a 20th century classic symphony, Salonen’s Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 5th from Sibelius respectively.
During dessert, Rofé goes on to introduce Sibelius to those who may not be familiar with the 20th century composer. Instead of facts and quotes though he does it in a more tactile way, using textures, elements and nature as descriptors. His relationship with the music allows us to place the piece with colors landscape, time of day and weather. We’re able to visualize the pattern and flight of the swans that inspired Jean Sibelius instead of hearing textbook facts about how this piece was written in 1914 commissioned by Finland’s government and so on.
A piece that has influenced jazz, rock & musical theatre, Sibelieus’ Symphony No. 5 also shares a special relationship at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the hall’s former 17 year music director and lauded composer. Tonight’s chosen symphony is a classic favorite of the Finnish born conductor. You can hear the piece’s lasting influence on the vintage 60s drugstore hit “Popsicles & Icicles” by the Murmaids, produced by L.A.’s notorious Kim Fowley or in the opening movement to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”.
Inside the concert hall after dinner, the just-over-30 minute piece is unfurled upon us, the air alive and breathing, sound enveloping our bodies, transporting us far away from our physical location. Time moves only according to Salonen’s hands now. I recall the bassist’s passion for the piece and look to find his entire section equally as engrossed. The audience can hardly disagree. Up in the Terrace, east from the stage a lone couple softly echoes the purple ambient lighting, stealing a passionate kiss. Striking the finale with such energy and determination, both Salonen and Sibelius force the listener to recognize the importance of the resounding and hungry silence that occurs between the final movement’s closing notes. The sixth note thunders then echoes to meet the kiss of silence. A moment that stretches to an almost unbearable point of no return. The fated flight of Icarus. When the musicians finally rest, the audience erupts in exultance.
The concert hall, Frank Gehry’s musical masterpiece, was tonight turned by Sibelius into a ligneous aviary, a wooden birdcage more ornate and organic this night than any other music hall could sound.
But it was the intimacy of Salonen’s own original piece that night that haunts me still. A 2009 century concerto composed specifically for his muse, the gifted violinist Leila Josefowicz, a modern musician worthy of much praise and accolade.Their performance was phenomenal in this instance. Many times I was convinced the violin would yield or burst under such a tremendous amount of pressure. Her solo became the density of the room, electric mayhem charged with determination. I thought of Hendrix at Monterey.
The concerto continues as I look around the audience in awe of the various faces in the packed hall. I wondered who all the young people could be. They could be the former members of the high school marching band or the tech innovators of tomorrow but more likely from their style and dress they’re punks moonlighting as socialites. The young and married or post grads on a first date, students of art history or the performing arts. A trio of women down the row where I sat could have been Suicide Girls, black bangs combed straight with black dresses. Later that evening they announced that Frank Gehry was in the audience. Bemused and bespectacled, he outstretched his arms in a shrug as the audience applauded the venue’s inventor.
Post-concert I was able to sit in on a conversation during the Question & Answer session open to concert-goers with Salonen, Josefowicz, L.A. Phil CEO Deborah Borden as well as Mick Wetzel, a violist from the Phil. Salonen & Josefowicz quickly became the focus, sharing thoughts on their progressive example of modern collaboration. Part of their writing process involved constant revision, a sort of pruning or “gardening”, as described by Salonen. Using e-mail and skype as their communicative tools allowed the composition to develop unimpeded by logistics, resulting in a truly modern creation. Their unique process also benefited from the natural growth of extensive touring and performing the piece together over several years.
Most interestingly Salonen shared a glimpse of his personal tastes by describing his love of bass resonance, describing Disney Hall as a perfect captor for his sound. He described seeking out the sound of a modern rock band, the kerrang of an electric guitar or the low end of electronic bass, in orchestral music.
Indeed, the classical genre has expanded since the Bach on MOOG synthesizer days of the 1970s. Modern composers are now mining rock music, the way rock music in its formative years searched the classics for inspiration. Tape looping, bass guitars, electronic oddities like the theremin, are now being fully utilized in symphonic productions we can bear witness to. Music is both a physical and mental experience in private but at Disney Hall this sound is magnified offering heavy and resonant servings.
After the evening’s events the audience was invited to join the musicians in the lobby for a complimentary post-concert drink. Head swirling from sensory overload, I declined and made my way down the spiraling escalators of the parking garage. To meet the innovators and interpreters of our time and to see them in their full brilliance is a rare and glorious way to spend one evening. Such opportunities are usually fleeting and far apart. That the L.A. Phil has packaged these instances into an entire evening means this organization, nearing 100 years since it’s inception, keeps current as the tides of culture change.
Don’t Miss Out on other Get Your Phil events:
Fri NOV 8 – Tovey & Shostakovich Dinner at Le Ka Restaurant
Sat NOV 30 – Zacharias leads Bach & Schumann at Blue Cow Kitchen & Bar
Sat DEC 7 – Scheherazade at Beat favorite, Rivera Restaurant