It’s easy to be cynical. Hell, if you aren’t a least a little jaded, can you even call yourself an American? But viewing the world with healthy skepticism is one thing, and giving in to despair is entirely another. This nation was founded in and is continually nurtured by popular struggle and the dream of a more perfect union, and the role that music plays in the fight for freedom is the notion the LA Philharmonic is exploring in “Power to the People,” a month-long festival curated by Herbie Hancock. The celebration began Thursday night, March 5th, at Disney Hall with a concert featuring the orchestra along with Hancock’s jazz quartet. The following night, the stage belonged to Patti Smith and Her Band for one of the venue’s very infrequent forays into punk rock.
Thursday night began with the LA Philharmonic led by Principal Conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The opening piece was Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” a clever deconstruction of and meditation on “The Star Spangled Banner” that was rife with other allusions as well. Placing it at the head of the program, where the national anthem so frequently appears at concerts and other events, imbued the piece with yet another level of irony. The second piece, “White Gleam of Our Bright Star,” its title a conceit from the song by Francis Scott Key. Written by Courtney Bryan, like Montgomery a contemporary female composer, the piece shimmered with a post-minimalist luminosity.
Ms. Bryan was in attendance and was introduced to the crowd by Dudamel. Also on hand was jazz legend Wayne Shorter, a frequent collaborator of Mr. Hancock’s and the author of “Aurora,” the final piece before intermission. The piece featured a text by Maya Angelou, sung by soprano Mikaela Bennett. Just as the prior compositions played with familiar themes, Ms. Angelou’s lyric was also frequently referential, most prominently playing off of the spiritual “Sinnerman.”
Herbie Hancock and his band appeared on stage with the Philharmonic and Dudamel after the break. The first piece was “Ostinato: Suite for Angela,” an orchestrated version of the first track from his “Mwandishi” album. Written when Angela Davis was imprisoned, this version featured excerpts of her recorded speech as an additional element. The Philharmonic stayed on to add harmonic depth to “I Have A Dream,” Hancock’s late 1960’s musical response to the inspirational life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Following this, the orchestra filtered off stage as Hancock gave an informal keynote on the festival and the theme of “Power to the People” before launching into a wide-ranging selection of music, alternating between the grand piano, the synthesizer and the keytar. His band was solid as always; I heard a younger music fan say on his way out: “That drummer was great, I’ll have to find out more about him.” If he follows up on that, he’ll keep very busy listening to Vinnie Colaiuta.
On the second night of the festival, Patti Smith came out and rearranged the festival’s theme from a strident demand to a statement of hope with a reading of her anthem “People Have the Power.” Her set was powerful, poignant, and energetic, drawing a somewhat surprising amount of its material from her records of the last couple of decades, a bold choice from whose career goes back to the 1970’s, and one that worked very well. Not that she neglected her hits–a mid concert rendition of “Because the Night” got the fans at this traditionally sit down venue out of their seats and moving, and digging up other classics like “Ask the Angels” and “Pissing in a River.” Occasionally, as on “Citizen Ship” and “After the Gold Rush,” excitement appeared to get the better of her and she would have to pause and restart the song; actually endearing, this seemed a testament to her passion about the concert rather than indicating a lack of preparation.
Rock and roll used to mean something, or at least it seemed to as far as a lot of us were concerned. To the extent that its even relevant any more on a mass cultural level, it is easy to feel alienated from it in its commercial aspect. But when guitarist Lenny Kaye started the clopping rhythm of “Horses,” Patti joining in, singing about the boy and Johnny, translating the visions of Burroughs and Rimbaud and Sun Ra into fierce rock and roll, drummer J.D. Daugherty driving the band through “The Land of a Thousand Dances” through the climax of “Gloria” to close the set, at that moment rock and roll was as potent as inspiring as it gets. For an encore, Smith welcomed the choir of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles on stage to join her in a full musical reprise of “People Have the Power,” ending the evening on a hopeful and exuberant note.
Power to the People continues Tuesday at Disney Hall with a recital by pianist Conrad Tao and continues with various programs there and at partner institutions through April 11th. For full information, visit LA Phil online.