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The Wing and the Wind

Photo by Craig Mathew

In one of those imponderable ironies by which the music industry slowly but surely succeeds in cannibalizing its own, the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wing will be made not by Salonen’s Los Angeles Philharmonic (for which it was written), in the Walt Disney Concert Hall (whose architecture it celebrates), but half a planet away in Helsinki, by the Finnish Radio Orchestra. The reason, it should not surprise you to learn, is money.

I don’t have the exact figures involved in this case, but I do for a parallel situation reported in last week’s New York Times Sunday magazine. The New York Philharmonic management recently learned that John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, which he composed for that orchestra in 2002 as a memorial for 9/11, was slated to be recorded by a London orchestra rather than its own, since the cost differential would be something like $40,000 as against $95,000. In that case, an enraged New York Philharmonic patron came up with the difference. I would not hang by my thumbs expecting a similar resolution in Los Angeles, especially since the D.G. recording also includes two other Salonen works, of which one (Insomnia) hasn’t yet been heard here. (I would, of course, be delighted to be proved wrong.)

This is all part of a dark cloud that overhangs classical music these days. Domestic orchestral recording by the major orchestras on the major labels has all but stopped; what persists are the few projects of individual orchestras producing and marketing performances on their own labels — as in San Francisco — but, of course, without the blockbuster promotion that RCA and Sony were once able to accord the Boston, New York and Los Angeles orchestras. The irony aches especially in the case of Wing on Wing, since the piece comes wrapped in so many layers of pride — with, at the core, music of exceptional beauty and delight.

As I read through the printed score for several days before the two performances I heard, that sense of pride was as clearly visible as the notes themselves, in the care with which Salonen had mapped out the movements of the solo musicians — the two singers and the two deep-toned wind instruments that impersonated some kind of marine specimen. The voice of Frank Gehry intrudes now and then, as part of the obbligato of pride that pervades the work. No matter how clear the tape, will that voice, that identity, transplant to a Finnish recording studio? Against the complexity of other works — the hugely successful LA Variations and the manic turmoil of Insomnia, which I’ve heard on a pirate disc — this is, for Salonen, a lighter piece; it has some of the cold, clear wind of his homeland, without the murk that his musical ancestor seemed fond of stirring up. It does him proud, and us, too.

 

Cool heads at the season’s beginning warned that all might not fall into place at Disney Hall the first time out, that there would be kinks and that patience might be in order. Those wise words notwithstanding, dissing Disney soon became the town’s newest game. Horror stories resounded: longtime Philharmonic patrons becoming lost on their way to their newly assigned seats; neighbors in nearby condos suffering sunstroke brought on by afternoon reflections from the stainless steel; tender knees, shoulders and ankles shattered from the unconscionably narrow spaces between rows in the upper reaches. A broadside, widely circulated, contained assurances by a USC professor to the New Jersey Classical Society that the excellences of Disney Hall’s acoustics were just another of those Hollywood myths.

There are, indeed, problems in the new hall, of magnitude great and small. It is somewhat embarrassing to contemplate the blanket currently flung over the shiniest part of the steel exterior, where the afternoon sun bears down; presumably someone will get up there with a Brillo pad one of these days and dull the surface down. It is equally embarrassing, it seems to me, to pay 14 bucks for an entrée in the café downstairs and be asked to deal with it with plastic “silverware.” The space between rows is narrower than at the Dorothy Chandler, where the space had to be wide because the rows themselves were so long. I find the creature discomforts easier to deal with than the aesthetic discomfort of the garish floral pattern on the seats (and carpets) themselves. That goes with plastic forks.

The gardens, and the outdoor spaces in general, have turned out exactly as I had hoped: a beautiful thing to have happened in the middle of what has always been a basically nondescript city. They put the rest of the Music Center to shame. The two small outdoor theaters have begun to be well used for children’s entertainments, and it has been fun to watch people improvising uses for them even when they’re otherwise empty. The gardens themselves are just plain wonderful, at intermissions and also in the daytime. Early on, I wished they had installed name tags for the plants and trees, or at least pamphlets with maps as at national parks. Now I’ve learned to admire the area in the abstract. The gardens are a success, and so is the garage. Whatever it took to plan a space with such ease of access and exit, I wish someone would cross the street and teach it to the rest of the Music Center.

“The wood simply acts as a highly reflective surface,” says this idiotic paper from New Jersey, “making sound waves bounce around and impact against the surfaces, thus creating a harsh acoustic environment.” I don’t know where Professor Noll was when the sound waves of Salonen’s Berlioz impacted against the walls of Disney Hall this season, or when the solo-wind writing at the start of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps stood out like etched monoliths, or when the wintry chill of Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel’s Schubert turned the very air of the hall to hoarfrost. Yes, there were other occasions less perfect, when rethinking was in order. The hall did not serve the needs of the new Golijov chamber opera, or the acted-out monkeyshines imposed upon the Berlioz Fantastique, both of which challenged the hall’s still-imperfect amplification system. Okay; it was a new hall, a new stage, a new space, and the only way to find out what works (and what doesn’t) was by doing it.

Night after night, in this proverbial cultural desert, you could see the lines stretching from the Disney Hall box office up Grand Avenue to First Street and beyond, hoping in vain for cancellations. They built it, and you came.