The 1960s were like a big bang of intertwined music, expression, fashion, art, history and social awareness that continues to expand and reverberate today. Composer Julia Wolfe’s new orchestral piece about the era, Flower Power, which received its world premiere at Disney Hall on Saturday night, January 18, evokes the ’60s spirit of rebellion and change without relying on the usual musical clichés associated with the decade.
The roughly 35-minute work was delivered in a joint performance by Bang on a Can All-Stars and a large version of L.A. Philharmonic and conducted by John Adams, who closed the program with his epic 1999 symphony Naive and Sentimental Music, which (like Wolfe’s Flower Power) was commissioned by L.A. Phil.
The six members of Bang on a Can All-Stars were positioned in front of the orchestra onstage and played a mix of acoustic and electric instruments. Throughout the various changes of Flower Power, Mark Stewart alternated between electric and acoustic guitars, at times using a bow or a slide on the electric guitar. Similarly, Vicky Chow, sitting beside a vintage fringed lamp, started on electric keyboards before moving to piano, and David Cossin often worked a rock-style drum kit when not utilizing other percussion. Although Stewart, dressed in a hippie-ish vest, sometimes played patterns that hinted at rock and jazz styles, Wolfe’s composition largely avoided overt psychedelic revivalism. Instead, the composer and co-founder of New York City’s Bang on a Can collective created a work whose massive structure and dynamic arrangement reflected the disparate forces colliding in the ’60s without devolving into pop-rock nostalgia.
In contrast to the casually dressed Bang on a Can All-Stars, conductor Adams and the musicians in L.A. Philharmonic were comparatively formal, decked out in all-black attire. Adams calmly instigated Flower Power with a drone of winds and horns as Cossin set forth auspicious rattles on his cymbals. The low-key drone hummed with a keening mournfulness and dipped briefly into a melancholic sourness as French horns and then trumpets entered, pushed along by subdued cellos. The cymbals splashed louder, and an ominous buzz was lowered, shaking the hall. The entrance of urgent violins contrasted the progressive deep rumbling of the thicket of basses. Wolfe’s music thrummed and vibrated like a kettle about to boil before the whole thing launched like a rocket.
The orchestra shifted into a kind of hard funk-rock groove as the rest of the Bang on a Can All-Stars came in. Stewart’s repeating figures touched on jazz and psychedelic rock but were inlaid as part of the overall mosaic rather than standing out like traditional guitar-hero soloing. Adams’ gestures grew more demonstrative as the band and orchestra pumped out a loud, propulsive, swirling mass of sound that built to a climax — which continued and continued, seemingly reckless and out of control — until the music suddenly changed.
A meditative calm settled over the room as Chow’s churchy, ambient organ softly glowed, flecked with L.A. Phil flutist Elise Shope Henry’s twists of flute and threaded with Stewart’s wisps of guitar. Bang on a Can clarinetist Ken Thomson unwound a languid melody around Henry’s flickering flute and Chow’s spare piano adornments in an eerily pretty calm after the storm.
Wolfe’s music rose and fell, as monumental climaxes subsided into mesmerizing drones and rose up again. Bang on a Can bassist Robert Black played bubbling, subterranean notes against a backdrop of the orchestra’s supersonic droning hum before the music changed. Stewart’s delicately spacey acoustic-guitar plucking emerged from the calm as a shower of pink, orange, green and red paper flowers rained down over the crowd from Disney Hall’s high ceiling. Stewart strummed repeating chords as if he were a ’60s folkie while scraps of woodwinds fluttered with a merrily mad intensity. Then the guitarist pulled a bow across the strings, and the music subsided one last time with a lowing solemnity.
Flower Power received a strong response from the large crowd, and Adams brought Wolfe onstage for a couple bows. The work was accompanied by video imagery, with shapeless, abstract lights followed later by grainy news footage of ’60s music festivals, the Vietnam War and the Selma protest marches, but the visuals were unremarkable and unnecessary as Wolfe’s bold music transcended such generic stock footage, as well as standard expectations of what a work about the 1960s should sound like.
After intermission, the orchestra returned to the stage, and Adams shared a few insights before conducting his own Naive and Sentimental Music. “This piece was written 20 years ago … I wrote it for L.A. Phil and dedicated it to Esa-Pekka Salonen, who debuted it next door [at L.A. Philharmonic’s then-home at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion],” he said. “Each time, it grows. I now realize what this piece is … Each of the movements is a landscape in which the human figures are small.”
Describing the first movement, Adams said, “The orchestra rise up in these tsunamis of energy … The last movement is a little more minimalist in its boogie … a nod to Steve Reich … Then the music takes off to a considerable climax.”
Leading another large version of the orchestra, Adams guided acoustic guitarist Paul Viapiano, pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and principal flutist Catherine Karoly through the work’s innocent, childlike, “naive” early melodies. Then the string section grew louder and towered like rising skyscrapers of sound, and the naive music became more urgent, urban and worldly. There were many magical parts in the first movement alone, which culminated in a big, brassy explosion.
The second movement was contrastingly slow and stately, with Shawn Mouser unwrapping tranquil lines on bassoon against the gentle accompaniment of Viapiano’s New Age–y guitar. That was followed by a lovely, spacious exchange of strings, bells and chimes, then an upwelling of more strings and a frenzied shaking of sleigh bells before returning to a measured, unfolding serenity. The third movement opened with a spectral sprinkling of celesta, bells and vibraphone, then rotated into minimalist, cycling patterns that expanded and grew. An ant-farm network of busy strings, horns and bells was stitched smartly together before a final brassy exclamation.