Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, its summer home.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, its summer home.
Danny Liao

At 100, L.A. Phil Celebrates Its History by Embracing a Brave New Future

The folks at L.A. Philharmonic could have taken the easy way out in marking the orchestra's 100th anniversary.

Nobody would have blamed them if they had decided to spend the next year jogging through a well-deserved victory lap, with the band playing crowd-pleasing greatest-hits sets of timelessly epic classical works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner and underscoring its past by bringing back such former conductors as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Michael Tilson Thomas and Zubin Mehta.

All those nostalgic visitations will occur in the new season, which begins at Disney Hall on Thursday, Sept. 27, with music director Gustavo Dudamel conducting the "California Soul" gala of works by such disparate Golden State composers as John Adams, Frank Zappa and Jerry Goldsmith, accompanied by guest vocalists Corinne Bailey Rae and Coldplay's Chris Martin.

Three days later, on Sunday, Sept. 30, the centennial celebration encompasses much of the city as the orchestra takes part in its first CicLAvia event. Major streets will be shut down for cyclists and pedestrians as dozens of dance groups and musicians — including jazz-pop stylists Pink Martini, provocative funk/hip-hop singer Georgia Anne Muldrow, Latin jazz conguero Poncho Sanchez, psychedelic Cambodian-American explorers Dengue Fever and Chicano world-music collective Ozomatli — perform at a series of six stages that link Disney Hall with the orchestra's summer home, Hollywood Bowl. L.A. Phil will close the day with a free concert at the Bowl that features Katy Perry, Herbie Hancock and Kali Uchis.

"It's going to be a party, as Gustavo describes it," says Chad Smith, the orchestra's chief operating officer.

L.A. Phil director of public relations Sophie Jefferies calls the upcoming, yearlong celebrations "our gift to the city."

Gustavo Dudamel conducts.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts.
Sam Comen/courtesy L.A. Philharmonic

"This diversity, like our community, will drive audiences and music fans to understand that the L.A. Phil can be pretty hip for a 100-year-old," Dudamel says in an email interview.

Over the course of the next few months, the orchestra will also interact and collaborate with Moby, Andrew Bird and choreographer Benjamin Millepied (who will stage Sergei Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet). In November, L.A. Phil takes an odyssey into music from the films of Stanley Kubrick, and conductor Christopher Rountree invokes the anarchic spirit of the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s with the first in a set of unpredictable events presented in coordination with the Getty Center — some of which will be improvised and spontaneously occur in and around Disney Hall with little notice. The Fluxus concerts will include rarely performed works by La Monte Young, Yoko Ono, Luciano Berio, Nam June Paik and Pauline Oliveros, and the orchestra also will emphasize John Cage's importance as a native son with performances of his 1987 Europeras. "John Cage was born here, he walked these streets, and he sucked in some of the essence of California" in his work, Smith says of the composer, who was better known for his subsequent career in New York.

And yet, despite all that activity, the major focus of the centennial season will be on new works, as L.A. Phil issues the world premieres of an estimated 54 pieces that the orchestra commissioned, including 23 compositions that will constitute the entire season of its boldly adventurous and radically experimental Green Umbrella series.

An illuminated program from the orchestra's first performances in 1919
An illuminated program from the orchestra's first performances in 1919
L.A. Philharmonic Archives

"By far, it's the most premieres we've ever done before," Smith says during an interview in his office at Disney Hall. He adds that L.A. Phil's previous record for most world premieres in a single season was 25 works. "The creative community of Los Angeles is so remarkable. We feel we're part of the ecosystem of L.A. ... There isn't this monolithic audience for classical music. There are dozens of audiences for classical now."

"I don't know of any other orchestra in the world that will be celebrating its centennial by making such a bold statement by commissioning and premiering so many new works," says Bay Area composer and L.A. Phil creative chair John Adams by phone while driving from Berkeley to Oakland. As both a conductor and a composer, Adams will figure prominently in the upcoming season. Two of his past works — Harmonium: "Wild Nights" and the evocative, electric violin–sparked Dharma at Big Sur: Part 2, Sri Moonshine — anchor the "California Soul" program on Sept. 27, and Adams returns to Disney Hall in January to conduct L.A. Phil in the world premiere of Philip Glass' Symphony No. 12, Lodger, which is inspired by the collaborations of David Bowie and Brian Eno.

Even more intriguing, in March, Dudamel conducts the world premiere of Adams' Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, a piano concerto the composer recently wrote specifically for soloist Yuja Wang, the Chinese pianist whose dazzling speed, astonishing technique and daring makeovers of traditional classical warhorses make her the classical-music equivalent to Jimi Hendrix.

Adams says he wanted to write "a piece that had a diabolical energy, especially if played by Yuja Wang." Given the pianist's pyrotechnical abilities, was Adams ever tempted to turn the concerto into an ornately detailed showcase for Wang's florid style? "I was concerned that my piece didn't take advantage enough of her technical talent, but I didn't want to write something that was just flashy and showy. ... I'm not a pianist but I've written a lot of piano music. That's my biggest ongoing challenge, to write something that pianists want to play."

As a composer who has previously had several significant works premiered by L.A. Philharmonic — including 1999's Naive and Sentimental Music, 2003's The Dharma at Big Sur, 2009's City Noir and 2011's The Gospel According to the Other Mary — Adams has long appreciated the orchestra's flexibility. "They've been dealing with a lot of new repertoire," he says. "They have a very fast learning curve. ... That's what makes it exciting."

L.A. Phil on the Disney Hall stage
L.A. Phil on the Disney Hall stage
Craig Mathew

"Something I admire about a lot of the L.A. Phil players is how they can shape a line," says composer Andrew Norman, 38, whose new orchestral opus, Sustain, is the centerpiece of the orchestra's official season-opening concert at Disney Hall on Thursday, Oct. 4. That evening also launches L.A. Fest, an intermittent series of performances that draws from the plethora of unusual new works by composers from this city's burgeoning underground contemporary-music scene. The Oct. 4 program begins with Esa-Pekka Salonen's L.A. Variations coupled with Ludwig van Beethoven's momentous Triple Concerto, which spotlights three of the orchestra's most adept and nuanced soloists: violinist-concertmaster Martin Chalifour, intense cellist Robert deMaine and versatile pianist Joanne Pearce Martin.

But the whole program hinges on, and culminates with, Norman's orchestral work. Has he finished the piece yet? "No, it's not done!" Norman admits. "I think everyone is anxiously awaiting its completion." Referring to Dudamel, who will conduct the world premiere, Norman thinks the conductor will only be happy "once I find that double bar and give him the music."

In the past, Norman's bracing, unusual work has ranged from angular, architecturally structured and inspired pieces such as The Companion Guide to Rome (2010) and Frank's House (2015), a musical homage to Frank Gehry, to more melodically entrancing works like A Trip to the Moon, a fanciful science-fiction opera that L.A. Phil debuted earlier this year.

"As if composing for an orchestra isn't hard enough, there's this other layer of meaning and significance," he says, about taking on the pressure of writing a piece that will set the tone for L.A. Philharmonic's centennial season. "This is a piece we've been talking about for four or five years, the idea of a big orchestral piece for L.A. Phil," Norman says in a phone interview. "I thought about making this a portrait piece of this city, but in the end what got me going was thinking about the future. What would the audience be like 100 years from now in this hall? Maybe the hall won't even exist in 100 years. How would the ears of the audience be different than ours, and how would they be the same?

"The piece is largely about time," he continues. "Maybe people in the future will experience time in a different way." Norman says that Sustain, a roughly 40-minute work, will have standard symphony orchestration along with "a healthy dose of percussion. I wasn't interested in pulling out all the bells and whistles and sticking in instruments that don't belong. I'm taking the core orchestra instruments and getting them to behave in a way that feels fresh and exciting."

"He's a very extraordinary talent," Adams says about Norman. "He's especially gifted in writing for instruments in a unique and exciting way."

"With Andrew, complexity is a color," Smith says.

Music director Zubin Mehta was with the L.A. Phil from 1962 to 1978, and at the time was the youngest music director ever for any major North American orchestra.
Music director Zubin Mehta was with the L.A. Phil from 1962 to 1978, and at the time was the youngest music director ever for any major North American orchestra.
L.A. Philharmonic Archives

"On the macro level, I'd say he has an incredible ability for playfully interfacing with what is considered a very serious art form," Dudamel writes. "I love the way he can bring such a bright, youthful and energetic outlook to our sound and to our way of playing. He's also an important part of our community as he maintains such a close relationship with the USC Thornton School, and thus he knows us well, but his career stretches from Los Angeles around the globe to some of the world's most important cultural institutions."

"It's not the lightest piece of music in the world, I have to admit," Norman says. "It's about how different scales of time relate to each other. A lot is happening in the world now, particularly with the way we're treating the environment. I felt like I needed to explore this personally and also in this very public way how we, in this particular moment, think about the future. ... As my pieces go, it's pretty abstract, with long geologic lines unfolding, a process so slow you can't even perceive it. It's also about how our perception of time is affected by memory and sound," he says, adding that he intends to evoke "the lifespan of a continent" with his ambitious work.

"I like for my music to do it all in dialogue with a wide variety of music and ways of listening," Norman says. "Some of the most interesting work now is happening in the in-between spaces between categories. ... A lot of my music pushes to the limit of what people can do."

"It's absolutely frightening," says longtime L.A. Phil violist Meredith Snow, speaking generally about the flood of world premieres in the upcoming season. "There's absolutely no sitting back and saying, 'I know this piece.' Some of the pieces are a right pain in the ass to play. It's also tremendously physically taxing. We're like small-muscle athletes, using very repetitive motions. You want to look like Roger Federer. You know he's working hard but he doesn't look like it."

"It runs the gamut from 'No problem' to 'Holy shit!,'" bassist David Allen Moore, 47, says of learning so many brand-new pieces. "The sheer onslaught of repertoire — it takes time to process that much material. ... Generally, orchestras are conservative. We're more of a tech-savvy company as opposed to traditional orchestras that are slow to change. We're more nimble and creative with scheduling and programming."

"Some of them are going to be incredibly challenging," agrees L.A. Phil bass trombonist John Lofton about the numerous new-music commissions. Many of the scores are still being written and won't be available to the musicians to rehearse until just days before the scheduled concerts.

"A lot of the composers are unknown. You never know what you're going to get," principal timpanist Joseph Pereira, 44, says. "A lot of the challenge is figuring out the notation of the composers. The way it's notated, it's like you're learning how to read music again."

Not only do the musicians have to learn an unprecedented amount of physically intense new pieces, they are also responsible for performing music from the wide variety of genres — Broadway, pop, jazz, Latin and avant-garde — that L.A. Phil tends to perform over the course of a year. The orchestra is able to include so many new works in part because its traditional season is busier and longer than it used to be.

"We always feel we're working harder ever year," violinist Minyoung Chang says.

"At this point, we're doing close to 300 concerts per year," Smith says.

"It's a lot of work, but it's not a job," Moore says. "It's always fun even when it's emotionally demanding. There's a weight of responsibility and expectations and standards you're trying to uphold, but it's always a good time."

Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, opened on Oct. 24, 2003, as the L.A. Phil's permanent home.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, opened on Oct. 24, 2003, as the L.A. Phil's permanent home.
L.A. Philharmonic

At what point did L.A. Philharmonic turn the corner from being a respected if overlooked orchestra into its current status as one of the world's preeminent groups and champions of vital new music? It all depends on whom you ask.

Many people, both within and outside the orchestra, credit Gustavo Dudamel and L.A. Phil chief operating officer Chad Smith for the increased focus on new music since Dudamel took over as music director in 2009. Smith, 46, started with the organization in 2002, when he was hired as associate artistic administrator. After a stint with New York Philharmonic, Smith returned and was promoted to chief operating officer in 2015.

"If music rests on its laurels, its future will be bleak indeed," Dudamel writes. "We must provide outlets for today's musicians, composers and songwriters to express themselves and expose them to the widest audience possible. The L.A. Phil you see today is uniquely different from the L.A. Phil 100 years ago. And the 200th L.A. Phil will be even more different than that. The world is changing, and music must listen, change and grow also — stagnation is not acceptable. ... We've thought this through across the entire organization, from how we open up Disney Hall to new audiences by providing thousands of free tickets to the community to our one-of-a-kind education programs, in which we are investing and expanding at an unprecedented pace."

"Gustavo is an amazing collaborator for new music," Norman says. "He's very hands-off in the making of things, respecting composers' visions. He encourages composers to do what they want, and he does everything he can to facilitate it."

"Dudamel is always so enthusiastic and excited about the new things that are coming," says keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin. "He has a youthful exuberance that's contagious. He may appear to be showy, but every move he makes comes from the heart and from a musical place. Most of the time, he's conducting without a score," she points out. "What he can do with an eyebrow, other people can take 15 minutes in a rehearsal" to communicate.

"It's an incredible rite to go through a concert with Gustavo," Lofton says. "There's so much energy with Gustavo; he's not afraid to bare his soul to the public."

"Dudamel is so great with Mahler and Beethoven," Chang adds. "It's easier to get into the zone. He has a really great approach to the Mahler symphonies and the big works."

"There's an intensity that applies across the entire spectrum of emotions," Moore says of Dudamel. "He's loose but he's also very demanding. He's looking for flexibility and passionate engagement."

"In the organization's DNA, there is this commitment to new music, to cultivate it and invest in it," Smith says. "The role of artistic director has grown. We work hand in glove with the conductor. ... What happens onstage has to reflect who [Dudamel] is as an artist. The programming is built by a team, but it's a reflection of the conductor's values. ... California creativity is always strange and wonderful and distinct. We haven't been looking over our shoulders back east" to New York and Europe, Smith adds, noting that although the traditional classical-music repertoire was dominated by white European male composers, these days L.A. Phil is just as likely to delve into more diverse works by such African-American composer as William Grant Still and Duke Ellington.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, left, rehearses the L.A. Phil New Music Group.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, left, rehearses the L.A. Phil New Music Group.
L.A. Philharmonic Archives

Other observers also credit the impact of former CEO Deborah Borda as well as Dudamel's predecessor as music director, Finnish conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. Timpanist Pereira, who has debuted his own dramatic and experimental works with L.A. Phil, marvels at Salonen's "energy and sense of time, especially with contemporary music, and the accuracy and pacing without it being too mathematical, which is often a problem in new music."

"Esa-Pekka is an incredible technician," says Lofton, 62. "He's always prepared, and he has the ability to guide you through the most difficult music." Along with violinist Dale Breidenthal, Lofton is one of just two African-American musicians currently with L.A. Philharmonic, and he's been entrusted as one of the leaders of the orchestra's Resident Fellows program in an attempt to train and encourage more people of color to overcome cultural and socioeconomic barriers and take part in the organization.

Lofton wants to "make sure that the arts are a living dynamic entity in our lives" as he tries to "infuse numbers of people [of color] into the queue" as part of L.A. Phil's auditions for new hires, an intimidating process he describes as "six minutes of glory behind the curtain."

Wisecracking violist Snow, who has been with L.A. Phil since 1986, cites the influence of the orchestra's legendary former longtime general manager, Ernest Fleischmann. "The first glimmer was when Ernest Fleischmann was here and hired Zubin Mehta" as music director, she says. "He's dynamic. He really shook it up out here when he put his stamp on the orchestra."

The orchestra onstage at Philharmonic Auditorium, circa 1957, under conductor Eduard van Beinum. It performed in the downtown hall from its second season, in 1920, until the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened in 1963.
The orchestra onstage at Philharmonic Auditorium, circa 1957, under conductor Eduard van Beinum. It performed in the downtown hall from its second season, in 1920, until the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened in 1963.
L.A. Philharmonic Archives

For many members of the orchestra, being a part of L.A. Phil is more than just a job. Violinist Minyoung Chang and timpanist Joseph Pereira are one of several married couples in the orchestra, along with flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly and her husband, cellist Jonathan Karoly. Chang and Pereira can often see each other onstage. Pereira was too nervous to watch his wife's audition for the orchestra, and Chang was similarly anxious when Pereira performed some of his own compositions with the orchestra.

"I can be an extra set of ears for him," Chang says.

"I find it easier [with Chang onstage] because I know for sure one person is really listening," Pereira confides. "When you're playing for someone, it's more satisfying."

Keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin's husband, Gavin Martin, is also a pianist. Although he's not a member of L.A. Philharmonic, he has appeared onstage as a featured soloist alongside his wife. "He's a marvelous pianist, my two-piano partner for three decades," Pearce Martin says. "That's been really fun."

Talking about her upcoming performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto, Pearce Martin could be speaking for the entire orchestra when she says, "That's a big one for me. I'm extremely excited about doing it with Dudamel and all my colleagues, but I'm also hugely excited about all the world premieres we're doing this season."

L.A. Philharmonic opens its season with the "California Soul" gala at Disney Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown; Thu., Sept. 27, 7 p.m.; $104-$320. (323) 850-2000, laphil.com.

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