Just two weeks into L.A. Philharmonic’s centenary season, the farsighted orchestra is making good on its promise to focus more on its upcoming 100 years rather than dwell sentimentally in the past. L.A. Phil has already debuted several significant works, including local composer Andrew Norman’s ambitious environmental-temporal orchestral epic Sustain, which received its world premiere at Disney Hall over the weekend.
L.A. Phil also recently premiered Julia Adolphe’s wonderful, melodically entrancing piece Underneath the Sheen, which was one of the highlights of the “California Soul” gala at Disney Hall on Sept. 27, on a program that ranged from thrilling, adventurous selections from the work of John Adams to unfortunately schlocky, Vegas-y arrangements of songs by The Doors and other rock groups.
A few days later, on Sept. 30, music director Gustavo Dudamel conducted the world premiere of Paul Desenne’s challenging if overwrought Guasamacabra as part of an even more pop-minded program at the Hollywood Bowl that included visually and sonically dazzling star turns by Katy Perry, Herbie Hancock and Kali Uchis. And at another Disney Hall performance this past weekend, on Sunday, Oct. 7, organist Renée Anne Louprette was scheduled to break up a recital of traditional pieces by J.S. Bach and Maurice Duruflé with the world premiere of Eve Beglarian’s Were You at the Rock?, a 10-minute work for pipe organ and uilleann pipes.
But of all the early-season works commissioned and premiered by L.A. Phil, it is Norman’s Sustain that has attracted the most curiosity and anticipation. The roughly 45-minute instrumental piece was the centerpiece of the orchestra’s official season opener at Disney Hall on Thursday, Oct. 4, and it was performed three more times over the next three days. At the morning matinee on Friday, Oct. 5, Sustain had to follow L.A. Phil’s strong performances of its former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s L.A. Variations and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.
Conductor Dudamel and the band were dressed completely in black, in black shirts and pants, with a few women wearing formal long black skirts. A couple musicians yawned and stared out blearily at the near-capacity morning crowd, which was understandable since the orchestra had been in the same room 12 hours earlier, debuting Sustain the previous night. Salonen’s L.A. Variations is a series of showy flourishes that sweep around the stage, dramatically displaying the sonic interplay of brass, percussion, string and wind instruments. L.A. Variations’ patterned rises and falls are artfully crafted if not always satisfyingly resolved. Despite the piece’s dynamic changes and boisterous swells, Dudamel conducted the 1997 work with measured restraint.
Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 56 (popularly referred to as the Triple Concerto), was the formal, traditional center of the program, juxtaposed with the more modernist experiments of Salonen and Norman. With its lovely, ornate melodic embellishments, Beethoven’s concerto was a merry showcase for a trio of L.A. Phil soloists: principal concertmaster/violinist Martin Chalifour, cellist Robert deMaine and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin, who stood out from the sea of black-clad musicians in her bright red pantsuit. Whether the trio were interacting with the entire orchestra or responding to each other’s lines in Beethoven’s more intimate passages, they were attentive and attuned, even with an overexcited, gratuitous scratch of the bow by Chalifour just as the piece was ending.
After intermission, chairs were added, and the stage was filled with a larger version of the orchestra, including a lot of percussion and two pianos, for Norman’s Sustain. Pearce Martin had changed back into black pants and a black shirt following her spotlighted role during the Beethoven concerto. Sustain opened with long, slow waves of icy strings. The waves were smooth and sweeping in contrast to the angular, frantic stops and starts of some of Norman’s other work.
The waves of strings continued in repetition but as the lines swept languorously past, they changed a little, swelling a bit more each time. A sheen of horns infused itself within the strings, then a streak of clarinet was followed by simmering, momentous cymbals as the composer evoked the passage of time against the backdrop of slowly shifting continents.
In an interview with the Weekly a few weeks before Sustain’s premiere, Norman explained he was playing with “the idea that time is this exponential thing. You can go in and out in extreme ways.” Speaking generally about his varying musical styles, he added, “At times, my music is really hardcore, really experimental and really tuneful.”
With Sustain, Norman didn’t hit the audience over the head with an overriding theme or any of Beethoven’s fanciful clusters of pretty notes. Nor did the L.A. composer resort to using flashy, jerky rhythms and overtly bizarre new-music clichés and sound effects to attract attention. Instead, Sustain unfolded steadily and built a creeping intensity and somber, unsettling mood over time.
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Blips of muted trombones and trumpets rippled outward through the spacious music. Occasional flurries of shooting-star woodwinds dashed across the sky. Sometimes the strings subsided, leaving behind a network of horns and percussion. When the strings rushed back in, everything sped up, and individual parts mimicked the pitch-bending Doppler effect of automobile horns approaching and passing by.
Then, a momentary return to silence. The elegant, eerie strings slithered in again in slow sheets of sound, anointed by pings of a triangle as they floated by. The waves of strings were intercut with echoing, lurking underwater tones of vibraphone and marimba. Febrile sorties of flute and clarinet danced over bubbling, burping horns. Percussionists scratched crop circles on large plywood boards mounted behind them. Volcanic eruptions of brass bumped up against swirling undercurrents of swooning strings.
Spare, bittersweet flecks from both pianos melted into a retreating tide of foam and spaces as Sustain wound down gently before disappearing entirely. Dudamel held the silence and extended it dramatically for another minute.
Once Norman’s continent-shifting, centuries-spanning spell was broken, the crowd gave Sustain a good response, if not a full standing ovation. “I liked parts of it,” at least two separate bemused people were overheard saying as the audience filed out of Disney Hall. Given its temporal theme, it’s perhaps fitting that only time will tell if Sustain can really sustain its curiously haunting presence in the long run, but the work lingered enough in the memory afterward that the busy, sunny streets and skyscrapers of downtown L.A. seemed like shiny baubles perched only temporarily on the spine of the moving Earth.