OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere Hillborg’s “Sirens” at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

______________________

 

Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 2 (Emmanuel
Ax, soloist)

Hillborg: Sirens (Hila
Plitmann and Anne Sofie von Otter, soloists; Los Angeles Master Chorale)

Friday, November 25, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts: Tonight at 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Info: www.laphil.com

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Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s
music director from 1992-2009 and is now its conductor laureate, returned home
to Walt Disney Concert Hall (which he was instrumental in getting built) for
the first of two programs this season. During both weeks, he’s leading a world
premiere — last night it was Sirens, a
33-minute piece by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Next week it’s the
recently discovered prologue to an unfinished Shostakovich opera (more in Hemidemisemiquavers below).

 

Sirens is based on
a section of Homer’s The Odyssey, although
in the preconcert lecture Hillborg revealed that he composed some of the music
first and then found a text that seemed to fit what he had written. As the
composer explained in the program magazine: “In Greek mythology, the Sirens
were dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses who lured sailors with
their enchanting music and voices to come to the rocky coast of their island,
where they would kill them. In Homer’s tale, Ulysses — curious as to what the
Sirens sound like — orders his crew to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him
to the mast, not to release him no matter how much he begs, while their boat is
passing the island of the Sirens. In this way he will be able to hear their
deadly singing, which no man has heard and survived.”

 

Hillborg uses soprano Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Anne
Sofie von Otter and the Los Angeles Master Chorale to portray the Sirens, who
flatter Ulysses’ ego, appeal to his mind and soul, and sing seductively
(Hillborg uses English translations of The
Sirens Song
from The Odyssey, along
with additional text that he wrote; the words were projected as supertitles).

 

Underneath all of this, the orchestra delivers wave after
wave of sound, sometimes melodic, occasionally dissonant, with percussion and
piano interjecting sharp spikes into the tonal wash. The Master Chorale singers
also whistle, whisper and produce other sound effects.

 

Overall the effect was hypnotic; in the warm hall there were
undoubtedly a few people lulled to sleep. Von Otter (who used a score) and
Plitmann (who didn’t) were positioned on either side of Salonen conducted with
a score, as is almost always the case, but didn’t use a baton for the Hillborg
piece. The percussion section (not large by the standard of Hillborg’s
contemporaries) was notable for not including timpani. Lighting changes and
even a tinkling cell phone at the end added to the effect.

 

Plitmann’s radiant soprano voice blended well with von
Otter’s creamy mezzo; the two often sang extremely close, intertwined
harmonies. Overall, I found Sirens to
be an interesting — if not fully compelling — rendition of the Sirens story. After the performance,
Hillborg came onstage to bask in the sustained applause, which was extended to
all concerned.

 

The audience noticeably thinned out for Sirens as opposed to the all-Beethoven first half of the program,
which began with Salonen leading a dramatic reading of the second Leonore Overture (one of four overtures
that Beethoven composed for his only opera, Fidelio).
Salonen made effective use of the work’s silences, particularly in the
opening measures (when Disney Hall is silent, the effect can be magical) and
Chris Still was the offstage trumpeter.

 

To these ears, at least, the highlight of the evening was
Emmanuel Ax’s work as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (which,
despite its number, was really the first of the five piano concerti that
Beethoven wrote). Ax’s crystalline tone was perfect for his concept of this
piece, which alludes firmly to both Mozart and Haydn. Every phrase — indeed,
every note — was carefully thought out and lovingly sculpted — the entire
performance was a study in lyrical elegance.

 

Salonen enforced brisk tempos throughout and the orchestra
accompanied Ax sensitively. After sustained applause, Ax delivered a gentle,
lyrical encore: Schumann’s Fantasiestcke,
Op. 12, No. 1

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Lucinda Carver’s preconcert lecture was longer than usual
(45 minutes), partly because Hillborg showed up unexpectedly to join in. Among
his musical influences, Hillborg listed Steve Reich and Brian Wilson (of the
Beach Boys).

Sirens was the
fourth Hillborg piece to be played by the L.A. Phil. One of those was Eleven Gates, which Salonen and the Phil
premiered in 2006. That, said Hillborg, was when he met Betty Freeman, the
local philanthropist who commissioned more than 400 new works over the last 40
years of her life. Hillborg dedicated Sirens
to both Salonen and Freeman.

When Salonen retired as the Phil’s music director, one of
the stated reasons was to allow him to devote more time to composing. So far,
he’s delivered just a couple of pieces: Dona
Nobis Pacem,
a five-minute unaccompanied work for female voices that the
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang earlier this year in a tribute concert to
Ernest Fleischmann, and Nyx, a
17-minute work for orchestra that was premiered last February in Paris and in
October by the Atlanta Symphony.

Next week’s concerts (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) will
feature the world premiere of the Prologue to Orango by Shostakovich. The Phil describes this work thusly: “Orango is an unfinished satirical opera
by Shostakovich, sketched [in 1932] while he was writing Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
He and his librettists conceived ‘a political lampoon against the bourgeois
press,’ concerning a human-ape hybrid. Of the projected Prologue and three
acts, only the 40-minute Prologue was completed, in piano vocal score, which
was just discovered in 2006.”  Read
the complete program note HERE.

 

The Prologue includes parts for 10 soloists and the Los
Angeles Master Chorale. It is being staged by Peter Sellars with lighting by
Ben Zamora. Gerald McBurney, who orchestrated the prologue, will offer a
preconcert lecture an hour before each program. 

 

A Los Angeles Times article
on the piece is HERE.

 

The second half of the program will be Shostakovich’s
Symphony No. 4, which was composed just a few years after Orango. This was the symphony that was not played for 25 years
after it was written, a consequence of the composer’s run-in with Soviet
authorities over Lady Macbeth of the
Mtsensk District.
Laurel E. Fay’s program note says that one of the two
conductors who were eager to conduct the symphony was Otto Klemperer, who at
the time was the L.A. Phil’s music director. Whether the symphony would have
been played in L.A. isn’t spelled out; ultimately the LAPO premiere would not
take place until 1989 under the baton of Andr Previn. (Read the full program note
HERE).

 

Expect next week’s program to last a bit longer than a
normal concert. The Prologue to Orango
is 40 minutes long and the symphony, one of Shostakovich’s longest, takes an
hour. The orchestration for the symphony (2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (4th =
English horn), 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 8 horns, 4
trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets,
cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps,
celesta, and strings) is the largest of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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