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Concert Review: LA Philharmonic Gala with Esa-Pekka Salonen Conducting

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I attended the opening of the Winter Season and the last season for Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Principal Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was a black tie affair, with celebrities and wealthy patrons gathered for cocktail, dinner and the concert. The rest of us, well over half the house, just heard the concert, but what a concert it was. It consisted of Stravinsky’s Firebird and songs by Stravinsky and John Adams (sung by the glorious Dawn Upshaw), Sondheim. Ellington, Stein (sung by the fabulous Audra McDonald), and Ligeti (the truly remarkable Barbara Hannigan).

Dawn Upshaw is a world-renowned singer of the opera and recital stage. She sang, without a microphone, something from Adams' Nixon in China and later an aria from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Adams is a composer often featured in the Phil’s repertoire and championed by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Rake's Progress was an opera performed by the Phil in Paris in the early years of Salonen’s tenure. It turned the fortunes of the Phil around, making the orchestra hit on the continent and eventually back in the USA.

Audra McDonald (with a microphone) sang three songs from the pop repertoire: Sondheim’s "There Wont Be Trumpets" from Anyone Can Whistle, “10,432 Sheep” from The West Point Story by Styne, and Ellington’s “Solitude.” She brought her usual clarity of tone and forceful delivery to her singing. This part of the concert was in honor of the many concerts that feature contemporary singers and music that the Phil has sponsored over the years.

Ligeti is a composer unknown to me, likewise the singer Barbara Hannigan. Ligeti is a survivor of both the Nazi and Soviet repression. This Hungarian composer set out to write an anti-opera in his Le Grand Macabre that draws on opera tradition as well as anti-opera criticism that accused opera of being irrelevant. Mysteries of The Macabre is loosely based on a 1934 play by Michel de Ghelderode, specifically the story of the citizens of Breugelland being faced with a visit by Death. The piece is wildly theatrical and requires superhuman singing. In fact, sometimes this part is played by a trumpet soloist because it is nearly impossible to sing unless you are one brave soprano. Well, Ms. Hannigan is one brave soprano and she brought the house down.

The real treat of the evening was Salonen conducting one of his favorite composers, Stravinsky. I happen to love the "Firebird" and it was a rare treat to hear it symphonically rather than as a background to a ballet. The orchestra was in tip-top shape and Salonen gave it his all. The surprise came at the end when the audience got fireworks INSIDE Disney Hall. Amazing. Salonen was also honored by a new fund for commissions of new works. In all it was a grand opening of the Winter Season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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