On Sunday afternoon, Principal Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki began her final concert of the season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Steve Reich’s “Runner”. Thanks to the LA Marathon, it was a day of runners. Reich, however, is not one of them.
In a video discussing his 2016 piece for winds, percussion and strings, the composer, who turned 85 last month, said his exercise choice was the treadmill and the bicycle; the title came to him out of nowhere. Reich initially resisted the name. But he stayed because of the need for the performers to punctuate the score for about 15 minutes. Not that this unrivaled pulse master ever wrote a piece that didn’t need serious rhythm – the amazing rhythmic intricacies of Reich’s music require spectacular counting.
I don’t seem to be such a hot runner either. Stuck in the traffic triggered by a marathon, I arrived at the Walt Disney Concert Hall seemingly just on time. But I lost the race in seconds, reaching my driveway door just as it closed.
There were compensations. On the one hand, Nonesuch Records recorded the two weekend performances for an album slated for release in Spring 2022. Another was the fascination of watching “Runner” on the lobby monitor while hearing the sound of music. ‘orchestra bleed through the closed doors of the hall and mingle. with more distant traffic noise outside.
I know “Runner” through the broadcasts of his first performances in Europe (creation as a score of a dance choreographed by Wayne McGregor for the Royal Ballet). But in this case, not being able to hear detail very well made the push-pull of the modulation of meters and tempos a physical sensation that dominated hearing, as runners were more sensitive to their heartbeats than they were. to the ambient sounds around them (except maybe rhythmic cheers). Oddly enough, after running up the stairs and hearing it that way, “Runner” indeed became more about running than passive listening, at least without the dance component.
Still, there was no doubt that John Adams’ Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz as soloist was the main attraction. The concerto, which caused a sensation when it premiered in 1994 in Minneapolis and reached the LA Phil three years later, is already a widely performed modern classic.
Additionally, barely a year has passed in the past three decades without the orchestra programming something from Adams, who has been the creative director of LA Phil since 2009. For his part, Josefowicz has performed Adams’ concerto over 100 times and recorded it. Josefowicz, a MacArthur scholar, absorbed him like no other violinist. As a long-time member of the extended LA Phil family, she is the go-to violinist when the orchestra needs a daring, exploratory, thoughtful, dancing and spectacularly virtuoso soloist. Composers including Adams (in her last epic concerto, “Scheherazade.2”), Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kaija Saariaho and many other jockeys to write for her.
However many times the violinist has played Adams’ concerto (lived the concerto is perhaps more precise) and some of us may have heard it, Sunday’s performance proved to be newly revealing. In the long-limbed first movement, the solo violin traces one idea after another (Adams once compared this to Indian raga) in an ever-changing, endless melody. His unpredictability can make him hard to follow no matter how many times you’ve heard him, but Josefowicz made it easy. She played every turn of phrase, every gesture, as if it were a new thought or a new feeling that suddenly amazed her.
During the slow movement, titled “Body Through Which the Dream Flows”, the orchestra sang a Pachelbel-style canon as the violin glided overhead in an otherworldly melody. It was worth taking a look at Josefowicz’s feet every now and then to see if they were hovering a few inches off the ground. On the other hand, if you closed your eyes, it became difficult to determine where the disembodied violin voice was coming from.
Back on earth, the violinist has transformed into a rocker still ecstatic but now intemperate in the last electrifying movement. Josefowicz isn’t much of a runner either. Instead, his virtuosity rides waves of jubilant energy. This time I found myself looking at the orchestra to see how these musicians could sit properly.
Mälkki kept them anchored, although orchestral accompaniment had its own problems. The instrumental lines meander over the measurement lines, intersecting in a convoluted fashion. These instrumental colors are rarely stable, the combinations constantly changing. Two vintage synthesizers from the early 90s added an electronic polish that was best kept subtle. But the conductor played a crucial role, maintaining a solid foundation which allowed the soloist her exceptional overture. Was it so for previous generations to hear Jascha Heifetz in his centerpiece, the Tchaikovsky concerto? Probably.
Like Adams’ Violin Concerto, the LA Phil performed Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances”, his last major piece, three years after its premiere. (Rachmaninoff died at age 70 soon after, in 1943.) Few people think he was a composer of LA, or the Symphonic Variations a piece of LA. He only lived here for a short time, and his name is usually an afterthought in any discussion of LA emigrants in the first half of the 20th century. He was not a revolutionary progressive like Schoenberg and Stravinsky were in this city.
But there were reasons to think of Rachmaninoff that way on Sunday. A great daring celebrated Mälkki’s performances of Russian scores by Tchaikovsky and Scriabin with the LA Phil the previous week, and he did it even more this time with Rachmaninoff. A modernist at heart, Mälkki tackles the loudest and most enticing thunder that the timpani can produce. It commands clean and transparent textures. She discovered in Rachmaninoff an essential rhythmic drive almost comparable to that of Stravinsky or Bartók. In this performance, she revealed that the lyrical, melancholy and ever so Russian saxophone solo of the Variations’ first movement was sentimental-free, still un-Russian, and sonically clear as spring water. She revitalized a Russian romantic turned revolutionary.
It’s a tough year, of course, with all necessarily last minute planning for the LA Phil. A Mälkki marathon was hardly an option. Even so, barely two weeks into the season for her is too little.