The Barbican has scored itself something of a winner in securing the Los Angeles Philarmonic Orchestra to fulfil its International Associate Residency. A world-class ensemble, having had a string of first-rate conductors at its helm – and now the legendary Gustavo Dudamel, too – the LA Phil was never going to need to programme popular classics to draw in enormous crowds; refreshingly, in this residency it has lived up to its reputation for innovative programming and promoting new music, with two of three concerts boasting European premières, and the remaining one juxtaposing two well-known but entirely distinct works with Claude Vivier's lesser-known, spectral Zipangu.
This particular concert came under the LA Phil's highly popular Green Umbrella concert series, which promotes contemporary classical music and has gained legions of fans in its native California. The orchestra in fact has its own sub-division, the LA Phil New Music Group, which is more specifically dedicated to showcasing new works, and it is this group that gave not one, but two European premières tonight.
For each of the pieces performed, the composition of the New Music Group changed. Despite a stage littered with an array of percussion instruments, the band started off relatively small. The concert began with John Adams' Son of Chamber Symphony, a piece commissioned by Stanford University, Carnegie Hall, and the San Francisco Ballet (there is a choreographed version, too). It was conducted by the great man himself, who came onto the stage with little fanfare. Right from the off, it seemed that Adams had very clear ideas indeed about what he wanted from the piece; it was interesting to see his conducting style change at almost every corner, and for the musicians to respond precisely. Each of the three movements was lively in its own way – and the instrumentalists were equally so. In the first movement, the string players really dug into the pulse as the wind section darted about high above them, whilst the second movement's slow, elegiac trope was given an almost emotional quality; the musical humour of that melody's subsequent fragmentation also came across rather well. The finale, which takes its inspiration from the "News" aria from Nixon in China, was an altogether faster affair, and both technically and rhythmically tricky – yet the players never lost their cool.
Following rapturous applause for Gustavo Dudamel's appearance and introduction to the nature of the music that was to follow An expanded New Music Group took to the stage for Joseph Pereira's Concerto for Percussion and Chamber Orchestra, with Pereira as the percussion soloist. Pereira's own programme notes stated that his primary aim was to play with the ideas of pitched and unpitched percussion, as well as the blurred boundaries between them. What resulted was an exciting, and often mind-bending, piece which did exactly as the composer intended – the drums seemed to harmonise with the pitch of the orchestral accompaniment at times, whilst the exact same drums sounded unpitched at other times. Even the marimba, used in the second of the two movements, was treated as an unpitched instrument, its lowest register producing more of a hum than any particular note. This was a fascinating aural scientific experiment; with Pereira's innate knowledge of the piece and what he wanted to get out of the performance, it was a tremendous success.
The final piece, Korean composer Unsuk Chin's Graffiti, was less successful as a concept, though it demanded – and received – extraordinarily technically brilliant performances from each of the musicians. Chin's original stimulus for the work was the phenomenon of street art, but in her notes on the piece even she admitted that "it is only very loosely, if at all, connected to... Street Art (or the visual arts)". Whilst there was little coherence between the movements ("Palimpsest", "Notturno urbano", and "Passacaglia"), they did, individually, paint pictures. Highlights from the first movement included some violent pizzicato from the violins, as though picking stubborn pieces of ink from a manuscript, whilst the second movement cleverly evoked the night-time through fragments of eerie melodies and the sounds of bells spookily moving closer and closer. The third movement created less of an image, but carried a sort-of passacaglia in the brass, with a sequence of chords being repeated in various ways throughout. The exercise of trying to work out the pattern of chords was not easy, but it was rather enjoyable – it was a piece to make you think.
2013 is a year of many composers' anniversaries – Britten's centenary; 50 years since Hindemith and Poulenc's deaths – so it was a breath of fresh air to hear this programme of new music. Whatever people's opinions on the music itself ("it was just noise", said someone after Chin's piece had ended), it cannot be denied that the LA Phil New Music Group is a supremely talented band of musicians with a real feel for contemporary classical compositions.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group at the Barbican Centre © Mark Allan
Joseph Pereira with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil New Music Group at the Barbican © Mark Allan