On the eve of an election day when housing happened to be a major campaign issue, it wasn’t easy to get to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed a new gentrifying oratorio, Ted Hearne’s “Place,” as the closing concert to his “Power to the People!” Concert Festival. Roads were closed and freeway exits closed. Gridlock sparked street rage as world leaders and their cohorts of diplomats, traveling in heavily patrolled caravans, began taking over downtown LA Tuesday for their next day’s Summit of the Americas.
There goes the neighborhood.
However, we have been warned. In a broad discussion on arts, race and social justice at Disney two nights earlier, activists Angela Davis and Bryonn Bain hailed artists and abolitionists as seeing what is not yet there.
Indeed, Power Up The People! — co-curated by Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and Creative Chair for Jazz Herbie Hancock, both of whom have dedicated their careers to using music for social change — could not have been more forward-thinking , when the LA Phil originally ascended it in 2020. The pandemic then shut it down mid-festival, and Davis’ talk was the first program to be canceled. Two months later, an epic protest movement rocked the nation following the killing of George Floyd, leading to a profound national reawakening to civil rights.
While very little of what the orchestra had planned during the long, dark months of the pandemic could or needed to be brought back, “Power to the People!” remained high on LA Phil’s priority list. It was a politically provocative one at the time Concept for a large American symphony orchestra. It stays that way now. Discussions about race, inclusion, and social justice have become more commonplace in arts institutions everywhere. But Davis pointed out that real social justice requires more than wake-up calls and protests; the real work must go on. Consequently, the “power goes to the people!” This time redux was less about polemics and more about the sustainable social value of music.
That perhaps made the festival less conspicuous and more mundane. It was tied into a number of end-of-season LA Phil activities, including a 100th Anniversary gala program at the Hollywood Bowl on June 3 and hosting the annual League of American Orchestras gathering, which kept Dudamel and the orchestra exceptionally busy. This also meant that individual Power to the People events tended to attract diverse, mainly partisan, audiences.
But at the macro level, the LA Phil has recovered from the pandemic and invested more than ever in building the symphony orchestra — that supposedly musty, elitist makeup of subservient musicians playing in military lockstep to bolster the power of the ruling class — a powerful voice of the people. Day after day there was a dizzyingly democratic and often brilliantly realized flow of new work, reinterpreted old work, and inclusive work not found at any other major arts institution in America or beyond.
Freedom and unity have been a broad theme over the last two months, highlighted by Beethoven’s two great liberation hymns – his prison opera Fidelio, revealing in its staging with the Deaf West Theatre, and the Ninth Symphony, which features Dudamel’s magnificently spiritual and yet impatient exuberant expression bestows achievement. Thomas Adès’ new ballet Dante proved a silly but transformative guide to liberation from worldly anxieties.
In a musical pinnacle of America, Dudamel combined Stravinsky ballets with classical 20th-century Latin American scores and newly commissioned works by Latin American composers. Every Dudamel concert at Disney this spring – with the exception of “Fidelio” and its program with rapper Nas – included the premiere of at least one new work by a Latino composer commissioned for the occasion. They were mostly short, lively hooks in different styles. Most notable, however, was a full-length violin concerto by Gabriela Ortiz, which will be repeated in the fall when Dudamel kicks off the new season with a Pan-American Music Initiative.
The bowl gala, which drew a huge crowd thanks to Gwen Stefani’s performance on June 3, ostensibly stayed aloof from politics. It began with John Williams conducting the premiere of his Centennial Overture, less fanfare than compellingly complex and chromatic reflections on the intricate history of the Bowl through a beloved 90-year-old composer who is a living and enduring part of that history. But America’s most musically progressive and politically daring orchestra also impartially hosted the surprise performance by Stefani’s husband, country singer Blake Shelton, who has sparked controversy over tweets from across the aisle.
So does music bring us together or does it call us to action? Obviously it does both, and the contradictory way it works says a lot about humanity and society. When asked by Bain about the contrast between formalist art for art’s sake, coupled with the suggestion that Disney Hall could be seen as representing a movement, and art standing for a movement, Davis resisted the distinction.
“All art has a form,” she replied. “All art has content.” For her, art can do something that neither science nor politics can, namely awaken the senses. “Art is important for social change,” she emphasized, “because it’s the artist who can help us feel.”
That may have been the motto for Dudamel’s main theme, “Power to the People!”. program that actually had no theme. It began with the premiere of Angélica Negrón’s Moriviví, the Puerto Rican term for the sensitive Mimosa Pudica Plant that closes its leaves when touched. The score begins with bright but elusive plucked sounds from harp and strings, as if the musician’s hands were gazing in delight over the pliable pudica foliage. The melody enters slowly with hints of dance rhythms that fade, more to remember than to hear, the dying and living of sound to mirror what it feels like to touch and thus activate a Moriviví leaf.
Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, premiered by LA Phil in 2005, draws on the Chilean poet’s sentiment of love, which is a sense of something existing in a metaphysical realm beyond physical touch. It was written for the composer’s terminally ill wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died a year later. J’Nai Bridges sang it with a more conventional feel than the fearlessly penetrating Hunt Lieberson, as love in the here and now and not in the eternal afterlife.
For the festival’s one major orchestral work, Dudamel has revived William Grant Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony, a Harlem Renaissance symphonic masterpiece written in 1930. It was played often in the 1930s and first made it to the LA Phil in 1940. By that time, Still had moved to LA
The symphony exemplified exactly what Davis meant, bringing rich subject matter, including blues and spirituals, into luminous form. Dudamel’s performance brought out the intensity of the symphony in a way that felt like a revolutionary force to the people. It was good to have hundreds of American orchestra representatives in the audience thanks to the League Assembly. Let a style renaissance begin.
With “Place”, the premiere of which should have taken place during the lockdown, real agitprop finally found a place on the Tuesday of the festival. Hearne calls it an oratorio, but it functions more like a 19-number song cycle. The lyrics are by the composer and poet Saul Williams. As staged by Patricia McGregor, the oratory implied a rough and rich street life. The six singers were a mix of pop and classical. The same applies to the use of pop musicians and members of the LA Phil New Music Group. The composer conducted.
In the first Hearne-centric part, while meditating on his young, sleeping son, the composer tries to find his place in the larger one place in a problem society. He turns to James Baldwin and other writers for help. In the second part, Williams challenges the many assumptions made by Hearne and white society. The poet’s anger explodes as he finds unexpected beauty in speechless humor and sarcasm. The eighth number, “Hallelujah in White”, is nothing more than the line “Mind your business” repeated over and over to the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”.
But “Place” ends in a breathtaking rhapsody. Hearne’s place and William’s place meet in a vast universe capable of Neruda-level love.
Hearne’s score scratches, moves, and seeks sweetness. Gentrification is addressed less as a situation and more as a state of mind. Instead of being an argument about greedy developers and disingenuous politicians taking over the neighborhood, Hearne and Williams take over the senses. Rather than being art about what you feel, Place seeks a place for art that shows how you feel so you can then better know how to act.
It would be nice to think that the politicians, ill-prepared, would awaken the senses in their safety bubbles on the ninth Summit of the Americas a mile down blocked and well-armed streets at the convention center might somehow get a clue place where they happened to be. They may know better how to act before beginning their well-orchestrated twist and turn.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-06-10/review-the-l-a-phil-protests-power-to-the-people Review: The L.A. Philharmonic protests. Who’s listening?