The finale of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2021–2022 subscription concert season, Sunday afternoon at Walt Disney Concert Hall, might have been considered an anomaly by the standards of another orchestra. As part of the LA Phil’s multi-genre Power to the People! festival, the concert included deep roots in Latin American culture (unveiling Puerto Rico-born composer Angélica Negrón’s Moriviví and reprising Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, which set love poems by the great Chilean poet, here powerfully sung by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges) and closed with the swinging flourish of Black composer William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”).
Such a program might seem a specialty project for a major American orchestra of international standing. But it was business as usual for this challenge-hungry orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel. The evening showcased an LA Phil-commissioned world premiere, a work with in-house history (Lieberson’s masterful songs were co-commissioned by the orchestra in 2005 under Esa-Pekka Salonen), and an important symphonic invention from a cultural corner deserving wider recognition, in sync with a renewed focus on Black contributions to American culture. The Western classical canon, strictly defined, can wait.
Negrón’s Moriviví takes as its thematic basis a particular shrub (translating to “died/lived”) with leaves unusually sensitive to touch, which the composer remembers from her childhood in Puerto Rico. Musically speaking, the concept translates to a post-minimalist canvas of deceptive simplicity, sensuously morphing before our ears.
Opening and closing with spare, reverb-splashed percussive accents, the piece heats and thickens in its middle section but remains delicate, like its flower subject. Negron’s harmonic palette rarely veers from a handful of root chords. Brief melodic motives, sometimes ironically toying with hints of sentimentality and melodrama, are passed between orchestral sections, as rhythmic pulses ebb and flow. Overall, elements stayed in a kind of suspended expressive state, a quality requiring the tender, painterly care maintained by Dudamel and company.
A unique and deep poignancy innately comes to roost when hearing Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, especially as rendered by the orchestra at home with them. The composer wrote the piece, based on five Neruda poems on love and mortality, for his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the famed mezzo-soprano who died of breast cancer the following year. She won a bevy of awards for the recording, posthumously.
Against such an embedded emotional backdrop and backstory, the restrained yet ever-stunning Bridges delivered a performance which stole the show. Lieberson’s simple and tonally restless musical language, steeped in longing and a quest for meaning, beautifully matches the nuanced passions and poetic digressions of Neruda’s love odes. By the end, we melted around the edges, as Bridges hauntingly repeated the lines “this love has not ended: / just as it had no birth, it has / no death.”
It has been an unusually good year for the legacy of seminal Black American composer William Grant Still (1895–1979), as the classical music firmament seeks to address the general societal/cultural move towards greater racial inclusivity. The first version of his “Afro-American” Symphony (circa 1930, revised in 1969) was performed by the LA Phil in 1940, conductor David Broekman presiding. Cut to the final slot of the 2021–2022 season, and Dudamel and the orchestra brought out its finery and made an admirable attempt at injecting genuine swing patois into this hybrid of classical Euro-American and jazz-blues characters.
At this point, Still’s score can play like a time-stamped slice of musical history rather than a vibrant piece of musical argument. But the symphony remains an important adjunct to the established body of jazz-infused orchestral writing, beyond the domain of better-known and more widely performed models by white composers like George Gershwin and Darius Milhaud. Still winks in the direction of Gershwin in his symphony’s “Humor” movement, folding in a melody resembling the hook of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Yes, Still did have that, and from a direct cultural source.
His First Symphony duly provided an alternative brand of all-American finale, to this concert and to a fine, probing orchestral season.