The LA Phil Premieres Andrew Norman’s Sustain

Jim Farber on October 7, 2018
Andrew Norman’s newest composition is Sustain | Credit: Andrew Norman

The Los Angeles Philharmonic got down to business Thursday following the light-hearted opening celebrations of its 100th season. The featured work on the program, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, was the world premiere of Sustain, a single movement 45-minute work by Andrew Norman — one of 50 commissioned pieces that will be performed throughout the 2018–2019 season.

Sustain represents Norman’s embrace of a fascinating trend in contemporary classical music, which as far as I know, has no name. I call itSpatialism,” or as I prefer to spell it, SPACE-ialism. It’s music that rebels against the frenetic, short attention span of our social-media world. Instead, composers like John Luther Adams, Dylan Mattingly, and Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir are attempting to describe the macro/micro nature of time and space and our place in it. It’s the journey Stanley Kubrick took us on at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Looked at from that perspective, Sustain could be titled, Andrew Norman: A Space Odyssey because of the way the work explores the dynamics of time, space, and place. It’s a serious follow-up to Norman’s last rocket flight with the LA Phil— his multimedia opera for kids based on Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.

“I was trying to conceptualize Sustain as one long, unbroken musical thought,” Norman explains in his program notes. “I was attempting to access and understand spans of time that were much bigger than my own ... the rise and fall of species, the movement of tectonic plates, the birth and death of stars.”

Presented as the entire second half of the concert, Sustain evolves as a series of 10 ever-condensing cycles that form a cascading Fibonacci sequence of repeated thematic ideas.

The first cycle is truly cosmological in scope and takes up almost half of the composition. It’s introduced by a pair of pianos that are tuned a quarter-tone apart. Placed on opposite sides of the stage, their antiphonal voices serve as a guide throughout the work, signaling a return to the starting point and the beginning of the next cycle.

If you have ever seen the northern lights, they are the best example of what Norman is expressing. The music of the first cycle unfolds like glassine curtains that move through the orchestration exactly the same way the aurora borealis unfolds across the sky. High notes shimmer like myriad distant stars, while low strings (including 10 double basses) personify the solidity of the earth below. It’s an effect similar to György Ligeti’s Atmospheres and the early “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” voyages undertaken by Pink Floyd.

Gustavo Dudamel leads the LA Phil | Credit: Sam Comen

Up to this point, the music has been textural and painterly based on washes of color. Then, in a brilliant stroke, Norman introduces a brief melodic theme of elegant simplicity that’s almost Mozartian. Sung in the winds, it hovers between earth and sky.

The twin pianos (like the chorus of young boys in Mozart’s Magic Flute), offer milestones on the journey by signaling the beginning of each cycle. But then it is as if the piece was drawn into a gravitational wormhole, all the thematic ideas come floating back, but in an accelerated, condensed form. The repetitions become shorter and shorter, until in the end, the gravitational field is so strong only the light from the two pianos can be heard. They are in a world all their own. Finally, even their voices fade away in a final, infinitely long sustain. That’s one big step for Norman.

The LA Effect

When Esa-Pekka Salonen arrived in Los Angeles and took up his post as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1992, he brought with him a compositional education rooted in the strict academic modernism of the Darmstadt school. The music he composed was tight, structured, and highly controlled. Very un-L.A.

But as Salonen’s tenure lengthened, the laid back, freeway culture of Los Angeles, as well as his growing friendship with John Adams, began to have a thawing effect. “I didn’t like my music. So why not change it?” he told an interviewer in 1996. The result was LA Variations an explosively energetic fusion of influences — from congested traffic and twinkling city lights to the shadowy world of film noir.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is conductor laureate of the LA Phil

Structurally, the work is based on a pair of hexachords that form a (sometimes chromatic) 12-tone structure. First performed by the LA Phil and conducted by Salonen 23 years ago at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it never sounded better than it did Thursday conducted by Gustavo Dudamel within the acoustically bright interior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

LA Variations represented a musical/psychological turning point for Salonen. He gave himself permission to break free of academic restraints and actually have fun, while at the same time maintaining all he had learned about structure, balance, and orchestral coloration. It was a defining moment for Salonen and the Philharmonic in 1996. It was a celebration Thursday.

Perhaps feeling the need to provide its audience with something familiar and comforting, the centerpiece of the program was a finely crafted performance of Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, Op. 56 that featured three members of the orchestra: concertmaster Martin Chalifour, cellist Robert deMaine, and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin. But it was the vivid impression left by Sustain and the ebullient energy of LA Variations that made the concert memorable.