The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 100th Birthday Gala Rocks

Jim Farber on October 2, 2018
A light show projected on the Walt Disney Concert Hall marked the season opener | Credit: Jim Farber

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 100th season-opening celebration Thursday was a bash for the record books. Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, it filled the Walt Disney Concert Hall with a potpourri of less-than-traditional musical offerings, spilled out onto Grand Ave. for a champagne-flowing block party that literally lit up the hall, and ended late in the night swaying to the sophisticated rhythms of Pink Martini. 

There was not a single note of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Mahler, or Mozart to be heard. Instead, the evening’s tasting menu, titled California Soul, celebrated the orchestra’s association with California’s most notable composer, John Adams; L.A.’s most irreverent genius, Frank Zappa, along with music from the movies and songs by the Doors and the Beach Boys, culminating in a confetti-falling, sing-along rendition of “Good Vibrations.”

The scene inside for the 2018 LA Phil Gala| Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

“Art does not have borders,” Gustavo Dudamel declared. So, in a town so closely aligned with the movies, why not open the concert with Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting noir love theme from Chinatown and feature Corinne Bailey Rae singing “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” (from Inside Daisy Clover) by André Previn, who both composed music for the movies and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its music director.

It certainly was appropriate to celebrate John Adams’s long and bountiful association with the orchestra by having electric violinist Tracy Silverman perform the second movement, “Sri Moonshine,” from The Dharma at Big Sur, harking back to its premiere performance as part of the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, a performance Adams remembers as barely ready at the time.

Violinist Tracy Silverman and Gustavo Dudamel at the gala | Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

As a reflection of the Philharmonic’s commitment to promoting (and commissioning) works by women composers, the concert featured the world premiere of Julia Adolphe’s Underneath the Sheen. As its title implies, the single movement piece presents a multilayered, translucent musical landscape that combines dark, sonorous, shadowy textures below and glimmering highlights above. It also hints at influences from the music of Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Over the coming months, as the centenary season evolves, the LA Phil schedule includes a significant number of premieres by women composers as well as podium appearances by female conductors.

It’s hard to know what to say about Frank Zappa. He was a true L.A. original. His rock performances (Freak Outs) were memorably wild, while his “serious” musical compositions could be academically cool, having more in common with Pierre Boulez.

G-Spot Tornado (despite its provocative title) is a rollicking piece that abounds in rhythms and counterrhythms that Dudamel and the orchestra seemed to have a great deal of fun performing — sort of Stravinsky filtered through the Mothers of Invention.

The most momentous performance of the gala was “Wild Nights,” the third Emily Dickinson setting from John Adams’s Harmonium. When the work premiered in 1981, it helped solidify Adams’s position as a rising star in the classical music firmament. It is a piece that possesses a depth of orchestral substance and spirituality accentuated by the choral writing, which in this case was intoned by the full force of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Dickinson’s line, “Wild nights should be our luxury,” seemed to fit perfectly with the occasion.

Amid the classical works, the LA Philharmonic, reminded everyone that it doubles as a pops orchestra (especially at the Hollywood Bowl), backing up an evening of Sinatra songs or the return of the Moody Blues.

Doors drummer John Densmore joins the LA Phil | Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Whether the orchestra truly know how to rock is debatable, even when they bring on former Doors drummer John Densmore, to sit in on a rendition of “L.A. Woman,” which they did Thursday. At the same time, talented though he may be as a vocalist, British pop star, Chris Martin, cannot hold a candle to the original Lizard King.

Martin did, however, lighten up the mood, bantering with Dudamel and the audience and then shedding his tuxedo jacket in an act of pro-forma irreverence, a gesture that was soon repeated by Dudamel.

By the time Martin, Corrine Bailey Rae, Dudamel and the orchestra launched into the singalong finale, “Good Vibrations,” the mood was decidedly festive. But the party was just beginning. The audience, which included its share of local celebs, took over Grand Ave. and the adjacent parking lot, which had been transformed into party central. The ensuing gala dinner, orchestra CEO, Simon Woods, announced joyously, had raised $3.2 million that would go toward the orchestra’s education fund.

It was then a case of “turn ON the lights, the party’s not over,” as a psychedelic light show designed by Refik Anadol transformed the silvery skin of Walt Disney Concert Hall into a flowing succession of shimmering colors, textures, and glowing portraits from the LA Philharmonic family album. When I left at 10:30, Pink Martini and the dancing was still in full swing.  

A light show projected on the Walt Disney Concert Hall marked the season opener | Credit: Jim Farber