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LA Phil 100 DVD Conjures a Lost World

May 30, 2020

Los Angeles Philharmonic

In a can-you-top-this game with itself, the Los Angeles Philharmonic culminated its unprecedentedly eventful centennial celebration by inviting all three of its living music directors — Zubin Mehta (1962–1978), Esa-Pekka Salonen (1992 – 2009) and Gustavo Dudamel (2009 –) — to conduct a birthday gala concert Oct. 24, 2019. It looked like a spectacular event then — and now that the concert is out on DVD and Blu-ray (C Major Entertainment), it looms even larger as perhaps the high-water mark of a Golden Age for Los Angeles music just before everything came to a shuddering halt March 12.

There are two discs in the LA Phil 100 package: the first contains a straight-forward Michael Bayer-directed presentation of the concert with no commentary or special features, and the second is a Laszlo Molnar film, The Los Angeles Philharmonic — The Tradition of the New. Watching the concert in COVID-19 isolation was an unexpectedly emotional experience for me — like peering into a time tunnel to view a lost world from one’s distant past even though it happened only seven months ago.

A big difference between this video and what actually occurred is that the order of the first two conductors has been reversed. The original announcement had Mehta going first with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture and Ravel’s La Valse, followed by Salonen in Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4 and Dudamel in Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. But at concert time, Salonen went first, followed by Mehta and Dudamel. On the video, the original order has been restored thanks to switcheroo video editing — which only makes proper chronological sense.

Mehta walks slowly to the podium with a cane in a long shot, but once he’s seated, the music seizes and animates him, and the orchestra responds lovingly. Mehta beams at his players; the first violinists smile at each other in response to the music they make. Salonen crisply drives the alternately lyrical and turbulent elements in a score that Lutosławski wrote for this orchestra. More than his colleagues, Dudamel uses his eyes to communicate his wishes in Stravinsky.

The concert’s world premiere — Daniel Bjarnason’s droning soundscape From Space I Saw Earth — uses all three conductors but the work doesn’t need three; I heard it in the 5.1 surround configuration and there is no sense of separation amongst the three ensembles. Still it’s fun to watch this one-off collaboration.

The Molnar film turns out to be mostly a 52-minute commercial for the LA Phil with a smattering of history and some curious inclusions and omissions. The film was a bit out of date even before release, having given considerable interview time to then-LA Phil CEO Simon Woods, who abruptly resigned a few weeks before the concert. Formidable movers and shakers of the orchestra’s past like William Andrews Clark Jr., Dorothy Chandler, and Deborah Borda are included, as is Woods’s eventual successor Chad Smith. Yet no mention at all is made of Ernest Fleischmann, a pivotal figure who ruled the Phil with an iron hand from 1969 to 1998 (one could imagine his volcanic temper flaring about that if he were still alive).

But the multipronged, relentlessly innovative vision of the Los Angeles Philharmonic that the film tries to promote is essentially true — and one can only hope this vision will survive the bad times to come.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.