Open Bar: A Diary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2018–2019 Centennial Season

By Kevin McMahonSeptember 28, 2019

Open Bar: A Diary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2018–2019 Centennial Season
THE “CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF EVENTS” press release PDF for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 100th season ran 54 pages, including genres that don’t normally share a platform, and names that aren’t normally found next to each other (Katy Perry, La Monte Young, John Williams), as well as theater, performance art, and street parties. Hence these reports from two dozen events: representative — if nothing else — of what one participant made of it all.


September 30, 2018. CicLAvia. The streets from Disney Hall to the Hollywood Bowl cleared of cars for self-propelled vehicle exploration. Starting from Koreatown — after intensive tire-inflating and cobweb-dusting — the party headed up Western to Melrose, up Vine. Spotted a pedal truck towing a pianist knocking out tunes on a grand piano. Back down to lunch (Oaxacan) at Melrose and Wilton, watching in awed silence the intersection overflow with spoke’d-up Angelenos. After, we discovered Wilshire was even more gridlocked. Spotted a limo pedicab conveying a flute duet into the scrum. Got as far as H.M.S. Bounty (Bloody Marys, Lemon Drops).

Later, LA Phil 100 at the Bowl. Just making it to our seats with the 18,000 other free-ticket-lottery winners. A kind of overture, with Dudamel presenting themes for the upcoming season: YOLA (kids sitting with their mentors on stage), premieres of commissions (Paul Desenne’s Guasamacabra), Stravinsky (bits from The Firebird), Hollywood (John Williams conducting the Star Wars theme), and partying (Arturo Márquez’s Conga del Fuego Nuevo). Herbie Hancock’s jam on Rockit was probably the musical high point. Katy Perry, game and professional, in a frock visible from Santa Barbara, sang “Firework” as an ultra-extra-special Bowl firework display fired off.

Throughout there had also been a special “visual experience” by Xite Labs, which illuminated and animated the arch of the Bowl’s shell. Less successful was the APPIX app that made the audience’s phone screens glow with shifting colors, but was only visible if you turned your back to the stage. And surrendering control of your phone? Really?

October 2. Refik Anadol’s WDCH Dreams. More visual experiences. It wasn’t an installation, but a movie projected on Disney Hall, with each piece of the facade acting as a separate screen. Images representing the Phil’s past, present, and future, all — whoooosh! — churned by algorithms. At times WDCH disappeared, which is really something.

October 9. L.A.’s Newest Music. Natacha Diels’s Laughing to Forget featured tightly choreographed nervous ticks (Face right! Left! Sway!), odd exhortations (“We’re here!”), and the liveliest music of the evening.

Ellen Reid’s “Oscillations” included projections of old Bunker Hill, and street maps, raising the question of the L.A.-ness of this evening of self-identified “L.A. music.”

The Phil doesn’t argue this or the other music they play is about L.A. Their focus is on their activities in L.A.: YOLA, providing music education for kids, cultivating participation and active spectatorship.

November 8. En route to elsewhere I noticed an arrangement of blankets and household junk at the foot of WDCH’s grand staircase. A campsite, I didn’t think it polite to stare at. Crossing back the same way later, there were lights, speakers, and a guy pouring water from a ladder onto a guitar. Ah ha: not one of DTLA’s people experiencing homelessness, but a realization of George Brecht’s 1959–’62 Drip Music. Unexpected relevance.

November 11. John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2. The audience sat in bleachers inside Sony’s soundstage #23 in Culver City. In the other half, all the elements of the performance were visible: a freestanding structure from which the curtain and backdrops rose and fell. The orchestra faced the audience, divided in two groups (formally dressed, since they were also “on stage”). The props table and bigger pieces of scenery were also in plain sight.

Someone sang the Toreador Song from Carmen while videotaping a hair restoration video. A woman taking a yoga class sang the Queen of the Night’s “O zittre nicht.” A woman walking with a book balanced on her head sang “Remember me” from Dido and Aeneas. There were other, non-vocal activities: Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, strapped into a noisy vibrating strap machine, sipped a Coke. A hunk in pink pants, floral shirt, and bright red cocktail sunned himself on a lounger.

It was structured as a review. Singers sang arias from 50 operas, Aleko to Zauberflöte, 18th to 20th centuries. The songs were presented as a self-contained a cappella performance, while the orchestra played unrelated fragments from other operas. The other elements of the staging — costumes, gestures, props, scenery — were similarly reshuffled.

Event followed event with an unhurried but steady and insistent pace, impressive in its discipline and harmonious efficiency. The flow became the theme: one thing after another. And so, in the end, it was not a spoof of opera, but a satire of lives led headlong. Not a prank but Aristophanes, Molière.

November 17. Fluxconcert. I heard the watermelons before I knew what was happening. I was having coffee outside and heard loud, deep thumps coming from just up the street. From a perch on the roof-walk, performers were realizing Ken Friedman’s 1966 Sonata for Melons and Gravity. (“Drop melons / from a great height. / Listen to the sound.”)

It was a goof; it was a triumph. There was container to keep the fruit firework shards from splashing across the sidewalk, but also to provide a nicely resonant plywood surface, raised off the pavement. It created a satisfying thhhhhhummmp! In response, the assembled crowd let out its own resonant roar, and angled phones to capture the next drop.

Inside, the performance of Cage’s Apartment House 1776 took place during an intermission, with performers and ensembles scattered throughout WDCH. I enjoyed coming across Andrew W.K. repeatedly shouting, “Hey!” with formidable force near Door Six. But what’s the point of presenting the pieces of a collage separately? After 20 minutes, the performers did, finally, assemble on stage for the last few minutes.

Triumph in one sense: it was packed. And packed with lots of people (it seemed) who don’t regularly attend concerts. I recall Green Umbrella concerts in Zipper Hall, in the pre-WDCH era, with more people on stage than in the audience. But what can a sold-out Fluxus evening mean?

December 7. Tchaikovsky & Ives with Michael Tilson Thomas. A midday concert is disorienting enough, but I arrived to discover that the eyesore parking structure on Grand is already gone. The Grand Avenue mixed-use development is really happening.

With MTT, the extravagant pile-ups of Ives’s Holidays, cacophonous and blatant, sounded subtly calibrated. Representations of chaos, not examples of it.

January 10, 2019. The Big Event was Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 12, “Lodger,” from David Bowie’s 1979 album. Two long, longtime heroes. But the new work diminished the original. The real event was Gabriella Smith’s Tumblebird Contrails. Not a premiere or a commission, but it provided a landscape to experience. A seamless unfolding of shifting textures and sonorities — that old thing. But with such vivid, unusual colors, the old idea became shimmering water, light through the foliage.

February 15. Ryoji Ikeda’s 100 Cymbals triumphed almost on the visuals alone: a 10-by-10 grid of gleaming cymbals on stands played by 10 guys following a choreographed path, generating a wash and waves of iridescent buzzing.

After intermission, Alison Knowles rebuked — in the friendliest and least self-important way — pretty much everything that has ever happened on the stage of Disney Hall.

She transformed the stage into a kitchen, and Disney’s auditorium into a dining hall. It was a performance without any of the usual justifications: no virtuosity, precision, intensity, seduction, drama, surprise, or striving for communication.

Assistants chopped carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes, which AK tossed with oil, vinegar, olives, salt, and pepper. After everything was chopped, seasoned, and tossed, AK began heaping portions in paper bowls.

The audience — always a wild card — began fleeing for the exits as servers started distributing salads. Hmm. But as the holdouts were served, people shouted, “Thank you.”

Indeed: to both Knowles and the Phil. What other orchestra would give her a stage? Granted, Knowles is a venerable historical figure, and the event was not critique of everything the Phil could be critiqued about. But still, she made a salad on stage that the audience ate. And it might not have even been music, if you care about that.

March 7. For the premiere of John Adams’s Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? Yuja Wang came out looking girly and delicate in an emerald bandage dress, but then sat down and pulverized the piano for 30 minutes of musical dodgeball. Can anyone beside her play this beast?

Update — July 25. Wang and Dudamel present it again at the Bowl. This is doing it right: four months after the premiere, another airing, for a different audience, in a different context (Samuel Barber, Tchaikovsky, and John Philip Sousa!). This time, Wang didn’t seem to be pounding the piano to splinters, but fencing with it — jabbing at it with hair-trigger, rhythmically charged riffs. The momentum occasionally calmed, and the riffs pooled in moody eddies. The mood remains jumpy, anxious, frazzled. Always on the verge of swinging. A jazzy, coolly self-aware soundtrack.

March 22. BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH: The Work And Music of Yoko Ono. I assumed it would be another evening of performance art. But it was a rock revue, with each of the guests doing two numbers. A bunch of musicians I didn’t realize I needed to know, demonstrating the power of the performer. Marisoul killed it with “Born in a Prison”; Francisca Valenzuela did a doo-wop “Sister, O Sister”; We are KING made “Yes, I’m Your Angel” into a ragtime ballad. St. Vincent didn’t sing, but brought down the house reciting six pieces by Ono, accompanied by Nico Muhly’s Grindr Posts by Yoko (e.g., “Find a stone that is your size in weight. / Stick it up your ass. / Send video.”).

April 6. Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Gloria Cheng at the Getty Center. While the audience came in, PK was already onstage puttering around, warming up, practicing. What followed felt like eavesdropping. She played all the pieces of the program straight through, one after another, with no pause or gestures to signal applause. None of that kind of theater. But then she and Cheng attacked Cage’s Variation I as an opportunity for comedy: reciting the instructions, and repeatedly … taking bows. Both are gifted clowns.

But then came Sofia Gubaidulina’s Dancer on a Tightrope, with PK unleashing explosions of high-velocity, high-pitch roars. Nothing to do with Fluxus, but searing and unforgettable.

And immediately afterward — very in the centennial spirit — PK had to race across town to play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto at WDCH.

April 10. A rocky start to the Stravinsky festival. Two versions of A Soldier’s Tale? Who needs the trio version when the original is coming up an hour later? But the real thing wasn’t. A superlatively sharp performance of the music, but the music kept stopping in order for the narrator to mumble phrases from a tin-eared (uncredited) English translation of the text.

April 13. Salonen’s Stravinsky: Rituals. Nice to discover that Agon doesn’t require Balanchine’s choreography. People really can still listen to midcentury high modernism — at least this example. Everybody laughed — rightly so — at the sassy trombone squeaks. Salonen pushed The Rite of Spring to extremes. Not just the dissonant squeals — which were lacerating — but also the quiet bits, which became extraordinarily small.

April 14. Salonen’s Stravinsky: Faith. What the hell? The conclusion of Requiem Canticles is one of Stravinsky’s supreme moments. But instead of letting the gong reverberations fade into eternity, the gongs kept going on ad lib. Earthquake? No: to segue into the Introitus. And so, in the same way, they went into the next piece, and the rest. EPS presented all these works as one continuous thing, with no pause for applause or bows. Hmm. But if this starts a fad that gets them programmed more often, I’m all for it.

April 18. Salonen’s Stravinsky: Myths. The Perséphone, with dancers from Phnom Penh–based Amrita Performing Arts, left me wounded. Their precise, non-naturalistic, superhumanly graceful gestures exactly embodied Stravinsky’s music. I remember Salonen leading a performance of Perséphone at the 2001 festival that was moving, but that was just music; this was drama. That was a myth, this was an unfolding of the order of things.

May 25. Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss at RedCat. Conversation overheard in the lobby:

Usher: “You can go in now.”

Patron: “Has it already started?”

Usher: “It started an hour ago.”

Patron: “What did I miss?”

Usher: “Well, it’s a performance of the same piece of music over and over again.”

Patron: “What?! For how long?”

Usher: “Twelve hours.”

Patron: “What?!”

Indeed: the last three minutes of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (from the Count’s “Contessa, perdono” through the final chorus) repeated for 12 hours. The performance ran from noon to midnight; I was there 1:00 to 3:30.

It was not a scratch performance. Kristján Jóhannsson and Laurel Irene — who had the most exposed singing — invested character and expression into the Count and Countess. The others treated it as a real performance, attentive not only to the singing but their gestures and glances. With each repetition, everyone on stage rearranged themselves, creating a different tableau. Likewise Christopher Rountree and the 14 instrumentalists of Wild Up never flagged.

I had challenged myself to sit it out “until it stopped being Mozart.” But it never did.

I don’t know if it was bliss, but it certainly was another celebration of the performer. Those for whom 180 performances of the same piece isn’t impossible. It also suggested a mad multiverse rehearsal, in which all of a performer’s possible choices are realized.

Cf, the Phil’s brochures, ads, banners, billboards, and videos for the last two years, featuring portraits of performers playing their instruments. Cultivating performers — not stars — and active participation (YOLA).

June 1. My personal Noon to Midnight ran from 2:00 to 4:00. The high point was red fish blue fish’s performance of Michael Gordon’s Timber in the garden next to the fountain. The amplified sternum-shaking thumps issuing from the speakers; overlapping patterns shifting to emphatic rock beats. I wish I had been high.

June 11. Then again on the 14th. Meredith Monk’s Atlas. The structure is minimal, but the melodies and harmonies are friendly and familiar: Philip Glass, for sure, but also Carole King and Stephen Sondheim.

Singing syllables rather than words was not a problem; it was liberating. The story is so archetypical it didn’t need words: the drama of leaving home, making new friends, encounters with strange places, challenges, ending older and perhaps wiser. The music plus a bit of mime tell the story, as in The Nutcracker.

Why isn’t this presented all the time? Perhaps now it will.

July 4. Past/Forward: The LA Phil at 100. The official commemorative publication. Designers Aandrea Stang, Kimberly Varella, and Jessica Fleischmann have realized a stunningly handsome two-volume graphic object. The images are choice (the “unofficial first concert” at the Bowl!) and the articles cover all the history that has not been part of the festivities. William Clark Jr. gets his due, though presented as a Jazz Age Angeleno cartoon. He may have been a drunk, nudist (p. 16), sexual harassing (p. 63), queer (p. 64), but he also got the Phil started, and underwrote it for the first 15 years.

It’s a coffee-table book; you aren’t supposed to read it through. But I did, and after 486 pages of passion, dynamism, electricity, risk-taking, et cetera, I found refreshment in the tartly dissonant words of the music director who preceded Salonen, André Previn. Especially when speaking ill of the Phil’s executive director from 1969 to 1997, Ernest Fleischmann, who Previn portrays as a sycophant (delaying a concert for Barbra Streisand to show up), a prude (waiting, pencil in hand, for Previn to name the names of orchestra musicians who smoke pot), and a sneak (hiring Previn’s replacement/successor and organizing a tour behind his back). And yet, as the book documents, Fleischmann was also behind fireworks at the Bowl, the Phil’s engagement with movie music, with new music, Salonen, WDCH, Dudamel, and YOLA.

July 11. Falla & Flamenco at the Bowl. An earnest and all-out Love, the Magician. Argentina López, the cantaora, was electrifying. The last time we saw Paolo Bortolameolli he was conducting Atlas.

Neighbors prompted the traditional Bowl refrain: “It doesn’t seem the kind of program to attract drunks.”

The Bowl’s the beach, a public party place. But it’s also the hillside Ginger venue that partners with downtown Fred. Their interaction constitutes the Phil’s personality. The Phil presents the standard classical repertoire, but “classical” has never had the same valence in L.A. as in older communities. When he first arrived, Salonen observed that “the mainstream is pop culture and commercial culture, and the entertainment industry” so that classical music tradition is the opposition, the fringe. Hence, unlike other towns, the Phil’s not the supreme stage for social display. Doesn’t the real plutocratic swanking happen in Vegas?

July 12. Thomas Adès & Wayne McGregor: A Dance Collaboration at Dorothy Chandler.

The first half was a reminder why Adès is an invaluable local resource. The Phil’s performance of his violin concerto (Concentric Paths) and piano concerto (In Seven Days) was so overwhelming the dancing accompanying them didn’t really register. Other than catching that the Royal Ballet dancers were powerful, fast, and precise. And it was their skill that was on display: Leila Josefowicz and Kirill Gerstein, the star instrumental soloists, were so discreetly hidden in the pit I hadn’t realized they had played until reading the program afterward.

But then, in the second half, the main attraction: The Dante Project, Part 1 (Inferno). The composer of In Seven Days also did this? Baffling. It’s probably a commercial speculation — appropriate some classic and the thing’s pre-sold. But Dante? Where is the market for a Commedia? Sure it’s topical, but how do you dance simony?

July 18. Going through emails at the laundromat, I discover one from L.A. Phil’s director of gift planning on “a unique way to grow your legacy.” Comforting proof that the Phil’s development machine is not intrusively well informed about their ticket-buyers. If the centennial provides a fundraising pretext, good luck to it. This April while the Phil was mid-party, back in Chicago the musicians of the CSO were marching in picket lines.

July 23. 9:00 a.m. Open rehearsal at the Bowl. Sunday was Natalia Lafourcade, today it’s Mahler’s 2nd symphony. A big crowd: Dudamelians? Mahlerites? Along with the watermelons and world premieres, there has been a secret Mahler festival this season, too, with five of the symphonies — plus the parody of #2 in Berio’s Sinfonia. Another possible account of this season would be all about Mahler and the standard repertoire.

A centennial of what? Less commemorating than stepping up the effort for music that’s not product but occasions.



October 24. The L.A. Phil’s Centennial Birthday Celebration Gala ended the 2018—2019 season by recapitulating themes of the preceding 12 months. There was free participatory performance art, in the form of tourists raising their phones high in the air to capture not only a WDCH souvenir image but the white-hot sparks of the paparazzi huddled around the red carpet. There were high-tech visual experiences (“a festive drone display” at the after-party which I read about in the L.A. Times). And, happily, intense music-making. The concert began with Salonen conducting Lutosławski’s 4th symphony — not an obvious choice to open a fundraiser (the other Gala I’ve attended focused on Gershwin and Cole Porter). It established the theme carried through Wagner, Ravel, Stravinsky and the Daníel Bjarnason world premiere: lush sonic hedonism with drama to power opportunities for the orchestra to sound off magnificently. As a birthday celebration, there was naturally an element of nostalgia. But not so much about the orchestra’s first concert on October 24, 1919, and William Clark Jr., but about the 1960s with Zubin Metha. He was the star of the evening, from the moment he came out to conduct the overture to the Meistersinger and hung his cane on the brass podium rail, where it swung like a pendulum. Throughout the evening musicians seized his hands to speak with him. And at the end of the Bjarnason piece, he signaled the ending/beginning by cuing kids in YOLA t-shirts tinkling chimes from in Terraces.


Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles.


Featured image: "Walt Disney Concert Hall auditorium" by Cordera23 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

LARB Contributor

Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Illinois and a master’s in Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA. He has been the manager of SCI-Arc’s Kappe Library since 1987, and co-manager (with Reza Monahan) of the SCI-Arc Media Archive since 2012. His writing has appeared in a number of scholarly and popular journals.


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