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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Thomas Ades, guest conductor
Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano soloist
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Grant Gershon, director
15 November, 2008
Walt Disney Concert Hall
BERLIOZ: La Marseillaise, Royal Hunt
and Storm, Les Francs-juges Overture
ADES: America: a Prophecy, Tevot

By Fred Granlund         

More sonic spectaculars from the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week, in a program devoted to the music of
Hector Berlioz and Thomas Ades and led by the latter as guest conductor. Though looking a bit incongruous on
paper, it proved a satisfying mix after a bit of re-ordering to interleave the two, rather than devoting each half of
the program to only one. Ades has built a reputation as a young firebrand among British composers, but his
conducting prowess goes well beyond leading his own works. He sports a clear technique, fine rapport with the
orchestra and--conveniently enough for the present program--a flair for the colorful, extravagant music of
Like Beethoven, Berlioz was well ahead of his time, dismissed as an eccentric by many while lauded as a genius
by those who could see his vision of the musical future. His skill at orchestration, largely self-taught, was
unmatched then, and his textbook on the subject is still in use nearly 200 years later. The works on this
program ranged from exquisite story-telling and mood-setting to patriotic froth. The overture to his
never-completed opera Les Francs-juges showed the 23-year-old composer handling the orchestra like a
seasoned veteran, conjuring a setting of danger and mystery that must have been frightening to his
contemporaries. We can only wonder how the opera might have come out (the story involved the rescue of a
political prisoner by his faithful fiancee from a medieval secret court--shades of Beethoven's Fidelio); it would
certainly have been strong medicine for audiences then swooning over the teenage Mendelssohn and Chopin.
Some thirty years later, the composer did manage to complete his operatic masterpiece Les Troyens, after
Virgil's recounting of the saga of Aeneas and the Trojans. While its vast scale and technical extravagance have
limited performances to the most resourceful opera houses, the entr'acte before Act IV has long been a popular
concert item. True to his conviction that music is far more effective than words for expressing emotion, Berlioz
has the orchestra alone narrate the denouement of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas (a storm drives
Aeneas' ships out to sea while the royal company is preoccupied with a hunting expedition). True, there was to
be a pantomime onstage, and the chorus contributes a few wails during the storm, but Berlioz' virtually cinematic
music tells us all we need to know. We feel Dido's panic and despair much more vividly without being hampered
by a text.
While patriotism certainly has its benefits, it can lead even a great composer to acts of misguided excess.
Beethoven had his "Wellington's Victory," and Berlioz followed suit with his inflated arrangement of La
Marseillaise for double chorus, orchestra and mezzo-soprano soloist. The simple if effective tune--known to
most listeners only from Tchaikovsky's anachronistic use of its opening phrase to represent the invading
French forces in his "1812 Overture"--can hardly bear the weight of Berlioz' battalion-scale forces, but the
setting is certainly spectacular, fitting for a much more substantial subject. Rouget de Lisle, the original author
of the tune, caught the irony of it all in thanking Berlioz for "the honor you have done my poor little creature by
clothing its nakedness with the brilliance of your imagination." Indeed.
If nothing else, opening the program with La Marseillaise showed the true seriousness and significance of
everything that followed. After the Trojans set sail for their ultimate destination, the first half concluded with
Ades own work, "America: A Prophecy," written in 1999 as one of a number of commissions from the New York
Philharmonic to mark the end of the millennium. Taking the position that history foretells the future, Ades here
depicts the destruction of the Mayan civilization by the invading Spanish in the 16th Century, using texts from
both Spanish and Mayan sources and music that attempts to represent both parties to the conflict. The "Mayan"
music is simple, repetitive and based on whole-tone scales; the "Spanish" music is complex, militant and
chromatic. During the piece's quarter-hour duration, the "Mayan" music is first disturbed, overlayed, displaced
and finally dismembered and banished by the relentless "Spanish" music, while the chorus sings Christian
dogma and the mezzo-soprano laments a lost world. It's quite effective, but the title makes it rather chilling, as
well. The composer admits he would have had a different take on the subject had he foreseen the events of
September, 2001.
Following Intermission, Berlioz overture about the judges of the secret court (another subject that could be both
historic and prophetic) brilliantly set the stage for the first West Coast performance of Ades most recent major
work, Tevot, a one-movement symphony premiered only last year in Berlin and Carnegie Hall by Sir Simon
Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The title, the Hebrew word for musical bars (measures), also carries the
Biblical meaning of a vessel (e.g., Noah's ark or Moses' amphibious cradle), and Ades incorporates both
meanings by imagining his bars of music representing the earth as the vessel that carries us safely through the
dangers of space. Thus, the work becomes a metaphor for a cosmic voyage, and in both its huge variety of
sounds and its vivid emotional states it seems to reflect Mahler's assertion that a symphony should encompass
the whole world. It also continues a trend begun ten years earlier with Ades' Asyla, toward a more
communicative and accessible musical language than that of his earlier works. Like our own outgoing Music
Director, Ades is becoming more confident that the audience will appreciate what he has to say, and he needn't
hide it behind a facade of musical complexity.
That said, all the works on this program had a certain complexity, but with the possible exception of La
Marseillaise it all came out of the music itself, not from outside. The orchestra was in splendid form, as is usual
these days, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale sang with power and commitment. Mezzo-soprano Mary
Nessinger, apparently making her debut here with this concert, made even La Marseillaise sound eloquent and
the Mayan lament quite touching. If we're lucky, we'll be hearing from her again soon. All told, another bracing
and satisfying evening at Disney Hall. Anyone missing out on these concerts should make a determined effort to
attend; you'll remember them for a long time.