Learning to Hate: A Story Whose Relevance Reaches Beyond the West Side

West Side Story

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo: my iPhone

At the climax of West Side Story, Maria brandishes the gun that killed her star-crossed lover, Tony, and declares that, “We all killed him,” because of the unbroken cycle of violence and hate between the two rival gangs.

“I can kill now,” Maria screams, “Because I hate now too!”

When they programmed a concert performance of West Side Story for this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, the LA Phil didn’t know the shows would take place at a moment when Americans are having an earnest, frank discussion about race, guns, power, and fear of The Other in the wake of a series of tragic murders by and of police. But as rapper Jay Z said when he released the song “Spiritual,” (written in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but not finished or released until last week) sadly, “this issue will always be relevant.”

And that’s the problem with America, the problem with this planet. These kinds of stories will always be relevant. West Side Story, performed Thursday night by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, felt chillingly relevant. The story of learning how to hate a human being simply because of who he or she is was relevant when Shakespeare told it in the 1590s, it was relevant when Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim told it in the 1950s, and it will be relevant when the next writer, composer, or filmmaker tells it in the future.

Thursday’s performance, for me, had the urgency of the moment on its side. Three hours before the downbeat, President Obama had gathered law enforcement officers and advocates together with activists for #BlackLivesMatter and families of victims of police violence for a public conversation about how each side viewed The Other and how we could find common ground on this contentious battleground. As he did in his speech at the police officers’ memorial service in Dallas, President Obama voiced his optimism, saying, “Nobody’s more hopeful than me. I’m Mr. Hope when it comes to these issues. I’ve said from the start that we are not as divided as we seem.”

Those words, and more, from the President’s town hall meeting were ringing in my ears as Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil started playing Leonard Bernstein’s music. Considering the challenging circumstances of the Hollywood Bowl, the performance was remarkably well-executed. (The orchestra was set up in front of a raised area that acted as the stage for the actors–the regular stage of the Bowl functioned as an orchestra pit. The actors were miles away from the conductor; sight-lines seemed awkward for the actors and some of the musicians of the orchestra. Hearing one another is always difficult on a stage that large.)

Still, it was well-executed…and also fun. The audience was primed to be swept up in this familiar show. They snapped along with “Cool,” and shouted out at the appropriate times during “Mambo.” For purely nostalgic reasons, I was super-excited to hear Dudamel and the LA Phil do “Mambo,” because that’s the first piece of music I ever saw Dudamel conduct. (You know, that 2007 performance from the BBC Proms with the dancing, trumpet-spinning Bolivares.)

Solea Pfeiffer, making her Hollywood Bowl debut, was stunning as Maria. As Tony, Jeremy Jordan was solid, but played the character a bit on the smarmy side. Drew Foster brought the house down as Action in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a song which is more than just comic relief–it’s the song which points us back to the thesis of the entire show and forward to the climactic moment with Maria brandishing the gun.

In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Action looks to everyone else as he searches for a reason as to why he’s “so bad…psychologically disturbed…a mess…sociologically sick…a jerk…no good…no damn good.” He blames his parents, society, the system, anyone but himself.

Later, after Action and a group of Jets assault Anita in the drug store and she leaves to go set the fatal flaw in motion, Doc asks Action, “What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!”

To which, Action replies, “That’s the way we found it, Doc.”

For Maria, however, it’s no one’s fault but her own. In the end, gun drawn, Maria owns her own hate. She says, “We all killed him,” but she includes herself in that indictment. In so doing, Maria accepts responsibility for the perpetuation of the story. “I can kill now, because I hate now too!”

Tony’s death is not the tragedy. That Tony and Maria are never able to realize their love for each other is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that we will continue to learn to hate The Other. The tragedy is that the story will go on.

Ultimately, Maria lays her weapon down, but Leonard Bernstein’s music suggests she doesn’t lay her hate down with it. The upper strings and woodwinds try to resolve the drama with a reprise of the theme from “Somewhere,” but the lower strings and timpani punctuate this with the dissonance of a tri-tone. The interval that was designated as “dangerous” by medieval composer Guido d’Arezzo and referred to as “The Devil in Music” in the 18th century is the interval that punctuates the conclusion and attempted resolution of this story.

Hate wins in West Side Story. But in life, love must win. Otherwise, we keep telling this same tragic story over and over and over again. Accepting responsibility is a start. Maria doesn’t say the Jets made her hate or the cops made her hate or the culture of gang violence made me hate. She just says, “I hate.”

When we recognize hate of The Other in ourselves, how do we respond? Do we blame someone or something else like Action did? Or do we accept responsibility like Maria did? We all fail. We all hate. It’s what happens next that counts.

LA Phil 2016-17: By the Numbers

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I do this every year: leave the punditry to others and tally up the stats. Here’s what 2016-17 looks like at the LA Phil. Unlike in years past, I have only included performances by the LA Phil–no visiting artists.

  • 21 commissions, 14 world premieres, 5 U.S. premieres, and 5 West Coast premieres. This beats last year’s world premiere record by two and shatters the commissions number from last year, which was 12.
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil will present music by 1 Baroque composer, 7 Classical-era composers, 24 Romantics, and 46 composers from the 20th/21st Century. (Yes, I realize that “20th/21st C” is a broad category that doesn’t tell the whole story.)
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 7% Classical, 24% Romantic, and 46% 20th/21st Century.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 7 are living. That’s 9%. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 17 of 88, or 19%. This represents a steep decline from the current LA Phil season, which features 42 living composers out of a total of 107, or 39%.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 0 are women. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 2 of 88, or 2.3%.
  • The LA Phil will perform 97 different works in 2016-17: 1 Baroque, 9 Classical, 36 Romantic, and 51 20th/21st Century.
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 9% Classical, 37% Romantic, and 53% 20th/21st Century
  • Of the 9 Classical-era works, all are either by Haydn or Mozart.
  • The most-performed composers of the season will be Schubert (8), Sibelius (6), Mahler (5), and a bunch of composers tied at 4, including Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, Brahms, and Stravinsky.
  • Of the 42 different programs (including Green Umbrellas), 41 will be conducted by men. The one female conductor is the LA Phil’s Associate Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
  • 74 visiting artists: 43 men; 31 women. Of the 31 women, 22 share the solo spotlight with a male soloist. Nine get the stage to themselves (all with male conductors).
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil turns 98 years old, Walt Disney Concert Hall celebrates its lucky 13th birthday, and Gustavo Dudamel has five years remaining on his recently-extended contract as Music and Artistic Director.

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Kicking Brass: An Interview with the LA Phil’s Andrew Bain and Thomas Hooten

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

This week’s LA Philharmonic radio broadcast on Classical KUSC features two concerto performances by two LA Phil brass principals. Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, will play Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat. Andrew Bain, principal French horn, will play Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4. Before the performance, which was recorded in February 2015, I sat down with Hooten and Bain backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall to ask them about life in the LA Phil and their upcoming solo appearances with the orchestra.

I began by asking them each what they liked best about each other’s playing.

Andrew Bain: One of the great things about Tom—I mean, he plays with a beautiful sound and is incredibly musical—but his attention to detail and his constant desire to get the best result out of any sort of situation is really inspiring. It inspires me and it inspires the colleagues around him and definitely his section. I think it’s a really great part of his personality and a great trait. We aspire to that level as well.

Thomas Hooten: The first thing that comes to mind about Andrew’s playing is, I always get this sense that he’s in the moment of the music. He’s not in any rush. He seems really concerned about making the phrase as good as it can be. And I think that, for me—in relation to what he said about me—I’m always striving and driving to do the best I can, but it’s a nice reminder when I hear him play to take time, to make sure that you’re in the moment. And I think that’s really important for the listener. You can tell when Andrew comes in, in the orchestra we get this sense of, I wouldn’t say calm, but of breath. And it’s nice.

BL: How important is camaraderie and chemistry among the principals in the brass section?

Andrew Bain: That’s a good question, actually. I think a good, cohesive working environment is really important. And if people are friends outside of that, than that’s an extra advantage. But, I think more important is that people are striving for the same goals and that we’re working together to achieve a really great result. And I think we’re very fortunate that we have that. I think we have that in the entire brass and horn section. Everyone’s really wanting to see the growth of the section as we add new people. With the influx of new principals, that can be a challenging change for members of sections and for the rest of the orchestra, but everyone is definitely invested in getting the best result that we can.

Thomas Hooten: I would say, throughout orchestras in the country, there’s a wide variety of high artistic product and varying degrees of camaraderie. I would think, in the most logical outlook of it, that the more you get along, the more potential there is for greatness. I think orchestras are really good at hiring the best people—we have a process in place that makes sure there’s lots of vetting out—but, the potential after that of somebody actually learning to communicate with others in a way that inspires each other and also is a conduit for discovery: I think we have that here [at the LA Phil]. Through this process of us acquiring new people, I think that’s something that we’re looking for. Looking for new people that not only play great, but become citizens of the orchestra and what we want to do together.

BL: You guys both make your living at the back of the orchestra. What’s it like to take a turn up front in the soloist’s spotlight?

Thomas Hooten: I remember the first time I played a solo with a professional group—it was with the United States Marine Band—and we played From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific, by Herbert L. Clarke. The band started and I just remember jumping out of my skin because I hadn’t been at the very front of a group and heard that much sound, and I’ll never forget how juiced I was: “Wow, this is going to be amazing!” So [with the LA Phil] I’m looking forward to that and getting really close to the violins and hearing all the energy from them.

Andrew Bain: For the horn player it’s really fun, because we’re always at the back. To be up at the front and to actually be able to see the faces of the audience—that’s fun. And to see them when you empty the little bit of water, to see the look of panic and to feel the violins move back three paces when you play the first note, because the horn is loud, and it points backwards so they end up in the slipstream a little bit. It’s a lot of fun.

Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

BL: Tom, the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn that you’re playing with the LA Phil…as I understand it, this was a piece that was designed to show off a bit of trumpet valve technology, is that correct?

Thomas Hooten: Almost right. The trumpet it was written for was a keyed trumpet, so it was very close to when they developed valves. That’s one of the interesting parts about this piece: when it was written, this keyed trumpet was a new invention. The horn didn’t actually sound that good. It was basically like a natural trumpet that had keys in it that would help certain pitches come out, which is why you can play half-steps and more partials in the lower harmonic series. This piece was written in 1796 and wasn’t premiered until 1800 and then wasn’t played again for, like, a hundred years. … I think probably why it didn’t get played that much was because it just wasn’t that good of a sound yet. But the subtleties of half-steps and stuff are absolutely interwoven into the piece itself and, in that respect, it’s a pioneering piece for the history of the trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

BL: Thinking about that idea: even if it didn’t sound great on that instrument [the keyed trumpet], these are sounds, musically, that people weren’t used to hearing from a trumpet either. So, the concerto was super-new, modern music in its time.

Thomas Hooten: Right. The first notes of the concerto show you, “I can play an E-flat scale now.” And people probably said, “Wow, that’s amazing! This is so exciting!” Haydn has these whole themes throughout where the trumpet is going from a note in the harmonic series and then a half-step away. So, the significance of that, hopefully, isn’t lost on the audience. … The other thing I’m excited about is I commissioned a new cadenza for this concerto, written by James Stephenson, a composer who has been incredibly prolific in the last 10 years for brass in general. So, I’m excited about that. It’s a really fun cadenza: pushes the limits of what I can do. I’m excited about offering a new addition to Haydn cadenzas and hopefully people will like it and trumpet players will try it and not curse me for making it hard. [laughs]

BL: Andrew, the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4 that you’re performing has an interesting story behind it as well. Who was this cheese shop-owning, French horn-playing Leutgeb guy anyway?

Andrew Bain: Leutgeb and Mozart had this banter-ful relationship, so Mozart tended to write a lot of [messages to Leutgeb] in the score—mostly abusive to poor Leutgeb. [laughs] Basically, the Mozart horn concerti are very fun, playful pieces. The fourth concerto is, in many ways, the deepest musically. It’s just an incredibly fun, happy piece. The slow movement is incredibly beautiful and has lots of lovely lyrical lines. But, yeah, Mozart just found this cheese monger guy that could play the horn and he wrote some pieces and that’s what it is. It’s not incredibly deep, serious music, but it’s incredibly beautiful and very much the essence of Mozart’s writing.

BL: Mozart seemed to always know what worked for a specific instrument. He obviously didn’t play the French horn, but does it sit nicely? Does it fit well?

Andrew Bain: Yeah, absolutely. It’s written in the key of E-flat [major], which always at the first rehearsal, at least half a dozen of the violinists will come up and say, “Ugh, E-flat?!” Because E-flat for the strings isn’t the most comfortable key. But for the horn it sits beautifully. In terms of the register, it actually works very well for the instrument. On the modern horn, it works very well because the fingering combinations actually work very well. On the natural horn, of course, you don’t have to worry about that, but it actually lies very well on the instrument. There are many ways you can play it. As the horn has evolved, the piece seems to for any sort of combination of generation of instruments that we use.

BL: And you use a modern horn?

Andrew Bain: Yeah. A modern double horn with three valves and a thumb valve. Blow in the small end and hope that it works! [laughs]

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

BL: Back to the orchestra…who is sitting in the hotter seat? Principal trumpet or principal French horn?

Thomas Hooten: I think it depends on the week. In all honesty, some of the things that Andrew has to do: the delicateness and going between being on top of the horn section and an incredibly loud brass section to literally seconds later blending with the woodwind section in the most delicate transparent [music]. That’s pretty scary. That being said, sometimes the trumpet seat can be just as scary. But, I look at his job and I think you got to have nerves of steel to be able to navigate that. That’s one of the things I really admire about Andrew is that he really goes between those roles in a beautiful way. Not in an ego-driven way, but really what serves the music best. So, I don’t know. I’m not going to say. Except maybe him. [laughs]

Andrew Bain: [laughing] I mean, I wouldn’t want to play the [trumpet solo in the] opening of Mahler 5. That’s some scary stuff.

Thomas Hooten: Especially since you don’t sound good on trumpet.

Andrew Bain: Yeah, I know! And Tom has actually heard me play the beginning of Mahler 5 on the trumpet, so he can categorically state how bad that sounds.

Thomas Hooten: Was that on a horn mouthpiece or was that a trumpet mouthpiece? I can’t remember.

Andrew Bain: It was actually a trumpet mouthpiece, but the thing is, I actually played it on a rotary trumpet, but it sounded like a piston trumpet. [laughs] I have a unique gift when it comes to trumpet playing. … It’s so difficult to compare [the principal horn and principal trumpet seats]. I mean, I like my job because of the flexibility and because I get to play a lot of the stuff with the winds and with the brass and with the strings. And it’s good fun to be adjusting to whatever’s going on in the orchestra. But I certainly think, there are moments when the trumpet is sitting on top of the orchestra and if things don’t sound how they’re supposed to sound, 2,300 people are going to find out about it. [laughs] And that, in itself, is exciting as well. This is where I think you need a special character and a special personality to be a principal trumpet player. You need to want to have that moment. We’re very fortunate that we have Tom because he loves that role and it really suits him and he sounds fantastic. So, they’re different roles and they’ve got their different scary and rewarding parts and I think you could probably say that about several other positions in the orchestra too.

Here’s the thing about Gustavo Dudamel…

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I’ve never particularly cared for the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, but for me it has only ever been the thing that happens in between the serene beauty of the slow movement and the Jaws-like introduction to the finale. The third movement is fine. I’ve just never loved it.

Until Sunday afternoon in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. That’s when the LA Phil (not necessarily known as a great Dvořák orchestra), conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (not necessarily know as a great Dvořák conductor), caused me to completely change my mind about the third movement of the New World Symphony. It was the final performance of the orchestra’s two-week, four-city Asia tour (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo) and maybe there was a little extra electricity on stage because the musicians would soon be Goin’ Home. Maybe morale was high because two days before, Gustavo Dudamel had surprised the orchestra with the announcement that he would be their music director through 2021-22–a contract extension of three additional years. Whatever the reason, on Sunday, the third movement sparkled and danced. I finally got it.

I think I also finally found an answer to a question about Gustavo Dudamel that we’ve been asking ever since he rose to prominence after winning the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize in Bamberg, Germany 11 years ago. The following year, Dudamel made his U.S. debut conducting the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl. A year after that came his debut in Walt Disney Concert Hall–a performance during which Esa-Pekka Salonen leaned over and whispered in his wife Jane’s ear, “That’s the next music director of the LA Phil.” Shortly thereafter, Deborah Borda went on a secret (now famous) series of scouting missions, attending Dudamel’s performances around the world.

One year later, on Monday, April 9, 2007, the announcement came: Esa-Pekka Salonen would step down as music director of the LA Phil and his successor would be the “up-and-comer” Gustavo Dudamel. I remember that day vividly: the press were gathered on stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Deborah Borda, Salonen, and Dudamel were there. Dudamel’s English was good, but not great, and he answered a lot of questions in Spanish. Rich Capparela–then of K-Mozart–got the laugh of the press conference when he directed a question to Esa-Pekka Salonen and asked if he would “please answer in Finnish.” The late, irascible but beloved critic Alan Rich chided LA Phil management for not giving former executive director Ernest Fleischmann enough credit for his role in the discovery of Gustavo Dudamel. (Fleischmann, along with Salonen, was on the jury of the Mahler competition in Bamberg.)

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As Gail Eichenthal and I roamed the stage afterwards, conducting one-on-one interviews for KUSC, the question everyone struggled to answer was this one: “What is it about his conducting that sets Gustavo Dudamel apart from others? What makes him so great?” Esa-Pekka Salonen fumbled with this question, comparing Dudamel to another young prodigious talent (Mozart) and also calling Dudamel “a conducting animal,” which was intended as a compliment, but still sounds strange eight years later. LA Phil violinist Mitch Newman talked about the instant chemistry the orchestra had with Dudamel and the ease of musical communication they had back-and-forth. Deborah Borda said hiring the then 26-year-old who hadn’t conducted a professional orchestra until winning that Mahler Prize three years prior wasn’t a risk because he had the right combination of charisma, passion, and deep musical knowledge. Most memorably, though, was Ernest Fleischmann’s answer to the “What makes Dudamel so great?” question. I can still hear his South African/British/German accent: “It’s difficult to say,” Fleischmann said, giving probably the most honest answer of the day.

Gustavo the Great

Indeed, it has been difficult to say what it is about Dudamel’s talent that is so special. Before his LA Phil tenure began, 60 Minutes ran a piece called Gustavo the Great which failed to answer the question why Gustavo is great. Dudamel’s first concert as LA Phil music director–¡Bienvenido Gustavo!, a free performance of Beethoven’s 9th at the Hollywood Bowl–was astonishing. A moment I’ll never forget. His first season was a honeymoon and Season 2 brought a maturation (sometimes painful) of his relationship with the LA Phil. The hiring was at first seen as a shrewd, brilliant move; then came the critical scrutiny. Hype, followed by backlash. (Before one of my interviews with a prominent conductor, his handlers told me explicitly: do *not* ask about Gustavo Dudamel–he does not like him, nor does he speak well of him.) It was like Trevor Noah, minus the racist/sexist Twitter jokes.

But even after critical equilibrium was attained, we still had no good answer for what makes Gustavo so great.

We tried. Some feeble attempts included:

  • His passion draws audiences into the performances
  • Exuberance, energy, excitement
  • He has a knack for orchestral coloring
  • A raw, unrefined approach to the music that brings out the essence of each score
  • He internalizes the music and recreates it so naturally

I’m guilty of employing (or deploying) all of these. In fairness, they are all *part* of the Gustavo Dudamel story, but not the whole story. Now, more than six years into his tenure as LA Philharmonic music director, I believe we are finally able to fully answer the question that initially stumped Deborah Borda, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ernest Fleischmann, 60 Minutes, and the rest of us.

The answer came Sunday afternoon at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall during the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Whenever I hear a performance in which Dudamel conducts standard repertoire, invariably I hear something new in the piece. Something I hadn’t heard before. This happens without fail, every single time. I don’t always like what I hear (e.g.: Tchaikovsky’s 5th), but liking something or not liking something isn’t the point of great art. Great art is supposed to make you think.

During the concert Sunday afternoon I got to thinking about why I was suddenly connecting with the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I was hearing new things all over the place (counter-melodies in the 2nd violins/violas, for example, that you’d miss if they weren’t there, but in Dudamel’s hands, you hear how vital they actually are to the music as a whole). But it’s a bigger picture than that. The job of a conductor is to be a conduit from the composer to the orchestra. Together, the orchestra and conductor then communicate their vision of a composer’s work to the audience. Most conductors can do this some of the time. Great conductors have more consistent success.

Not long ago, I was talking with Dudamel about how he studies scores, and he told me about his work as a teenager with El Sistema founder, José Antonio Abreu. In their conducting lessons, Abreu would emphasize the importance of knowing every minute detail of a piece of music. One of Abreu’s favorite drills, Dudamel told me, was to give the young conductor a measure number or other starting point and ask various questions about what’s in the score without looking at the score. For example: in measure 238 of the second movement, Abreu would ask Dudamel, what is the dynamic in the double basses? Do the violas have a sforzando there or an accent? Ritard or rallentando? (There’s a difference, you know.) That’s the level at which Dudamel internalizes all music: Beethoven, Mahler, Adams, everyone.

This kind of musical digestion allows Dudamel to consistently communicate, then convince the orchestra to execute his vision while also remaining fully open and flexible to deviations from that vision in the moment. It’s a rarefied combination of planning, purpose, and spontaneity. A lot of conductors and orchestras get the planning and purpose part right, but fail in the spontaneity department. That is, after all, the most challenging part of music-making. Getting 100+ musicians and conductor to all think the same way and all respond in an instant is nearly impossible. But Dudamel and the LA Phil are showing that not only can it be done, it can be done with great consistency. As a result, with Dudamel at the helm of the LA Phil, we find ourselves connected to the composer in most direct way possible–almost as if we’re hanging out with Dvořák as he’s writing his symphony. It’s music-making of intense immediacy. This is where Dudamel’s greatness lies.

For the first time in my life, I totally enjoyed the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I may not have completely fallen in love with it forever. But thanks to Dudamel and the LA Phil, at least now I understand it more fully. Throughout his tenure with the LA Philharmonic, we have heard flashes of what the Dudamel-LA Phil chemistry could be. Now, six years in, I believe we’re entering the peak. With his recent contract extension, Dudamel has ensured his tenure in LA will be longer than Bernstein’s was with the New York Philharmonic. Lucky us.

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Le “Sakura” du Printemps

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Were it not for sakura

in this world,

our hearts and minds

would not be so serene

and peaceful.

-Ariwara no Narihira (825-880 A.D.)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Tokyo right now. That fleeting moment that comes each spring when the cherry trees do their best cotton candy impersonation and the entire city comes out to party. Sakura. More than just a flower, it’s a state of mind.

When the sakura bloom, Tokyo–already one of the most beguiling cities in the world–is positively radiant. Not only are the views spectacular, but everyone’s spirits seem to sparkle as well. Along the pathways of Ueno Park, revelers stretch out tarps and gorge themselves in elaborate picnic feasts (hanami). It’s kind of like the Hollywood Bowl on steroids. (For a complete sensory experience, you can taste sakura too, in everything from condiments to fine dining to sakura-matcha Kit-Kat candy bars.) The lack of open container laws for alcoholic beverages make for a sake-fueled orgy of increasing boisterousness as the nights wear on.

And why not enjoy it to the fullest? Sakura is the very definition of ephemeral. After the opening of the first blossoms (kaika), full bloom (mankai) is usually reached within about one week. Another week later, the blooming peak is over and the blossoms fall from the trees. Everything is accelerated if there’s even a moderate amount of wind and rain during this time. Think about it this way: what if we only had sand at our Southern California beaches for one week out of the year?

Monday and Tuesday were the peak of sakura season this year in Tokyo. Lucky for the LA Phil and those of us traveling with the orchestra. Most of us headed out into the city to take in this very special event. We all took lots of photos. None of them do sakura justice.

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Sakura is like a great musical performance. If you’re like me, you’ve got a running list of your Top 5 (or so) concerts that you’ve attended. Mine include a Guarneri String Quartet performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet…the first time I heard John Adams’ Harmonielehre (Atlanta Symphony/Robert Spano)…the Tallis Scholars singing Tallis in the lobby of the Bradbury Building…Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I added one to my list recently: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

These performances are moments that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Moments that occupy the tiniest sliver of a percentage of our existence on this planet. Their ephemeral nature enhances their impact. The idea that we, alongside a select group of people, experienced this amazing thing that was so powerful and revelatory and poignant and eloquent–and we’ll never experience in exactly the same way again–it’s our musical sakura.

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It’s special because it’s not permanent. Oh sure, we can try to document the experience. We can take photos under the trees and make live concert recordings, but the recreation of the thing pales in comparison to the actual thing itself.

This is where we can find ourselves in a bit of trouble. It’s 2015, and we live in a social media-obsessed world. I don’t have a problem with that. Social media is an effective communication tool for me, personally and professionally. Plus, I actually rather enjoy using social media to share my experiences and to discover what others are up to. But we also would do well to put the phone down every so often and just experience life, rather than documenting it for future mass consumption. It is possible to completely miss the impact of a moment while trying to capture it.

The moments that are most memorable in our lives are the ones we have been fully present for. The press of the Ueno Park crowds euphorically shuffling along bumping into one another all while engulfed in an archway of cherry blossoms. The spine-tingling, heart-stopping, earth-shattering final chord of Mahler 6 as it blows you back in your seat. It’s more than a flower…more than a collection of notes. It’s sakura. And when the moment is passed? As Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

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Familiar Digs; Family Forever

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The LA Phil wrapped up its Asia tour with two concerts in Suntory Hall in Tokyo. The stunning hall is tucked away in a labyrinth of office buildings, hotels, and the U-S embassy in the Minato district of Tokyo. It was the first hall designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and it was this hall that sealed the deal for the LA Phil to hire Toyota to design the acoustics for Walt Disney Concert Hall. So, for the LA Phil, Suntory is a home away from home.

The audience reception for Dudamel and the LA Phil was nothing short of amazing. After lengthy ovations (15+ minutes) at both performances, Dudamel took one final bow with the orchestra and then led Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and the rest of the LA Phil off stage. But the ovation continued. For several minutes. And then this happened.

Both concerts here in Tokyo ended this way. (The ovations, by the way, were certainly well-deserved. I’ll write more about the performances in a future blog post, but suffice it to say, they made me extra glad Dudamel extended his contract with the LA Phil through 2021-22 and didn’t decide to jump ship to Berlin or New York.)

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Earlier in the day today, members of YOLA and El Sistema Japan took the stage for a joint rehearsal and performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. This is something that has become a regular part of LA Phil tours in recent years (Boston last year and London the year before that). It’s part of the “social imperative” of music-making that LA Phil President/CEO Deborah Borda talks about: music as a way to cross cultural divides, bring people together, and create better citizens and human beings as a result.

El Sistema Japan was created in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. It was one of the first organizations to spring up in the efforts to rebuild. The community has said the music-making of El Sistema Japan helped them to heal emotionally before it was even possible to rebuild their lives physically. As far as “social imperatives” go, that’s about as elemental as you can get.

The students of El Sistema Japan come from all walks of life. Some lost family members in the tragedy. Everyone knows someone who lost an immediate family member. In the beginning, the music-making at El Sistema Japan was simply a way to get parents–who were understandably still fearful of radiation poisoning long after the danger had passed–to let their children leave their houses. The town was stuck in isolation. Their physical community had been destroyed, but through music, they began to rebuild their human community.

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It was with open arms that El Sistema Japan welcomed the musicians of YOLA. There was a slight age difference–El Sistema Japan students ranged in age from 7-14; YOLA students from 13-18. But within a few hours of rehearsing together, and despite the language challenges, friendships were formed.

“I definitely believe music can connect anyone in this world,” Macy, a 13-year-old YOLA trombonist, told me.

Elsewhere, you might be tempted call shenanigans on this kind of naive-sounding optimism. But you can genuinely hear it when you listen to YOLA and El Sistema Japan play together.

In his press conference with the Tokyo media yesterday, Gustavo Dudamel said, “The mission of El Sistema is not to make musicians out of young people, but to give them access to beauty. … When you give young musicians difficult and complex music, through that challenge, you are building a better human being.”

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In just two short days (well, long days, actually, which were jam-packed with rehearsals and other events), two orchestras came together as one. A 17-year-old from South LA became friends with a 13-year-old from 5,337 miles away in Soma, Fukushima. The students from El Sistema Japan learned about life in Los Angeles. The YOLA musicians came to understand more fully the resiliency of the human spirit.

They traveled together from Fukushima to Tokyo. They played the same stage as the LA Phil together. They worked their tails off for Gustavo Dudamel, who at one point in the rehearsal apologized and said, “I’m such a pain sometimes.”

Afterwards, there were hugs and tears and exchanges of gifts and contact information. The physical distance between El Sistema Japan and YOLA may be great and the language may not share even the same alphabet, but make no mistake, these young musicians are family now.

That’s the power of music.

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LA Phil 2015-16: By the Numbers

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The LA Phil has announced its 2015-16 season–Gustavo Dudamel’s seventh as music director–and there is a lot to be excited about. As has become my custom, I leave most of the punditry to others (All is Yar and Classical Life are always good places to start). I always like to run the numbers on each new season at the LA Phil. Here’s how 2015-16 looks:

  • 12 commissions, 12 world premieres, 6 U.S. premieres, and 7 West Coast premieres. This breaks a previous LA Phil record for presentation of new music. The orchestra has never presented as many as 12 world premieres in a single season.
  • In 2015-16, the LA Phil and visiting artists will present music by 8 different Baroque composers; 5 Classical-era composers; 22 Romantics; and 72 20th and 21st Century composers.
  • That’s 7% Baroque, 5% Classical, 21% Romantic, and 67% 20th/21st Century
  • Of the 107 composers on the 2015-16 season, 42 are living. That’s 39%.
  • From those 42 living composers, the LA Phil will present 53 different works.
  • (For comparison’s sake, in 2015-16 the New York Philharmonic will present works from 12 different living composers; Chicago – 7; Philadelphia – 5. More here.)
  • An even 200 works on the 2015-16 season: 26 Baroque, 19 Classical, 53 Romantic, and 102 from the 20th/21st Century.
  • That’s 13% Baroque, 9.5% Classical, 26.5% Romantic, and 51% Modern.
  • Of the 19 Classical-era works, 13 are by Mozart and 3 are by Haydn. (84%)
  • The most performed composers of the season will be Beethoven (16), Bach (14), Mozart (13), and Arvo Pärt (7).
  • In 2015-16, the LA Phil turns 97 years old, Walt Disney Concert Hall celebrates its 12th birthday, and Gustavo Dudamel has four years left on his contract as LA Phil music director.

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